Consider ‘intuitive eating’—a food plan that involves self-discovery and no calories to count

April 8, 2019

Just how much advice do we need about the food that we eat? Is it carcinogenic? Will it cause heart disease? Does it have too much fat or sugar? Will it give you gas?

Or do you just want to sit down and have a meal and stop worrying about it?

Recently there has been an increased focus on the concept of “intuitive eating,” according to a report by Newsweek—and the idea is appealing to all of us who have been stressing out in the kitchen.

Intuitive eating has been popularized by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who first published a book on the subject (Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works) in 1995 and then developed a related website.

The thing about intuitive eating is that there are no rules. According to Tribole, “Intuitive Eating is not a diet or food plan. Period. There is no pass or fail, therefore there is no ‘blowing it.’ Rather, it’s a journey of self-discovery and connection to the needs of your mind and body.  There is nothing to count:This includes no counting of calories, carbs, points, or macros.“

The goal of eating intuitively is to listen to your body and allow it to guide you on when and how much to eat, rather than being influenced by your environment, emotions or the rules prescribed by diets, Newsweek reports, noting that the concept is similar to mindful eating, and the terms are often used interchangeably.

Mindful eating involves developing an awareness of internal hunger and satiety cues, and making conscious food choices. It emphasizes the importance of paying attention to the emotional and physical sensations experienced while eating.

Unlike many other diets, intuitive eating encourages you to eat what you want; no food is off-limits. While some may expect this to lead to eating more high-fat or high-sugar foods, research suggests that this is not the case. Advocates of intuitive eating suggest that the more you restrict yourself, the more likely you are to binge later.

Indeed, Health magazine recently covered the dietary concept and said it relies on ten principles—among them:

  1. Reject the diet mentality: Stop dieting and stop believing society’s messages that quick-fix plans can deliver lasting results.
  2. Honor your hunger: Eat a sufficient amount of calories and carbohydrates to keep your body “fed” and satiated. Learn to recognize these signals in your own body.
  3. Make peace with food: Once you finally have given yourself permission to, say, have a doughnut for breakfast, you may realize that you only wanted it because it was forbidden.
  4. Challenge the food police: Ignore the voices in your head that tell you it’s good to eat fewer calories and bad to eat dessert.
  5. Respect your fullness: It’s important to eat when you are hungry—and just as important to stop when the hunger cues are no longer present.
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor: “Most people have never asked themselves the question, ‘What do I like to eat? What feels good in my body?” Tribole says. Bring the pleasure back to eating.
  7. Honor your feelings without using food: Extreme emotions can cause over-eating; but so can boredom. Being more mindful with your food and your emotions can help you sort out the overlaps.
  8. Respect your body: Do not strive to meet unrealistic expectations about how much weight you can lose or what size jeans you can squeeze into.
  9. Exercise: It’s not about finding the exercise that burns the most calories; but about finding a way to move that sustainable and that you enjoy.
  10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition. Eating intuitively still should involve consuming more fruits and vegetables than ice cream. But at the same time, a diet doesn’t have to be perfect to be healthy.

In terms of weight loss, Newsweek advises, it is not yet clear that intuitive eating is more effective than calorie restriction. Results from observational studies found that people who ate intuitively had a lower BMI than those who didn’t. However, since people who restrict may do so because they already have a high BMI, it is difficult to determine the true effect intuitive eating has.

Also, results from intervention studies with overweight or obese people are not clear.

For example, one review found that of the eight studies assessed, only two noted a reduction in weight from intuitive eating. In a more recent review, weight loss was seen in only eight out of 16 studies. And out of the eight, weight loss was statistically significant in only three.

Unlike other diets, the focus of intuitive eating is not on weight loss but rather on addressing the reasons why people eat. So, even if its effectiveness as a weight-loss method is uncertain, it could still provide benefits by promoting healthy eating behavior.

This possibility has been supported by research suggesting intuitive eating may lead to a reduction in binge-eating symptoms and eating for external and emotional reasons. Intuitive eating is also associated with greater positive body image, body satisfaction, positive emotional functioning and higher self-esteem.

Finally, a recent study found that higher levels of intuitive eating predicted lower eating disorder symptoms, compared with calorie-counting and frequent self-weighing. This is a contrast to typical restrictive dieting, which has been associated with an increased risk of disordered eating, one that may be greater for those who also experience symptoms of depression and low self-esteem.

While more research needs to be conducted to establish if intuitive eating can lead to weight loss, the positive effects on mental health and healthy eating behavior are promising.

Research contact: @Newsweek

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