What is “intuitive eating” and should we all be doing it?

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… and is it possible to truly ditch diets forever, asks Kate Leaver

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By Kate Leaver on

My relationship with food has always been fraught. I had anorexia as a teenager, when I willed myself to disappear one skipped meal at a time. Now, half a lifetime later, I feel mostly recovered. It occurs to me frequently that my anxiety around food these days is probably just the requisite body-image panic we’re given when we become grown adult women. I don’t know anyone who has a completely healthy relationship with her body, its size, its shape and the fuel that goes into it. We, as a society, have become frightened and tense around eating and it makes me immeasurably sad to see such a natural act become so laden with guilt and shame.

Our insecurity around food is precisely what’s enabled a dangerous culture of fad diets to influence the way we shop, cook and eat for decades. No carb, low carb, no sugar, no fat, low fat, Atkins, Keto, 5:2, Paleo and now periods of fasting – they’re all regimes built on our fear of being large and, because we equate size with moral weakness, somehow inferior. The same week I bought a low-calorie, high-protein ice-cream substitute, I am desperate to ask: is it time to reject diet culture altogether? Is it even possible to wean ourselves off it? Is there another way, an alternate reality in which we do not count calories, stand on scales or pinch the fat around our abdomens for some sort of clue as to who we are?

Well, allegedly, there is. It’s called “intuitive eating” and it’s an anti-diet movement that seems to be gaining momentum as more people lose their patience with endless yo-yo dieting. Ninety per cent of dieters put back on any weight they lose depriving themselves – in the process, regaining shame, guilt, fear and disappointment about their bodies – so there are millions of hungry, disillusioned people out there craving a saner way of eating. Could this “intuitive eating” thing be it? What even is it?

According to the bible on the subject, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works by Evelyn Tribole, there are 10 principles you have to follow: 1) reject the diet mentality, 2) honour your hunger, 3) make peace with food, 4) challenge the food police, 5) respect your fullness, 6) discover the satisfaction factor, 7) honour your feelings without using food, 8) respect your body, 9) exercise and 10) honour your health. Essentially, it’s about ditching the rules and regulations about food and going back to an intuitive way of consuming what we need, listening to our appetites and eating accordingly. It’s about enjoying exercise, finding joy in food, ignoring diet-mongers and learning how to soothe ourselves without comfort eating. It’s about respecting nutrition without overthinking it.

 Intuitive eating sits well with the type of eater I want to be; with the woman I want to be. I have wasted enough time in my life worrying about my waistline

Our bodies should really be telling us what we need to eat and when, but we have become so disconnected from them we’d rather have a beautiful Instagram celebrity tell us what to put in our mouths than listen to our own cues and cravings. Intuitive eating is drowning out all the noise about wellness fads and weight loss and focusing on our natural ability to tell which foods we need and how much of them. It’s about knowing when we’re hungry but also when we’re full, so naturally avoiding both under-eating and bingeing.

It all sounds so simple: basically, think like a kid before that kid was taught that food was about punishment, sin, reward, rules and moral worth. I have been trying, rather desperately, to do it. I unfollowed anyone online who peddles health fads, started reading actual scientists on the subject of food and listened to the intuitive eating podcast, Food Psych, by anti-diet nutritionist and intuitive-eating coach Christy Harrison. I started trying to just eat when I was hungry – not emotionally hungry, but actually stomach-rumbling hungry. I tried stopping when I felt full. I tried banishing the desire to restrict food groups, play with calories and imagine myself a few kilos lighter.

I wish I could tell you I’ve been successful in shedding a lifetime’s social conditioning to shrink via food restriction, assess my self-worth by my girth and aim to shrink at all times. I have not; not yet. It’s more difficult than I can tell you, even with the best intentions in the world, but I’m going to keep trying. I like the principles of this intuitive-eating thing, where you eat for hunger, for joy, for sustenance and for psychological wellbeing. It sits well with the type of eater I want to be, with the woman I want to be. I have wasted enough time in my life worrying about my waistline – it is time to ditch that hobby and learn to eat intuitively. It’s time to kill the diet and move on with my life. Won’t you join me?


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