In this day and age, there are so many different diets and eating styles that it’s hard to keep track- let alone know separate the fact from the fad. One I’ve heard discussed a lot in recently is the idea of Intuitive Eating; but what is it?
Let’s start at the beginning
In order to discuss Intuitive Eating, I feel we first need to look at the dual meaning of the word ‘diet’. If you were to look up it up in a dictionary, the first definition would go along the lines of “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats“.
However over the last century the perceived meaning of the word has evolved in to “a special course of food to which a person restricts themselves, either to lose weight or for medical reasons“. Because of this, whenever diet and eating habits are discussed, the assumption is always that there must be a set strict rules and limits that must be adhered to on a daily basis, usually accompanied by a general sadness.
This starting point then leads to people labelling another person’s dietary choices as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and often involves unnecessary comparison and judgement- both of others and ourselves. Though the second definition is fitting for certain methods, such as Intermittent Fasting, Weight Watchers, of Food Combining, when discussing Intuitive Eating, I have always found the first definition to be more applicable.
Though the topic has resurfaced in recent years, Intuitive eating is not a new idea. The term itself was first coined in 1995 when Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch released a book of the same name; but looking back even further, the same principles were discussed over 20 years prior to that when Thelma Wayler founded a Vermont based weight management program (Green Mountain at Fox Run).
The basic idea behind Intuitive Eating is basing your diet and food intake on your body’s natural hunger cues and cravings. It involves learning how to identify when you are hungry, what it is your body needs in that moment, and recognising when your body is full and satisfied. Whilst a lot of more restrictive diets rely on you consciously telling your body what, when, and how much to eat, this method uses the information your body is already giving you in order to determine what you consume.
This technique is by no means something that you can easily implemented overnight, especially if you have a history of following restrictive diets. There is definitely a learning curve at the start, whilst you figure out how to translate the information in to specific habits.
Accidental Intuitive Eating
Without realising it consciously until about a year ago, the basic way I fuel my body follows the idea of Intuitive Eating. When I started hearing more conversations about it, I remembered a story my dad had told me years ago (which has stuck with me, though I doubt he remembers the conversation) basically summed up the idea of eating intuitively.
We were discussing food and diet, when he told me a story that had been in the news years before about a couple who were stuck at sea who had run out of food. It is at this point that they found themselves experiencing a strange new craving: fish eyes. It turns out that fish eyes are in fact high in Vitamin C, and they were experiencing the early stages of Scurvy (vit. C deficiency). Personally I think I’ll stick to oranges for my dose, but we make do with what we have!
Now I have always been fascinated by how incredibly well evolved and clever the human body is, so the idea of my cravings actually being signals to guide my food choices really resonated with me. As a result, ever since that conversation I have tried to listen to my body, and accept that there is method to its occasional madness.
A serving of Science
All of this sounds nice in practice, but if you’re like me you need to know a bit about the Science behind things. The best way to explain this is by looking at what actually causes hunger in our bodies.
When our stomach is empty, the body releases a hormone called Grehlin, which then sets to work in the body’s control centre (the hypothalamus) to tell you that you’re hungry. As you eat and start to feel fuller, the levels of Ghrelin begin to decrease, and a separate hormone called Leptin is released by our fat cells to tell us we’re full. As the hormone is found in our fat cells, the less body fat you have, the less leptin is produced. This is in part why if you follow a restrictive diet and lose weight quickly, you may find you have a massively increased appetite, often leading to the lost weight (and extra) being gained back. Slow and steady is therefore the preferred speed for weight loss.
Intuitive Eating relies heavily on identifying how your body reacts to the changes in these hormone levels, in order to know when to start eating, and when to stop. These cues may present differently in different people, for me it usually appears as ‘hanger’ (unfortunately for my partner)!
How to get started
As I previously mentioned, this is not a habit you can pick up over night, and as with anything related to health, fitness, and wellbeing, progress is very rarely linear. Some days you’ll find it really easy to take the time to tune in to what your body needs, and other times your body may just have to deal with what it’s given. There are some small things you can gradually implement to help build up this relationship though.
There are some aspects of Mindfulness which can be useful when it comes to Intuitive Eating. For those unfamiliar with this practice, Mindfulness is a technique that originates in the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, and amongst other things involves focusing on what is happening in the moment and being present.
It is this idea that is beneficial when learning to eat intuitively. In modern life, it is easy to eat whilst doing other things – be that working, scrolling on social media, or watching Netflix. Whilst this can be enjoyable, it often means that we are not paying attention to how our body is feeling, which can lead to us overeating and feeling uncomfortable instead of satisfied. By focusing solely on eating, and removing distractions, not only will you better identify when your body is satisfied, but you might even find yourself enjoying your food more!
Another way you can begin to implement this practice is to eat when you’re hungry, as opposed to eating at set socially-accepted times. There’s a great line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: “Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so” (another nugget of wisdom my dad imparted). I think this perfectly sums up that although mealtimes are considered to be at set points of the day, that’s not necessarily the case for us all!
For example, at my last job as a waitress I would often work evening shifts; this meant I slept through the morning, had breakfast around midday, lunch around 4/5pm at work, and then dinner around midnight. Whilst I’ve been furloughed I’ve found that some days I wake up at 7am starving, and other times I don’t feel hungry until midday. Just because we have been told we must eat certain foods at certain times, does not mean that’s what works for your body. I realise that things like shift patterns and family life may decide when your meal times are, if you get the chance check in with yourself to see if you’re actually hungry, or if you’re eating because you think you should.
The final tip I will give you will probably be seen as radical in this day and age (especially with the government’s current interest in the nation’s diet), and that is to honour your cravings! If I had £1 for every conversation I have where someone says “Eurgh, I really want *insert yummy food here* but I shouldn’t” I could retire to a sunny island somewhere.
Cravings are not the enemy when it comes to diet. They are simply your body’s way of letting you know that it’s missing something that it needs to perform at its best. For example: if you are craving chocolate, your magnesium levels might have dipped; if you’re craving fresh fruit and veg, it may be because your vitamin levels are running low; and if you’re craving the holy grail of food groups, carbs, it’s probably because your energy levels are low.
Obviously when you are craving something, there are almost always more or less nutritious options available, so if you find yourself craving the latter you could find a nutrient dense equivalent to satisfy you instead. Having said that, life is too short not to eat the things you enjoy- sometimes you just need the doughnut! That example may or may not be based on recent experience…
So, is this the solution to healthy eating?
The short answer to this is: not for everyone. Every single person has completely different needs, so no two people will react to this method the same way. There may be people with a history of extreme binging or restricting that may need set guidelines to follow instead of relying on their natural cues, or simply people who lead busy lives who need to base their food choices around their schedule. I am not presenting this as a miracle fix for being healthy (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing); this is just one method that works well for me that might work for you too.
So as I say to my friends “You do you boo”, and remember that sometimes you just need that glass of wine and slice of cake!
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