Are you constantly on a diet or worrying about what you're eating? If so, you're not alone. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), we spend $60 billion a year on dieting and diet products in the U.S. — yet 95 percent of dieters will regain their lost weight within five years.
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What if there was a better way? Read on to discover the world of intuitive eating. An anti-diet philosophy, backed up by science, that may just change your relationship with food forever.
The Problem With Dieting
It's time to get real: Diets don't work. More people are trying to lose weight than ever before, according to a study published November 2019 in JAMA Network Open, and the most common methods are cutting calories and exercising more. And yet, BMI and rates of obesity continue to rise.
"We know that diets come with a whole host of negative side effects, from being more obsessive and preoccupied around food and with your body to having lower self-esteem, lower confidence, poor coping skills and higher stress levels," Alissa Rumsey, RD, a registered dietician, nutrition therapist and certified intuitive eating counselor, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"Yo-yo dieting or weight cycling is also associated with increased risk of several different diseases," she says. "So not only are you not achieving health, you're also potentially harming your health when the focus is on body size or weight."
Are You an Unconscious Dieter?
Even if they don't count calories, many people are unconscious dieters. From plant-based to paleo, Whole30 to keto, anything that has strict rules and banned foods is a diet. "Our bodies still interpret it as this external thing that's trying to control them. It really is this nuanced, sneaky diet culture that we might not be aware of," says Rumsey.
The problem is that restriction makes the body think it is being starved. "In response to that, our body increases cravings and increases our appetite hormones because it's trying to keep us alive," says Rumsey. It can even slow your metabolism.
"It's really all about trust. It's about trusting your body to give you all the information you need."
How Intuitive Eating Works
"Intuitive eating is a dynamic interplay of instinct, emotion and thought," explains Elyse Resch, RDN, a registered dietician and nutritional therapist. Resch and her colleague, dietitian Evelyn Tribole, RD, first originated the term back in 1995, when they released their paradigm-shifting book: Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works.
"It's really all about trust. It's about trusting your body to give you all the information you need," says Resch.
The principles are pretty simple: Eat what you want when you are hungry, stop when full and enjoy your food. At its core, intuitive eating encourages followers to listen to their body's cues to get all the nutrition they need, without rules and restrictions. Most importantly, it tells us to accept our body shape.
IE has been shown by many studies to lead to improved health and wellbeing. A January 2016 review in the journal Appetite, for example, found a strong correlation between IE and less disordered eating, better body image and greater emotional functioning in adult women.
If you want to give it a try, you may realize that tuning into your body's signals can be challenging after a lifetime of ignoring them (think: restricting calories, avoiding certain foods, labeling foods as "good" or "bad"). So Resch and Tribole created 10 principles to help you reconnect. And keep in mind that, while some people are able to get the hang of it on their own, others may find it helpful to seek out a trained intuitive eating counselor for support.
1. Forego Dieting
Notice the constant flow of external messages you receive about what to eat and how you should look. Ask yourself whether you are restricting any type of food or following any food rules in order to be "healthy," and work to let go of that thinking.
2. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Satisfaction underpins all of the IE principles. "The best tip is to focus on finding the most satisfaction you can find in eating," says Resch.
Food is meant to be enjoyed and eating is supposed to be a sensual, pleasurable experience. Eat things that you know will satisfy you, in an environment that's conducive to enjoyment. Eat when you are at the right level of hunger: not too full, not too hungry. Be present and eat mindfully. Savor each bite and you will find it easier to stop when you are full.
3. Honor Your Hunger
Hunger is a signal to eat. If you ignore it, your body triggers a primal drive to overeat.
Eat when you are hungry and give your body the energy it needs; don't wait until you are ravenous.
4. Make Peace with All Foods
A June 2012 study in the journal Appetite found that dieters experienced significantly more cravings than non-dieters. When you ban foods, your body craves them more and you're more likely to overindulge.
Instead, throw out the idea of good and bad foods. Give yourself permission to eat what you want, as long as you are hungry and you find it satisfying. Many worry this will lead to overeating, Tribole says, but once you realize you can eat things whenever you want to, you crave them less.
5. Challenge the Food Police
Along with banning foods, the internal "food police" tell us to skip lunch because we had a big breakfast, or gives us permission to have a cookie only if we go for a run.
Ignore the inner voices telling you what you should and shouldn't be eating based on outside factors like the scale.
6. Respect Your Fullness
Learn the body signals that tell you that you are comfortably full. And keep in mind that you don't necessarily feel full when your stomach is full. The feeling comes when your stomach signals to your brain that you're sated, according to Michigan Medicine, and that can take a while. Pause in the middle of a meal and ask yourself how the food tastes and how hungry you still are. This can be difficult at first, so focus on satisfaction and learn as you go.
Read more: 8 Reasons You're Still Hungry After Eating
7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
If you are an emotional eater (i.e. if you often find yourself eating when you're stressed, upset or just bored) create a toolkit of alternative coping strategies that don't involve food.
It's totally fine to comfort-eat if it helps, as long as you are hungry and it leaves you feeling satisfied, Tribole says. Often, though, it won't. Indeed, a study published December 2014 in Health Psychology found that eating comfort foods does not lead to any significant improvements in mood.
8. Respect Your Body
Accept your body and understand that thin doesn't automatically equate to healthy. "Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size," Resch and Tribole note in their book.
Read more: 20 Quotes That Will Make You Love Your Body
9. Exercise for the Right Reasons
Focus on what your body is telling you about exercise. Does it make you feel good? Exercise to feel strong, happy and healthy, not to change your body shape.
As a bonus, taking this approach to your workouts may help you stick to a routine. One study, published August 2014 in BMC Public Health, found that among previously inactive people with obesity who tried high-intensity functional training, those who enjoyed the exercise initially were more likely to continue doing it. The moral, then? Try different workouts until you find one that you truly enjoy.
10. Honor Your Health
Choose foods that make you feel great, taste good and are good for you.
Remember there is no perfect diet; rather, it's what you eat over time that's important. One meal, snack or day of food isn't going to ruin your health forever.
- The Mayo Clinic: "Fasting diet: Can it improve my heart health?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: Should you try the keto diet?"
- Appetite: "A systematic review of the psychosocial correlates of intuitive eating among adult women"
- Appetite:"Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study"
- International Journal of Behavioral Medicine: "Dieting Increases the Likelihood of Subsequent Obesity and BMI Gain: Results from a Prospective Study of an Australian National Sample."
- National Eating Disorders Association: "The Dangers of Dieting and Clean Eating"
- JAMA Network Open: "Trends in Self-perceived Weight Status, Weight Loss Attempts, and Weight Loss Strategies Among Adults in the United States, 1999-2016"
- Health Psychology: "The myth of comfort food"
- Michigan Medicine: "Hunger, Fullness, and Appetite Signals"
- BMC Public Health: "5 Factors That Help People Stick to a New Exercise Habit"