Each year, the calendar flips from the indulgences of the holiday season to the promise of a fresh start in January, heralded by resolutions centered around extreme diet changes and weight-loss goals. But let's be honest: These resolutions almost never last more than a few weeks.
If you're over this vicious cycle, it may be time to ditch diets entirely and try intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is more lifestyle than diet. Instead of cutting carbs or counting calories, you pay attention to your body's cues, eat when you're hungry, appreciate what you take in and accept your body shape, per the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
"The idea is to find a relationship with food and your body which doesn't involve restriction, where you can have exercise, nourish your body and focus on health instead of shrinking," Dalina Soto, RD, LDN, registered dietitian and founder of Your Latina Nutrition, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The Problem With Diets
This shift away from fad diets and the dieting mentality may seem counterintuitive for weight loss, but consider this: While dieting may lead to short-term weight loss, most people find the practice unsustainable over the long haul and regain the weight — in fact, only about 5 percent of dieters keep it off, per the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Plus, there's not much joy to dieting.
Diet culture removes the pleasure that accompanies eating food, along with a person's autonomy to decide what they want to eat, and when, Soto says.
"[Diet culture] makes us overthink every single scenario," she adds, explaining that instead of enjoying a meal, eating is an occasion for guilt and shame.
Ready for a change?
6 Tips for Eating More Intuitively
Try these tips to get started with a new way of thinking about food and your health.
1. Eat When You’re Hungry
Eating often happens not as a result of hunger, but because the clock hits 7 a.m., noon or 7 p.m., and those are the times we've earmarked for meals.
But hunger fluctuates depending on your activity, stress, where you are in your menstrual cycle and a whole other pile of factors, Soto says. Some days you may not feel hungry at noon. Other days, you may feel hungry at 11 a.m., which may indicate that you didn't eat enough or you've expended a lot of energy.
Instead of eating based on the dictates of time and schedule, a better goal is to "be intuitive, listening to hunger cues and what your body needs," Soto says.
That doesn't mean waiting until your stomach is full-on growling to head to the kitchen.
"Sometimes the first thought of food is your initial sign that you should start thinking about getting something to eat," Soto says.
2. Stop When You’re Full
Eating while distracted — we're looking at you, Instagram, Netflix and Animal Crossing — makes it harder to catch your body's signal that you're full and put down your fork.
"A lot of people [are] constantly overeating or undereating and they don't know what it means to be comfortably full," Soto says.
Aim to feel satiated — neither stuffed nor peckish — at the end of a meal. To do this, Soto recommends eating without distractions, enjoying the food and listening to your body, so you know when you're satisfied and full.
3. Avoid Labels
If you're in the habit of counting calories and allocating a certain amount per meal, per snack and for your entire day, calories may feel like an enemy. But, Soto says, "calories are just a measure of energy." Too few, and you won't be able to tackle your day's tasks.
It's not just calorie-counting that Soto rejects. She also argues against value judgements when it comes to food.
"The idea of 'good foods' and 'bad foods' needs to be taken away, because all foods give us energy," she says. That's true for both a slice of pizza and a kale salad.
Instead of framing food as "good" or "bad," Soto says to "honor what your hunger wants." That is, have the slice of pizza if it's what you crave. Otherwise, she says, your brain and body will continue to desire the pizza, and the end result will often be binging (instead of just eating the amount you'd initially wanted).
"Healthy eating...is a balance of everything, where you feel satisfied and happy and you're not stressing over every single calorie or portion control," Soto says.
4. Look for Coping Mechanisms
"Emotional eating is normal," Soto says, pointing out that people are neither robots nor rats. Eating foods we love can dazzle our taste buds and also make us feel good, she says.
But this kind of eating can't entirely conquer a bad day or feeling low.
"Food gives us comfort and pleasure, but it shouldn't be your only coping mechanism," Soto says.
Taking a bath, catching up with a friend or going for a walk are other strategies worth a try, she says.
"The goal is to understand what is happening" before turning to food, Soto says — and, ultimately, if you decide you'll feel better after having ice cream, then go for it (without any guilt or regrets afterward).
5. Be Flexible
If your days are overbooked, or you crave structure, meal planning and prepping can be a game-changer. But these strategies "can be problematic when people solely use it for portion control," Soto says — after all, your hunger levels may change from day to day, and you may not always be satisfied with the same serving size, she says.
Plus, eating the same food day after day can get tedious.
Soto's advice: Create a rough plan for your week's meals if you find that helpful. But be ready to adjust if the tuna noodle casserole you had slated for Wednesday night no longer seems appealing.
Approaching food with that kind of flexibility means that "if something happens, and I want to order out, that's OK," Soto says.
6. Aim to Be Full — and Satisfied, Too
"Mindful eating isn't just eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full. It's really being in tune with your body and understanding what it needs at that moment in time," Soto says.
"You can feel full, but you might not be truly satisfied," she adds. In other words, your stomach sends signals to your brain that you're full, but you can still feel appetite even after this point, per Michigan Medicine.
Sometimes, the answer may be to take an extra bite or two, Soto says. Or maybe it's having dessert after a meal, because you want something sweet. All of these things are OK because, when it comes down to it, intuitive eating is about feeling satisfied with the food you've eaten and not deprived, guilty or shameful.
- American Council on Exercise: "Weight Loss: Diet vs. Exercise"
- National Eating Disorders Association: "What Does Intuitive Eating Mean?"
- Nutrition Research Reviews: "A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms"
- Michigan Medicine: "Hunger, Fullness, and Appetite Signals"