You're seated at a restaurant, salivating at the menu description of chicken cordon bleu. But the nutritional information on the menu indicates that the entree is loaded with calories and fat grams. The low-cal salad seems healthier, but comparatively, unappealing. Which do you choose? If you're among the estimated 40 to 50 percent of Americans on a diet at any given time, probably the latter. But it's the wrong choice for an intuitive eater.
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The word "intuition" derives from the Latin word, "intueri, which means "to contemplate" or "look inside." Intuitive eating is a lifestyle approach that encourages just that. By listening to your body's innate cues, you can develop a healthy relationship with food, notes Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietitian and co-author of "Intuitive Eating" who helped coin the term in the 1990s. Intuitive eating may also boost your physical and emotional wellness and put an end to the dieting merry-go-round.
When you truly know that you get to eat whatever you want to, you get to ask yourself, sometimes for the very first time: 'Do I really want this food right now? If I eat it, will I enjoy it?' And because you can have it whenever you want, it doesn’t become this 'last supper' feast -- the last time you're going to eat before you start your diet.
Evelyn Tribole, registered dietitian
Why It Matters
"Humans are made to know how to eat intuitively and we’ve been doing it since the beginning of time," said Karen Koenig, a licensed psychotherapist and author of "The Rules of Normal Eating."
Before you learned to speak, your intuition told you to cry to obtain food. Most small children eat when they experience hunger and stop once they feel full -- two pillars of the intuitive eating approach. Other principles include honoring your feelings without using food or eating as coping mechanisms, respecting and enjoying food, respecting your body and giving up or avoiding the dieter's mentality.
Many intuitive factors that should come naturally fall to the wayside in the face of poor eating behaviors learned from your parents like chronic dieting or overeating, the ever-growing fast-food and weight-loss industries, the nonstop pace and abundant distractions of daily life -- and the simple fact that food tastes so good.
"Food is much more accessible and tasty than it used to be," Koenig said. "A bowl of cabbage soup isn’t something we’d say, 'Wow, I really want several bowls of this!' And food is easier to get."
People are also more focused on fitness and weight control than ever before. Such fixation interferes with the ability to assess hunger and fullness and dis-regulates your appetite, notes Koenig. Rather than considering your hunger at a particular meal, you may fixate on calories, carbohydrates or fat grams. And you may spend more energy resisting hunger than addressing it.
So what happens when you step away from these factors and rely on your intuition?
"People start tasting food for the first time," says Tribole. "The food that they were lusting after becomes no big deal. They enjoy food, whereas before they were focused on the guilt."
Better Than Dieting?
A review of 31 long-term studies on dieting and weight loss published in the "American Psychologist" in April 2007 concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain and up to two-thirds of dieters afterward gain more weight than they lost.
"People think that there’s such a thing as sensible dieting," said Tribole. "Not only does dieting not work, but it increases the risk of weight gain. It's been proven time and time again."
Research on intuitive eating and weight control is more optimistic. In a study, published in "American Journal of Health Education" in June 2006, researchers analyzed the eating habits, attitudes and body mass index of 343 college students. Participants assessed as intuitive eaters had significantly lower BMI scores, higher levels of pleasure in regard to food and eating, and less food-related anxiety than non-intuitive eaters.
Contrary to what you might expect, giving yourself permission to eat whatever you want to does not typically lead to a junk food extravaganza, says Tribole. And going off the overeating/weight gain deep-end isn't likely or the goal. If you haven't been allowing yourself sweets or other indulgences, you might explore them more frequently as you begin eating more intuitively. But usually, people begin to crave primarily healthy foods.
"When you truly know that you get to eat whatever you want to, you get to ask yourself, sometimes for the very first time, 'Do I really want this food right now? If I eat it, will I enjoy it?" Tribole said. "When you truly know that you get to eat whatever you want, you get to ask yourself, sometimes for the very first time: 'Do I really want this food right now? If I eat it, will I enjoy it?' And because you can have it whenever you want, it doesn’t become this 'last supper' feast -- the last time you're going to eat before you start your diet."
This can stop the cycle of dietary restriction and overeating -- and improve your ability to connect with what your body and emotional self need.
Once you've moved past the dieter's mindset, you can begin integrating what Tribole calls "gentle nutrition guidelines." You begin incorporating more nutritious fare into your diet to guard against nutrient deficiencies and honor your overall wellness.
"You learn that when you eat healthier, it feels good," she says. "And if you eat whatever you want to, why would you choose to eat in a way that doesn’t feel good? People ask me, when can I start eating healthy? Whenever you want to!"
A Successful Journey
The transition into intuitive eating can be challenging, particularly if your dieting history runs deep. For this reason, it doesn't suit everyone, notes Mary Barbour, a registered dietitian with the Mind Body Wellness Group. Recognizing that no one eats intuitively 100 percent of the time -- and that cognition also plays a role -- is important. If your intuition tells you to wait for a meal, but it's your only time to eat, for example, you should eat rationally. with rationale.
Easing your way into an intuitive eating lifestyle can increase your odds for success.
"Start with getting in tune with your hunger and taking cues from your body," said Barbour. "Next, focus on how foods affect your mental and physical being when you eat them. And don't get hung up when you eat something that is 'bad.' Just move on."
Learning the difference between emotional and physical hunger is another significant beginning step, according to Tribole. These two hunger forms not only fuel different consequences, they feel different. Emotional hunger may feel more like cravings -- specific foods you must have, right now. If you routinely eat out of boredom, stress or other negative emotions, or continually work to avoid or ignore hunger, you may have forgotten what physical hunger feels like altogether.
"If someone is really struggling with differentiating between physical and emotional hunger, I’ll often start them with this barometer check," said Tribole. "I have them check their ‘vital signs.’"
Ask yourself how you're feeling. Assess your mood, energy level and ability to focus. Low energy may mean you need food and nutrients to rev your engine, particularly if your last meal took place hours before. Hunger that coincides with boredom or anxiety can have emotional roots.
If you gravitate toward quick-fix solutions, it's best to slow down. Mastering intuitive eating takes time. And often, lots of it.
“No matter how hard you’re working, you don’t get to pick when and how it's going to work out," said Tribole.
Hearing a friend rave about her latest diet, the weight she lost with rapid ease and headlines touting a celebrity's latest "diet secrets" can make dieting seem more exciting or "miraculous" than the intuitive approach. When such temptation rears its head, remind yourself why you steered clear of dieting in the first place.
"The more you rely on what external of diets tell you, the less you trust yourself," Tribole said. "It makes you reach out for the next diet even more. It’s a downward spiral or negative loop until you have no ability to trust yourself. It’s very empowering to say I can nourish myself. I can listen to my body. I can feed myself well."
Tips for Getting Started
Your initial course of action regarding intuitive eating depends on your current eating habits and attitudes, your dieting history and your willingness to change. A few simple steps, however, can help point you in the right direction.
Keep a food journal that tracks your emotions and hunger prevalence, rather than calorie counts and portion sizes. This can help you pinpoint your personal patterns and tendencies.
Aim for pleasurable exercise. Rather than choosing your next workout based on calorie-burn, choose something you enjoy. You'll be more likely to stick with it.
Eat a meal or snack mindfully -- in a relaxed setting, free of distractions such as your cell phone, laptop or television. Chew slowly, allowing the food to sit on your tongue. Savor the tastes and textures and think about how you feel emotionally.
Eat your next meal when you feel moderately hungry. If the clock says it's time to eat, wait a bit until you sense a hungry rumble, but not so long that you feel famished.
Conduct hunger-checks throughout your next meal. Intuitive eating involves asking yourself if you're still hungry -- and stopping when the answer is "no."
Form a support system. Ask friends or loved ones not to chat about weight or dieting around you. Explain that even if they don't understand the changes you're making, you'd appreciate their support.
Seek guidance from a qualified expert, such as a dietitian or psychologist well-versed in intuitive eating.