Intuitive eating is the hot wellness trend for 2020. But can throwing away the food rule book really lead to a healthier lifestyle? Sarah Maber finds out.
Do you start the day full of intentions to ‘be good’ and stick to your diet but end it tucking into a large plate of pasta – with a side order of guilt? If you find you’re stuck in this cycle of restrict-binge-repeat or that you start a new diet every few days before falling off the wagon, well you aren’t alone.
A recent report found that 38% of Britons say they are trying to lose weight most of the time. The rest of us, say a growing band of nutrition and dieting experts, are doomed to be stuck in a miserable pattern of trying and failing to lose weight. The reason? Our omnipresent diet culture, says Laura Thomas, nutrition counsellor and author.
“A diet culture is all around us,” she says. “It teaches us we’re not good enough as we are, and that we need to control our bodies through rigid dieting and overexercising. It teaches us that we’ll be cooler/funnier/more successful if we force our bodies to look a certain way. But that comes at a huge cost in terms of our mental health and our relationship to food.”
The good news is that the most talked-about dieting trend for 2020 doesn’t involve cutting carbs, counting calories or fasting. Intuitive eating – aka the undiet – is being championed by a growing number of nutrition experts as a way to change our dysfunctional relationship with food. Instead of seeing food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, intuitive eating asks us to listen to our bodies and eat what we fancy.
“Our eating behaviours are on a scale ranging from intuitive eating to clinical eating disorders,” says Thomas. “We all have a different ‘normal’, so intuitive eating looks slightly different for everyone. But, essentially, it’s about not having rules. So, don’t exclude things from your diet, don’t feel stressed or anxious about food, don’t feel guilty about eating cakes or crisps or other foods you enjoy.
“Instead, be flexible about your eating and enjoy what you are eating. Tune in to your body’s signals of being hungry and when you’re full. Eat food that makes you feel energised and well – most of the time.”
Thomas’s much-praised book Just Eat It: How Intuitive Eating Can Help You Get Your S*** Together Around Food (£12.99, Bluebird), has become one of the bibles of the anti-diet movement, alongside Not Plant Based bloggers Eve Simmons and Laura Dennison’s Eat It Anyway (£10.99, Mitchell Beazley) and, most recently, Healthy as F*** by Oonagh Duncan (£14.99, Scribe). Podcasts like Thomas’s Don’t Salt My Game and Christy Harrison’s Food Psych offer free support to anyone wanting to try an intuitive eating approach to food.
And while it might be the eating trend for 2020, intuitive eating has a solid clinical base. In the mid-1990s, US dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch finessed a 10-point intuitive eating framework that encouraged clients to get back in touch with their natural hunger cues. The approach appears to be working. Current research indicates that intuitive eaters are less prone to binge, have lower BMIs and have less disordered eating habits. They also experience more body appreciation, self-compassion and optimism as well as higher self-esteem.
Breaking the cycle
But just how easy is it to stop totting up the calories and delete the macro-counting apps from our phones? How do we unlearn years of dieting behaviour? “It can take work,” admits Thomas, who recommends following the principles in her book.
She adds: “Intuitive eating is a pro-health choice. It’s about taking what we know about nutrition, but teaching you to process that. Eat fruit and vegetables, and what we know is a good foundation for a healthy diet, but don’t obsess about every calorie.
“What intuitive eating offers is a way to break that diet cycle and learn a new way of relating to food and our bodies.”
Intuitive eating tips for beginners
- It’s helpful to have a framework to follow when you start intuitive eating. Read my book or listen to podcasts like Food Psych, Nutrition Matters or my podcast, Don’t Salt My Game.
- Try a social media clear-out. Why are you following the people you’re following? Cover up the caption and just look at the image. Does the image make you feel bad about what you eat and how your body looks?
- Practice food neutrality. Most people split food into good and bad with no in-between. That doesn’t exist. Neutralise the language around food.
- Notice where hunger shows up apart from a rumbling tummy. Does your mood dip, your energy levels drop, or do you lose focus and concentration? Perhaps you get headaches
- Learn to listen to your natural hunger cues.
Want to practice mindfulness when you eat? Read our 5 steps to mindful eating.