In the past two posts and episodes we dove into the framework that completely changed my relationship with food and my body, we dispelled some myths, and talked about some of the common misconceptions about intuitive eating. Both Carlos, my husband and Brownble’s co-founder, and I have been following this framework for many years now and it has completely changed our experience with food, the way we talk about it and relate to it, and when it comes to my personal journey, it has had the most positive impact on my body image and self care. It has been such a life-saver, such a relief from the diet regimes, the obsessive focus on weight and weight loss, the body image struggles, and brought about so much self compassion (which doesn’t mean it is or has always been easy). Intuitive eating freed up so much mental space and energy to dedicate to the many other things that fill our lives.
As a mindfulness junkie, it has been such a tangible and practical way to tune inwards, to the present moment, before, during, and after meals, it has healed my relationship with food, body and exercise. It’s been something I can always come back to after I’ve had a hard day in any of these areas, knowing that there is something supporting my journey forward, something to always fall back on whenever I take any steps back. Part of why intuitive eating, despite its name which can feel like such an “up in the air” concept, has been so helpful, has been because it has 10 scientifically tested principles that you can go through and focus on one at a time, with tangible, actionable steps. Since we’ve already discussed what the intuitive eating framework is and what it isn’t in our first two episodes in the series, today, I’ll briefly introduce you to the first few of these principles, all in the hopes that they inspire you to get the book and learn from its wonderful creators, Elysse Resch and Evelyn Tribole.
Intuitive eating principle # 1: Reject the diet mentality
As we discussed in the previous two posts and episodes, intuitive eating as a framework bases all of its principles on finding attunement and connecting with your own body’ signals. It is an anti-diet approach in the sense that it puts the focus on your own internal cues, and loses the grip we have on external ones, such as diets, detoxes, prescriptive ways of eating, rules related to what, when and how much to eat, whether openly part of a diet or, sometimes, and these are harder to catch, as pseudo-dieting or unconscious dieting, in which even when we’re not following a particular diet with a first and last name, we’re still making food choices based on rules we’ve internalized after years of following diets for the purposes of weight loss. In this first and perhaps one of the most important principles of intuitive eating, we must reject the diet mentality, and all its harmful messaging in order to find a new way, based on our own body’s cues.
One key concept that helped me understand why this principle was so important was the image of the restriction-overeating pendulum swing.
When our food choices are being held in place by external rules, we are pulling the pendulum to one side of the spectrum, which has a whole range of rigidity when it comes to food rules, from having a few “seemingly harmless” guidelines that keep your eating “in check”, passing through diets, from less restrictive but still so, to more restrictive, to detoxes to rigid rules that govern your eating, all with the pursuit of weighing less, in mind. The more we pull the pendulum in this direction, the more it bounces back when we let go into the other side of the spectrum, where eating without attunement, always eating as the only means to soothe emotions, overeating and binge eating, are what characterises our relationship with food. Now, when we’re on this side, we promise and vow to stop the cycle by going on another diet, only to find ourselves bouncing right back to restriction, and then, bouncing right back to overeating and feeling “out of control” with food. It’s an endless cycle that keeps us always feeling like the culprit, guilty and ashamed for doing it “wrong”.
We firmly believe, because the multi-billion dollar dieting industry has made us believe it, that when we feel out of control with food it is time to restrict. They never tell you that the reason you feel out of control with food is due to the restriction. They don’t tell us that, because the other alternative, really tuning inwards and letting go of the rigid restriction to stop the pendulum from swinging, doesn’t sell products, diets and plans.
The book Intuitive Eating is full of page after page detailing the biological mechanisms behind this, the studies and clinical experiences of the authors, as well as statistics regarding diets and health that state that not only do 95% of diets fail in the long run (meaning dieters regain the weight, and up to two thirds of them regain more than what was lost initially), but persistent weight fluctuations (going up and down due to the natural and expected swings of that pendulum) have been associated with negative health outcomes.
Intuitive eating is the space in the middle of that pendulum range, where you’re not going from restriction to overeating because of the deprivation felt on one side, and the discomfort and fear experienced on the other. It is the space in the middle in which we tune inwards for our eating cues as we go through the rest of the principles, In order to do that, we MUST reject all forms of the diet mentality.
This can mean letting go of an official diet, of counting calories, of counting macros or carbohydrate grams, or of unconscious rules internalized by dieting, such as paying back for what was perceived as an indulgent meal with a lighter one (not because you felt like eating that food, but because you felt it was needed in compensation), with skipping a meal or with exercise. It can mean eating only “safe” foods, like low calorie or low fat foods, “clean foods” or “whole foods” like eating only very highly nutritious foods that don’t have a list of ingredients, and being afraid of consuming “processed foods”.
Some of these rules that aren’t explicitly diets and still keep us within the diet mentality can also be only eating at certain times of day, rules of never eating between meals, rules of having a particular drink to stave off hunger, rules of not eating past a certain time of day regardless of your hunger signals, trying to eat rigidly “healthy”, limiting carbohydrates, second guessing food choices based on what you’ve eaten that day, going vegan or vegetarian solely for the purpose of weight loss, as opposed to a philosophical, ethical or religious choice, going gluten free for the sole purpose of weight loss (and not due to Celiac disease or a serious gluten sensitivity), and many others wonderfully described in the book.
For intuitive eating to work, we must step out of the dieter’s shoes, even when we’ve been masquerading them as “not a diet but a lifestyle” or just “sensible” eating. In order for us to calmly and easily stay in that center range and not keep the pendulum swinging, we need to let go of all of the rules we’ve governed our eating by.
It doesn’t mean we won’t be eating healthily. It doesn’t mean we can’t have food preferences. It means we reject the diet mentality and the rules that come from its adjacent streets in that big diet culture neighbourhood, and we find a new way through intuitive eating.
This is what this principle is all about, with much more to explore within the book in terms of real case studies, letters from readers, the studies showing why dieting can actually cause more harm than good in terms of long term health, the common deep desire to go on one more diet, the allure of dieting as a means for control and of course, a very specific step by step process to help you leave the dieting mindset behind.
Thankfully, we won’t be left adrift when we remove the rules we perceived as our life boats. That’s where all the other principles of intuitive eating come in.
Intuitive eating principle # 2: Honor your hunger
When we’ve been managing our eating through countless dieting rules, we often find ourselves disconnected from our own inner signals of hunger. So many people focus, due to the pursuit of thinness and weight loss, on keeping an eye on fullness, and of course that is one of the key cues our body sends us that we’ll be exploring and fine-tuning during intuitive eating, but so many of us skip over the most essential part of the process: feeling hungry, and honoring that feeling through eating.
Here’s a little quote from the book:
“Principle 2: Honor your hunger:— from the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise, you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for rebuilding trust with yourself and food.”
This principle of intuitive eating helps us to begin to notice our own inner cues (our body sends us so many and we rarely listen) and develop interoceptive awareness or the ability to notice our own body’s signals (things like how fast your heart is beating, how hungry you are, how thirsty, tired, or stressed you are).
For once, we will begin to honor that hunger, regardless of what our previous dieting rules have said, regardless of whether or not our watch says it’s time to eat. We will slowly begin fine-tuning our awareness of hunger, and honoring it before it has become so ravenous, that putting in place all the other cues and helpful tools of intuitive eating will seem impossible. For the first time we will begin to notice and pay attention to how hunger feels in our bodies, and we will honor it by eating.
Apart from being human beings in a world that gives us and sells us body ideals and weight loss tools that nearly all of us have internalised at one point or another, we are also mammals and have a biology that has evolved to help protect us from a famine state.
Whether that famine state comes from the actual unavailability of foods in our caveman days, from going through food insecurity because of poverty, from going through the lack of food due to a war, or even from a self-imposed diet in which we ignore our hunger and favor external rules and cues, our body is set up to trigger a whole range of biochemical reactions that prime us to conserve energy (mainly through the lowering of metabolism in order to conserve the energy we have), and that also increase cravings, especially towards carbohydrate rich foods thanks to neuropeptide Y, a chemical produced by our brain that pushes our drive to eat carbohydrate rich foods, the preferred food and energy source by our cells and our bodies. A series of additional reactions occur that also prime our bodies to not only eat more after a period of restriction, but to also store future food intake as fat, in order to protect us from a future famine, period of food scarcity, or yes, another diet.
This is our own body’s way of keeping us safe, and with every passing diet, we activate this sequence of events and reactions. The good news is that by regularly answering to hunger cues, respecting your body’s need for food and fuel at regular intervals, you can get your body back to a place of “knowing” that the food scarcity has stopped, and that food and nourishment will be provided on a regular basis, letting all our biochemistry settle down to a place of functioning as it was supposed to. This means we start hearing those hunger cues with more ease, and it also (both biochemically and psychologically), allows us to truly eat with awareness and mindfulness, allowing us to stop when comfortably full, allowing us to truly determine what we feel like eating (an important part of the process), since we are no longer sitting down to eat with that unconscious (and sometimes even conscious) feeling of “I don’t know when I’ll be able to eat this again”.
Through intuitive eating we will now learn to listen to our hunger, and finally feed our body the way it deserves, with attunement and awareness and by being back in the driver’s seat. The book is great when it comes to diving into all the details and specifics as to how to begin to fine tune this process of listening to your hunger cues and refuelling at regular intervals.
We’ll continue exploring some more principles of intuitive eating and how, if you’re already vegan, you can practice flexibility and get the wonderful relief and healing with food that intuitive eating provides.
Links mentioned in today’s episode:
The book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elysse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, FAND
A directory of certified intuitive eating counselors
The intuitive eating website
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