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The anti-diet: what you need to know about intuitive eating

As the backlash against diet culture grows, some are turning to ‘intuitive eating’. But does this approach work? And is it the answer to our body confidence woes?

The anti-diet: what you need to know about intuitive eating

Dr Lucy Burns used to be an excellent dieter. Or, to put it another way, Dr Lucy Burns used to be a terrible dieter. Lucy spent years living the life of a yo-yo-dieter – losing 20 kilograms, finding 20 kilograms. Again and again. Again and again. “I had chocolate hidden around the house,” she recalls. “It was in my undies draw, it was hidden under tea towels, just in case I needed a little hit. And my brain just wanted it all the time.”

Now, Burns is a self-described “former sugar addict”. Her relationship with food has transformed. And her weight? Well, that’s not important. Not when discussing intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is an approach to health and wellness that champions internal cues, rather than learned rules and restrictions. Considered an anti-diet, it is the practice of tuning into your body and its signals and, in turn, healing your relationship with food. It is similar to mindful eating, but extends beyond the eating experience, teaching users to reject external diet messaging.

“Intuitive eating invites us to take care of our bodies, and to offer ourselves a variety of foods for both nourishment and pleasure,” explains Janet Lowndes, director and principal psychologist at Mind Body Well therapy practice. “It also encourages us to accept our bodies as they are, and to focus on mind-body wellbeing rather than external goals such as weight and appearance. While weight-loss dieting encourages people to ignore and override their body’s signals of hunger and fullness, intuitive eating is about reconnecting with the intelligence of our body which tells us what we need and when,” she says.

Born this way

Although intuitive eating is a centuries-old notion, dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch are credited with its resurgence. Their book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works (1995), remains the go-to source of information and advice on the subject. Yet the approach has gained traction more recently thanks, at least in part, to the advent of social media and the convergence of two key occurrences.

First, the deluge of seemingly flawless bodies in our feeds has nudged our tolerance closer to breaking point. Second, and perhaps in the nick of time, intuitive eating and other anti-diet advocates are using the platforms to spread their message further and faster.

It’s a curious turn of events, given media – both traditional and social – has helped cultivate diet culture, its rigid messages endorsing unrealistic body ideals, in particular thin women and muscular men. In turn, a societal preoccupation with physical appearance has left self-esteem shattered as many strive to meet these narrow beauty standards.

According to the 2016 Dove Beauty and Confidence Report, women’s body confidence was on a “steady decline”, with nearly all women (85 per cent) and girls (79 per cent) saying they withdraw from important life activities because they don’t feel good about the way they look.

With ‘help’ from the multi-billion dollar diet industry (a sector projected to reach $295.3 billion by 2027), the inclination to grasp for answers in the form of diet plans, restrictive eating, and low-fat or low-calories foods is strong. Meanwhile, study after study shows us that diets don’t work. The British Medical Journal reported last year that the desired effects of dieting largely disappear after just one year.

Yo-yo dieting, or weight cycling, is a common consequence. Fear around food and food choices is another. The pervasive nature of these ideas and habits is why dietitian Nina Mills believes intuitive eating is a process of ‘unlearning’. “Intuitive eating is a coming home to what is inherit about us as humans,” she says. “We are all born with the ability to be attuned to our body and have that wisdom guiding us. All of that is eroded over time as we grow up in a world that is really, really obsessed with weight [and] conflating weight with health.”

A meta-analysis, published this year in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, linked a number of psychological benefits to intuitive eating, including higher self-esteem, greater body satisfaction, and lower levels of depression and anxiety. It also found intuitive eaters were less likely to binge and purge, to engage in emotional eating, or to practise unhealthy dietary restriction.

Now a certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor, it was Mills’ own struggle with food, food rules and body image that led her to pursue this career path. She is passionate about helping clients rebuild connection and trust with their own bodies. The brains behind Feel Good Eating, Mills says her clients enjoy the same liberation she experienced when the new mindset started to click.

“I’m witnessing a reduction in shame [in clients], a reduction in how much time they’re spending thinking about food, a reduction in people’s experience of…eating past the point of comfortable fullness, a reduction in binge eating, a reduction in…that experience of chaotic eating,” she says.

“People are feeling a bit calmer around their eating across the day. I am witnessing an increased willingness to take care of themselves even if they perhaps don’t particularly like their body.”

A shift in thinking

As utopian as it might sound, particularly for perennial dieters, intuitive eating isn’t a magic bullet. In fact, it can be profoundly difficult to shift deeply ingrained beliefs and behaviours. One of the most common challenges is letting go of the entrenched weight-loss mentality.

Mills says “99 per cent” of her clients start their journey with conflicting goals: they want to ditch dieting forever but still harbour a desire to lose weight. “I think that speaks perhaps not to the weight loss itself, but [to] what being in a smaller body affords people living in a world that is really obsessed with thinness,” says Mills. “It is just part and parcel of us all marinating in diet culture.”

Intuitive eating can result in weight loss, but it isn’t the goal. The approach can also result in weight gain, particularly in the early stages, which is frightening for some people. Ultimately, it depends on where you already are compared with your body’s natural weight.

For Jo Gniel, redirecting her focus from weight to health has been crucial to her progress as an intuitive eater. Forced to field comments about her weight since primary school, Gniel says she has been aware from a young age that her body “doesn’t fit the norm.” As a result, she has a long history with disordered eating, spending decades trying to resemble the ideal. Since turning to intuitive eating, Gniel has learnt to accept and respect her body, and has experienced great relief.

Self-compassion

“It’s about paying attention and … being more compassionate towards yourself with the choices that you make,” she says. “In our society we define success as being about the end goal and weight loss, but the goal is actually about learning to accept yourself and nourish yourself and care for yourself and break out of that dieting mindset. The relief that comes from not having that angst [over weight] – it’s really great.”

Lowndes, who holds a position on the HAES (Health at Every Size) Australia steering committee, says enlisting complementary support is a great way to help navigate the intuitive eating process.

“The more food rules and rigid habits of behaviour we’ve learned over time, the more challenging it can be to develop alternative ways of responding to our bodies,” she says. “For those who are feeling particularly stuck in old patterns of non-intuitive eating, working closely with a therapist can be a helpful way to work on these changes.”

Although intuitive eating encourages you to eat what you want, when you want it, the approach doesn’t tend to trade in processed foods. Not because they are banned – that would go against the premise entirely – but because once you’ve relieved yourself of judgement around food choices, processed food loses its hold. It’s simple reverse psychology.

Burns, whose recovery from sugar addiction led her to specialise in weight loss for metabolic health, says it is not uncommon for intuitive eating messages to be misunderstood. Worse, they are often misrepresented.

“Some people are still out there saying, ‘If you want a doughnut, have a doughnut.’ It’s really unhelpful for a lot of people,” she explains. “The tricky thing with intuitive eating is you have got this confounder [factor] and the confounder is processed food. So, intuitive eating works beautifully for wholefood because we’re not then putting addictive substances like processed food…into our body. As soon as you enter processed food, it creates a whole different dynamic because it overrides whatever satiety signals you have.”

While many intuitive eating advocates claim the method can work for anyone, others disagree. At the very least, a cautious approach is wise for those with eating disorders or acute food struggles. Burns adds that people with insulin resistance, a group she works closely with at her clinic Real Life Medicine, should “address the physiology first.”

Insulin resistance occurs when excess glucose in the blood reduces the ability of the cells to absorb and use blood sugar for energy. In relation to intuitive eating, Burns explains: “Many people [with insulin resistance] also have leptin resistance and so don’t feel full. Asking asking them to tune into the hunger is really hard because they can’t.”

Gniel is proof that some can balance intuitive eating with significant health issues, in her case endometriosis and IBS, among others. The support of a medical professional is advised. Gniel says discerning whether her symptoms and behaviours were related to health, illness or social expectation was a complex process, but worth every effort. She admits she still has her moments, but is committed to the journey, which is no surprise when you consider the results.

“I just feel this great sense of ease,” she says. “I think I am beyond happy. I am content.”

The top 10 principles of Intuitive Eating

Originally published in 1995, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works has become the intuitive eating bible. In the book, authors Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch outline these 10 principles of this anti-diet lifestyle:

  1. Reject the diet mentality
  2. Honour your hunger
  3. Make peace with food
  4. Challenge the food police
  5. Feel your fullness
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
  8. Respect your body
  9. Movement: feel the difference
  10. Honour your health: gentle nutrition

Learn more

Some health experts are suggesting we eat like the Danes, who enjoy more than triple the amount of whole grains than most Australians. mindfood.com/benefits-whole-grains

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