body image · diets · eating · overeating · sports nutrition · weight loss

Intuitive Eating: What It Is and Why I Love It!

MangoRecently I wrote about my (personal, not for everyone) decisions not to get further sports nutrition counseling and to stop weighing myself.  I committed to re-acquainting myself with two books that helped me a lot back in the early nineties when I was a compulsive dieter and exerciser with a diagnosed eating disorder (that I didn’t believe I had because I wasn’t skinny enough).

The books were Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet-Binge Cycle and Live a Happier, More Satisfying Life by psychotherapists Carol H. Munter and Jane R. Hirschmann and Intuitive Eating, Third Edition:A Revolutionary Program That Works by nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.  You can find my review of and experience with Overcoming Overeating here. There I say that while I liked a lot of the principles, Intuitive Eating resonates much more strongly with me.  So today’s post is about this approach and why it’s working for me.

Intuitive Eating (IE) is based on ten principles, to each of which the authors devote a full chapter:

  1. reject the diet mentality
  2. honor 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 without using food
  8. respect your body
  9. exercise: feel the difference
  10. honor your health with gentle nutrition

The authors introduce the concept of IE. They identify a number of different eating “personalities” who have an unhealthy relationship with food–the Careful Eater who is obsessed with nutrition, the Professional Dieter who is perpetually on a diet, and the Unconscious Eater who pairs eating with another activity, such as watching TV or reading, or just generally eats mindlessly because they are too busy, vulnerable to the presence of food (like the cookie jar or the donuts at meetings), or they don’t like to waste food (they’d rather clean their plate and then move on to their children’s or spouse’s plates), or they use food to cope with emotions.

The Intuitive Eater, by contrast, has what the authors consider to be a healthy relationship with food. They “march to their inner hunger signals, and eat whatever they choose without experiencing guilt or an ethical dilemma.” The authors believe children are born as intuitive eaters, but that social messaging leads many people to develop an unhealthy preoccupation with nutrition, weight loss, and food. The goal of the book is to help people who, in their words, have “hit diet bottom” become Intuitive Eaters.

The first four principles help to change the diet mentality, where food is the enemy and needs to be controlled and restricted to reach the ideal weight.  Principles 5 and 6, feel your fullness and discover the satisfaction factor, nudge us in the direction of a more intuitive relationship to the food we eat. Principle 7 addresses the issue of emotional eating and offers alternative modes of self-care that are more successful.  Principle 8 calls upon us to stop body-bashing, and, as Samantha has recently urged, respect the body we have.

Principles 9 and 10 are introduced last for a reason. The authors think that both exercise and attention to nutrition (The Careful  Eater) can be used as covert ways of implementing The Diet Mentality.  Not only that, many people with a history of dieting and food obsession have negative associations with exercise in particular. They strongly suggest that people work with the first 8 principles to become comfortable Intuitive Eaters and only then pay close attention to exercise and nutrition.

I can’t go into the principles in detail, but I want to say a bit more about my favourites.

Of course, I love the idea of rejecting the diet mentality. I’ve spoken of it here, here, and here.

Feeling your fullness (Principle 5) is the one that challenges me the most and that I have worked with most closely since I started this approach back in early January. The authors claim that “the ability to stop eating because you have had enough to eat biologically hinges critically on giving yourself unconditional permission to eat (Principle 3: Make peace with food).

In order to feel your fullness, the authors recommend conscious eating. Instead of moving into autopilot, they suggest paying attention, eating without distraction, pausing part way through a meal to register whether the food still tastes good and whether you’re still hungry. Samantha is doing the same thing with her recent attention to mindful eating. They introduce the idea of comfortable satiety, where you’ve had enough to eat but are not overstuffed.  Respecting your fullness means stopping at comfortable satiety. In order to achieve this, you need to eat engage in mindful or conscious eating.

Their approach to both exercise and nutrition focuses not on weight loss but on how good both make you feel and how they act as methods of self care.  In fact, the authors note that exercise is a great stress buffer.  A good relationship with exercise, when it is a part of your life that you actually enjoy instead of see as an obligation, can go a long way to curbing emotional eating.

The IE approach appeals to me for so many reasons.  I am convinced that diets don’t work for long term weight loss and I despise food tracking and monitoring.  So the idea of learning to identify and respond to my body’s natural hunger signals provides an exciting alternative and a reason for optimism. Since I started focusing on mindful eating and respecting my fullness I have been much more capable of eating when hungry and stopping at the point of comfortable satiety.

I am eating foods I enjoy, engaging in exercise I enjoy, and have no hard rules around the foods I choose.  My tendency is towards nutritious foods anyway. I love salads, legumes, soy, whole grains, and fruit. I have a sweet tooth which I satisfy with a whole range of things, from medjool dates and dried pineapple to my favourite vegan chocolate cake and home-baked coconut cranberry chocolate chip cookies.  I have discovered a few things too, like I prefer mangoes to french fries. I have total permission to eat either, depending what I feel like.

The recommendation to toss the scale, found both here and in Overcoming Overeating, has been the single most positive change for me.  I love not weighing myself and instead tuning in with how I am feeling.

On my recent sailing trip to the British Virgin Islands, I maintained an easy level of activity with snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming with a few push-ups and burpees thrown into the mix, ate when I felt hungry and stopped when I felt satisfied, and drank one totally indulgent virgin cocktail (I don’t drink alcohol) a day.

I am sure that I gained no weight and quite possibly lost some (of course I can’t be sure). What matters most is that I feel really good, like I took care of myself, ate well, and kept moving during my vacation. Though I experienced a bit of self-consciousness in my bikini at the beginning (I adjust more quickly to being totally nude than being in a bikini, as explained here), I respected my body and didn’t engage in body-bashing.  After a day or two I felt good.

A couple of other things about the book.

Since the original edition came out in the early nineties, there have been quite a few studies on the approach to gauge its success as a health strategy. The authors have included a chapter about the science behind the IE approach. The chapter adds scientific validity to the author’s suggestions and makes a strong case that Intuitive Eaters experience both mental and physical health. Moreover, they cite studies that show it as a viable solution for the prevention of eating disorders and obesity.

It includes chapters on raising children to be intuitive eaters, and on using the IE approach to treat eating disorders. It also has a Q and A appendix to answer common questions about Intuitive Eating, such as “If I let myself eat whatever I want, won’t I eat uncontrollably and gain lots of weight?” The authors do not believe this will be the case because “when you have made complete peace with food and know that what you like will always be available to you, you’ll be able to stop after a moderate amount. If you’re only giving yourself pseudo-permission, it won’t work, because you don’t really believe you’ll always have access to food. So check out how genuine your permission-giving is.”

Finally, the book has a really helpful appendix that outlines strategies for implementing each of the principles.

I’m a total convert to this approach to eating.  I don’t think about food all the time and don’t spend a lot of time planning my meals and snacks. I just make sure there I’ve always got lots of good food that I like on hand for when I am hungry. I do pay attention to nutrition though I am not a slave to it, and I am as active as I want to be, minimally doing at least one weight training or yoga session a day and one “cardio” activity a day.

I never track and I no longer weigh myself.

If you are ready to do something different and truly willing to commit to never dieting again, I highly recommend that you read this book.

body image · diets · eating · fat · overeating · sports nutrition · weight loss

Overcoming Overeating: Overview, Review, and Update

oocoverA few weeks ago I announced that I’ve given up the scale — no more weigh-ins. This new commitment to dispensing with weight as a measure of my fitness progress came in part because I’ve been following some of the recommendations in Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet/Binge Cycle and Live a Healthier, More Satisfying Life by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter.

The book is aimed at chronic dieters who feel ready to break free from the cycle of weight gain, weight loss, weight gain, and the food obsession and body hatred that accompanies that cycle.  I first encountered the book back in the early nineties and its methods have helped me get perspective over the years.

But the holidays, coupled with my personal trainer’s insistence on weigh-ins, had me right back in the despair of poor body image and food obsession.  And that’s why I picked the book back up, along with Intuitive Eating:A Revolutionary Program That Works, Third Edition, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

Today’s post is about the plan outlined in Overcoming Overeating. The authors do an excellent job of explaining the psychology of the diet-binge cycle and the horrible feelings associated with it. They are also pretty convincing on the futility of the “Change Your Shape, Change Your Life” game. The game has a few well-known rules: 1. Fat is bad, 2. Fat people eat too much, 3. Thin is beautiful, 4. Eating Requires Control, 5. Criticism Leads to Change. The rules take us in one direction:  dieting.

The game is futile because….drumroll please…DIETS DON’T WORK.  Roughly, they don’t work because the natural response to rules and control is rebellion (i.e. the binge).  They also have a  metabolic impact that undermines our efforts. If diets don’t work, then we need a new approach.

Their approach begins with two radical ideas. The first is to accept the weight and body you have now as if it will never change (for this, they have you engage in a thought experiment where you live on a planet where they inject a gas into the air that, once inhaled, makes it impossible to gain or lose weight ever again. They urge us to think about how we would approach food in this scenario). The second is the idea that you can eat your way out of your “problem.”

I was good with lots of their recommendations. They encourage people who do not own a full-length mirror to get one and to stand in front of it, naked, and observe their bodies in a purely objective, descriptive way. For example, “I am round here, smooth there, bony here, hairy there.” This is supposed to get you in touch with what your body looks like in a neutral way.

They tell you to toss the scale.

There is the old stand-by: the closet clean-out. This is where you get rid of the clothes you plan to wear when you lose a few inches and the clothes you plan to wear when you gain a few inches.  You get rid of that dress that pinches at the waist, the beautiful blouse that pulls across the back, the bra that needs constant adjusting, anything with a hole in it. You keep only the clothes you feel good in.

If that leaves you with very little, go shopping. Buy according to fit, not the size on the label.  I’ve always liked cleaning out my closet because it serves the dual purpose of helping me declutter. Occasionally, I even discover things that I forgot I had and can start wearing again.

And finally, the one suggestion that makes all chronic dieters absolutely terrified and giddy, sad and relieved: dump the diet.  If you can’t face this idea, they remind you of the facts: 1. The vast majority of dieters regain their weight plus some, 2. Diets make you fat, 3. Deprivation ensures a fight-back response—the binge.

With the diet dumped, many of us need a new way to live. I had already pretty much resolved not to diet for weight-loss anymore. But diet-like behaviors  and thinking started creeping back into my eating when I started personal training and began to concern myself with “sports nutrition.”  For me, tracking and planning and measuring and counting, even in the name of sports nutrition, created a diet mentality. This might not be the same for everyone.

The new way to live involves legalizing food — carrot sticks are not any better or worse than carrot cake. No food is forbidden (allergies and moral commitments aside, of course. If peanuts will kill you, don’t eat them. If you don’t eat animal products, you don’t have to start).

Up to this point in the plan, I’m on board. It’s the next part where I jumped ship this time. That’s where they tell you to stock up on all your favourite foods in quantities so vast you couldn’t possibly eat them in one sitting.

If you adore dark chocolate, don’t buy one chocolate bar, buy ten. If you love carrot cake, don’t buy one cake, buy three so you can keep two in the freezer.  If you like crusty bread, buy a few loaves.  If you want the whole soy milk instead of the light, buy it! Cashews and almonds—buy the family sized packages.

This part just didn’t speak to me this year. It may be that I am already over the food categories for the most part from the work I have done over the years with the very ideas recommended in the book. I do have bars and bars of dark chocolate in my pantry already and that’s not a problem for me. Sometimes I eat a few pieces of chocolate. Other times it just sits there for weeks or months untouched. I do prefer the regular soy milk over the light so that’s what I buy.  And I haven’t found a vegan carrot cake that I like, so carrot cake is off the menu these days anyway. The triple chocolate cake at Veg Out is bar none the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted in my life. But I am happy enough to know that I can go have a piece whenever I like. I don’t need a few cakes in my freezer.

halloween2009_candy_bowlWhen I was a graduate student, my housemate and I followed the suggestion to overstock the pantry with favourites. We had a big bowl of Halloween candy on our kitchen table and we kept it filled to the brim all the time.  The first week or two, we ate a lot of candy and had to refill the bowl frequently.  By the third week, the pace slowed. And by the fourth week, it was so commonplace that some evenings it just sat there, or we might take one Aero bar.  After a few months, having convinced ourselves that candy was truly “legal,” it had lost its mystique.

Whether you need to do this will depend how game you are to legalize food.  Overstocking is part of the process of convincing yourself it’s okay.

The is all a prelude to the central idea in the book: food on demand.

The idea is this. We chronic dieters have spent our lives eating controlled, pre-determined portions of pre-planned food at specific times of the day. How much, what, and when we ate had nothing to do with how much or what we wanted or whether we were hungry. And then there were those times we ate from “mouth hunger” instead of “stomach hunger.”

Demand feeding requires learning to feel and respond to stomach hunger. Imagine a ledger (or even keep one for a few days) that has two columns — stomach hunger and mouth hunger. If a chronic dieter recorded whether she ate from one or the other each tie she ate, she’d have more check marks in the mouth hunger column.  The goal then, is to move the checks from the mouth hunger column to the stomach hunger column.

This re-calibration of eating habits requires vigilance. In particular, it requires that we attend to emotional reasons for eating, since a lot of times we seek food for comfort (mouth hunger) even though what comfort it brings is fleeting. How do you move the checkmarks?

Let yourself get hungry as much as possible during the day and eat just enough to satisfy that hunger each time.  Carry a food bag, filled with your favourite foods, so that you are never hungry and without something to satisfy that hunger.  Stop thinking in terms of meals or of food that is appropriate to specific times of day. If you wake up hungry and feel like eating a bowl of chili, eat it. If it’s “lunch time” and all you want is a piece of chocolate cake, have the cake.

Stop eating when you are satisfied — not stuffed.  This makes total sense.  Of course it does. For me, this is the one area of eating with which I have always struggled.  If I am not paying very close attention, I will eat more than I need to eat, and I will feel over full.  The authors recommend sticking with this, learning to forgive yourself, keeping at it long enough to convince yourself that you can stop now because, in an hour when you are hungry again, it will be okay to eat.  The idea is that if you know you will have permission to eat later (unlike when you’re dieting), it’ll be easier to stop at a comfortable place.

I tossed the scale and dumped the diet. I didn’t overstock the pantry and I do not carry a food bag. I have not stopped thinking in terms of meals — I like meals.  But I do pay closer attention and find myself eating smaller portions. I eat what I want. What I want turns out to be fairly nutritious for the most part.  I actually do like salad as much as I like fries, and which I have depends on what I feel like eating at the time.

The authors suggest that over time, the nutrition issue will take care of itself.  In my case, this has happened, but my issue has always been more about the “how much” of eating than the “what” or even “when” of it.  In order to keep with the program, you need to have a lot of faith in the process and just forge ahead, trusting that the authors are not leading you astray.

The plan is not designed for weight loss, but they maintain that if you have been overweight from the diet/binge cycle, you may indeed lose weight in the long run.  At the beginning, it’s pretty normal to gain a bit when all the favourite foods become legal.  What they do promise is that over time, people who follow this plan will find that their weight settles. Instead of the crazy range that many of us have become accustomed to, we’ll reach a comfortable weight and moreorless stay there.

I’m not sure about that because I’ve not followed the plan 100% and what little I have followed I’ve only been doing for about a month. Before I started, my weight had been in a four-pound range for quite some time (about a year).  Since I’ve tossed the scale, I can’t say where it is now, but I can say my clothes all fit me still.

If you are a serious emotional eater, there may not be enough in the book to help with your “core issues.”

I know I haven’t really come down strongly in favor or against the plan outlined in the book. I like some of the suggestions and think that, as an alternative to dieting, it has potential. But the suggestions about stocking up, carrying a food bag, and feeding on demand were a bit too much for me.  Still, I am more in touch with the feelings of hunger and satiety since I started reading this and Intuitive Eating (which I am more partial to and will explain why in a later post).

If you’re tired of dieting and ready to try something else, it’s worth a read and a try.  The advice that resonates most strongly with me is: toss the scale, legalize food, dump the diet, and pay attention to how you feel (both emotionally and physically) when you eat.  I like the visual of moving the checkmarks in the ledger over to the “stomach hunger” side.  Mindful or conscious eating is a good goal.

How has what I’ve tried worked for me this month? I feel freer. I’m drastically less preoccupied with food than I was just a month ago and not at all preoccupied with weight. I’m eating less at a sitting and enjoying what I eat more. All good outcomes.

For more information about the plan, check out the authors’ website.