Recently 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:
- reject the diet mentality
- honor your hunger
- make peace with food
- challenge the food police
- feel your fullness
- discover the satisfaction factor
- cope with your emotions without using food
- respect your body
- exercise: feel the difference
- 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.