After going on and on last week about the profound nature of Intuitive Eating, I want to introduce the concept more clearly and explain why it can be so powerful. It so strongly counters what society has taught us about the nature of healthy eating and self control that it can be a little tricky to wrap one’s head around. Here it goes…
The main principle of Intuitive Eating is that the diet mentality perpetuates a “binge and restrict” cycle of eating. Under this system, you are disciplined most of the time but you get “cheat days” on Saturdays, change the rules when you’re travelling, or eventually fall-off the wagon. This kind of thinking about food actually encourages overeating and foments an unhealthy relationship with the pleasure of food.
Let’s watch this play out in an example:
Today is Saturday, and you decide you are going to lose 10 pounds by eliminating sugar from your diet. You are going to start this ‘no sugar diet’ on Monday.
UNTIL Monday, though, you gobble up all the sugary treats your heart desires, knowing that on Monday you’ll be “good” and stop eating them. When Monday rolls around, your diet starts. You work really hard to avoid sugar. You feel great when you say a firm ‘no’ to the slice of the chocolate cake you made for your son’s 4th birthday, you quietly throw away the apple fritter your mom brought you from your favourite bakery, and you say “I’ll pass” when your friends invite you out for dessert.
After a couple weeks, you lose 5 pounds and your pants are looser. You feel pretty good, but you haven’t reached your goal and you start feeling like you’ve sacrificed a lot for just 5 pounds. Your carrot sticks start to get boring, you get tired of avoiding your friends, and you generally feel bad about your lot in life. You decide to work that much harder and start weighing your food and ditching out on other fun activities to avoid the tempting foods that will be there. At some point, after all of this hard work and exercising of willpower, you decide that life is worth living! This diet is junk! And you start eating all the foods that you’ve been depriving yourself of.
All. Of. Them. With vigor.
That 5 pounds comes back, with “friends” and suddenly you weigh more than you did when you started. And you decide that on Monday, you’ll start the Keto Diet your friends have been raving about….
Sound familiar? For most of us, there are (quite literally) a handful of “pesky pounds” that we think we would feel better without. However, as illustrated above, dieting isn’t the way to do that because it doesn’t actually work. Stats indicate that 95% of diets fail in the long term. That means that, over the course of five years, there is only a 1 in 20 chance that you will still have that weight off.
The reason for these terrible odds is that self-control is a finite resource. You can only exercise so much willpower before your mind’s ability to avoid temptation runs dry. There is a growing body of evidence that shows that self-control operates in much the same way as a muscle in that it is strong at first and then becomes fatigued. For the same reason that you can’t do an indefinite number of pushups, you cannot be self-controlled around chips in the long term. Your brain will lose strength and all the excuses discussed above will start to sound more and more appealing. So much for your Keto Diet.
Instead of playing the binge and restrict game over and over and continually berating ourselves, let’s start listening to our bodies. Let’s stop restricting what we eat. Let’s stop talking to ourselves negatively about the foods we choose to eat. Let’s step outside our need to constantly be exercising self control.
Enter Intuitive Eating. This is a pretty simplified explanation, but here are the basic tenets.
- Step 1: Realize that diets don’t work. Stop thinking that they do. Stop trying them. Forever.
- Step 2: Recognize what hunger feels like for you. Honour your hunger.
- Step 3: Learn that there are no ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’. Restricting foods makes us crave those foods. Craving foods makes us feel guilty. Eating those foods we crave makes us feel shame. Then we want a pint of Haagen Dazs (or Cheezies or Doritos, you get the idea) to help us feel better. Then we feel guilt and shame again and decide we need a new diet. When we change our mentality and eat the food we want, without labels and judgment, we eliminate that nasty cycle.
- Step 4: Stop listening to other people’s well meaning (but obnoxious) food advice and start tuning in. You hear food advice all the time and internalize it, and pretty soon those voices take over. You start to say things to yourself like, “I can’t eat now, I just ate an hour ago”, or “carbs are fattening, I can’t eat that bagel”, or “butter will give me heart disease, I don’t eat it”. Instead, start listening to what works for your body, what gives you energy, glowing skin, and what makes you feel great.
- Step 5: When you eat, be fully mindful of the food. This involves chewing your food thoroughly, tasting what your food tastes like, paying attention to your body as you eat, and slowing down so your meals take at least 15 minutes. When you feel full, or don’t, act accordingly. Respect your fullness. The more you practice doing these things, the more mindful you will be while you eat, and the more you will notice your fullness. Then, respect what level of fullness feels right for you by putting down your fork.
- Step 6: Similarly, acknowledge and honour your feelings, including when you are happy, sad, lonely, bored, or bummed out (those are just some of the usual suspects for me personally). Acknowledge that sometimes it feels good to eat when you have a lot of emotions. Sometimes it doesn’t. Listen to your body and learn your patterns of eating. Then you can choose what you do with them.
- Step 7: Respect your body. My body’s needs are different than yours, which will be different from those of your neighbour. Stop comparing them. We naturally have a set point weight, within about a 5-10 pound range, that our bodies easily gravitate to when we respond to our hunger and fullness cues and don’t fixate on dieting. This may or may not be the number that you have in mind, but respect your body by allowing it to find its natural weight.
Over time, you will also find that you are naturally gravitating towards “better” eating choices. This happens because, through mindful attention to your body, thoughts, and plate, you will notice what negative sensations come along with eating certain foods (e.g. fatigue, bloating, indigestion, nausea). When you do decide to eat something traditionally held as “junk food” or “cheat day” material, you will not feel the need to throw away the whole “plan” because the “plan” is simply to respond to your body’s needs, and you have done so. You can eat freely without guilt.
Revolutionary, right? These ideas are simple individually, but incredibly powerful together. Maybe you are ready to give this a go! Or maybe now that you’ve read all of that, it seems easier to start a new diet than learn how to listen to your body. But what if you weren’t afraid of keeping ice cream in your house? What if you could eat any food you wanted? What if you were able to stop eating easily, without using willpower, when you felt satisfied?
If these ideas resonate with you and you are interested in quitting the diet roller coaster for good and learning to listen and respond to your body, then go and learn more about Intuitive Eating! And if you would like to give it a try, join me for the month of March, as we practice together and learn HOW TO EAT over the course of 21 days.
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