- - Ditch Dieting with Intuitive Eating

Ditch Dieting with Intuitive Eating

article by Christine Zimmerman

The pursuit of weight loss has created a billion-dollar industry, but it’s an industry that data trends suggest hasn’t really contributed to creating a leaner or even healthier America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the prevalence of obesity from 2017-2018 through 1999-2000 increased from 30.5% to 42.4% and the prevalence of severe obesity increased from 4.7% to 9.2%. Traditional diet programs, while sometimes successful in the short term, have largely failed when it comes to long-term weight loss maintenance. Evidence suggests that emphasizing weight and weight loss is associated with worse health outcomes and that programs within this paradigm don’t result in long-term weight loss for most individuals. In fact, weight cycling (repeated periods of weight loss and gain) is nearly guaranteed to occur with weight loss interventions and is associated with adverse medical, metabolic, and psychological health outcomes.

Instead of focusing solely on weight loss, consider taking a new health-centered but non-diet approach to behavior and lifestyle change.  Intuitive eating (IE) offers a weight-inclusive alternative to help people create better relationships with food and their body. Intuitive eating is a dynamic mind-body integration of instinct, emotion, and rational thought. It is a personal process of honoring your health by paying attention to the messages of your body and meeting your physical and emotional needs. Many studies have found that this non-diet approach to eating and behavior change improved psychological well-being, body image, and also improvements in metabolic health including blood pressure, lipid levels, and cardiorespiratory fitness.

There are 10 principles of Intuitive Eating, which work in two distinct ways. Some of them help you gain body attunement- the ability to hear and respond to the physical sensations that arise within your body, such as biological cues of hunger and fullness and other principles work by removing the obstacles of body attunement.

10 Principles of Intuitive Eating

  • Reject the diet mentality– Many people are aware that dieting doesn’t work in the long run, but most are surprised to learn that dieting actually increases your risk of gaining even more weight.  There are profound biological mechanisms in play that trigger rebound weight gain from dieting.  One well-known survival adaption is to slow down metabolism. Another way the body survives dieting is cannibalizing its own muscle to burn as fuel.  Fat overshooting is another way the body tries to survive the dieting process. In essence, the loss of both fat and lean tissue triggers the body to gain more weight in the form of body fat to survive.  Hormonal changes with weight loss can also make you hungrier and preoccupied with food.  Altogether, these powerful compensatory adaptations make sustained weight loss extremely difficult for most people. 
  • Honor your hunger- Hunger is a natural biological cue that lets you know that your body needs sustenance. Nourishing your body is as essential to life as breathing.  Chronic dieters and athletes often deny their biological hunger only to have it backlash. Hunger signals can increase and set off a biological cascade leading to “primal hunger,” an urgent and intense desire to eat which often results in overeating.  Body attunement, also known as interoceptive awareness, is the ability to hear and respond to the body’s physical sensations such as hunger and fullness cues.  I think interoceptive awareness is our superpower.  When we have a connection to the felt sense of our body, we have a treasure trove of information to get our needs met. When you’re listening to the signals your body gives you, it’s not just about what your tongue wants.  Body attunement asks questions like “How hungry am I before eating this food?” “How will I feel afterward?” “How will I feel while I’m eating it?”  
  • Make peace with food- Making peace with food is a process of making your food choices emotionally equal, without placing shame or judgment, whether you are eating jellybeans or broccoli. You are not a bad or good person based on what you eat. You can’t make peace with your eating by declaring war on your body or the foods you put into it.  Forbidding yourself specific foods can have a paradoxical rebound effect that triggers overeating and overwhelming guilt.  Making peace with food is a process placing value on your emotional health and removing the morality from eating while increasing the flexibility of your food choices.
  • Challenge the food police- The voice of the war with food, which is your thoughts is the food police. The key defense for challenging the food police is to first develop nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts then practice reframing negative thoughts into positive thoughts.
  • Respect your fullness- It is difficult to identify fullness if you are eating while distracted, stuck in habitual patterns of cleaning your plate, or eating quickly without savoring your food.  We can connect with our bodies when we listen for the physical signals that tell us we are no longer hungry, observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full, and pause in the middle of eating to ask yourself how the food tastes and what your current fullness level is.
  • Discover the satisfaction factor- In our collective fury to be fit, thin, and healthy, we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence- the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience.  When you eat what we really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, pleasure is a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content.  Studies show that Epicurean eating pleasure- a concept that involves an ongoing appreciation of the aesthetics of foods, their symbolic value, and the pursuit of pleasure is correlated with smaller portions and higher well-being, and not associated with a higher body mass index.  By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes much less food to decide you’ve had enough.
  • Cope with your feelings without food– Eating does not occur in a void.  Much of the time, food has emotional associations.  We all have a preference for pleasure over pain. That is human. But when we become intolerant of even the slightest discomfort, this natural tendency can become problematic. Sometimes we can act this out by using food instead of determining what we really need. The main ways in which we substitute food for our true needs are to hold onto pleasure, to resist discomfort or pain, and to numb out. We eat to grasp onto pleasure, or we have uncontrollable cravings for foods we believe will bring us pleasure; we eat in order to resist or change our experience of painful emotions, or we eat to numb out and not feel anything. Food will not fix the problem.  Ultimately, you will have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.
  • Respect your body- Each of us is born with a genetic blueprint that determines our potential height, weight, and a myriad of other details, from foot length to eye color.  When you attuned to your hunger and fullness signals and participate in regular activity, you will be able to maintain and preserve the greater potential of your body.
  • Exercise: Feel the difference- There is no question that exercise is beneficial for a myriad of health issues from stress reduction to prevention of chronic diseases.  The issue for most people is the art of doing it consistently with intrinsic pleasure vs. dieting mentality and drudgery.  If needed, hire a coach to help you explore the qualities of mindful exercise, while paying attention to the connection with your body; identify personal benefits and reasons to exercise, and discover how to reach your goals and breakthrough exercise barriers.
  • Honor your Health- The desire to include nutritious foods naturally evolves from achieving competency in the other principles.  Body-food choice congruence is a form of interoceptive awareness and self-care through nutrition.  It represents how food feels in your body.  This internal awareness goes beyond what your taste buds may crave.  How your body feels and works becomes equally important in your food choices.  When you feel good, you get even more satisfaction from eating sufficient amounts of food for energy and well-being.

A healthy eater is one who not only strives for a healthy balance of foods but also has a healthy relationship with food.  Becoming an intuitive eater is a life-long journey involving paying attention, patience, and practice.


Christine Zimmerman is the Thomas Endurance Coaching (TEC) team Dietitian/Nutritionist as well as an Intuitive Eating Counselor. She works to encourage athletes and non-athletes alike on their journey of wellness, developing a peaceful and satisfying relationship with food, their bodies, and movement. To schedule your Nutrition Consultation click HERE




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