I’ve always thought I had a healthy relationship with food. I enjoy cooking and have a relatively balanced diet. But then I heard about ‘intuitive eating’ and realised I’ve been following rules that aren’t doing the right thing by my mind or body. This movement (NB: it’s not a diet) means abandoning all your ‘rules’ about food, such as portion size, fat content, calorie count, and whether a food is ever ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, it’s about listening to your body: what does it want, and when? Some studies suggest it may lead to better nutrition and psychological health, because it rids us of the denying-yourself downfall of traditional diets.
‘Most people’s eating is more disordered than they realise. The “rules” they follow stop them tuning in to what their body really wants,’ says Laura Thomas, author of Just Eat It (Pan MacMillan).
Psychotherapist Dr Jenna Daku agrees: ‘We’re all born with an ability to eat intuitively. It’s almost impossible to feed a baby if they’re full, or stop if they’re still hungry. But, growing up, we internalise different messages about food and that stops us listening to our bodies.’
With intuitive eating, there are no restrictions (unless dictated by health issues, such as diabetes or allergies). I think it’s time to reassess my own ‘food rule book’.
Chatting to Laura about how to start thinking intuitively with regard to eating, she admits it’s not easy. ‘But you can begin by practising food neutrality.’ (The sister of body neutrality!) Say what? ‘Notice how often you label foods as good or bad, healthy vs unhealthy,’ she explains. ‘Then try to replace this with less judgemental language, using neutral words, such as fruit, vegetables, dessert, snack.’ So my ‘naughty afternoon treats’ should become just ‘cake’. A burger isn’t a ‘dirty burger’ but a ‘meal’.
I then need to examine my thinking around other choices, such as always opting for a bigger portion of veg instead of something like protein, which helps me feel fuller. Surely I should eat to feel satisfied, not virtuous? And I cut out things I believe are ‘bad’, such as sugar, to lose a few pounds. I usually last five days before I fall face first into a bag of fizzy cola-bottle sweets.
"Laura advised me that intuitive eaters tune into subtle signals"
Laura explains why this happens: ‘Strict rules create a “forbidden fruit” effect, which makes us want to eat the food more. It may lead us to eat it compulsively – past the point of comfortable fullness – accompanied by feelings of shame and guilt that we can carry around with us for ages.’
On my first day of giving it a go, I spend my commute thinking about how my body really feels. Verdict: I’m starving! I’d rushed out the door without breakfast, so I grabbed a protein bar from the corner shop, ignoring that internal voice telling me ‘it’s not a real breakfast’.
In fact, Laura’s keen to point out that the law of ‘processed = bad’ is something else we need to abandon, as many foods are processed in some way. So my quick fix wasn’t a sin but a win? ‘It’s about balancing snacks to make sure they’re satisfying,’ she says. ‘Ignoring your hunger pangs just leaves you vulnerable to making choices that don’t make you feel your best.’ In other words, there’s nothing wrong with snacking on a protein bar to fill the gap. However, my body has given me the message that I need something more filling in the morning, so I need to remember that in future.
One week later, I’m eating breakfast daily (I make a filling shake the night before, which I can drink on the go) because, for me, if I don’t eat protein by 10am, I get grumpy. I snack when I’m hungry on peanut butter with grain crackers, which works for me and is better than snacking on things I’d labelled ‘healthy’, such as carrot sticks. Now that I’m listening, my body is telling me it wants food that makes me feel satisfied for longer – and for me that seems to be plenty of fibre and protein.
Another reason for my new-found satiety? I’m no longer allowing myself to become absolutely ravenous. Laura advised me that intuitive eaters tune into subtle signals such as a shift in mood or energy, or a lack of concentration and focus, rather than just those deep belly rumbles that indicate you’re starting to get over hungry. So I’m now hearing – and responding to – those small signs I get throughout the day.
I do worry, though, that I’m intuitively eating too much. I start jotting down what I’m consuming each day and realise I’m not. As my clever bod has been guiding me towards filling snacks throughout the day, when I do fancy more of a meal, I find myself naturally gravitating towards hearty soups, salmon salads or a sandwich, rather than a huge, cheesy jacket potato. The benefit? My energy levels have stabilised. No need for three teas before I get going in the morning, no afternoon slump and I haven’t fallen asleep in front of the TV, full-to-bursting, all week.
Another food rule that has fallen by the wayside? Finishing everything on my plate. Sure, I was taught it’s good manners, but it often means eating so much, I feel uncomfortable. So now I stop when I’m full and save any leftovers for lunch the next day. (I even did this in a restaurant. I see Americans on TV shows getting ‘doggy bags’ all the time when they eat out, so why can’t I?)
I think I’m nailing it until I hit a roadblock – my period. Suddenly, all I want is sugar and carbs – chocolate, tortellini, cheese on everything (I almost grate it into my bag of Revels). ‘Eat what your body wants’ seems like a bad plan when it’s requesting stuff that’ll make me feel bloated and grotty. Had I failed in my quest to eat intuitively? Turns out, that’s not possible, according to Laura. (Let’s just say I was considering asking her to move in at this point.)
‘Intuitive eating will look different for everyone – it’ll even look different for you day to day. It’s flexible. You’re able to ebb and flow with what life throws at you. You can’t get it wrong.’
And, after a couple of days, I’m back to eating a more balanced diet, more quickly than in my pre-intuitive days. As I’d been labelling these hormone-induced cravings as ‘bad’ for years, the guilt and shame I felt triggered the ‘forbidden fruit’ mentality Laura had warned me about. This meant that I’d continue carb-loading long past the first few days of my cycle.
"Most of us have forgotten how to trust our bodies to tell us what they need"
But how do we differentiate between a genuine craving for something our body needs, or a boredom/habitual craving for, let’s say, your regular 4pm chocolate biccy? Laura explains: ‘You shouldn’t actually ignore cravings, as they’re often a result of restriction and deprivation due to a diet culture teaching us to suppress and ignore them. That can backfire, because they may become bigger until, before we know it, we’ve eaten a whole tub of ice cream. Intuitive eating teaches us to be curious about cravings and mindfully honour them.’ And once you believe this, and stop labelling foods as ‘wrong’, you might just crave it a little less.
So everything I thought I knew about eating was wrong, it seems! When we diet, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. It seems that most of us, including me, have forgotten how to trust our bodies to tell us what they need. While intuitive eating is a long-term process – a serious lifestyle change, in fact – it’s designed to give you more freedom from the constant thinking about food, so you’ve got the headspace to enjoy other things in life. And knowing I can’t mess it up means I’ve stuck with it longer than any ‘diet’ I’ve tried. On that note, I must dash, as I’m feeling peckish. And here’s the main thing I’ve learned – my stomach’s the boss.