If there is one crucial skill most people have mastered, it's eating. Not only does our very survival depend on it, we, as a society, have practised it to exhaustion and are now in the midst of an obesity epidemic. That's why, when Hollywood celebrities such as Demi Lovato started talking about intuitive eating as a new way of eating, most of the world scoffed in protest. After all, isn't eating a fundamental skill that we already know how to do?
However, eating is anything but intuitive these days. Food marketers lure us into emotionally eating their products to alleviate stress or comfort. We then turn to the dieting industry to help rid us of the consequences by counting our calories and following diet plans to lose weight. This back and forth relationship with food has created a vicious cycle of eat- diet- repeat. We have lost touch with what it means to eat according to our body's needs throughout this process, and according to Intuitive Eating, there is only one person who can be an expert on your body--you.
So let's dive into what intuitive eating is and how you can start practising it today.
Also read: Why eating healthy makes you happier
Evelyn Tribole, an author behind the groundbreaking book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, says that "intuitive eating is a personal process of honouring health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body to meet your physical and psychological needs."
However, telling someone to "listen to their body" is one thing; you have to know what messages you're listening for. Two of the most powerful messages your body will send to help you regulate your food intake are your hunger and satiety cues, both of which you can practise and master starting today.
Firstly, intuitive eating says to "honour your hunger," - which means eating when your body is hungry. If you've tried to resist hunger, you may notice that your appetite gets stronger and you have less resolve to resist temptation. A way to determine when to eat is to imagine a scale from zero to ten. Zero means that you're feeling a bit stuffed from your last meal. Ten means you're feeling ravenous. So a good time to start eating is when you're feeling approximately seven out of ten on the scale. Eating at this time means you're hungry enough to make food appealing but not so hungry that you'll be inclined to make unhealthy decisions.
Secondly, if you're able to "honour your hunger" and eat at the correct time for your body, you'll be better positioned to stop eating when your body is feeling "satisfied" and no longer require food. With this skill, you're learning how to stop eating based on how your body feels, not on whether you still have food on your plate. One way to be successful at adopting this skill is to eat your meal slowly - it takes twenty minutes for your brain to register that your stomach is full. If you slow down your eating and enjoy your meal, you'll be able to stop when your body no longer feels hungry.
If you're struggling to eat slowly, try tuning into the flavours and textures of your food. For example, is your meal salty or sweet? Crunchy or smooth? By focussing on being present with the flavours and textures of your food, you'll naturally slow down your meal.
Aside from understanding our physical hunger and satiety cues, intuitive eating is also based on the idea that one must make peace with their food and reject the dieting mentality and belief that a person's worth is related to their size. Instead, the purpose of the anti-diet mentality is to use eating as a form of health and self-care, not to lose weight or fit into society's standards of outward beauty.
According to the empirical study Learning to eat intuitively: A qualitative exploration of the experience of mid-age women, most women, interviewed described that the 'deprivation' of traditional dieting practices that morally labels different foods led to feelings of guilt and self-hatred. The constant emotional tug of war made women feel 'frustrated' or 'depressed.'
Imagine, just for a moment, being able to eat something without guilt or fear of being fat. What would it be like to eat a gulab jamun knowing you had the luxury of indulging and still "stay on track?" A March 2021 study titled Intuitive eating as a counter-cultural process towards self-actualization and published in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Health Psychology Open provides an answer. According to it, intuitive eating is "positively associated with positive body image, self-esteem, positive emotional functioning, proactive coping, health-promoting behaviours, and overall life satisfaction." That sounds miles better than living a bitter cycle of frustration, self-hatred, and depression caused by dieting.
The idea that weight loss isn't the central tenant of intuitive eating may make some people feel uncomfortable or instantly disregard this way of eating. Its very definition highlights uncomfortable truths that we haven't spoken aloud or even allowed ourselves to think about. Traditional dieting culture has seared the desire to be thin into our psyche and created an extreme fear of "fatness" by connecting sexual desirability, social confidence, and health to the physical ideal of being slender. As a weight loss coach, let me be the first to tell you that you don't have to live your life constantly wishing, wanting, and striving to be a smaller size. The endless pursuit of someone else's ideals can leave you disillusioned, unhappy, and not living up to your amazing potential - which you can have, do, and be at any size.
It's worth stepping back and looking at why we feel we must constantly strive for a smaller body and if that physical ideal adds value to our lives. If we remove that physical ideal from the equation, Intuitive Eating, you can discover how to no longer chase a number on the scale and instead, chase the most vibrant, healthy version of yourself.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based women's weight-loss coach