January 10th 2019
Intuitive eating: the “forever” diet that’s not a diet at all
September 24th 2017 / 0 comment
If you’re a yo-yo dieter, prone to body shaming or have “good” and “bad” diet days, let nutritionist Pandora Symes introduce the eating plan that throws away the rule book
I want to talk to you about diet you'll never come off. In a nutshell, it’s like an alternative “no-diet diet”. Actually, it essentially banishes the word ‘diet’ from your vocabulary. It's called intuitive eating, and it allows us to become experts at looking into ourselves, promotes eating without guilt or deprivation and builds a positive body image. Interested?
The concept originated in 1995 in the US, and was established by two dietitians (Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole) who realised that many of their patients who were trying to lose weight were failing miserably. Why? The process of being told what to eat and when caused more problems than it solved, and instead of seeing results, they became more obsessive about food. Their intuitive eating programme introduced a set of principles that would banish diets, body shaming, and obsessive behaviours and foster trust and wisdom, with the end aim of empowering their clients.
The 10 principles of intuitive eating
Traditionally there are ten principles of intuitive eating. These are:
1. Rejecting the diet mentality.
2. Honouring your hunger.
3. Making peace with food.
4. Challenging the food police.
5. Respecting your fullness.
6. Discovering the satisfaction factor.
7. Honouring your feelings, without using food.
8. Respecting your body.
9. Getting active and feeling the difference (not ignoring how your body feels during exercise).
10. Honouring your health.
This might all seem a bit much at first (see my mini-guide at the end of this piece). In my practice I have added self-love into the mix, as I truly believe that all-round health starts with your relationship with yourself. Learning meditation and visualisation techniques can also allow you to connect to your intuition. Our relationship with food is ever-changing and very often extremely complex. How we eat is a direct mirror-image of how we’re treating ourselves and it’s no surprise that with our busy modern lifestyle, taking care of our bodies is not at the top of the to-do list.
The principles of intuitive eating teach us to slow down the pace and start “feeling into” our food choices. It allows us to distinguish the physical and emotional cues of hunger and acknowledge our choices. How do you want food to make you feel today? What do you feel your body needs? These are questions eating intuitively focuses on, helping you to re-establish a relationship with your intuition and break free from the ongoing battle with your body and your mind. In short, less judging, more eating and more satisfaction!
What kickstarted intuitive eating for me
I experienced two bouts of eating disorders: the first at age 14, and again in my early 20s. I was a woman obsessed with food. I would count calories, starve, binge and then get rid of anything I had eaten too much of by purging. This process went on over and over again, day in and day out. For me it was a sense of self-discipline that enabled me to feel in control of areas of my life that I felt out of control with.
While I grew out of the starving and bingeing, I soon developed an obsession with being “healthy”. Going to the gym seven days a week, only eating carbs for breakfast and on the surface, looking like a gym bunny who loved fitness. In reality, inside I was a mess. I was tearing myself apart whenever it came to meal times, meals out, drinking with friends...any situation that made me feel out of control.
I think that starting to “grow-up” played a huge part in my healing process, as did therapy, alongside training to become a nutritionist. The more I learned about my body and the processes that it enables to keep me alive, the more I respected it. I trained as a yoga teacher and also in meditation, which allowed me to connect with my body and my intuition. One day I came across a book on intuitive eating and it all made sense. I was working in the wellness world but for me much of it seems so controlling- “eat this, don't eat this, kale is trendy, don't eat sugar…” and so on ad infinitum. Enough. I wanted to feed my body what it needed, not according to what the latest research paper thought was good for me. I began living intuitively, eating intuitively, teaching intuitively and I haven't once looked back.
A day in the life of an intuitive eater
If you’re stuck in the yo-yo dieting cycle, are feeling ashamed of your body, or simply want to rekindle your relationship with your intuition, the beauty of intuitive eating is that every day looks different. You eat based on what you feel your body needs, and you do not deprive yourself of anything. Each morning I begin with a quick body scan - how is my body and mind feeling today? This will determine my food choices throughout the day. For example, if it’s cold outside and you’re feeling a little groggy, turmeric porridge and some warm milk is just what you may need to feel nourished and prepared to start the day. If you’re really hungry, is it eggs that your body needs? The more you listen to your body and its signals, the more aware you become of your hunger. Are you really hungry or actually thirsty, or tired or emotional? If you have a big lunch, you might just fancy something lighter for dinner. If you do need something more substantial, it’s because that what your body required at that time.
You can’t fail at intuitive eating
A major advantage of intuitive eating is that it’s a practice that you will incorporate into your life forever and one that you can’t fail or slip up on. So, the first plus point is that you won't ever feel bad about failing a diet again. Intuitive eating allows you to hear what your body needs. It promotes self-love and compassion and respect for your your body and the food you eat. It allows you to live without guilt, deprivation and instead with balance and in harmony with your body. We all want to eat well, have body acceptance and a peaceful relationship with food, and we all deserve to have these things. Intuitive eating allows us this.
...but intuitive eating isn’t for everyone
All of the above acknowledged, if you are dealing with the first stages of an eating disorder, I wouldn't recommend taking the intuitive eating principles on board until you are well into recovery. In the first stages, you need a meal plan and guidance from a nutritionist professional and/or therapist. Trying to engage in your hunger when it’s out of balance is not going to help, so I would strongly advise seeing a specialist if this is the case (you can seek help and support by visiting the BEAT website).
Stopping the yo-yo cycle
On the other hand, if you see yourself as a yo-yo dieter, someone who never seems to lose weight, no matter how hard they try, someone who body shames or feels lost when faced with food, then intuitive eating really is for you. I’m not saying it’s easy, but give it a try. You just might be surprised at how much of your life opens up when you start trusting your body - and yourself. Here’s a guide to get you started.
Intuitive eating in five steps
1. Keep a food diary
The first thing I ask my clients to do is to keep a food diary. It may seem ironic to ask you to focus more on what you're eating, when the task at hand is trying to get you to eat intuitively, but bear with me here. To start identifying with your food habits, you need to see them, right there in front of you. You’d be surprised how many people eat a very specific thing at a certain time of the day, completely robotically, and it’s only when they write it down, they realise why (stress from your boss come 4pm or fatigue that hits post lunch). Start a journal and note down what you ate, why, how it made you feel and how hungry you were on it on a hunger scale of 1 (ravenous) to 10 (not hungry at all). To understand your relationship with food, you have to connect with it and seeing it on paper allows exactly this. If you’re constantly craving “unhealthy” foods, you need to start to understand what it is that you are feeding.
2. Try “inward” listening
To be able to use your intuition, you have to connect with it. Set the intention to tune inward every day for 20 minutes. First thing tends to work best, so set your alarm for twenty minutes earlier than usual. If this fills you with dread, I assure you that this meditative state will give you a boost of energy.
Scan your whole body from the tips of your toes to the crown of your head. Use all of your senses and be curious. Is there tension or a noteworthy sensation, is there an area that feels heavy or light? Breath into spaces that feel heavy and on the exhale breath, release the feeling- literally visualise the breath releasing it as you exhale through the mouth. Try to imagine what this sensation would be like if it had a colour, shape, size, texture, movement, weight or density. Allow enough space and time to thoroughly experience the quality of it. Is there an emotion that comes with it? What is it saying to you? Keep asking until you feel a shift, or at the very least, feel like the sensation has passed. Write it down in a journal and practice, practice, practice. After time, this process will become more natural and fluid, allowing your intuitive wisdom to guide you skillfully and compassionately in your everyday life.
3. Ask yourself what you’re hungry for
Now that you’ve started connecting to the food you eat, it’s time to talk to it, and your body. Ask yourself before each meal: why am I eating this? Where am I on the hunger scale? Is this what I’m hungry for? This is how we start unravel the associations we have with food and increase our ability to understand where our hunger is coming from. The 4pm slump when you reach for the chocolate bar - are you really hungry for this, or do you need some fresh air or a deep breath? You’re nervous ahead of a big meeting - do you really need the snack, or are you feeding your nerves? You see where I’m going here. Write it down and note any emotions or thoughts that come with it.
If sugar cravings are a big factor, is this a gut issue that need addressing (the gut feeds on sugar)? This is the point where my nutritional education comes in if I’m in consultation with a client. Whether at home, at work or out and about, at times of craving ask yourself, what am I really hungry for? Then go from there.
4. Use your senses
Bring your attention to all bodily sensations when you eat. Take one meal when you can create a calm space and sit quietly without disruption. Sit with your food and engage your senses - smell it, touch it, look closely, and then take one bite and chew it thoroughly. Listen to the sound of your food nourishing your body. Taste every mouthful. You’ll find a newfound respect for food and allow your mind, body and senses to connect more deeply to it. Try this for at least five mouthfuls and then chew at least twenty times for the reminder of your meal. Once you’ve tuned into these bodily sensations, see if you can sense what emotions are being expressed in the experience. Don’t get hung up on trying to name the emotion; just trying to tune in is enough. Identifying the feelings becomes clearer with practice. This is becoming a common theme, but write down your feelings if you can.
5. Break the food “rules”
Breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack at 4pm. Who knows where this regime came from but it’s far from using our intuition. Start to eat in line with when you’re hungry. Use your hunger scale. You had a big lunch and you’re not hungry at 7pm - do you really need dinner, or something snacky and a bit smaller than you’d opt for by default?
Then, look specifically at the foods you’re eating. On a diet, you might look at a potato and ask yourself: how many carbs or calories is in it? If I eat it, what will I have to not eat later? Should I only have a salad for lunch now I’ve eaten carbs? Am I being “good” today or “bad”? If I’m being “bad” already I may as well go the whole hog and add some cheese to the mix and then go in for pudding. I’ll start my diet again tomorrow. Sound familiar? With intuitive eating, you simply look at the potato and ask: do I want it? Is this what I need right now? You might naturally consider other factors as well (eating is a complicated business- I run an intuitive eating course that explains a myriad of other influences), but it all starts with this question and creating your own food “rules”. Which, hopefully, is no rules at all.
My next ‘Intuitive Eating and Living’ programme launches on 17th October 2017. Each live webinar starts at 7pm and is recorded in case you miss a week.