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Intuitive Eating Part 2: What Does That Even Mean?!

Everyone always asks me what intuitive eating really is.   The best way to explain it is to think about babies.  They cry to let us know that they are hungry.  They stop eating when they are full.  End of story.   As children, we all begin this way – we know when to eat and when to stop.  Somewhere along the way though, we lose the signals of hunger and fullness.  Maybe it’s because our parents tell us to clean our plates.  Maybe it is being scolded for eating too much or too many sweets.  Maybe it is watching how our friends eat. 

Intuitive eating is a way to find that childlike natural ability to eat when hungry and stop when full; it is letting your body tell you what it needs.  Intuitive eating is a process that removes the 'box' dieting puts you in and takes you back to your roots – trusting your body and its signals.    This process is what gave me food freedom; I have learned to eat what I want, when I want and through the process, I have learned to maintain my weight and balance health with enjoyment.  

Intuitive Eating is also evidence based; there are over 35 studies showing the value of this process.   It helps people lower their BMI’s, triglycerides, decrease disordered eating and overeating.  It helps people raise their HDL cholesterol, eat a wide variety of foods, find enjoyment in eating (no guilt!), become better at coping, have higher self-esteem, optimism and body appreciation.  In other words, it's worth thinking about.

What does the research say?

  • Dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain – 2/3 of people regained MORE weight than they lost (Mann, et al, 2007)

  • In children: “…in the long term, dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain” (Field et al, 2013)

  • Teenage dieters have TWICE the risk of becoming overweight, compared to non-dieting teens. At baseline, the dieters did NOT weigh more than their non-dieting peers (Neumark-Sztainer et al, 2006)

  • Twin studies: Dieting itself, independent of genetics, is significantly associated with accelerated weight gain and increased risk of becoming overweight (Pietilaineet et al, 2011)

A great example of the power of dieting and restriction came from research done by Ancel Keys during World War II.  32 men were selected for research after they were found to be physically & psychologically healthy by doctors.  They all consumed 3500 calories (Kcal) a day regularly.  The study consisted of 3 months of control, or their normal diets of 3500 Kcal per day, 6 months of a 1600 Kcal diet (with exercise) and 3 months of refeeding.  How many people have dieted on 1600 Kcal?  I know a million who have dieted on less!

The findings of the research were significant. The men spent hours per day thinking about and talking about food; collecting recipes, studying cookbooks and experiencing severe food cravings.  They binged on candy and milkshakes, many purging through exercise and occasionally vomiting.   They experienced depression, anxiety and OCD related to food.  I can tell you that this girl right here used to spend HOURS on Pinterest during fitness competition prep diets looking at and saving ALLL the recipes. I also used to bake constantly…because if I couldn’t eat it at least I could give it to someone else.  I was obsessed with food, just like the men in the research.  I also remember working at a gym with several other competitors…. during daily cardio everyone was glued to the TVs watching cooking shows. 

What does this tell us?  

Restriction of certain foods or food groups doesn’t work.  We can be “strong” for a while; which is different for everyone but it doesn’t last forever.  Our bodies have a series of different physiological mechanisms to get us to eat.  Typically anything that is “off limits” is what we crave.  This is why a "cheat meal" or date night can result in major overeating.  When we finally "give in", then we can't stop.  It is not willpower (or lack of it) at work here; it is the mechanisms in our body saying enough is enough, no more restriction.  

Diets can lead to binge eating, overeating, and chaotic eating patterns.  Dieting ignores internal signals of hunger and fullness, eventually leading to your being out of touch with your body’s natural hunger and satiation signals.   This is why it is important to pay attention to hunger, fullness and satisfaction.  Learn about your body and what it needs – this is how you can break out of the diet trap forever. 

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