Intuitive Eating: The Anti-Diet That Lets You Eat What You Want

That doughnut is staring right at you as you try your best to pretend it’s not there. You are not listening to the constant banter of all your friends around. The noise is fading as your mind is battling with itself — What harm would one bite do? But is it worth the extra hour at the gym? But don’t you deserve a tiny indulgence? What if that one bite sends your calorie meter into a tizzy?

The ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ go on until you give in, or you don’t. Either way, you’re not happy.

This looming feeling of guilt, dissatisfaction and regret has been fed into us by numerous fad diets, body-image insecurities and an unhealthy obsession with weight loss.

At a time when restrictive, and excessively restrictive diets surround you, a diet that is 100 percent flexible and tells you to listen to your body — comes as a breath of fresh air. But what is it really about and is it recommended?

‘Ditch-The-Diet’

Allow yourself to eat when, what, and how much your body wants. 

Intuitive dieting is not new — although it’s popularity is increasing in today’s time and age. It was created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. In a blog, the former explains, “It is an evidence-based, mind-body health approach. You honour your health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs.”

"“It is a journey of self-discovery and connection to the needs of your mind and body. There is nothing to count: this includes no counting of calories, carbs, points or macros.”" - Evelyn Tribole

She adds, “Ultimately, you are the expert of your body.  Only you know what hunger, fullness, and satisfaction feels like.”

The philosophy is evidenced by studies that suggest that long-term dieting is not sustainable. A 2013 review in Social and Personality Psychology Compass found that diets may only lead to short-term weight loss. Another paper concluded that dietary restraint is associated with diminished cognitive functioning, body dissatisfaction, overvaluation of weight and shape, and eating disorders.

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Tribole and Resch devised ten tenets of intuitive dieting:

  1. Reject the diet mentality
  2. Honor your hunger
  3. Make peace with food
  4. Challenge the food police
  5. Respect your fullness
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor
  7. Honor your feelings without using food
  8. Respect your body
  9. Exercise and feel the difference
  10. Honor your health

To understand what each of these mean, FIT spoke with Sakshi Kumar, a spiritual healer and Sahiba Bhardwaj, a nutritionist, who together hosted an interactive workshop on intuitive eating in Delhi — to help people break the cycle of chronic eating disorders and heal their relationship with food.

Bhardwaj explained, “It is a non-diet approach where you reject restrictive forms of dieting, pick up natural signals of hunger and satisfaction, and eat according to your body’s requirements. It leaves you completely happy with whatever you're eating, and there is no room for guilt or regret that has been ingrained into us by fad diets.”

"“The heart of the method is to trust your body’s internal hunger. It will give you signs. For instance, when you feel hungry, you should be eating something in the next 5-10 minutes instead of delaying it, and eating more than necessary in the end.”" - Sakshi Kumar

The objective is to move away from conflicting information on nutrition. “Intuitive eating is like a long-term healthy practice for your physical, mental and emotional growth”, Kumar adds.

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No Rules = Junk Everyday?

Your body will guide you towards making healthy choices. 

An obvious question that arises is: Is this diet too idealistic? If I’m allowed to eat what I want everyday, why will I ever choose healthier options?

That’s not how it works, explains Bhardwaj: “When you're in tune with the body, it will demand healthy food.”

There could be many explanations for it. She says, “When junk food is completely off the table, you are more tempted by it. But when you honour your body’s cravings, you won’t need to overeat it when you get it.”

"“Suppose someone starts binge eating on donuts. This means they are getting zero nourishment. So the body will protest. Since you are more aware of the body’s signals, you will listen to it and give it what it needs.”" - Sahiba Bhardwaj

Moreover, when you give in to your cravings and truly enjoy the food you eat (instead of punishing yourself with guilt), the probability of binge-eating would be very less.

You may gain or lose weight initially, but in the end, you end up finding the balance you need. “It’s like finding that sweet spot,” she says.

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But How Do You Connect with Your Body?

Physical exercise plays a crucial role in this approach. 

If listening to the body is key, knowing how to do it becomes most important to be an intuitive eater. Diligently following the ten tenets may help with that. Kumar and Bhardwaj put special emphasis on meditation and exercise.

"“Meditation means being completely present in the moment. It means giving your 100 percent into whatever you are doing. For some, it may be football, for others dancing, and for someone else, breathing or chanting. When you are totally aware of what’s happening, you get in touch with your inner voice.”" - Sakshi Kumar 

Bhardwaj explained that humans are born with these instincts. Babies cry when they are hungry, and completely refuse to have any milk when they are not. But thanks to diets and other influences, we have lost touch with that.

"“We promote a healthy lifestyle. Physical exercises help with the release of positive hormones that help you feel content in the long-run. This would help you manage your emotions, make better decisions and promote healthy eating behavior.”" - Sahiba Bhardwaj

Intuitive eating, therefore, is a holistic approach. By targeting your mind, body and soul, it helps with your overall well-being. For instance, a 2017 research found that it may lead to a reduction in binge-eating and emotional eating symptoms, and another one concluded that it is associated with a more positive body image and emotional functioning.

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Nutritionists Weigh In

Knowledge and awareness about food and nutrition is paramount. 

FIT spoke with Sandhya Pandey, Chief Clinical Nutritionist, Fortis Gurugram, who believed that the diet may work on a psychological level, but whether it has a scientific basis or not is uncertain: “I don’t know if we can really leave people to eat what they want, because if they were so conscious, there wouldn’t be a need of educating and prescribing healthy diets to them.”

"“But from a conceptual point of view, I agree to the tenets of intuitive eating. Restrictive diets have left people anxious, worried, obsessed and irritated. Intuitive eating tells them to relax and become more conscious. It is important to take your mind off restrictions. I don’t know if it really works, but at a psychological level, it may actually be effective.”" - Sandhya Pandey

She does strongly believe in the philosophy of honoring your health, but asserts that proper guidance by a nutritionist or dietitian may still be needed to enable you to make better decisions.

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Rupali Datta, a clinical nutritionist, was also unsure of completely leaving it up to people to decide what they want to eat. She said, “Hunger is something that you teach your body. You might have taught your body to eat more sugary, processed and oily food, or you might have taught it to eat more often. By that logic, it may even lead to unhealthy eating habits.”

"“The thought is not wrong. You must listen to your body and avoid things it tells you to avoid. But to let go of any restrictions may be dangerous for people with unhealthy eating behavior. I know people who have eaten junk all their lives. They didn’t grow tired of it. So I feel it is oversimplified.”" - Rupali Datta

Bhardwaj, a nutritionist herself, is an intuitive eater. She explains that knowledge and awareness about food is important. Once that is there, people will make healthier choices.

"“Of course, you can’t just get on to it. You need the right knowledge and information. But I don’t recommend ignoring your cravings. My first question to people always is — What do you feel like eating today? If they tell me they want aloo parantha, I tell them to go all out, eat it and savor it.”" - Sahiba Bhardwaj

Therefore, intuitive eating as an approach differs because of its faith in the body and its instincts. While some initial guidance may be needed to assist people — eventually, they will be capable of making food decisions for themselves: “And that is when I tell them they needn’t come back to me,” says Bhardwaj.

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