By Elizabeth M. Holm
Healthy eating has become America’s obsession.
Paleo, keto, gluten-free, vegan, plant-based, clean eating and intermittent fasting currently are all the rage. No one can deny that being healthy is a good thing, but are all, or any, of these diets really healthy?
As a registered dietitian, nutritionist and columnist for the Alexandria Times Foodie section, I am passionate about food and eating. Throughout my 40 years in the field, I have seen diets, food trends and fads come and go. Although marketed as the key to ultimate health, most of these diets are designed to help people lose weight. That has become the hallmark of success rather than a healthy, happy relationship with food and the goal of longevity.
Along with the hype, there is a downside to this obsession with healthy eating and weight loss. We feel virtuous for denying ourselves the foods others enjoy or for not eating when hungry, but we do so by creating rules in our head that rob us of the pleasure of food and good living.
Sometimes we feel guilty for craving and eating the foods we love. Sometimes we judge others for what they choose to eat. Sometimes we binge on the foods we are trying to avoid eating. Sometimes we lose too much weight and develop an eating disorder. Sometimes we develop nutrient deficiencies which make us even less healthy. Sometimes eating out at restaurants causes agony and stress. Sometimes we avoid social events out of fear there will be no “healthy” foods that we can eat.
Is there a way out of this quagmire of rule-based eating? Is there another way that can lead to a sound mind and body without a constant internal dialogue of food and body shaming? The good news is, the answer is “yes.”
Intuitive eating is a way of life that can create a healthy and peaceful relationship with our food and bodies. It is a mindful alternative to strict, dietary rules and rigid food restrictions that emphasizes trusting our bodies and ourselves.
The concept has been around since Evelyn Tribble and Elyse Resch wrote the first book on intuitive eating in 1985. Now, 35 years later, Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian and well-known podcaster, has released a new book, “Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating.” The book promises to enlighten readers on why obsessing over what you eat is bad for your health.
Nutritionists have known for decades that dieting is problematic. In 1985, Polivy and Herman published a landmark article in the American Psychologist proposing that dieting causes binge eating. Until then, people thought they simply needed more self-control to stick to a diet.
However, research on dietary restraint consistently identified the inevitability of overeating and regaining weight after dieting. At the same time, there was more and more research on dietary intake of fat, carbohydrate and protein.
Each new study suggested ways to modify diets: Eat less saturated fat, eat more mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, eat fewer trans-fatty acids, eat more omega-3 fatty acids, eat more carbohydrate, eat less sugar and fewer starches, eat more fat and protein, eat less protein, eat less animal protein, eat only plant-based protein, eat fewer processed foods, eat the Impossible Burger – the list goes on.
Over time, intuitive eating got lost in a mirage of conflicting dietary recommendations that ended with food trends and diets designed to create weight loss under the guise of healthy eating.
But, the idea of intuitive eating was not lost. Organizations, articles, podcasts and blogs emerged advocating self-care, body positivity, body kindness and health at every size. Celebrity chefs and cooking shows became popular and restaurant eating became more adventurous. There was a renewed passion for wholesome food that tasted good and was enjoyable.
All these things emboldened the anti-diet movement and the desire among many to have the ability to eat freely while staying healthy; the essence of intuitive eating.
What exactly is intuitive eating? In a nutshell, it is mindfully determining how much you eat.
Mindfulness is essentially a misnomer. We are mindful when we are fully present and experiencing the taste, texture, temperature and flavors of food. It is not thinking about what we are eating. Instead it is sensing what we are eating and the pleasure that comes from eating. It enables us to notice any unpleasurable sensations, which allow us to stop eating a food that is no longer enjoyable or even choose not to eat a food that is unpleasant.
We are a Zen master at mindfulness when we are fully aware of what we are eating through our senses of taste, smell, touch, sight and even hearing.
Intuitive eating is using mindfulness as well as our sensations of fullness, satisfaction and satiety to decide how much we eat. It is intuitively noticing we are comfortably full and ready to stop eating even if we know we could eat more. It is noticing we have eaten enough of one food to feel satisfied and would like more of another food. It is saying yes to a food because our senses desire it and saying no to a food because we are satisfied and comfortably full.
Intuitive eating is consuming enough food for our bodies and minds to be healthy. It is trusting our bodies to send us messages without us having to cognitively decide how much to eat or whether or not to eat something. When we eat intuitively, our bodies achieve and maintain a weight that is healthy and right for us.
What isn’t intuitive eating? It is important to know that intuitive eating is not eating only when you are feeling hungry. Lots of things can prevent us from feeling hunger. When we wake up in the morning, our bodies are still burning calories at a basal metabolic rate. We may not feel hungry until we are up, dressed and begin eating breakfast. This increased activity and breaking of the fast stimulates our metabolic rate and we find we are hungrier than we realized.
In addition, caffeine, stress and anxiety can suppress hunger and paradoxically make us feel even more anxious and stressed when we skip a meal. Thus, we do best to eat meals and snacks following a general schedule in the same way it is helpful to have a schedule for sleeping. We can then intuitively decide how much to eat at each meal and snack.
As a product of the diet culture of the 50s and 60s and having struggled with my own issues with food and weight as a teenager and young adult, I came to embrace intuitive eating as a way to achieve freedom around food.
When I had my own children, I realized I had to trust them to intuitively consume the breastmilk I was feeding them because there was no way I could determine how much they were eating.
When my own daughter was in college, she called one day to ask what I did that enabled her to develop her way of eating. She said her friends have told her she is the only person they know who has a healthy relationship with food, but she had no clue how it happened. I told her that I followed two simple principles of feeding kids that allowed her to eat intuitively.
These principles originated with Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and social worker who is considered the guru of feeding children and published her first book, “Child of Mine,” in 1983. After many more books based on her research, she is considered the go-to authority on feeding children.
Her principles are: 1) parents decide what, where and when kids eat and 2) kids decide how much.
The caveat is there are no forbidden foods and no restrictions on how much a child eats at a meal or snack. Parents provide three balanced meals a day, served family-style so kids can choose how much food they put on their plates, along with regular, planned snacks that include a variety of foods. It is a joy to feed our children in this way and our kids experience the freedom they inherently desire around food.
By now you may be asking yourself, “But what should I eat?” Intuitive eating by both adults and children requires a balance of foods. Our bodies need protein, fat and carbohydrates along with vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals and water to function optimally. We best get these macro and micronutrients by eating a diet that includes fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, beans, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, fish, poultry and even red meat.
We also eat food for enjoyment. Desserts and sweets add pleasure and satisfaction. They also ensures children will eat enough calories. As parents, if we provide a balance of foods to our children through regular meals and snacks, following the principles of Ellyn Satter, they will intuitively eat what their bodies need to grow and be healthy. The balanced meals we serve ourselves and our children are models for what they will prepare for themselves as adults.
In addition, including vegetables and fruits at most meals and snacks helps us learn to eat and enjoy them. If you have been avoiding specific foods, you may need to intentionally add fruits, vegetables, starches, protein or fat to create a balanced meal.
You can then learn as adults to intuitively eat all foods to achieve a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Your bodies and minds will thank you.
Elizabeth M. Holm, DrPH, RD is a registered dietitian and nutritionist in private practice in Alexandria. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.