Our culture has brainwashed us into thinking being ultra-thin is equated with beauty. To obtain this image, Americans put so much time, energy, and money into diets, and in the end the diets don’t even work. The dieting failure rate helps explain the industry’s rapid growth. When a diet fails, the search is on for a new one that “really works.” Ninety-five percent of dieters regain their lost weight. Plus, many of those who have “failed” put on additional weight within one to five years. The 5% of “successful dieters” are usually successful because they have actually adopted a new lifestyle, not because they have stuck to their diets.
Effects of Dieting
Many people blame themselves and their lack of willpower for their diet failures. In reality, it has nothing to do with willpower. Diet failure can be attributed to the body responding to hunger and the body’s state of semi-starvation or starvation.
The body and mind react to a diet in the same way they would to starvation.
In starvation, the body’s metabolism decreases, and cravings increase. This is the set up for diet failure. Metabolism naturally slowing down during starvation is the body’s attempt to conserve energy. A decrease in metabolism means the body is burning calories at a slower rate.
Your Mind On A Diet
While on a diet, the mind becomes preoccupied with thoughts of food and cravings intensify, especially for foods that will provide quick energy, like sweets. Eventually, it’s too difficult to fight nature. People can’t remain on diets forever and when dieters terminate their diet efforts, it is common for overeating to ensue. Overeating and even “normal eating” with a suppressed metabolism will cause the weight that was lost to come back. The failure rate of dieting is so high (95%), not because people aren’t good enough or strong enough but because our bodies were designed to fight weight loss.
Intuitive eating teaches individuals how to look inside themselves and listen to internal cues. It also provides guidance on how to form a healthy relationship with food. It is an anti-diet approach to eating. There are no rules to break and no temptations to resist. Intuitive eating, unlike dieting and meal planning, is not a set up for failure.
The ability to use the internal cues (hunger and fullness sensations and cravings) to regulate food intake is present in everyone. This is true no matter how long the individual has been ignoring them. The challenge in becoming an intuitive eater is to reconnect with the already present internal cues and to learn to ignore the external ones.
Dieting is Purely an External Way to Regulate Food Intake
Other external things that control food intake include: only choosing “good” or “healthy” foods, automatically finishing everything on the plate, and taking only the portion that is listed on the food label. Using external factors to determine what, how much, and when to eat is a dangerous path because it disconnects us from our bodies and our intuition.
Fears Regarding Listening To Our Bodies
Most people initially believe by using internal cues to guide food amounts and food choices, they will inevitably be “unhealthy,” make the wrong choices, and eat too much. This is a sign of a lack of self-trust, which is natural when external factors have been used for so long to make these choices for us.
Regaining trust is a process. It takes time and practice, but it’s well worth it. By using internal cues it is possible to never diet again!
The Process of Becoming An Intuitive Eater
When people start eliminating all the old external rules and controls, it is normal to crave foods that were once restricted. For example, when individuals go on low-carb diets, usually that is the nutrient they start to think about and crave. After stopping the diet, it is quite common to “over-indulge” in foods high in carbohydrates. This is because the body is craving them so intensely. It is the same with any food. The more and longer a food is restricted, the more intense the cravings will be. At first, you might feel out of control, like you can’t be trusted with food. But eventually the extreme cravings subside and return to “normal.” It is important for them to keep this in mind as they are going through the process of becoming an intuitive eater.
Just as the body and mind intensely crave foods that have been restricted, the reverse also holds true. An example of this is going on a road trip and only having limited options of restaurant food available. At first it may be fun, exciting and pleasurable to eat these foods, especially if they aren’t foods you normally consume. However, after a while, restaurant food will get old and boring, and cravings for other foods will arise. This is because your body and mind get tired of the same thing over and over. We crave variety, and we can think of the old adage “variety is the spice of life.”
Listening To The Body and Weight
By listening to hunger and fullness cues and to what the body is craving, our body will naturally find a weight where it feels comfortable. This is known as the body’s set-point weight. An easy way to understand this concept is with an analogy. A thermostat is set at 70 degrees. When the room drops below that temperature, heat will blow out of the vent and warm the room. If the temperature in the room goes above 70 degrees the air conditioner will blow cool air. Metabolism and hunger operate in a very similar way.
Hunger and fullness cues and metabolism play a role in the regulation of our body’s weight, just as the heating and cooling of the room helps control the temperature where the thermostat is set. When weight drops below our set-point, hunger will increase and metabolism will lower to conserve energy. When our weight goes above our set-point, hunger decreases and metabolism increases to burn energy more easily.
It is true the regulatory mechanisms do work harder to keep the body from going below the set-point than above it. This is most likely due to the fact that during the majority of human history food sources have been scarce, and it has been vital for the body to preserve energy as a means of survival. However, the more we are able to tune into the regulatory mechanisms, the more likely weight will remain stable.
Being Mindful While Eating
In order to get back in touch with hunger/fullness cues and to figure out what the body is craving, it’s important to be mindful while eating. Using our senses while eating is a great way to get back in touch with our bodies. In our modern-day lives, many of us are rushing around and eating food on the run. Eating in this manner, most individuals do not pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, let alone the taste, texture, sight, and smell of their food. Staying fully aware of these aspects of food will enhance the experience of eating, and more enjoyment and satisfaction will be derived.
Checking in during various times throughout the meal can also help us to be mindful while eating.
Ask questions like:
1. Where is my hunger/fullness level?
2. Am I enjoying this food?
3. What would make my eating experience more pleasurable in this moment?
4. Would I rather be eating something else?
5. I am staying present while I am eating, or is my mind wandering around?
6. What external things influenced my food choices today?
7. How can I reconnect to the internal signals my body is giving me?
Asking questions and being curious and mindful during mealtimes will be beneficial to someone trying to become a more intuitive eater. Awareness is such an important component of change. Without this subtle awareness we may find it impossible to become an intuitive eater and move out of the diet mentality.
Tips for Families
Don’t Be the Food Police
Trying to control the food intake of a loved one can only lead to trouble, especially if the person has some disordered eating going on. It emphasizes thoughts, “I can’t be trusted with food,” and it teaches your loved one they need to rely on external voices to determine what they “should” and “should not” eat.
Stay away from phrases like, “maybe you want some more of this ‘healthy’ food,” or “you shouldn’t have dessert before dinner.” If you are concerned about your loved one’s eating habits the best time to confront them is when food is not present. It may be helpful to enlist the help of a dietitian.
Get Rid of Scales
Literally, get rid of them. To someone with dieting and/or disordered eating tendencies, the scale can become a way to determine how much to eat or how to feel (“good” or “bad” about themselves). Weighing can become an unhealthy obsession. The number on the scale is another way for individuals to look outside themselves (externally) for answers.
Don’t Comment on Appearance
This is true even if you think it’s a compliment. Something like, “you look healthy,” or even “you’re so thin,” can be twisted around and distorted in the mind of someone with an eating disorder. Try to aoid these comments at all times.
Keep a Wide Variety of Foods Around the House
Being an intuitive eater means figuring out what is being craved during times of hunger. The more variety available, the better chance the craving can be identified and satisfied. Keep foods with various flavors, textures and temperatures on hand. Also, keep fresh fruits and vegetables in the house. Meats, like deli cuts and ground beef and other protein sources like peanut butter and cheese are important for specific cravings. These are just some suggestions. It’s important to consider taste preferences and meal options while shopping at the grocery store.
Don’t Buy “Diet Foods”
These are very triggering and tempting to individuals with a dieting mentality. They feed into unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. Plus, they are generally unsatisfying.
Challenge Traditional Beliefs About Food
Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Food is food. It has no moral value. All foods have nutritional value because every food is made up of carbohydrates, protein, and/or fat. These are the main nutrients needed for bodies to function properly, aka: macronutrients. By listening to and tuning into the body’s needs, these macronutrients will be consumed in an appropriate way.
In what ways do you practice intuitive eating? Do you have any questions about intuitive eating?
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Live Superfoods
Center for Change. Dieting is Out; Listening to Our Bodies is In. Alice Covey, RD CD