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Intuitive eating: Can trusting your gut lead to a better health?
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Intuitive eating: Can trusting your gut lead to a better health?

A movement against diet culture encourages one to eat without judgements or guilt. While some have found emotional healing through it, dietitians are skeptical of its benefits
Representational image | Shutterstock

“What do you feel like eating?”  

A once casual question eliciting an equally blithe reply is now at the core of an anti-diet culture that is gaining ground among health watchers.. 

When California-based nutritionists and authors Elyse Resche and Evelyn Tribole pioneered a new concept in 1995 and called it `intuitive eating’, it did not have many takers.  

While dieting relates health to weight loss, intuitive eating has nothing to do with weight or its loss. It simply says, give your body the fuel it needs when it needs it.  

In their book Intuitive Eating: An Anti-Diet Approach, they encourage people to do something that may sound absurd or shocking to dieters and experts: “Eat what you want, with no rule about what to eat, how much of it, or when.”  

The duo believes in giving importance to wellbeing and other factors based on ten principles that the two formulated. 

Break a toxic relationship 

Kochi-based Varsha Menon says intuitive eating helped her to heal both physically and mentally. “It is about listening to your body’s cues rather than following a prescribed diet or eating at a certain time out of habit,” she says. “I had a tough time with obesity. I used food as a substitute for therapy, rewarding myself with food be it for happiness or sadness.” 

Looking back, the  corporate lawyer, 32, says she sought psychotherapy as she had major body-image and other issues. At the same time, she was deeply hurt by the diet culture.  

Now her mantra is, “Listen to your body. It will tell you when you are hungry, whether you are hungry, thirsty or just sleepy, how hungry you are and what it needs.”  

“Once I stopped counting my calories, I saw a change in my energy levels, my immunity and sleep pattern. I ate as much as my body needed and when needed.” 

Different strokes 

Dr Vijayashree N., Chief Dietitian, MGM Healthcare, Chennai, likens intuitive eating to emotional eating. “When one is emotionally low, one tends to rely on food as a coping mechanism. Consuming several tubs of ice-cream and kilos of sweets as a result of an intuition does not make sense. It is important to keep a tab on nutrient intake, correct any over-eating and resolve deficiencies – this is where a dietician steps in.” 

According to Dr Vijayashree, people with diabetes and gastrointestinal problems, children, pregnant and lactating women need a traditional balanced diet. They should ensure that any intuitive eating meets the body’s nutrient requirements.  

Mumbai-based nutritionist Naini Setalvad says, “I guide my clients to understand their own bodies. Most of the times, there are no restrictions on food and we try to focus on the type of sustainable food that one enjoys eating.” 

Nay-sayers 

Many also look at the anti-diet approach with doubt. Dr Amreen Shaikh, Dietician, Wockhardt Hospital, Mumbai Central, says, “I believe this is another fad and hence, I have not had any of my clients follow it.” 

According to her, one cannot eliminate certain food groups on `intuition’ as this can lead to deficiencies. Respond to the body’s needs, but with caution and not by blindly following `a feeling’.  

Dr Ushakiran Sisodia, Head of Diet and Nutrition, Nanavati Max Super Speciality Hospital, Mumbai, strikes the middle path: “This culture promotes the idea of consuming a variety of colourful and tasty meals, which is nutritionally wise and satisfying. From a larger perspective, it follows the principles of dieting without enforcing rules or being obsessed with an ideal body image.”  

The ten `commandments’ of anti-dieting 

Here are the ten commandments of anti-dieting or intuitive eating according to nutritionists Elyse Resche and Evelyn Tribole:

1. Reject the diet mentality

A team of UCLA researchers (Mann et al. 2007) reviewed 31 long-term studies on dieting and concluded that dieting often predicts weight gain: up to two-thirds of the people regained more weight than they lost.  

According to the nutritionist duo, when one banishes food plans and becomes an intuitive eater, the habit of eating in response to inner signals develops and guides eating patterns. “Throw away all the diet guides, rules, tools and magazines; it starts there, Tribole says in her 10-day YouTube series.  

2. Honour your hunger

According to their book, you must keep the body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise, you can tend to overeat. Eat until satisfied. Trusting diet books and so-called experts about what, when, and how to eat can lead you away from trusting your body and its intuition. 

Dr Leann Lipps Birch, a professor of human development and nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana, demonstrates in her studies that children who are trained to recognise and heed their ”internal food regulation cues” manage their caloric intake well according to their caloric needs.

3. Make peace with food

“Call a truce, stop the food fight!” is the first line in a chapter of the new edition of the book. According to the authors, Resche and Tribole, if you tell yourself that you cannot eat a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation and uncontrollable cravings. It can also cause binge-eating. 

A good balance would be to allow yourself an occasional small bite of the ‘forbidden food’.

Constant yo-yo dieting, or alternately gaining and losing weight from repeated dieting, is known as weight cycling. A study by researchers from the University of Houston and Texas Obesity Research Centre states that weight cycling may increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease or Type 2 Diabetes more than in an obese but stable person. Such repeated bouts of switching between weight loss and gain cause a toxic relationship with food.   

Tribole suggests making a list of foods one is currently avoiding; and to rank them according to how good they are. The author believes that over time one can strike out all the items from the forbidden list without guilt.

However, there should be some avoidable items where you can allow yourself the occasional treat.

4. Take on the ‘food police’

This advises guilt-free eating — the understanding that a person is not tagged “good” for eating few calories or “bad” for eating a calorie-rich food.  

The book defines the ‘food police’ as the common concepts of diet culture: `sweets are bad for you’, `avoid carbohydrates’, `bread makes one gain weight’. 

5. The satisfaction factor

Satisfaction is a pleasure-based principle and the essence of intuitive eating; eating food that one enjoys and feels good, according to Elyse Resche. Fullness and satisfaction are not the same thing. If you are craving a slice of pizza but instead force yourself to eat a salad, you may be full but not satisfied. 

When you do not eat food that satisfies us, you feel deprived and resort to munching other food that you did not want. You may end up overeating if you reach a full feeling stage before you stop. 

6. Measure the hunger

It is the point where you feel comfortably full. Not only is it important to honour your hunger but also honour your body when it signals ‘no longer hungry.’ You actually need to stop before you start feeling full. The reason for the same is that the signals to and from the brain take 15 minutes.  

The duo developed a hunger scale ranging from zero to 10 to identify ‘comfortable satiety’. On the scale, zero means painfully hungry and 10 is for being nauseatingly full. The range three to seven is normal eating, three corresponds to ‘polite hunger’ where one is hungry but will not rush to eat. Seven is the state of being ‘full and happy’. 

7. Don’t eat to cope with feelings

Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and anger are some of the identified emotions that trigger unwanted eating. The authors of the anti-diet guide suggest asking yourself if you are really  hungry and analyse what you need.

8. Respect your body

This is about body positivity and accepting one’s genetic blueprint. Resche and Tribole encourage us to respect and accept our body’s size and shape for what they are, and not be compared. 

9. Move to feel the difference

The authors say that being physically active is a lifelong commitment, from climbing the stairs and taking short walks to doing strength training and stretching. After all, everyone, whether young or old, benefits from being active — by improving bone strength, lowering blood pressure, or preventing muscle wear and tear. 

However, exercising should be delinked from a demotivating goal like weight loss. 

10. Gentle nutrition

This means honoring your health and taste buds while relishing food. The nutritionist duo urges people to explore the feeling after eating: “What foods leave you feeling nourished and strong? What motivates your food choices? Is it the place or a special way of eating?”

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