Can you trust your intuition? When it comes to what to eat, perhaps you should. Or so say proponents of the newest wellness trend, a sort of subversive anti-diet that rejects everything we’ve learnt about food and its impact. At a time when we’re collectively suffering from chronic diet fatigue, along comes the idea of intuitive eating, which seems designed to allow us to eat whatever we want, so long as we eat it when our bodies demand. Forget eating three times a day, or grazing on six small meals every two hours, or breakfasting like a king but dining like a pauper, or cutting out entire food groups, this new concept seems to say.
Intuitive eating was first put forward in a book by American dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, but is trending again 25 years after it was first presented — at a time when overall obesity rates are soaring and people who lose weight on diets find themselves gaining it back. Is it any wonder that the #intuitiveeating hashtag has amassed more than 1.1 million posts?
In order to adapt this technique in the right way, an individual needs personal guidance and evaluation from an expert.
“The fundamental premise behind intuitive eating is that, if listened to, the body intrinsically knows the quantity and type of food to eat to maintain both nutritional health and an appropriate weight,” explains Farheen Dhinda, Clinical Dietitian at Dubai Health Authority. “This concept is sometimes referred to as body wisdom.”
In common with mindful eating, this not-diet diet requires you to focus on your body’s signals to rediscover what satiety and fullness feel like — and to only eat when you’re hungry, because after all, the body knows best.
Proponents offer the example of babies, who naturally know when they’ve had enough and stop feeding or eating, thanks to a scientific mechanism called interoceptive awareness. Often described as our true superpower, the process determines our ability to perceive physical sensations arising within the body.
As we grow up, however, we stop listening to these physical cues and eat because everyone else does (at lunchtime in the office, for example), or as an emotional comfort in times of distress, or because we’re trying to look a certain way. To rediscover our body’s now-dormant cues, Resch and Tribole lay out a ten-step plan that takes successively people from rejecting the diet mentality to making peace with hunger, food and emotions, while tuning in to satiety and exercising more.
Tackle emotional eating
Dubai-based nutritionist Victoria Tipper uses intuitive eating for some of her coaching clients. She says it can help those who have been dieting for years without success as food restriction often leads to an increased preoccupation with food, as well as overeating and weight cycling or yo-yo dieting. “Studies show that dieting can increase activity in parts of the brain that are involved in the rewards response to food,” she explains. “Intuitive eating is thought of as a non-dieting approach to improved well-being. There are elements of this approach that I consider to be very helpful, as it focuses less on restrictive eating rules and more on improving behaviours.”
Not for everyone
But Tipper and the other nutritionists we spoke to for this article insist that intuitive eating isn’t for everyone — and that a guided approach is necessary for any new way of eating.
“While it’s important to listen to your body and the natural cues it gives you when it comes to hunger, it’s also important to understand if those cues are going to lead to healthy eating habits,” says Lauren Jacobsen, Nutrition Director, Kcal World, a Dubai-based food and lifestyle company. “Are you eating because you’re stressed or tired, or are you really hungry? Understanding your body’s unique chemistry is key; everyone is different, a diet that what works for one person might not work for another. Eating a balanced diet, one that gives you energy and makes you feel good is the best kind of diet. Part of that should be intuitive, as long as it’s based on eating mostly healthy energising food.”
Since there are no off-limits foods when it comes to intuitive eating, the approach won’t work for everyone. “There are many conditions that mean we need to be conscious of what we eat, for example for anyone who is managing blood sugar levels, watching their cholesterol or trying to lower inflammation with conditions such as arthritis,” Tipper says.
Tribole and Resch suggest that after a couple of weeks of eating whatever takes your fancy — possibly because you’ve denied yourself such forbidden treats — you snap back to a moderate eating plan. Operate with a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity, they say, and you’ll automatically find yourself eating a balanced diet.
That’s a bit too facile for many of us, Dhinda acknowledges. “Certainly, moderation is key to ensure healthy eating habits, but an individual’s dietary approaches should be modified as per his or her nutrition goals and keeping in mind their personal struggles and diet histories,” she says.
“In order to adapt this technique in the right way, an individual needs personal guidance and evaluation from an expert since eat as per your body’s desires can be interpreted in the wrong way as well.” Talk to a dietitian before changing up your eating plan – because as the old saying goes, a failure to plan is a plan to fail.
What’s the science saying?
Intuitive eating may be all the rage, but there isn’t enough research to prove its efficacy, says Farheen Dhinda, Clinical Dietitian at Dubai Health Authority.
“A lot of research highlights the benefits of intuitive eating but these [studies] cannot be generalised for all individuals as there isn’t enough data that applies to all.”
Discussing a review of clinical studies conducted by Dr Nina Van Dyke and colleagues, she says intuitive has been shown to help maintain body weight but not necessarily lose it. The eating plan has been linked to improved psychological health, improved physical health indicators such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels but neither better body mass index ratios nor higher levels of physical activity.
“Since there aren’t any clinical guidelines that support the implementation of intuitive eating for medical conditions that require nutrition therapy, we currently do not practice intuitive eating at Dubai Health Authority,” Dhinda says.