Going on a diet may feel like the right thing to do to achieve weight loss in the short-term. But how healthy is it to always be on a diet?
“Most of the people who come to see me have tried dieting at least one to 50 different times,” says Fiona Sutherland, an Accredited Practising Dietitian from Body Positive Australia. “I usually ask them what their experience with dieting has been to-date, and the vast majority of people say they ended up being heavier [a while] after dieting compared to when they started. Well, that’s what the evidence says will usually happen.”
Sutherland warns that constant yo-yo dieting can destroy a person’s relationship with food, their body and mental health. So if you don’t lose weight and keep it off in the long-term, why don’t we just stop dieting?
“Most of the people who come to see me have tried dieting at least one to 50 different times.”
Enter the practice of intuitive eating: a principle that rejects calorie-counting and feeling guilty about your food choices. It allows you to eat what your body needs and wants when you want, and it encourages you to feel good (or at least neutral) emotionally, mentally and physically about it.
“The people who find it the most helpful are those who tend to overthink food, eating and their body image,” she says. “They may have also lost touch with their sense of hunger, fullness and appetite cues, and may be stuck in a dieting mentality.
“When someone starts to bring a more embodied approach into their eating practices, instead of dieting, and start eating regularly, eating enough, eating a wide variety of foods, they begin to eat intuitively.”
Although it sounds easy, Sutherland says intuitive eating is actually hard because it involves a lot of self-help work and food psychology.
So what is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is a set of 10 principles originally outlined over 20 years ago by US-based dietician Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
“These principles encourage us to understand the specific thoughts, feelings and behaviours that go along with diet mentality, that may have led to us becoming disconnected from our body and food,” says Sutherland, an intuitive eating practitioner.
In short, it’s like a step-by-step guide to an evidence-based way of psychoanalysing your food decisions so that you can eventually liberate your eating habits from social expectations and make eating choices that you feel good about.
“My job is not to stop you from eating that food. My job is to help you understand how your life experiences, including thoughts emotions and behaviours, link with the way you eat."
So if intuitive eating allows us to eat what we like, when we like, does that mean we just indulge all our cravings? Sutherland says not all the time.
But what it does do is get to the bottom of why you want to eat three kebabs when your boyfriend dumps you – Oprah-style. So that next time you feel bad, you know you have the option of eating another trio of kebabs or talking to a friend for support.
“My job is not to stop you from eating that food. My job is to help you understand how your life experiences, including thoughts emotions and behaviours, link with the way you eat. When you understand the connection between the two, you will become aware that you have a choice.”
The good news is this ‘non-diet’ eating plan is culturally friendly. Incorporating elements of mindfulness and a strong sense of mind-body awareness borrowed from Eastern religious traditions, it helps people following faith-based eating practices – like Christian fasting during Easter or Islamic fasting over Ramadan – to be more in-tune with their personal belief in their religious reasons for fasting.
“Intuitive eating can help you make those gentle shifts to any kind of faith-based eating practice. So you don’t say ‘oh I am not allowed to eat because my faith says I shouldn’t.’ Instead, it allows you to not eat and follow a faith-based eating practice, by choice, with a sense of kindness. It helps you to honour your body and faith at the same time.”
But does it work?
Evidence-based intuitive eating interventions have shown benefits for psychological wellbeing.
A study published in the journal Appetite this month looked at intuitive eating and food intake in Swiss men and women. It showed that women who ate intuitively ended up eating more for physical rather than emotional reasons and relied more on hunger and satiety cues. Meanwhile, intuitive eating didn’t have the same impact on the men studied.
It’s not like there is only one way you should eat, that is supposed to be for everyone, just like there is in the dieting world. But with some guidance, you will find the right way for you.”
Another piece of research, published in 2013, looked at whether intuitive eating can help people lose weight. It compared the weight loss effects of a calorie restriction diet to an intuitive eating plan and found that restricting calories is a more effective way to lose weight.
However, Sutherland stresses that weight loss is not the goal of intuitive eating: making peace with food, eating and your body is.
“The most confronting thing in intuitive eating is that there are a million ways to do it. It’s not like there is only one way you should eat, that is supposed to be for everyone, just like there is in the dieting world. But with some guidance, you will find the right way for you.”