Why everyone's talking about intuitive eating

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Ester Levinrad argues for why you can and should be able to eat whatever you like, and we’re here for it!
Permission to eat whatever you like? If that sounds good to you, read on, because it’s the cornerstone of intuitive eating.
Written by Ester Levinrad
Let’s get one thing straight, right away: dieting does not work. Most people who lose weight dieting, will put on more weight within the next five years than people who never dieted at all. This is backed up by scientific research, and is according to the most exhaustive review of all randomised controlled trials of diets, conducted by professor of psychology Traci Mann at the University of Minnesota in the US.

While we’re at it, let’s get another fact out of the way: intuitive eating is not a new diet. It is in fact the anti-diet, an integrated approach that encourages you to get in touch with your body and what feels good.

What is it exactly? 
The goal with intuitive eating isn’t weight-related at all. Intuitive eating aims to shift the focus away from weight or body size as an indicator of health or well-being. Instead, intuitive eating practitioners encourage you to make peace with food and your relationship with food. The goal is ease and happiness.

That doesn’t mean this way of eating it isn’t difficult to get your head around at first, because for many of us intuitive or mindful eating is the opposite of instinctive. Our attitudes to food and eating are deeply influenced by our families and our cultural backgrounds. And the longer you’ve spent trying out new diets and restricting what you eat, the harder it can be to rethink your attitude towards food.

Xenia Ayiotis is a Pretoria-based intuitive eating counsellor and mindful eating coach, who works virtually with clients across the country. She runs courses and retreats, and is one of only two South Africans certified by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, the US dieticians and nutrition therapists who wrote the Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works in the mid-1990s.

Intuitive eating is for everybody
Xenia says this approach can be adapted by anyone, regardless of your usual eating habits. Whether your staples are pap and wors or moussaka and baklava, intuitive eating doesn’t require you to eat different foods, but instead to savour and enjoy the foods you want to eat.

Xenia suggests that intuitive eating is particularly helpful for yo-yo dieters, restrictive and binge eaters. But people with severe eating disorders, like anorexia, should not try intuitive eating, or not until they are in recovery and under expert guidance. ‘If you have had anorexia, you are not in tune with your hunger.’
Changing the way you think about food 
Intuitive eating encourages people to get away from thinking of weight as good or bad – including banishing the term ‘overweight’. After all, ‘over what?’, as Xenia asks. She says that she encourages her clients to stop weighing themselves, though some have to gradually wean themselves off the scale, going down from weighing multiple times every day to once a week to finally throwing out the scale altogether.

Diet talk often masquerades as ‘clean eating’. In the last few years, what we think of as traditional diets, like the cabbage soup diet or Atkins, might be less in the news, but restrictive eating plans that emphasise cutting out food groups, like banting, which cuts out most refined carbohydrates, have become very popular. Unless you have a medical reason for avoiding a certain food – diagnosed by a medical professional, not by you! – this is still dieting, under another name. Intuitive eating rejects thinking of food as ‘clean’ or not.

An intuitive eating coach like Xenia Ayiotis also encourages her clients to push back against terms like ‘obese’ and ‘body mass index’. Research shows that people can be healthy at most weights if they engage in healthy behaviours. Body Mass Index, or BMI, is not an accurate indication of good health. You can tell your doctor or nurse that you don’t want to be weighed, or ask them what relevance your weight might have on your medical treatment.

Are you ready to ditch the scale too? Here are a few first steps:
• Stop dieting! Take away the rules and the restrictions, and the idea that you’re being ‘naughty’ when you eat something high in fat or sugar. This is also the first of ten original principles by Tribole and Relsch: ‘Reject the diet mentality.’
• Listen to your hunger. Don’t eat just because you can – and do eat when your body tells you to. At first this might be difficult, as many of us eat for many reasons other than feeling hungry, like time of day, or what you have in the fridge.
• Rediscover pleasure. Focus on the texture and the taste of your meals. Savour every last bite.
• Don’t be scared! ‘Giving yourself permission to eat whatever you want can be terrifying,’ says Xenia. Trust yourself, your body and its hunger cues.
• Move, gently. This is the ninth principle of intuitive eating and the focus is on the pleasure of moving your body, not on exercising to punish yourself or with the focus of losing weight.
• Cut the crap'! If you spend a lot of time on social media, consider unfollowing celebrities who promote weight loss (hint: many of them have names starting with ‘K’). Rather find and follow influencers who promote ‘health at any size’ like Molly Bahr from the US or Siphokazi Veti.

What’s the difference between ‘mindful’ and ‘intuitive’ eating?
The two terms are very similar and they are both fundamentally non-diet approaches. Intuitive eating is particularly against the diet industry, and to some degree therefore outward focused. Mindful eating focuses more on the individual experience of food and eating. These approaches are often happily used together.

Images: Getty Images

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