How to look after your health with intuitive eating

by Jennifer Bowden / 25 February, 2018
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Reconnecting with our inner hunger signals and eating intuitively are much better for us than dieting, say health experts.

QUESTIONI’d love to get healthier and I want to stop going on diets I can’t stick to. Where should I start?

ANSWERA growing number of nutritionists no longer advocate dieting, preferring instead to champion “intuitive eating”. This involves developing a healthier relationship with food and deciding what to eat for reasons other than solely pursuing weight loss or restricting energy intake.

Body Balance Nutrition director Jessica Campbell says this approach allows for “natural variations in daily food intake and encourages choices based on satisfaction, taste, health, energy, stamina and performance”.

But given our troubling obesity statistics, shouldn’t nutritionists and dietitians be encouraging overweight clients to diet? No, says registered dietitian Sarah Peck, who, with colleagues Campbell and Rachael Bensley, and Nicola Jackson from Eat Well NZ, now encourages clients to become healthier through intuitive eating instead.

“Not only is dieting ineffective, but it can also be harmful,” says Peck. “The irony is the intentional pursuit of weight loss – dieting, in other words – is actually a predictor of future weight gain. Most of those who’ve been on and off a diet can attest to that.”

A key reason for weight gain after a diet is metabolic adaptation, a phenomenon whereby a person’s resting metabolic rate (energy required for their body to stay alive with no activity) slows after weight loss, effectively defending the body against weight loss.

Nutritionist Jessica Campbell.

So, if person A weighs 100kg, then loses 20kg, they’ll have a significantly slower metabolism than person B who has weighed 80kg for their whole adult life. So, person A will need to eat significantly less and exercise more than person B to maintain the same body weight for life.

Psychologists believe this may be because the brain interprets a weight-loss diet as a short famine, so urges the body to store fat in case of future lean times.

If weight loss is pursued for health reasons, the irony continues, says Peck, as weight cycling leads to poorer outcomes. “Dieting is also a major risk factor for the development of eating disorders.” One review found about 35% of dieters progressed to pathological dieting, and of those, up to a quarter developed partial or full eating disorders.

“We see the effect dieting has on the psychological well-being of clients, with high levels of anxiety around food and bodies, disordered eating behaviour that can include restriction, bingeing and other compensatory actions, and body dissatisfaction, to name a few.”

So, what should we do?

Rather than focusing on meal plans, safe food lists, food rules, pre-packaged meals and set food portions, clients are taught to trust their body and respond to signals of hunger, fullness and satisfaction. Says Campbell, “Becoming reacquainted with body signals is a significant step towards listening to internal cues.”

Young children intuitively respond to their appetite, which results in changes to daily food intake. However, many adults lose touch with this natural ability. “We forget there’s an internal framework we can rely on to guide food choices,” says Campbell. “Relearning what hunger feels like can be a difficult process for those who have silenced it by relying on external cues to determine when to eat,” she says.

“When we’re reconnecting with intuition and a more flexible food approach, we often also go through periods of overeating or eating a previously ‘forbidden food’ more frequently.” These types of experiences aren’t failures, says Campbell, but an integral part of becoming used to, and comfortable with, foods that previously triggered overeating.

Black-and-white thinking – apples are good, cookies are bad, for example – is common in dieting, says Jackson. “But these external ‘rules’ never marry up 100% with what you feel like eating and how much you feel like eating, so there’s a clash between what you think you should do and what you do.”

The rules also create feelings of deprivation, she says, which can be ignored for only so long. “When people do eat a food they’re trying to avoid, it’s often followed by guilt and thoughts of ‘what the hell, I’ve ruined my diet, I may as well keep eating and I’ll start again tomorrow’.”

Deprivation and guilt are key drivers of the diet-and-binge cycle, says Jackson. Letting go of a diet mentality, changing our thoughts about food and developing eating intuition are key to having a healthier relationship with food, she says.

It’s important to note that intuitive eating isn’t anti-weight loss, as weight changes can occur with this approach, says Bensley. But it shifts the focus away from the pursuit of weight loss. “Weight-neutral health programmes have been shown to have health benefits, such as improved LDL cholesterol even in the absence of weight loss, without the negative consequences of dieting,” she says.

However, when it comes to intuitive eating, the initial focus is not on better nutrition and other healthy behaviour. “First, we work our way through rejecting the diet mentality and using our internal cues. Then we can enjoy working on nourishing food choices and using our nutrition knowledge,” says Bensley, because nutrient-rich foods, such as fruit and vegetables, can make a real difference to health, irrespective of body weight.

Says Campbell, “We’re no longer the ‘food police’, dishing out rules, naughty and nice lists or meal plans. We need to support someone’s natural ability to be their own food expert.”

This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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