By Melissa Giaquinta, Psychologist, Lakeside Psychology
Most people believe that the best way to lose weight and be healthy is to go on a diet, however surprisingly this is not the case. Research shows that diets are rarely maintainable and that the majority of people will eventually gain back the weight they had lost throughout the diet, and even end up putting on more weight than they were prior to starting the diet (e.g. Bacon & Aphramor, 2011). Unfortunately, this constant battle of weight loss and weight gain can lead to poorer health over time, and an unhealthy relationship with food. A much healthier approach to eating is the non-dieting approach of intuitive eating. When you eat intuitively, your body returns to its natural weight set-point, which is the weight at which it will function at its best (see previous article ‘The Truth about Dieting – Part 1’ for a more detailed explanation).
The Misconceptions about Weight and Health
There is often a stigma about larger-sized people as being ‘unhealthy’, however although studies have actually shown that there is no direct link between health and weight after other factors are taken into consideration such as physical activity, nutrition, and socioeconomic status (Bacon et al., 2011). It is just as possible for a ‘large’ person to be healthy as it is for a ‘small’ person to be unhealthy. Health comes down to the lifestyle you lead not your body shape. Interestingly, it is only at the more extreme ends of the BMI weight distribution where weight can be associated with poor health; for example, very low weight is more dangerous than a very high weight and can lead to health risks such as osteoporosis, and menstruation and fertility problems in woman. So why are we constantly shaming others for being “too big” and assuming this means they’re unhealthy, when weight and health are not directly related? We should be encouraging healthy lifestyles while appreciating ourselves and others for their unique bodies.
So what can you do to pursue a healthy lifestyle? When coupled with addressing body image problems, intuitive eating is the best way to achieve health and improve your self-esteem (Bacon et al., 2011).
How Do I Eat Intuitively?
Eating intuitively essentially means listening to our body and giving it what it needs. This means eating when we’re hungry, stopping when we’re full, eating what we feel like (without cutting anything out), and limiting non-hungry eating such as eating because you’re bored or stressed. This allows the body to return to its natural weight set-point over time, and this can take up to two years depending on your history of eating patterns. Follow these tips to help you eat intuitively:
• Get back in touch with your body’s cues: Through dieting, we tend to ignore our body’s signals and become out of touch with our hunger-fullness levels. It can take some time to get to know these bodily signals again. Start to monitor your body throughout the day and tune in to how hungry or full you feel.
• Eat when you notice a feeling of hunger and eat until you feel full or satisfied: Try to forget about society’s rules about when we should and shouldn’t be eating. If you’re hungry by 11am, there is no need to wait until 12pm to eat just because that is considered to be an appropriate lunchtime. Similarly, just because you have eaten your bowl of cereal doesn’t mean you can’t eat more if you are still hungry. Try to eat enough to satisfy your feelings of hunger, not society’s expectations of what is enough.
• When choosing what you would like to eat, think about what it is you really feel like: No food is off limits! Try to ignore your previous conceptions about food being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for you, and focus more on the nutritional value it has and how it makes your body feel after you eat it. If you eat food that you feel satisfied with you are less likely to eat when you are not hungry and more likely to be feel satisfied from the food you eat.
• Eat mindfully: It takes your brain about 20 minutes to send out signals that you are full. Eating slowly allows the brain to properly register when you feel satiated, so you can stop eating when you feel comfortably full rather than eating quickly and later realising you have overeaten
• Check in with your hunger-fullness levels: When you go to eat food, ask yourself “am I hungry?”, if not, ask yourself what might be driving you to eat food. Are you stressed? Upset? Bored? Be aware of when you want to eat for emotional reasons. Try to manage the emotion in a different way such as going for a walk, talking to a friend, or doing some relaxation.
If I’m allowed to Eat Anything, Won’t I Overindulge?
Yes, this is likely to happen at first but it won’t last. Just as you would get sick of eating broccoli all the time, you’ll get sick of eating chocolate all the time when there is no guilt or shame attached to eating it, and it loses its forbidden charm. Initially people often find that they over-indulge in foods they were previously restricting while dieting. This is completely normal and will decrease over time when you start to become more in-tune with your body, and driven towards a range of foods that makes your body feel good.
Every now and then you’ll want to eat when you’re not hungry and this is ok too. In the scheme of things it’s unlikely to have much of an impact on your weight if you are eating intuitively most of the time.
Other Tips for a Healthy Lifestyle
Aside from intuitive eating, there are other things we can be doing to look after our health and general wellbeing. While these may seem like common sense, many of us forget to prioritise these things in the midst of our busy lifestyles:
• Exercise regularly: focus on exercising for enjoyment rather than for means of weight loss, and find a physical activity that you enjoy. If the gym isn’t enjoyable for you, try a dance class or join a sports team. Find something that suits your unique lifestyle and interests.
• Prioritise getting enough sleep: see our previous article Getting a Good Night Sleep
• Drink plenty of water (and get in touch with your thirst)
• Relax regularly: whether this be through relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, or calming activities such as doing yoga or catching up with a friend for coffee
It can be really difficult to break the habit of dieting when we are constantly bombarded by messages that dieting is the best way to lose weight, be healthy, and achieve a certain body shape. Intuitive eating can be a challenging concept to grasp because it requires us to forget about what we’ve been told about when and what we should be eating. A big part of losing the diet mentality is learning to be more loving and accepting of your body, no matter what size! Stay tuned for part 3 of this 3 part blog which focuses on improving body image.
For further information on intuitive eating, I highly recommend the book ‘If Not Dieting, Then What?’ by Dr. Rick Kausman.
Bacon, L., Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift. Nutrition Journal, 10-69.