How Intuitive Eating Can Help You Ditch Diet Culture Forever
Megan Roantree on how intuitive eating can change how we feel about food and our bodies.
Hands up if you’ve tried at least one restrictive diet in your lifetime. Maybe you’ve stopped yourself from eating something you like because you feel like you don’t deserve it. Have you ever looked in the mirror and had negative thoughts about your body? It doesn’t have to be like this. There is a way to have a healthy relationship with food and your body.
Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to health and wellness that essentially teaches you how to listen to your body. The idea of intuitive eating is simple, but it can be so difficult when you’ve spent your life ignoring your body’s signals. “Listening to your body can be quite an intangible concept”, says Niamh Orbinski, nutritionist, certified intuitive eating counsellor and author of No Apologies. “But the concept is all about how to tune into the body”.
Diets make us feel bad, they’re proven not to work and often leave us feeling like we’ve ‘failed’ when we don’t follow them rigidly. Niamh explains: “Let’s say you’re on a plan that says you have to stop eating at 7pm, but you’ve a really busy day at work and you don’t get home until 8 and you have to cook a meal. Then it’s 9pm and you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got this plan that says don’t eat after 7pm, but my body is telling me I’m hungry’.
So we’ve got this catch-22 because if we go by the plan then we go to bed hungry, which is not a nice experience and you’re not honouring the needs of your body, but if we honour the body we feel guilty because we broke the ‘rules’ of the diet. So dieting is disconnecting us and bringing us away from our interceptive awareness. Whereas intuitive eating reconnects us with ourselves and gives us permission to listen to the body’s signals and honour them and respond to them appropriately”.
So what does that look like? “Paying attention to what hunger feels like – hunger pangs, growling tummy, lack of focus or concentration, are all cues from the body telling us there is a need to be met. It’s giving yourself some space to listen to those cues. Just checking in with yourself: ‘What am I experiencing?’, ‘Do I feel anything in the body?’, ‘What’s my mood like?’ You might check into your head: ‘Am I lightheaded?’, ‘Have I lost concentration?’ This way we’re scanning through parts of the body that hunger usually shows up in. That’s just one piece of the process.”
Being mindful is key to intuitive eating, says Niamh. “It all hinges upon connection and mindfulness. If someone is like ‘I have no clue how to start this’, the best place to start is to work on mindfulness. It doesn’t have to be meditation, it can just be asking yourself, ‘How do I feel right now?’, ‘What do I need?’, ‘What do I need less of?’. Just that little check-in is how you get back in connection with yourself.”
Niamh was frustrated by the focus on food plans and weight loss in her profession. “When I was doing my yoga teacher training and I was really interested in this concept of the mind-body connection. It never really sat right with me to feel like I had to tell people what, when and how to eat. I wouldn’t like anyone to tell me so it felt very restrained. We’re trained in this weight-centric modality of health, so to move away from weight and say that weight is not a marker for health is massive, especially when you’re a traditionally trained nutritionist.”
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Niamh had a lightbulb moment when she came across the concept of intuitive eating, which was founded in 1995 by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. “I had to kind of wade through and look at the evidence, and then in 2020 I said I’d go all in with this, because I fully believe in it. I decided I wasn’t going to work with clients specifically on weight loss anymore and instead work on people’s relationships with food. Clients just blossomed in front of me, their lives started to transform because our relationship with food is so much more than just food, it affects so much more.”
Of course, the idea of freedom around food often leads to misconceptions around what intuitive eating really is: “people think it’s ‘eat whatever, whenever’, and yes, that’s true, but with connection to your internal cues,” says Niamh. “That’s the part that’s missing for a lot of people. So people would often say ‘If I let myself eat whatever I want, I’d just eat pizza all day’, but would you? If you were to eat pizza every day, three meals a day, for two weeks I bet you’d start craving some fruit, or vegetables and that craving comes from listening to the body.
So yes we are allowing all foods in, unconditionally, and that’s the real freedom around intuitive eating but we’re connecting to the messages our body is giving us alongside that. This is a checking in not a checking out process.” The second misconception is intuitive eating doesn’t really care about your health.
“We’ve really reduced health to the number on the scale or food you put into your mouth but health is so much more than that. If we look at the WHO definition of health, it’s about physical, social and mental well-being, not just the absence of disease and infirmity. Our health is our mental health, social health, so having an unhealthy relationship with food and being super focused on the number on a scale and what you put in your mouth disconnects you from connections in your life” she points out.
“Because you don’t go out for those drinks with your friends, or you meet them after dinner because you don’t want to ruin your diet plan, or you go home early, or to bed early because you’re trying to stave off hunger. These are all things I’ve heard in real life at the beginning of the practice.”
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She adds: “Health is more than what you can see on the outside. A huge part of the intuitive eating process is healing your relationship with food. There is a part that looks at improving your health, but you can only do that when you have a foundation and a healthy relationship with food and that’s why the books ‘reestablish’ is all about reestablishing those healthy behaviours”. While work is involved, it’s not forever, and it’s work that will be of huge benefit.
“You want to get to a place where it’s easy and effortless, it doesn’t mean you’ll always want to do it, but the connection to how it makes you feel and being able to listen to your body on a moment-to-moment basis helps you get there. If we skip the sticky bits it won’t be sustainable for the long term”. She adds: “People often want a quick fix, and diets always promise that. But in reality, we need to do some long-term, gentle work to heal ourselves and be better as a result.
Time is a major barrier for people too, says Niamh. “It’s exacerbated by us being busy and saying ‘I don’t have time to do this’, but we need to prioritise what’s important to us. So just because someone decides to work on their relationship with food, doesn’t mean it’s a life-long endeavour. We need to prioritise it for a certain amount of time sure, but what helped people get over the idea of a quick fix, is really looking at this and asking what our unhealthy relationship with food and image actually costs.
Really get into it, and feel it. Is it missed drinks with the girls or the preoccupation with yourself on a night out because you can’t be present or not taking opportunities at work because you don’t feel worthy or not putting yourself out there on the dating scene because you’re terrified of rejection because of body image issues. There is so much cost that comes with this. That can really help us put into perspective what we want to prioritise.”
So much of what you think about diet and body is down to social conditioning, marketing and upbringing, but when we challenge the ideas, we make space for a much healthier relationship with ourselves. Why do we feel the need to diet or lose weight? Why do we think our bodies are not good enough? “Not being able to get to your ‘goal weight’ or getting to a ‘healthy range’ is not your fault, there is a lot of blame and shame around weight”, says Niamh. “I really think we need a new narrative around this.
I want readers to think “it’s not my fault. Yes, I have influence and I can make changes and I don’t have to fall victim to staying a certain way forever, but also, it’s much more complex than me and my body and whether I do the diet right’. Those goalposts are constantly shifting, it’s impossible to keep up, I see women in front of me, spending all of this time and energy trying to fit into boxes. Trying to mould and shapeshift and it’s exhausting.
When women learn to reclaim that energy, they’re powerful. Imagine what we could put that time and energy into. I’ve seen people change careers, start businesses, being able to focus on certain relationships in their lives all of that requires energy so that’s why I say that I help women transform their lives. It is a transformation when you refocus all that energy into something worthwhile”.
The ten principles of intuitive eating are:
1. Reject the diet mentality
2. Honour your hunger
3. Make peace with food
4. Challenge the food police
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
6. Feel your fullness
7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
8. Respect your body
9. Movement – Feel the difference
10. Honour your health – Gentle nutrition
Niamh’s book, No Apologies: Ditch Diet Culture and Rebuild Your Relationship with Food is available now.
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