By Kelly Jo Zellmann, MS, RDN, LD, CLT
Has the pandemic affected your waistline? Let’s admit it, it hasn’t been easy. Last spring’s stay at home orders and additional shut-downs, combined with more people working from home and kids distance learning have all posed its challenges when it comes to maintaining normal routines with eating and exercise. Not having access to your usual activities (ie – gyms and/or sports activities for kids) and staying home may have resulted in increased TV binge watching, baking goodies and eating more combined with less physical activity could have easily led to a few extra and unwanted pounds.
If so, you are not alone. According to one study by Gelesis, a biotechnology company, it is estimated that 71 million Americans have gained weight during the pandemic and, as a result, 52% say they feel down about the way they look. The study also found that even though people have been motivated to develop healthier habits amidst the pandemic, it also highlighted the fact that many Americans who want to lose weight continue to struggle. And, it’s no surprise that anxiety levels have increased as well. Anxiety, stress and lack of motivation have been common effects of the pandemic for many people. Fifty percent of respondents said they lacked motivation, thirty three percent were more anxious and forty one percent were more stressed, and felt they needed more support to lose weight.
Now that January has come and almost gone, it also happens to be the most popular time for many people to set New Year’s Resolutions. The idea of a “new you” and fresh start has many people hopeful to lose that weight gained and/or if you’re like almost fifty percent of Americans pre-Covid, losing weight and eating healthier are often at the top of the resolutions list. So, if you’re finding yourself wondering which weight loss program to do or join, read on.
As a nation, we spend nearly 33 billion dollars per year on weight loss products. We are constantly inundated with promises of products and diet plans to lose weight everywhere we look. Social media is full of daily posts about someone who has successfully lost weight on the latest fad-diet and is trying to convince everyone in the world that it’s what you need to do. However, focusing on the goal of losing weight is only looking at the desired outcome and not the habits that help you get there. What if there was a way to do both (eat healthier and lose weight) without dieting, calorie counting and restricting yourself? Sound too good to be true? Well, what if I told you it’s not! The truth is and always will be that diets don’t work! Repeat that if you need to. Diets don’t work! Somehow, as a society, we’ve been brainwashed in the pursuit of some ideal body and weight that we think we should look a certain way or weigh a certain number. Thus, we are easily lured back to the next diet hoping it will finally work, and often times end up gaining more weight afterwards and feeling even worse about ourselves. Diets look good and appealing on the outside with their promise of a quick fix, but they fail time and time again and offer feelings of failure and feeling miserable on the inside.
So, you might be wondering, what does work then?
Well, let me introduce you to Intuitive and Mindful Eating. Ditching dieting for good is hard if you’ve had a long history and relationship with it. However, you might be pleasantly surprised at how kind and gentle both intuitive eating and mindful eating are compared to your previous dieting relationships. You might also be surprised to see just how bad those diets have been treating you all these years.
What is Intuitive Eating (IE)? Intuitive Eating is a dynamic mind-body integration of instinct, emotion, and rational thought. It is a personal process of honoring your health by paying attention to the messages of your body and meeting your physical and emotional needs (Tribole and Resch, 2017). IE was first introduced by two Registered Dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. Since then, it has gained in popularity and has over 125 research studies to support its positive effects on health and well-being. This non-diet approach to health and your body is a way to tune in to your body’s inner cues and break up with the cycle of chronic dieting. It encompasses ten principles that help a person gain body attunement, which is the ability to hear and respond to the physical sensations in your body – such as hunger and fullness cues, while other principles work by removing obstacles to body attunement.
There are ten principles of Intuitive Eating:
- Ditch the Diet Mentality. While this may seem hard or even scary to do at first, it will literally free your mind and body from the harm diets and our diet obsessed culture have done to you over the years. Just like a new romance, a diet offers the honeymoon phase where it seems so easy to follow and effortless to lose weight. However, with each progressive diet that follows, your body makes it harder and harder to lose weight and easier to gain it back. Hence, you end up feeling like a failure, when actually, the diet failed you. Yet, we often don’t blame the diet, we blame ourselves.
- Honor Your Hunger. Allowing yourself to keep your body fed with adequate nutrition in order to avoid getting over-hungry is an important part of IE. If we ignore our internal cues for hunger, it can trigger overeating and even binge eating. This is key in rebuilding and relearning how to trust yourself with food and can be hard if you have tuned this out over the years with dieting and/or just trying not to listen to it. Using a Hunger-Fullness Scale can help. Aiming to eat when you are somewhat hungry, but not too hungry is a good place to be.
- Make Peace with Food. This means giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. Chronic dieters tend to evaluate their success or failure on the current day. Success is based on how good you’ve followed the rules and plan. Even just thinking that you’ve blown the diet or day can trigger more consumption of food, regardless of hunger of fullness levels. Depriving yourself and telling yourself you “can’t” or “shouldn’t” have something can, and often does, lead to strong feelings that build into uncontrollable cravings and can lead to overeating and binging. Just like how biological hunger can lead to overeating because your body is telling you that you are physically hungry, the psychological effects of deprivation and dieting can also lead to overeating because it fuels your thoughts about food and creates a disconnect from your body. Making peace with food involves exploring the fears that hold you back from giving yourself permission to eat and is a process of placing value on your emotional health.
- Challenge the Food Police. In order to make peace with food, you need to silence your inner thoughts and voices called the food police. The food police are the negative voices in your head that have developed over the years, perhaps from childhood from dieting and/or rigid food rules. It’s your harsh inner critic that determines if you are “good” or “bad” with regards to your food intake. By bringing awareness to its presence in your mind, you can learn to challenge its power and loosen its hold on you. Intuitive eaters trust their body’s inner signals and trust themselves to make the best decisions for nourishment and challenge any negative thoughts by re-framing them and thus, silencing the food police.
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor. Satisfaction is the hub of Intuitive Eating. Have you ever felt full without being satisfied with what you ate? So often, eating for pleasure brings about feelings of guilt and shame. Eating when you are moderately hungry rather than ravenous or starving will increase your satisfaction factor (refer back to the hunger-fullness scale). When you eat without a diet mentality you will feel free to discover more satisfaction from your food. Aiming for satisfaction helps you find a way of eating that tastes and feels best for you – this is not a one-cookie-cutter-fits-all process or approach like with diets, it is a journey of self-awareness and discovery.
- Feel Your Fullness. Do you feel like you always have to be multi-tasking and eating is just another chore or task? Are you working on work or scrolling social media while eating or listening to or watching TV? Along with honoring your hunger, you also need to tune in to your body’s signals fullness. This can be hard for people because having so many distractions in our environment. You can start by creating a calm and pleasant environment for eating. Set your fork down between bites, pause mid-meal and ask yourself: Does this food still taste good? Is it still pleasurable? And, what is my current fullness level? Learning to feel your fullness takes practice, patience, and intention. Always remember, there is no failing or perfect way to eat.
- Cope with your Emotions with Kindness. All of us emotionally eat at certain times and it’s completely normal. (ie – think about celebrations and holidays). However, it is helpful to understand that food restriction alone (ie – dieting), can trigger a loss of control with eating and can feel like emotional eating, but it is actually your body trying to recover from the restriction. Instead, find kind ways to nurture yourself without using food when you are experiencing feelings such as anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and anger. Food may provide short term comfort, but it won’t fix the feeling or make it go away and it may make you feel worse in the long run. You may need help finding appropriate coping skills and/or may find working with a therapist helpful.
- Respect Your Body. Respecting your body means treating it with dignity, kindness and gratitude. Your body is your one home for the rest of your life and deserves to be treated well by taking care of it, listening to it, and giving it what it needs. If you are struggling with this, start with what you are grateful for and try to avoid making comparisons to others. Most importantly, respect your body so you can feel better about who you are. If you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body size and shape, it will be hard to truly embrace IE.
- Movement – Feel the Difference. Having a healthy relationship with movement is something many people who have a history with chronic dieting do not have. Instead of thinking about exercise as something you have to do or “should do” in order to burn a certain number of calories for example, try finding some kind of activity that you actually enjoy doing and makes you feel good. Just like with food and eating, let your body be your guide with mindful movement. Discover and pay attention to how your body feels during and after activity, without counting calories, without judgement, comparison or competition.
- Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition. Choosing foods that honor your health, taste good, and make you feel good is the cornerstone of eating. There is no perfect way of eating in order to be healthy. One snack, one meal or one day does not ruin your health, rather your pattern of eating over time is what matters most. IE is not about being perfect – another challenge for many to let go of. It’s more about offering guidelines and an outline for a comfortable relationship with food. This involves learning to trust your inner intuitive wisdom and thinking about progress not perfection when it comes to eating and understanding that no one is perfect. You CAN start making healthy changes today one bite at a time.
Do any of these resonate with you? If you are curious to learn more about how to set non-diet weight loss/goals/resolutions and how to ditch dieting for good by embracing the concepts of Intuitive Eating, check out the resources below and/or contact Kelly Jo Zellmann, MS, RDN, LD at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Tribole, E., and E. Resch, 2017. The Intuitive Eating Workbook. Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food. New Harbinger Publications, Inc: Oakland, CA.
- The Intuitive Eating website: http://www.intuitiveeating.org