Society has an eating disorder.
Food may be central to our health, but what we eat, how much, and when is endlessly discussed, debated and politicised. We’re eating too much, or not enough, and our attempts to become healthier are often misguided as we too readily place our trust - and our money - in diet books, celebrities, and proponents of pseudoscience.
But what would happen if we started ignoring the food and diet debates and started trusting ourselves?
In response to the well-documented failure of low-calorie diets to help people lose weight in the long-term; the potential for dieting to lead to disordered eating; and the physical and psychological harm that yo-yo dieting can cause, some people are turning to a dietary approach known as ‘intuitive eating,’ or IE.
It’s a way of eating based on three simple principles - eating when hungry; stopping when full; and eating anything unless medical reasons forbid it. Individuals are encouraged to abandon dieting behaviors such as restraint and conscious control of food intake, and are instead encouraged to listen to internal cues for hunger, fullness and the types of food the body needs to feel nourished.
Because there are no rules with IE, a lot of the backlash associated with breaking a diet is lost, says dietician and a doctoral candidate in Public Health Prevention Science at Kent State University in the US, Julie Schaefer. She led a study published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently that reviewed health interventions that promote eating by listening to internal cues.
“Intuitive eating is associated with body appreciation, optimism, and life satisfaction,” she says. “We found individuals who undergo an IE intervention improve body satisfaction, depression, self-esteem, and anxiety.
“Resolving this psychological distress and mental struggle with food and body image is a big step for individuals who struggle with these issues.”
You may be thinking that IE sounds pretty much like ‘normal’ eating. And this is sometimes what IE is called.
The problem is, so many of us don’t know how to eat normally anymore. We are pressured to clean our plates; are triggered to eat by visual cues and smells; endure societal pressure to achieve a certain body type; are too busy and stressed to eat our meals without distractions; and we are constantly told that certain foods are bad, making them more tempting.
“That all interferes with our ability to recognise and respond to internal cues to eat when hungry and stop when full, to view food as health-promoting and enjoyable rather than weight-reducing or weight-gaining agents, and to respect and accept our bodies rather than belittle and criticise them,” Ms Schaefer says.
Dr Nina Van Dyke, director of the Social Research Group at Market Solutions in Melbourne, works with academic research institutes, not for profit organisations and research companies to help them better understand health attitudes and behaviours.
She is lead author on a study conducted alongside Charles Sturt University and published last year in Public Health Nutrition that examined the peer-reviewed literature on relationships between IE and health.
Over the past few decades, ‘normal’ eating has meant following whatever the latest popular diet is, be it cutting out carbs or demonising fat, she says. And while IE isn’t a license to eat as much chocolate and cake as you want, it does encourage those who practice it learn to appreciate that what their body really wants is healthful, nourishing foods most of the time.
“I think the point in calling it ‘intuitive eating’ is to remind us that how and what we eat is better off coming from within us rather than from without,” Dr Van Dyke says.
Her research found IE probably works best for people who have switched their focus away from weight and towards becoming healthy, and those who had truly given up on dieting. In other words – being skinny isn’t the end game but being healthy is.
But like all ways of living, she says IE may not be for everyone, with more research needed to understand who most benefits and how.
Dr Van Dyke’s focus groups found women in particular often ate dinner at times that worked in around their children’s commitments and eating preferences, making IE difficult. People with medical conditions that require them to eat in certain ways, who have hormone imbalances that interfere with their hunger and food cravings, or who have severe eating disorders and difficulties trying to eat intuitively on their own, may also not be suitable for IE.
“This doesn’t mean one can’t shift in an IE direction – but these factors certainly can be barriers and one may need to consciously make changes in order to shift,” Dr Van Dyke says.
“And obviously it won’t work for people who are convinced that this is the next diet that will be the one that turns them into Kate Moss.”
Melissa Davey is a health and medical journalist. She is a former Sydney Morning Herald health reporter, and is completing her Masters of Public Health. You can follow her on Twitter here.