The Science Behind Intuitive Eating

In the health and wellness world, it’s easy to be inundated with fad diets and advice on what (or when) you should be eating. But where does “intuitive eating” fit in the mix?

Whether you’re done with dieting or are looking to build a more sustainable relationship with food, the concept of intuitive eating was created to nurture the body and look at your health from a more holistic point of view.

The Breakdown:

While the concepts behind intuitive eating have been around since the 1970s, the term wasn’t coined until the 90s. It generally can be traced back to 10 basic principles:

  1. Abandon diet culture.
  2. Embrace your biological hunger.
  3. Give yourself permission to eat.
  4. Challenge unnecessary, guilt-focused thoughts surrounding food.
  5. Discover the satisfaction of the eating experience.
  6. Honor your fullness.
  7. Find ways to resolve emotional issues that prevent emotional eating.
  8. Develop a respectful relationship with your body.
  9. Stay active and focus on how your body feels as it moves.
  10. Make nutritional choices that honor your health.

Unlike many “traditional” diets, intuitive eating is meant to encourage people to develop a healthier relationship with food and their bodies without specific restrictions or guidelines. According to recent studies, intuitive eating practices are negatively associated with harmful behaviors such as chronic dieting and binge eating. Researchers have even developed an Intuitive Eating Scale (IES) to evaluate the effectiveness of the method.

How it Works:

In simple terms, intuitive or “mindful” eating is the idea of abandoning specific guidelines and following your body’s hunger cues. In its most basic form, its learning to trust your body to eat when it’s hungry and stop when it’s full.

“Your body talks,” says Dr. Chris Meletis, N.D. and Notch Medical Advisor. “You just need to learn to listen and hear what it’s communicating.”

When it comes to implementing an intuitive eating practice, some people follow specific books and programs while others simply try it out on their own. No matter the path, one of the first steps is to learn to recognize the difference between “physical hunger” and “emotional hunger.”

Though they might initially feel the same, physical hunger is the result of biological urges while emotional hunger is driven by mood-specific cravings. Generally, eating as a result of physical hunger results in satisfaction, while eating as a result of emotional urges can lead to unnecessary feelings of guilt. Just like with any mindfulness practice, food-related or not, developing this level of awareness is the first crucial step.

Common Misconceptions:

  1. “Mindful eating is intended for those who want to lose weight.”
    Mindful or intuitive eating can be pursued by anyone, regardless of their health goals. The idea is to follow your body’s most primal cravings, whether it be more protein, carbs or greens.

    “Our ancestors used intuitive eating as part of their daily existence,” Meletis says. “When followed in a health-conscious way, it can really transform your relationship with food.”

  2. “Your BMI is generally an accurate indicator of your eating habits.”
    Though not directly associated with intuitive eating, this is a universal misconception that circulates in the health world and ultimately prevents people from doing what’s best for their bodies. While BMI has been used as a measurement of health in the industry, it’s by no means a key indicator of actual health or your relationship with food.

    “You would be hard pressed to tell a bodybuilder that they are overweight based on BMI,” Meletis says. “Likewise, staying a certain size can also be the result of undernourishment and poor muscle mass."

  3. “Intuitive eating is just another fad diet.”
    Unlike other “diets,” intuitive eating has no restrictions or specific guidelines outside of following your intuition and basic, biological instincts.

    “In general, eating structured meals is counterintuitive,” Meletis says. “What your body needs is going to vary each day depending on your level of activity, GI function and more.”

  4. “Having an eating schedule is crucial for being a mindful eater.”
    One reason many people avoid making changes to their diet or eating patterns is because of the effort and restrictions involved. However, when it comes to intuitive eating, the only effort required is learning to listen to your body.

    “Most people have adopted an eating schedule that revolves around breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Meletis says. “I’d rather have my patients eat two or three meals a day that speak to their nutritional needs and their unique biochemistry.”

In summary, intuitive eating can look different for different people, but is based on the same basic principles. Not only is it relatively universal, but it can also play a transformative role in your health journey.

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