‘I ate intuitively for a week and here’s what I found’

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Intuitive eating is exactly what its title suggests: a style of eating that encourages you to use your bodily sensations of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction to drive what you eat. It sounds like a fairly appealing (and basic) set of guidelines on which to base eating patterns, but is trusting your gut (no pun intended) the healthiest method to eat?

Intuitive eating was founded by dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995, and is comprised of ten principles to guide what you eat. These include: rejecting the diet mentality, honouring your hunger, making peace with food, challenging the food police, respecting your fullness, discovering the satisfaction factor, honouring your feelings without using food, respecting your body, exercising and honouring your health.

My first foray into intuitive eating came on an idle Monday, a day that holds different connotations for everyone. There is one thing I associate with the first day of the week, though, and that’s making reparations for some weekend indulges – a whole pizza, a smoky mezcal (or three), or any other number of things that seem to have more of a rightful place on a weekend as opposed to a weekday.

I don’t know when this habit started, but for as long as I can remember my Monday has unfailingly incorporated a gruelling sweat session of some variety, strictly no alcohol and a conscious effort to eat healthier than normal.

On a Sunday night a little while ago, I bid the weekend adieu with a friend over Thai food and pinot noir. The following day, working from home, I ignored the leftover pad thai and green curry in the fridge, despite my gnawing hunger. It didn’t even occur to me to heat it up and enjoy it like a regular, economical human. I was about to leave to pick up a salad for lunch when a thunderstorm hit – leaving me to rely on the contents of my apartment. Not interested in half a packet of uncooked farro or tinned chickpeas, the thai food won out. And what a revelatory experience it was. Did a scoop of noodles alter my physical appearance forever? No. Did the world continue to turn? Yes.

Interesting, I thought. I began to investigate what I recognised as intuitive eating. And so, for the ensuing seven days, I followed the aforementioned ten principles to guide what I eat of eating intuitively. Following that, and after consulting with Registered Dietician and Nutritionist Carolyn Brown of Foodtrainers fame, here is what I found.

1. Intuitive eating is different to mindful eating

Intuitive eating is not to be confused with mindful eating – a practise that everyone should be doing when they eat. Intuitive eating is more a style of eating; cutting out the diet-related noise we’ve been hearing since we’ve been born. “Intuitive eating is helpful to get out of ‘diet’ mentality and mindset – it’s getting back in touch with eating the foods you love,” Brown explained.

2. It’s not an excuse to gorge on whatever you fancy

Intuitive eating has been shown to improve its subscribers relationship to food. In studies, people who employ this style of eating feel less anxious about making food choices and have fewer body image concerns. However, it’s not an excuse for eating whatever you want – even if your body is telling you that the pasta is a superior option than the kale salad. “It’s not the right thing for everyone. Is a great movement to get away from calorie counting and the ‘hard and fast’ rules we’re all so accustomed to, but there is scope to go overboard. A good place to start is taking away the ‘off limits’ foods,” said Brown.

3. Check your eating habits

Throughout this experiment, I realised I had far more premeditated food-related thoughts than I’d initially anticipated. On some days I’d catch myself mentally mapping out what I’d eat during the day, taking into consideration when I’d be eating out and allowing myself “cheat meals”. It made me a lot more in tune with my body and my habits. Especially on the days where I genuinely wanted to skip the heavier options in lieu of a couple of boiled eggs for dinner – and felt just as satisfied.

4. It’s just as much a mental game

Your emotional health, in many ways, can directly impact your physical health. Like pretty much anything imbedded in taboo; when we’re taught to avoid certain foods, it only intensifies our cravings. So when we give ourselves permission to eat a food whenever we want, the “off-limits” foods become even less interesting. I thought I’d be reaching for the candy bar at 3pm more often than I did – but by removing the self-imposed taboo – the gummy bears seemed far less appealing.

5. It’s not a diet: Be in it for the long haul

Lastly – but probably most importantly – I learnt that unlike road-testing JLo’s famous Instagram diet, intuitive eating isn’t designed for a week-long trial. It’s something to be adopted slowly and consciously into your life over a long period of time. It’s not something I “snapped out of” once the seven days were up. “The easiest way to practice intuitive eating is self awareness and to be aware of your own eating behaviors; when you’re full or hungry, or journalling your hunger scale before and after a meal,” Brown summarised.