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Intuitive eating: What is it and can it help me lose weight?

4 minute read

You’ve probably heard of keto and paleo, but are you familiar with intuitive eating? Unlike a traditional ‘diet’, this style of eating has little to do with weight loss and everything to do with having a healthy relationship with food and your body.

“Intuitive eating is based around a number of principles that focus on the connection between our thoughts, emotions and behaviours and the way we eat,” explains accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist Jemma O’Hanlon. “It throws dieting, calorie counting and guilt-connected experiences out of the window and focuses on eating with a sense of kindness.”

What is intuitive eating and how does it differ from other diets?

Many traditional diets focus on counting calories or macronutrients, explains Jemma, which all becomes very calculated and prescriptive. For many of us, these strict calorie counts and rigid rules simply don’t work. In fact, they can lead to rebellion and often result in weight gain in the long term.

Intuitive eating “teaches us to recognise the thoughts, emotions and behaviours that lead to different eating experiences, and this awareness can make a huge difference when it comes to weight management in the long term”, she says.

How did intuitive eating come about?

Created by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995, intuitive eating “honours both physical and mental health and is not focussed on weight loss”.

While it does support weight management, the focus is on overall health – and there’s a lot of research behind it. More than 90 studies have been conducted by the originators of the diet and a 2016 meta-analysis of 24 studies found that the approach was associated with benefits including greater body and life satisfaction, positive emotional functioning, optimism and greater motivation to exercise.

Benefits of intuitive eating

The main benefit of intuitive eating is that it teaches healthy eating behaviours. Other benefits include improved body image, higher self-esteem and better mental health.

“It takes all that distracting calorie counting away and focuses on the body and how we are feeling,” says Jemma. “When we are genuinely in tune with our thoughts, emotions and behaviours, we are in a good position to nourish ourselves well.”

What are the key considerations with intuitive eating?

By now, you’re probably wondering exactly how to eat intuitively – and it’s pretty straightforward. There are no ‘bad’ foods and no restrictions – yes, you can eat whatever you want – but it’s not as simple as eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.

Instead, it’s about trusting your body to make good choices about what it wants, rather than relying on diet culture to govern your choices. It gets away from the idea of labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and judging ourselves for what we’ve eaten. Here are some principles of intuitive eating:

1. Pause during your meals

Take a minute to consider how satisfied you are and stop when you’re satisfied even if it means leaving food on your plate.

2. Embrace mindful eating

Pay attention to the eating experience without judgement or trying to multitask.

3. Find other ways to cope with emotions

Many people ‘comfort eat’ to deal with feelings of anxiety, loneliness, boredom and anger, and then feel worse. Find other ways to work through and deal with unpleasant emotions, such as going for a walk.

4. Accept your body as it is

Genetics can play a huge role in our weight – and there’s not much we can do to change our DNA. Instead of trying to force your body to be something it isn’t, treat it with respect and eat well because it feels good.

5. Focus on health

Rather than exercising as punishment or pushing yourself to your physical limits to lose weight, shift your focus to the energising and mental-health benefits of being active. Remember that while a balanced diet is recommended, you don’t have to eat perfectly all the time to be healthy.

While a balanced diet is recommended, you don’t have to eat perfectly all the time to be healthy

How do you get started with intuitive eating?

Jemma highly recommends intuitive eating but says it can take some getting used to.

“Some people may feel a little uncomfortable initially as they are given free licence to eat. They are used to all these food rules and they feel like they’re in danger of demolishing the whole packet of Tim Tams in the fridge,” she says. “But the opposite actually occurs. We become in tune with our thoughts, emotions and behaviours, and empowered to make the food decisions that are right for us.”

To find out more about how to eat intuitively, Jemma suggests finding a dietitian who specialises in this area.

“They will be a fantastic support to help guide you through the process. You can find an accredited practising dietitian by visiting dietitiansaustralia.org.au.”

For more information on healthy eating, nutrition tips and exclusive recipes, head to our Nutrition section on The Check Up.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

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