healthy eating
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Intuitive eating: What is the ‘anti-diet’?

This model seeks to establish a healthy relationship with food, physically and mentally

Nutrición Dieta
A person prepares a bowl with various fruits.EMS-FORSTER-PRODUCTIONS (Getty Images)
Azahara Nieto

There’s an approach to eating that sounds like the opposite of what we’ve learned about dieting. It may seem super new, but it actually originated in 1995. It’s called “intuitive eating,” and it was developed by two nutritionists, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who were tired of seeing how the diet model without nutrition education caused their patients to return again and again to the office because they had regained the weight they had lost or even gained a little more. Fed up and frustrated with the dependent relationship they were establishing with their patients, they decided to investigate another way of dealing with the problem.

In the beginning, they worked like any other newly minted nutritionist (at least, that’s how I started out). In nutrition, we focus on weight loss, and they make us believe that it is all a matter of willpower. When you start your practice, you realize that reality is different, that you cannot be on a diet forever, and diets fail. It is not that the patients do not comply, but rather that the basic approach is wrong.

A weight-centric approach makes people believe that weight is something that can be controlled, when, in fact, it is not a behavior. This approach does not consider mental health, the consequences of physical and emotional restrictions and prohibitions, or the individual’s socioeconomic and environmental conditions. As a result, it suggests that health is achieved individually, when it should be included in public policies so that we all have equal access to it.

Intuitive eating aims to establish a healthy relationship with food, body and mind. Based on a weight-neutral model, it does not focus on body size but rather on healing one’s relationship with food, since we cannot turn our backs on the physiological need to eat. This approach does not promise to change one’s body; if such changes occur, they will be the result of applying the principles of intuitive eating. Let’s go with them:

  1. Reject the diet mentality: In general, what the population knows about nutrition is focused on weight loss, usually myths and beliefs that have become truths through repetition.
  2. Honor the feeling of hunger: Diet culture has made us believe that being hungry is something negative, a sign of weakness; it has made us fear hunger. The reality is that hunger is a signal that our body sends us to replenish our energy, the same as when the car’s warning light goes off because it does not have fuel. Learning to identify hunger and deal with it appropriately is what this approach proposes. In patients with anorexia, the hunger signal is inhibited by the body, since they are in a state of energy reserve; as the body knows that it will not be satisfied, it stops sending the signal so as not to cause unnecessary energy expenditure. When these patients are recovering, it is an indicator of improvement when the signal returns. Therefore, hunger is a sign of life.
  3. Making peace with food: In my practice, I see that most of my patients experience a dichotomy in which food is both a reward and a punishment. During the day they spend a lot of time and energy thinking about food; there’s a lot of mental noise. When you manage to make peace with food, it is very liberating, and food becomes just another thing in life.
  4. Challenging the food police: The police is that little voice that tells you not to eat something if you are not going to be able to exercise, that yesterday you ate sweets already, how are you going to have rice for dinner?, that a whole banana is too much, etc. Identifying those patterns and dismantling them will help you to reduce the mental chatter around food.
  5. Discover the satisfaction factor: Return to pleasure without justifying food choices; enjoy food without counting calories and guilt. Eating is a pleasure that is always at hand, and diet culture ends up turning it into a crime.
  6. Perceive the feeling of satiety: We are so disconnected from our bodies that we do not know if we are full until we can hardly move. Using some tools, we can get back in tune with fullness cues.
  7. Face emotions with kindness: Less pleasant emotions have no place in this society; we are uncomfortable with sadness, both our own and others’, boredom… We are taught to make ourselves better with food; there is nothing wrong with that, the problem is not having more resources to deal with negative emotions.
  8. Respect the body: Diet culture and beauty standards have taught us to want to change our bodies, creating body dissatisfaction and shame. From the intuitive eating approach, we propose accepting and respecting our bodies, focusing not on beauty but on functionality.
  9. Movement: Feel the difference. Our body is made to move; it is not made to sit for over eight hours. Diet culture has always suggested exercise as a means to modify our bodies; here, we propose movement as a source of wellness. If dancing is your thing, go for it; don’t focus on strength or cardio. As my colleague Sara Tabares says, ultimately, the best exercise is the one you do.
  10. Honor health: Moderate nutrition. Choose those foods that make us feel good and give us energy. It promotes healthy and flexible eating.

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