Rewards and challenges of intuitive eating
The internet is constantly atwitter with the latest diet strategies—what works, what doesn’t, and what to try next to shed that stubborn weight. That food has shifted from being a basic survival need to a potential source of health problems seems counter-intuitive. Is intuitive eating the answer to weight woes?
A variety of reasons may explain why our hunt for the perfect diet is perpetual. Research has shown that restrictive diets don’t lead to long-term healthy weight. While this may, in part, be because reducing food intake is not sustainable over the long term, unresolved unhealthy relationships with food may also be involved.
Subconscious childhood messages to “clean our plates” of food we didn’t put there and enforced mealtimes that required us to either ignore our hunger until dinnertime or eat at a certain time—even if we weren’t hungry—may have led, eventually, to poor communication with our hunger GPS.
Consider the influence of societal pressure to look a certain way, an influence that has many young people severely cutting calories while they’re also experiencing rapid body change at puberty and young adulthood. Eating behaviour fueled by body image concerns sets up a pattern of disconnecting from hunger cues and body needs that can persist well into the middle years.
Negative body image has been associated with disordered eating, including anorexia and bulimia, as well as overweight and obesity. Once these patterns have been established, it’s very difficult to override them. But it is possible.
Intuitive eating is based on the premise that the body has an innate wisdom about the quantity and type of food required to maintain an appropriate weight and achieve nutritional health. Intuitive eating has been associated with less disordered eating, more aspects of positive body image such as body appreciation, and improved emotional functioning. Essentially, intuitive eaters eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re satisfied. No food is off-limits unless it’s restricted by a specific health issue such as a food allergy or diabetes, for example, and intuitive eaters eat what and when they choose. In other words, intuitive eaters don’t consider the potential impact that a food might have on body weight.
This isn’t to suggest that intuitive eaters aren’t concerned about their health. On the contrary: people with higher body appreciation tend to focus on body function (what the body can do and feel) rather than body image (appearance) when making food choices. My own research showed that the midlife women in my study made food selections based on how it made them feel physically and mentally. For example, they might skip dessert before an important meeting if they’ve noticed that sugar zaps their energy.
In theory, then, intuitive eaters will instinctively choose a variety of foods in the right amounts to help them meet their nutritional requirements and to help them feel good in their bodies. Some folks are naturally intuitive eaters or easily make the switch to this type of eating, while others might have a more difficult time with it. What’s going on?
The body’s goal, always, is to achieve allostasis or balance. When it comes to eating, a multitude of mechanisms are at work to sensitize us to food cues when energy reserves are getting low. For example, the appetite hormones ghrelin and leptin and other circulating molecules are directed by the hypothalamus, which is the control centre in the brain. These hormones are secreted in response to changing should continue with energy (food) states: ghrelin stimulates appetite and leptin inhibits food intakes.
“Essentially, intuitive eaters eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re satisfied.”
Referring to what is going on in the body that can affect cognition or behaviour, with or without awareness, interoception is critical for allostasis. The extent to which we can detect internal bodily sensations is referred to as interoceptive sensitivity, and one’s level of interoceptive sensitivity is strongly linked to the experience and regulation of emotions.
Significantly, there are substantial and stable individual differences in interoceptive sensitivity that are evident in neuroimaging of the insula. Perhaps not surprisingly, studies show that our level of interoceptive sensitivity is associated with awareness of hunger and satiety cues, as well as whether we eat for hunger or for emotional or external reasons. Some research suggests, however, that the insula might be more finely attuned to emotion or external stimuli than to internal cues, which may play a role in overeating. Interoceptive sensitivity has also been shown to decline with age. Lower interoceptive sensitivity has been observed in anorexia, binge eating, overweight and obesity, as well as depression. On the other hand, intuitive eating is associated with higher levels of interoceptive sensitivity.
Amping up interoceptive sensitivity can be a challenging process, not only because we may have unconscious food programming, but also because we may jump to conclusions about what body sensations to expect when we’re hungry, for example, or what the sensations we experience might signal. We also may have trained ourselves to ignore physiological responses like hunger, stress, and pain. Mindfulness therapies may be useful in helping to re-establish the mind-body connection.
Mindful eating is the cousin of intuitive eating and includes the same principles for food selection but adds the component of meditation. Taking time to focus on the eating experience allows mindful eaters to notice whether foods are fresh or of good quality, and to assess whether they want to continue eating them.
Research has shown that even without specific training in mindful eating, mindfulness practices such as meditation may encourage people to control portion sizes, experience less uncontrolled eating, and increase the likelihood of choosing fruits over sweets as a snack—without once thinking about calories. Intuitively, it makes sense. Lisa Petty, MA, ROHP, is a PhD candidate, nutritionist, and advocate for women’s well-being. lisapetty.caThis article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of alive Canada, under the title "Listen To Your Gut."