A Dietitian's Take On Intuitive Eating | Guest Post With Sarah O'Hara, R.D.

I'm so excited to announce a new writing partnership with my long friend, Sarah O'Hara. Sarah is a registered dietitian nutritionist and maternal health and wellness expert. A mama of two little girls, she has much to offer on the topic of how to keep yourself and your family well-cared for! She will be joining me for regular guest posts. If you have a topic you would like her to cover, send me an email and she will expand on the subject here on the blog! I've left her piece mostly unedited, as to retain her personal voice. I hope you enjoy!

As a Registered Dietitian, I’m consulted for advice about what to eat. But not as often as you might think. There are definitely circumstances when the “what” to eat (or not to eat) is at the forefront of the discussions I have with my clients - especially in the prenatal world that occupies much of my time. But overwhelmingly, it’s not so much about knowing what to eat. It’s about all the other things that influence our eating. And there are many, many other things that influence our eating. Just to name a few: whether you planned for the meal or not, who you’re eating with, what else you’re doing around the time of eating, when you last ate, when you last exercised, whether you’re trying to follow a diet, your level of stress, if you feel like eating something particular - let’s stop at this last one, it’s one that’s at the forefront of a new movement of eating that I want to dive a little deeper into for this post.

Maybe you’ve heard about Intuitive Eating, the premise of which is to become attuned to your body’s desire for certain foods and to trust yourself to eat what you feel like eating, when you feel like it, in the amount that satisfies you. It's about trusting your mind and body, and completely letting go of guilt and other negative thoughts or emotions when eating certain foods. For some, this sounds like a recipe for dietary disaster. For others, it sounds like freedom. The Intuitive Eating movement has gained a lot of momentum over the last several years, especially as a strategy for overcoming disordered eating or diet cycling.

You might expect a Dietitian’s response to Intuitive Eating to be something like “Everything in moderation; or Follow the 80:20 rule” (and, yes, I’m glaringly aware that fresh out of University, this might have been my exact response, I might have even written these words in a published book at some point), but here’s the thing: I think it really works. I think it really works because if you are mindful to what, when, and how much your body needs to feel satisfied and truly remove self-imposed restrictions, a lot of positive things happen. You teach yourself to examine the emotions and circumstances that drive your eating behaviours, you can break free of the guilt associated with eating certain foods, you learn to eat mindfully without overeating, enjoy a positive and healthy relationship with all food, and (surprise!) your body will still tell you it wants fruit and vegetables. You can still use what you know from a nutrition and health perspective but you learn to stop the black-and-white on/off diet mentality, stop fighting your body, and embrace that sense of trust that your body will ask you for what it needs.

We actually see that this works so well for toddlers and children. When we offer them regular, balanced meals and snacks, and don’t glorify or bribe with “treat” foods, kids tend to get what they need for normal growth and development over the course of several days, even if they don’t eat everything they’re offered at a sitting. The 100% daily value of each and every required nutrient does not need to be delivered day-in-day-out! When they’re sitting down to eat without distraction, young kids naturally eat until satisfied. Over the years, though, well-intentioned but potentially damaging messages (from parents, teachers, peers, and pretty much all of society) creep into our minds and begin to change how we eat. They twist eating for pleasure into feelings of guilt and shame and make us second-guess the self-trust in our bodies. As a mother, I want to instill a healthy relationship with food in my daughters and for them to know that they are beautiful human beings outside and in, regardless of their size, shape, or food preferences. The paradigm shift that needs to happen in order to improve how we interact with food is pretty monumental. I think it's happening and starts with each of us healing our own issues around food and modeling positive behaviours for our children.

What scares some about the concept of Intuitive Eating is the misconception that we’ll simply resort to eating ice cream and takeout every day, or that we’ll lose control of what we eat. The outcome is typically the opposite, though. Being mindful about how certain meals or foods make you feel helps you learn about yourself. Which foods make you feel energized and ready for whatever comes your way? Which ones tasted great but made you feel crappy afterward? Which ones truly bring you pleasure, and can be incorporated into whatever normal eating looks like for you, regardless of what anyone else thinks about it? Which ones, if you slow down your pace of eating to truly savor them, do you realize you gravitated toward to avoid dealing directly with feelings of stress, anxiety or sadness? For many, craving and desire is weakened by giving yourself permission to trust your body and to eat what satisfies you. We generally don’t like to be told what to do, even sometimes by our own negative thoughts - giving yourself permission to enjoy something can be totally liberating!

As a nutrition expert who has worked with over two thousand women and men over the last several years, one thing is glaringly obvious to me (and is backed by an ever-increasing body of research): diets don't work. Temporarily changing how you eat in a way that's unsustainable in the long run sets you up for disappointment, and drives a cycle of weight cycling and overall unhappiness with food, your body, and yourself. It's this very reason I feel it's actually unethical to promote strategies for eating that are purely driven by weight management without considering health, and, most importantly, sustainability.

Your worth and happiness have nothing to do with a number on a scale or your clothing size. If the effort it takes to look a certain way or meet some idealistic body standard is making you miserable, it's not worth it. Whether or not you align with the concept of Intuitive Eating, finding a sustainable and mindful approach to food is something that I think we can each reflect upon. Eat as well as you can without reducing your quality of life. I’d argue that if choosing certain foods makes you feel guilty or shameful, your quality of life is being negatively affected by the way you’re eating and how you think about food. If stress, anxiety, depression, or any other challenges consistently impact your eating and/or quality of life, don’t hesitate to seek help.

A few ideas (not rules!) for getting started with Intuitive and Mindful Eating

  • Stop judging yourself, and others, for food choices and body shape and size. Recognize that all the foods you enjoy can fit into a balanced and healthy intake.
  • Make a list of all the foods you truly enjoy, include these in the meal/snack planning you do.
  • Plan in advance for some balanced meals and snacks, but don’t feel guilty when you need to (or choose to) stray from that plan - it’s there to help you ensure you’ve got foods you enjoy and that satisfy you on-hand but it needn’t be something you live or die by.
  • Unplug while you eat - devote your full attention to the pleasure of eating, and enjoy conversation when dining with others.
  • Pay attention to your body’s cues for hunger: even before your stomach is rumbling you might notice a dip in your energy level, or that you’re more easily agitated (hangry!), this is your body telling you it’s time to eat something.
  • When possible, and especially when choosing foods strictly for pleasure, slow down your pace of eating. Truly savour the aroma, texture, and flavour of the food.
  • Eat until satisfied (not simply until the plate is empty, or you’re uncomfortably full) and trust your body to guide you in this effort.

It can also be helpful to work with someone who specializes in mindful/intuitive eating, such as a Dietitian and/or certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. If you’re interested in some more resources on this, check out a few of my faves at the following links:

Intuitive Eating Professionals

The Body Love Society

Weighty Matters

Worthy And Well Inc.

Watch the documentary Embrace, if you haven't already. (It's on Netflix!)

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