What is intuitive eating? A look at the ‘anti-diet’

CHICAGO — What is the anti-diet?

It’s a practice rooted in self-care, not deprivation, designed to help practitioners tune out diet culture and tune in to their bodies. Those who take the approach to wellness say they’re digesting food – not mixed messages.

Debbie Heywood is an intuitive eating practitioner. She said she spent the last 50 years fighting her weight and body image.

“It took over my life a lot of my life,” she said. “I think it took up way too much of my time and energy and space and made me sad and unhappy for a very, very long time.”

And now at age 63, Heywood said she is done.

“I wasn’t willing to go the rest of my life like that,” she said.

For the past three years, she’s adopted what’s known as intuitive eating. Registered dietician and social worker Kate Merkle is guiding Heywood through the process.

“For a lot of folks, it’s like a breath of fresh air,” Merkle said. “It’s really liberating.”

Merkle, who says she once struggled with an eating disorder, discovered the philosophy while in college.

“Really it’s about embracing and accepting your body as it is, but also but also doing the work of attunement. What does it need?” Merkle said.

Merkle now shares the principles of what’s also called an anti-diet approach at her Nourishment Works practice on Chicago’s North Side.

“I truly am living this philosophy,” she said. “It saved my life. … There’s so much tsunami of diet culture, a huge wave of diet culture in our world.”

And many are drowning weighed down by a constant crush of external and internal messages. Merkle said her clients often repeat the same thought patterns:

  • “I need to starve myself in order to lose weight”
  • “Certain foods are bad”
  • “Thin = health”
  • “I can’t lose weight, so I’m a failure”
  • “Being fat is bad”
  • “I need a structured diet plan”

For some, intuitive eating can be a life preserver.

“It really does give people their lives back,” Merkle said.

The approach isn’t a license to eat with abandon. Nor is it about avoiding certain foods and restricting calories. Rather, it’s about connecting with hunger and fullness. Merkle said, think of the process like a gauge on a fuel tank.

It’s when we get moody, irritable, Merkle said diet culture “tells us you can override it just get a diet soda.”

Instead, Merkle said “gentle hunger” is a better cue to eat.

“I want to help folks get permission to eat when they do notice this early on,” she said.

From there, she said tune in across the spectrum. 

“We want fullness and satisfaction,” she said.

Not too full, that’s when we beat ourselves up.

“The shame spiral can happen around, ‘I shouldn’t have eaten so much.’ But really it was a biological response to being so hungry,” Merkle said.

“It’s like being tuned into my body,” Heywood said.

Questions she said she asks herself at every meal:

  • What do I want to eat?
  • Do I want something warm?
  • Do I want to bite into something?
  • Do I want a drink this morning?

“And doing that for every meal, so I’m connected to what I’m eating in a way that I know I’m honoring my body,” Heywood said.

Registered dietician Yolanda Cartwright helped develop a nutrition program to address hypertension in the communities she serves on Chicago’s West Side.

“If people don’t subscribe to this idea of what an ideal body weight is, it’s highly unlikely that an intervention designed via a traditional path will work,” she said. “What we do in our work, we try to move away from the approach where things are so stringent.”

The Rush researcher said an intuitive eating principle mindfulness is a critical component in her model.

We’re not focusing on the fat that you are eating, and the calories that you are eating and the carbs but we’re thinking more globally about diet things — like limiting processed foods and eating more fruits and veggies. And when you do these things do you feel like you have more energy do you feel more happy?

Yolanda Cartwright, registered dietician

“Those of us in the nutrition community have known for a very long time that the brain has this miraculous ability to control appetites,” she said.

Linda Van Horn Phd is a professor of preventive medicine and chief of the department’s nutrition division at Northwestern Medicine.

“Feeling right to you and the rules are not necessarily either-or as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

She said practicing intuitive eating has its benefits if individuals are consuming nutrient-rich foods, particularly those recommended by established dietary guidelines.

I can trust myself and I don’t need anybody to tell me what my body needs they don’t know me

– Debbie Heywood, intuitive eater

“I do agree it would be wonderful if people would stop eating when they are no longer hungry,” she said. “That is a major contributor to our overweight and obesity problem in this country. … But if those calories are coming from foods that are devoid of those nutrients are absent in the vitamins and minerals and other things we know are associated with a healthier outcome and lower risk for disease then that is unfortunate.” 

Heywood said she isn’t worried. She no longer steps on the scale but she does know her numbers.

“I’m healthy, my labs are good,” she said. “The freedom that I feel and the joy that I have in myself now is so different from getting up every morning feeling unhappy about myself. Your body, my body does not lead me down the wrong path. If I listen, I’m good.

Food isn’t the only factor – nutritionists say sleep, stress, physical activity and hydration should all be considered when it comes to overall wellness.

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