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Trying Intuitive Eating? An Expert Shares Mindfulness Practices That Can Help.

Meditation to enhance awareness may be key to making the most of the “anti-diet.”

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In recent years, it’s become pretty clear that weight-loss and other restrictive diets, for the most part, just don’t work. You lose a few pounds. You hit a plateau. You gain the weight back. Rinse and repeat. But it’s a cycle that we keep trying, hoping that this time something will be different. In the mid ‘90s, a pair of nutrition experts developed the “intuitive eating” model to address what they call the “failed paradigm.” They wanted to turn the traditional approach to dieting on its head and release people from the fruitless cycle of dieting.

Now, Jenna Hollenstein, author of Intuitive Eating for Life: How Mindfulness Can Deepen and Sustain Your Intuitive Eating Practice, takes intuitive eating to another level by incorporating the principles of meditation practice. Here, she explains the connection between the two.

What is the principle behind intuitive eating?

Dieting teaches you to fight with your biology and to trick yourself into not feeling hungry, to eat less than would actually be satisfying, to eat substitutes for the foods that you actually want. Intuitive eating is all about listening to your body to tell you what you eat, when you eat it, and how much you eat. They call it the “anti diet” because with dieting, the what, the when, and the how-much are all prescribed.

How did the intuitive eating model develop?

The originators of the intuitive eating model, registered dietitians and nutrition therapists Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, were experiencing what all dieticians experience: You impart your wisdom to your clients. Clients take that wisdom about weight loss and behavior-change home with them. They sometimes lose weight. But they return later, having gained back that weight and then some. People are deeply affected by this psychologically. They think something is wrong with them or that they’ve failed.

So Resch and Tribole started poring over research that looks at what happens when you restrict people’s food. Over the years, researchers have observed that people who intentionally restricted what they eat—or who were even thinking of restricting their food—end up eating more and generally focusing more on food. It’s both a biological response and psychological response to restriction. When we try to overpower our biology, there’s a backlash. So putting people on a diet is trying to control the uncontrollable. We’re trying to override an already innately wise body.

What does intuitive eating look like in practice?

Dr. Tracy Tylka, a psychologist who studies body image and eating behavior, characterizes intuitive eaters as people who eat primarily in response to biological hunger, who give themselves unconditional permission to eat, and who have ways of dealing with emotions that don’t involve food. And they choose foods that don’t just taste good, but feel good in your body.

So you’re eating primarily to meet your physical need for food–less for emotional reasons or entertainment. There’s no “better” food; there’s no “worse” food. The carrot and the carrot cake all exist on an equal moral plane. You know that it’s sometimes okay to soothe yourself with food, but you also have ways of coping with emotions that don’t involve food.

That seems counter to a lot of what we’re taught about how we should approach our diet.

I think that those ideas came about because of this belief that the body can’t be trusted. We’ve become so fixated on this idea that something outside of our physical body knows better than we do, that we outsource the body’s intelligence.

The concept behind intuitive eating is that there’s this continuous communication going on between body and mind. It says, “Oh, that sensation means that I’m hungry.” Then you ask yourself what you’re hungry for and what will probably be most satisfying. And you give yourself the permission to sit and eat until your body starts to communicate to you that it’s getting full and experiencing satisfaction.

How does satisfaction come into play?

There are 10 principles of intuitive eating and one of them is “discover the satisfaction factor.” When the third edition of Resch and Tribole’s book came out in 2012, they put satisfaction right in the center of all the other principles. By doing so, they also sort of radically positioned pleasure as really important to connecting with self regulation.

Connecting with pleasure and satisfaction helps clarify what’s overeating and what’s undereating. If you’re not reaching satisfaction, you might be undereating. If you continue eating beyond the point where you are satisfied, you could be overeating. But who decides what enough is? It’s the individual.

How did the connection to meditation come in?

I was working with my meditation teacher, Susan Piver, and I started connecting the dots between intuitive eating and meditation. With intuitive eating, we are working with the reality of our biological needs. Meditation helps us work with the reality of our emotions and our relationship with discomfort and pleasure.

So both practices—meditation and intuitive eating—are ways to reconnect with the wise body?

Yes, and also to work with things as they are. Our culture is so obsessed with making things better. Optimizing. Knowing the exact amount of different nutrients we’re supposed to be taking in. Stocking the fridge with the superfoods. We’re always trying to be better, always healthier.

Intuitive eating is a way of reconnecting with something that was never lost, but that just sort of went to sleep. And that’s interoception–that ability to perceive, in real time, what’s happening, and make decisions based on the sensations in your body.

It is the anti diet. You don’t need anyone to tell you what or when or how much to eat. You don’t need the experts. You don’t need the programs. You don’t need the special food. You don’t need the modified foods because you possess that capacity to say yes, no, how much, or why. No, I don’t actually need the peanut butter cup; I need to call my mom. That discerning quality is where mindfulness really helps. You’re aware of what’s actually happening right now.

That doesn’t mean you can never eat for entertainment or eat for fun or eat for soothing. You can eat a fabulous meal and enjoy it. And when you get to the point of satisfaction—a comfortable fullness after eating what you want to eat—you can stop.

What have been the outcomes of working with people who are practicing intuitive eating?

I think some aspects of it stick with people right away, but it is a practice that unfolds for the rest of your life. Sometimes people will work with me for a period of time, stop for a while, come back. I’ve had people reject intuitive eating because that means their body reaches a weight that they’re not comfortable with. I’ve had clients initially reject intuitive eating for that reason, then go on to work in the larger anti-diet and fat liberation field. I have to believe that there were some seeds of intuitive eating there. The majority, though, say their lives have been radically changed for the better with intuitive eating.

So intuitive eating is a healthy approach to eating, but you may not get skinny from doing it.

That’s right. You might stay the same weight. You might lose weight. You might gain weight. But the fact is that some people will never be skinny. Some people are always going to be in a bigger body and other people are going to be in a thinner body. Part of why we know that the BMI is a crappy indicator of health is that there’s no actual normative range across populations. Your body decides where it wants to be in terms of weight. And that’s often the hardest thing for people to accept. It makes a lot of sense that somebody in a bigger body would want to be in a smaller body because for people in larger bodies, our culture is very hostile.

But it’s the suggestion that we all need to aspire for thinness that has created what people call the “obesity epidemic.” You know, if people could have just been respected in their diverse range of bodies and been encouraged to practice habits like physical activity, eating nutritious food, processing trauma, getting adequate rest, managing stress, connecting with people–those basic human needs–I think things would be very different now.  And changes need to happen on a much larger and systemic level—with agriculture, pharma, and other businesses that benefit from people trying to fix their bodies.

How does your mindfulness work add to the evolution of intuitive eating?

Mindfulness has been on the rise in terms of popularity in the last several decades, so people understand that it’s a practice of paying attention in a certain way. Being present has always been a part of intuitive eating. Because you have to be present in order to connect with interoception. Your mind and your body have to be in the same place for your mind to say, “Oh, that feels like a sensation of hunger.” I’ve found that people who either have a meditation practice or start learning how to meditate take to the teachings of intuitive eating quicker. The two practices are very complementary.

Why is that?

My meditation practice—shamatha, a type of meditation from the Theravada Buddist tradition—reminds us how to feel. So we’re honing interoception, because we’re paying attention to and prioritizing feeling. Meditation also encourages us to stay with ourselves through any number of mind states, thoughts, and emotional states that we experience. So we develop a greater capacity to tolerate a range of emotions. And that makes us less reactive.

If somebody is prone to emotional eating, for example, when an uncomfortable emotion hits, the response to eat happens almost automatically. But with meditation, it’s almost like you can stretch time out. You recognize that this is a situation in which I could eat to try to change my state, but I’m going to practice staying with myself. I’m going to really figure out what would more precisely meet my actual need. What is my actual need and how might I tend to that?

Why do you think incorporating mindfulness practice works?

I think that’s because it stabilizes the nervous system. Of course, it’s not for everybody. If you have unprocessed trauma, it might not be wise to sit down and quiet the body and pay attention to what’s going on in the mind. But if you’re in a place where you can do that, then you start to be both the feeler—the person experiencing the moment—and the observer. And that just gives you more choices.