Despite the constant noise of fad diets competing for our attention, the biggest trend in nutrition this year may in fact be an anti-diet called “intuitive eating.”
Intuitive eating refers to a system of nutritional principles based on physical cues like hunger and satiety. It focuses on how you feel and what your body needs instead of adhering to external goals like calorie-counting or aesthetics.
It’s on the rise among younger people, particularly on social media, according to registered dietitian Alyssa Pike, manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC).
A recent IFIC survey polled 1,012 Americans on food behaviors and perceptions to predict the biggest trends for 2020. Some 49% percent of people ages 18 to 34 had heard of the term, compared with 27% of people over 50.
A large number of people (more than half of the total surveyed) said they were interested in applying principles of intuitive eating to their own lives including paying close attention to their level of hunger and limiting distractions while they eat.
“People are getting so sick of dieting and now, diets disguised as wellness,” said Christy Harrison, registered dietitian and author of “Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating.”
“I think we’re shifting toward ways to not have our relationship with food complicated by outside noise.”
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Intuitive eating relies on physical cues like hunger and satiety
In contrast to diets that focus on aesthetic goals, the number on the scale, or calorie-counting, intuitive eaters stick to 10 basic principles of allowing their individual bodies and experiences to determine their food choices.
Those principles include things like “honor your hunger” and “feel your fullness,” meaning intuitive eaters pay attention to the signals their body is sending about what it needs.
People new to intuitive eating may want to test out the limits and indulge in desserts, carbs, or other stigmatized snacks as reassurance that they’re permissible. Eventually, as you start tuning into and trusting your body, you might find you’re craving a salad, a hearty bean burrito, or a crisp apple, Harrison said.
The anti-diet approach challenges other trends, including wellness culture
Harrison said intuitive eating is gaining popularity in part because people have begun to recognize problems with diet culture, including evidence that diets don’t work, and the prevalence of dangerous eating disorders.
Intuitive eating also addresses a more insidious form of diet culture that has emerged in the form of “wellness,” she said. This includes a fixation with eating “clean,” for example, that can lead to its own form of eating disorder known as orthorexia.
Intuitive eating does take healthy eating into account, but only after unpacking the dietary dogma and pressure that often underlies the urge to eat healthily. The eventual goal of intuitive eating is to trust that your body knows what it needs to feel good, and that includes salads as well as sweets, healthy foods as well as indulgences.
“You can’t really re-approach nutrition in a kind and gentle way without breaking down those ideas about diet culture. If you don’t, that information just tends to get plugged into the existing framework and you still have a black-and-white weight-centric, weight stigmatizing way of thinking about things,” she said.
Studies have shown intuitive eating has proven benefits for mental and physical health
Pike cited research that intuitive eating leads to better self-esteem, emotional well-being, and psychological resilience. It’s also been linked to greater motivation to exercise, since it prioritizes enjoyment instead of guilt or shame. Although more research is needed to fully understand the effects of intuitive, some studies have show promising results that intuitive eating may lead to overall healthier habits overall.
Although it’s tempting to ask whether intuitive eating can help with weight loss, experts say that’s missing the point, since the practice encourages people to consider their relationship with food beyond aesthetics.
“The ultimate goal is to have food become one of many aspects of life that support your well-being, but it doesn’t take on this outsized role where you’re spending all your time worrying about food and nutrition,” Harrison said. “It gives you time to think about other things that matter in your life.”