What is Intuitive Eating and is it Right for EveryBODY?

Created by Erica Leon, Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Specialist, Marcia Meislin, Author, The Goodbye Cookie: A Memoir About Never Giving Up and Michelle McGahan, Project Manager of The Goodbye Cookie
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be mindful of what we put into our bodies and how each food tastes and feels? To be able to discern, in the moment, whether we’ve had enough and are satisfied? To respect our bodies, including our personal genetic blueprint?

These are some of the principles behind “Intuitive Eating,” a method described in the book of the same title authored by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. At its core, the Intuitive Eating approach believes that each person is the expert over her body as she learns to trust herself and develop a healthy relationship with food. This means saying “goodbye” to food police, negative self-judgments, shaming and “shoulds”; and saying “hello” to honoring hunger, registering fullness cues, and finding new ways to comfort oneself without food.

But is intuitive eating right for everyBODY?

The following discussion took place between Marcia Meislin, author of The Goodbye Cookie, a memoir on binge-eating disorder, and her nutritionist, Erica Leon, a Certified Intuitive Eating specialist. It was conducted by Michelle McGahan, Project Manager of The Goodbye Cookie.

After Marcia’s gastric bypass surgery eight years ago, she hired Erica to help her maintain her weight loss and build a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. Over the years, during weekly nutrition and personal training sessions, the two women have had a running dialogue about whether intuitive eating is the right orientation for Marcia, a self-proclaimed food addict.

WebMD.com, a respected site for health information, discusses food addiction:

“Experiments in animals and humans show that, for some people, the same reward and pleasure centers of the brain that are triggered by addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin are also activated by food, especially highly palatable foods [rich in sugar, fat and salt]… Once people experience pleasure associated with increased dopamine transmission… from eating certain foods, they quickly feel the need to eat again.

The reward signals from highly palatable foods may override other signals of fullness and satisfaction. As a result, people keep eating, even when they’re not hungry.”

Erica and Marcia, one of the principles of Intuitive Eating is Discovering Satisfaction, meaning enjoying all types of food. Is it possible to overcome trigger foods?

ERICA: Some clients come to me after decades of unsuccessful dieting and restricting. I encourage them to give themselves unconditional permission to eat and to be more open to foods that were previously taboo. For example, if someone has become her own “food police” and has set a rule that she can’t eat bread though she desires it, a goal might be to try and eat a sandwich for lunch instead of a salad and see if it feels more satisfying. Or for someone who feels guilty or shameful about enjoying ice cream, the goal might be to have the client become comfortable with ice cream.

We might start with having one scoop of chocolate ice cream in a safe environment and see how that feels. This type of exposure empowers the client to try again and again. She might be able to tolerate it, or maybe she’d allow herself to eat vanilla — not chocolate — or maybe she’d decide that she’s not ready to try it because of anxiety. My concept is that a person needs to get away from the notion that she is “good” or “bad” based on calories or “forbidden” foods, and that there should be no rules or guilt associated with eating.

MARCIA: I’m a food addict, and sugar is my primary substance. When I eat ice cream (a trigger food), all I want is more. The constant obsession for more diverts energy away from my other activities as I keep hearing the ice cream in the freezer calling to me. And even when I do have more, I never feel satisfied. After years of trial and error, I’ve concluded that I’m best off not eating ice cream or other sugary treats.

While it may appear that I am depriving myself of something I like, my own experience has shown me that my physical reactions to many highly palatable foods usually include bloating and discomfort. My mental responses, that preoccupation with food, syphon off my creativity and productivity. I choose not to go down that rabbit hole as it’s not worth it to me; I don’t enjoy being in the throes of my addiction and compulsive overeating.

In each of your own words, what is your philosophy when it comes to nutrition and dieting?

ERICA: When people come to me with weight or food issues, my mantra is to meet them where they are. Some people come because they have made a decision to change their lives, and they will do whatever it takes. Some are sent by a loved one who wants them to lose weight, and they may be resistant to change. I reject the whole notion of the strict diet mentality because I have seen the suffering and pain that it can cause – being a slave to the scale and judging themselves as “good” or “bad” depending on what they ate. I try to encourage people to eat in a way that feels good for their bodies and their self-esteem.

MARCIA: I believe that everyone needs to find her own path. For decades, I have paid a lot of money to diet doctors, fasting, and weight loss programs. I went to programs that restricted food and programs that believed in no restrictions. Through all of that experimenting, I arrived at a way of living where food has a reasonable place and doesn’t take over my life. I have become attuned to my body by learning which foods work for me and which don’t. I have come up with a few rules about staying away from foods that set off my addiction. And I don’t shame myself or hide in a corner if I’ve made a poor choice.

Some people feel that identifying trigger foods and eliminating them, even for food addicts, is a rigid model of eating. Do you think on some level, that intuitive eating can be perceived as a rigid program, even though it is very open in terms of food choice?

ERICA: [Laughs] I am the least rigid dietitian that I know. My whole philosophy is meeting people where they are and helping them gently make changes that feel good to them and get their bodies and minds into a healthier place.

MARCIA: I’m so glad that Erica and I listened to each other’s philosophies and met in the middle. If I had a judgmental nutritionist who denied my decades of research to find what works for me, I wouldn’t have been receptive to finding kinder and gentler ways of respecting my body, which is part of Intuitive Eating.

 

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