Rules around food often cause us to lose touch with what our bodies really require

A COUPLE of months ago, I was introduced to the concept of Intuitive Eating and I have become almost evangelical about it, says Louise O’Neill

Rules around food often cause us to lose touch with what our bodies really require

I feel compelled to tell everyone I know that this system will change your life. “You just eat when you’re hungry!” I say, over and over again. “And stop when you’re full! Viva la revolution, my friends!” (I have no friends anymore.)

The system was created by two American nutritionists, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, and has played a crucial part in the ever popular anti-dieting movement that’s taking place globally. If you practice Intuitive Eating, you eschew calorie counting and re-learn to trust your body’s hunger and satiety signals. You stop labelling certain foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and follow your own instincts about what you want to eat, and when you want to eat it.

There are 10 principles in their 1995 book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works which encourage you to ‘honour your hunger’, and ‘respect fullness’. While it’s absolutely not a diet, your body will settle at its natural set point, which is the weight that is its most comfortable. Much more importantly than that, the system promises to give you complete freedom from obsessing about food and your body.

This way of eating is something that was natural to us as children. Research has shown that if toddlers are allowed to choose their own food, they intuitively reach for that which they need on a biological level. A study in 1939 found that very young children were drawn to protein during growth spurts, carbohydrates when they were very active, and even sometimes regulated their selections based on vitamin deficiencies that they would have had no knowledge or understanding of. It is only with age that we become trained in following strict rules around food — about the time we should eat and the quantities that we should have and how many calories we need to consume on a daily basis — rules that often cause us to lose touch with what our bodies really require.

For some of you reading this, the concept of Intuitive Eating is probably, well, intuitive. It can certainly seem obvious at first glance, but for many people, particularly women, there is so much baggage around food, and the idea of allowing ourselves to trust our body’s instincts seems terrifying and insane in equal measures. We have been socially conditioned to believe that our weight correlates to our self worth, and many of us have been engaged in a life-long war to keep our hunger in check. We see our bodies as unruly; they are the enemy and we must be conquered, our desires contained. Somehow, we have actually begun to believe that we need to take up as little space as possible in order to matter.

And these beliefs have spawned one of the most lucrative beasts in the world — the dieting industry. Of course, these fad diets don’t work long term. Ironically, researchers now believe that dieting is actually a consistent predictor of future weight gain and still, teenage girls see losing weight as a panacea for happiness. Statistics show that most girls become conscious of their weight at the age of eight (those numbers seem to be dropping all the time), and a study from the US in 2015 reported that 80% of 10-year-old girls had been on a diet. And with teenage girls who diet being eight times more likely to develop an eating disorder than their peers who do not restrict their food, it is imperative that adults set a healthy example by rejecting our false illusions about dieting. We must make peace with our bodies, whether we are a size six or 16. There is not one body type that is inherently more attractive than another, only what we have been conditioned to believe is ‘better’.

Resch and Tribole argue that food is inherently innocuous. You eat however much you need, when you need it. No food is forbidden, although if you pay attention to your body’s responses you might come to observe that certain foods make you feel more energetic than others. It’s that simple yet it can feel devastating complicated if you’re one of the millions of people who express dissatisfaction with the way your body looks. For me, I was always so afraid that if I started eating then I would never be able to stop. I thought I had to call upon all my reserves of will power, and keep a white-knuckle grip on my appetite lest it overwhelm me and demand that I eat nothing but chocolate for the rest of my life.

I was afraid of what would happen if I just let go. Intuitive Eating was scary at the beginning (yes, there was a lot of chocolate involved) and my weight fluctuated which was deeply distressing for someone with a history of eating disorders, but then I started to recognise when I was hungry and I honoured that rather than seeing it as something that needed to be ignored. For the first time since I was 15 years of age, I could decide half way through a meal that I was full and for once, I would be telling the truth. I am listening to my body, its needs, its desires. And yes, it does feel revolutionary. Join me, won’t you?


BUY:  Favourite Recipes from the Food Truck by Diana Dodog. What Diana and her husband Mike have achieved with the Food Depot in Courtmacsherry has been nothing short of amazing. The recipes in their new cookbook are accessible and delicious – and keep an eye out for the mention of my father and O’ Neill’s Butcher Shop in the acknowledgements!

CHECK OUT: The Young Playwrights Programme with Fighting Words and Graffiti Theatre. If you’re aged between 14-19, you could see your work being performed by professional actors at the Everyman Theatre as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival.

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