Eat intuitively, not restrictively

Restrictive diets such as intermittent fasting, calorie-restrictive diets, or the ketogenic diet can produce very varying rates of success.

Studies are now suggesting that listening to the body’s cues and acknowledging and acting on cravings instead of ignoring them, may well lead to better results from diets overall, especially in terms of psychological health.

Not feeling guilty for giving into cravings could help with long-term weight lossStudio Lucky | Shutterstock

As well as the physical effects of fasting, a range of psychological symptoms can arise from restrictive diets. For instance, those following restrictive diets may become preoccupied with feelings of guilt about eating, and are more at risk of developing depression, anxiety, and stress.

The concept of intuitive eating has been gaining traction after dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch published a book on the subject.

Intuitive eating encourages people to listen to the body and follow its cues about when and how much to eat, instead of controlling the diet through emotions, diet plans, or the environment in which they live.

It is in contrast to many alternative diets, as it does not call for people to cut food out of their diet; instead, it actively encourages them to eat what they want.

Regarding concerns about those following an intuitive eating guide will consume more food high in fats and sugars, research into intuitive eating has found that the opposite it true.

Judith Matz, LCSW, co-author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance, and Self-Care, explains,

When you tell yourself something is off limits, you’re likely to think about it more often. […] When you do eventually eat it, there’s a good chance you’ll overeat or binge on that food, which is a natural reaction to deprivation.”

Alissa Rumsey MS, RD, a nutrition therapist and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, also shed light on the effects of indulging cravings.

When you eat what you want to, and the sense of restriction or scarcity has gone away, you’re able to tune into your body and listen and actually decide if you want a certain food or not. And eventually, everyone gets to the point where they don’t have intense cravings. This is explained in research by the science of habituation: the more you are exposed to a food, the less interested you become in it.”

As defined in a study Long-term Habituation to Food in Obese and Nonobese Women, habituation is a “form of learning in which repeated exposure to a stimulus leads to a decrease in responding.”

Allowing oneself to eat what the body is craving can have positive effects on psychological health. Binge eating food after a period of deprivation can lead to an unhealthy cycle of feeling guilty, restricting the diet, then bingeing again.

However, the habituation study does recognize that the learning technique may not affect all types of food, stating “It is also possible […] there are foods that seem resistant to habituation, that people would eat as often as possible without getting tired of that food. Many chocolate lovers would surely agree.”

Authors admit that the research into habituation and eating is in its “infancy” but it may “help to understand some aspects of eating, and may be able to provide insight into factors responsible for obesity and eating disorders.”

Regarding eating disorders, intuitive eating requires a person to be accurate in their conclusions about their hunger or satiation levels.

Those with eating disorders may have more trouble recognizing their body’s signals, as suggested by a study into interoception, the ability to feel a sense of the state of the body’s internal systems and eating disorders.

It concluded that out of its 41 samples, “large interoceptive deficits occur in a variety of eating disorders and crucially, in those who have recovered”. It is important to note, however, that the sample size of this study is small.

The positive effects on mental health gained from intuitive eating are more apparent than the positive effects on weight loss.

Research suggests that intuitive eating is associated with better positive body image, body satisfaction, positive emotional functioning, and higher levels of self-esteem.

Other studies have found that intuitive eating has also led to lower eating disorder symptoms when compared with symptoms experienced from restrictive diets.

Additional to cravings, both environmental and lifestyle factors may also affect when and what a person is able to eat, for instance having to adhere to specific mealtimes due to work or family commitments that may force a person to eat when they are not hungry.

There are also a wide range of hormones that regulate hunger, appetite, and rates of satisfaction after eating. There is evidence suggesting that gender, food intake, and an individual’s body fat percentage can influence the signals these hormones generate, and how intense they are.

Ghrelin, a hormone produced and released in the gut, but also found in small amounts in the small intestine, pancreas, and brain, is known as the ‘hunger hormone’ as it stimulates the appetite and promotes fat storage.

Research carried out by the University of Birmingham has suggested that ghrelin levels may alter when an individual begins a fasting diet.

Conversely, leptin, a hormone secreted from fat cells in adipose tissue and signals to the area of the brain called the hypothalamus, regulates food intake by inhibiting appetite instead of stimulating it, and controls energy expenditure throughout the day.

When an individual is fasting, levels of leptin decrease along with the inevitable decrease in the body’s fat content, meaning there is less leptin to signal to the brain that the body is satisfied, potentially leaving hunger levels high. This puts a person at increased risk of overeating.

Of course, it is advised that intuitive eating isn’t used as a way to indulge in unhealthy diets. Instead, it is suggested that intuitive eating is used as a tool to encourage healthy eating habits both nutritionally, as it promotes a balanced diet, and mentally, by promoting stronger connections with the body’s signals and reducing the negative cycles associated with restrictive diets.

Our bodies like a wide variety of foods. I like to think about having a healthy relationship with food, as opposed to trying to eat only ‘healthy’ foods.”

Judith Matz

In conclusion, the effects of intuitive eating on weight loss still requires further research, but current literature suggests that the effects of intuitive eating on psychological health are positive, with levels of higher self-esteem and better body satisfaction being reported, along with a reduced feeling of guilt.

Lois Zoppi

Written by

Lois Zoppi

Lois is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. She graduated from the University of Sussex with a BA in Media Practice, having specialized in screenwriting. She maintains a focus on anxiety disorders and depression and aims to explore other areas of mental health including dissociative disorders such as maladaptive daydreaming.

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