What is Intuitive Eating?

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“Intuitive Eating is a dynamic mind-body integration of instinct, emotion and rational thought. It is a personal process of honoring your health by paying attention to the messages of your body and meeting your physical and emotional needs. It is an inner journey of discovery that puts you front and center; you are the expert of your own body. After all, only you know your thoughts, feelings and experiences. Only you know how hungry you are and what food or meal will satisfy you. No diet plan or guru could possibly know these things.” Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch

What is Intuitive Eating?

Since I started spreading the word recently about my Mindful and Intuitive Eating group, I’ve gotten some questions asking what Intuitive Eating is all about, so I thought I’d write up a quick summary here. Intuitive Eating is a philosophy and program with the goal of helping people cultivate a healthy relationship with food and body.  It is a practice focused on enhancing your well being and respect for your body and mind.  As a therapist, it is a tool I use to assist in the treatment of various types of disordered eating and also to help those who may not have an eating disorder diagnosis but are struggling with chronic dieting, anxiety around food and weight, and negative body image.  Intuitive Eating is usually contraindicated for those in the early stages of eating disorder recovery, especially for anorexia recovery, but it can be very beneficial at the appropriate phase in treatment.  If you are curious if Intuitive Eating would be helpful for you, your treatment team can help you decide. There may be some principles of Intuitive Eating you that can start practicing right away and some that can be added later in your recovery.

Intuitive Eating is a practice of tuning in to your body and inner wisdom and regaining trust in your ability to listen to and meet your physical and emotional needs. We were all born with the intuition of what we need to survive but over time we may internalize messages that disconnect us from ourselves. In order to eat intuitively, you have to remove obstacles to attunement such as dieting and external rules or beliefs about what you should be eating or what you should look like. It is important to note that Intuitive Eating is not a weight loss program.  In fact, as you learn about and practice Intuitive Eating it is recommended that you put any goal of weight loss that you may have on the back burner (as you are working on letting it go). The preoccupation with weight loss will get in the way of making choices based on your intuitive signals.  When eating intuitively, you will settle into what may be referred to as your natural weight or genetic set point weight- and this can mean weight loss or gain or no change in weight, depending on the individual. Intuitive Eating is about healing your relationship with food and practicing self-care and body respect, regardless of size.

The practice of Intuitive Eating includes 10 principles.  I won’t go in detail with all of them in this post but here’s an overview: 

1.) reject the diet mentality 2.) honor your hunger 3.) make peace with food 4.) challenge the food police 5.) feel your fullness 6.) discover the satisfaction factor 7.) cope with emotions without using food 8.) respect your body 9.) exercise-feel the difference and 10.) honor your health with gentle nutrition.

What does the research say?

Intuitive Eating was created by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and their first book was published in 1995. Since then, there have been more than 60 studies done on Intuitive Eating and the research has shown many benefits such as improved satisfaction in life, self-esteem, self-compassion, optimism and body appreciation. The research also shows it is associated with lowered disordered eating, food preoccupation, food-related anxiety, body dissatisfaction, binge eating, uncontrolled eating and depression.  Research has also associated it with improved health biomarkers such as blood sugar and cholesterol.  Intuitive eating is now being embraced by public health departments, used in employee wellness programs, used as a required text in some university courses and is used as part of eating disorder treatment programs.

As a psychotherapist and yoga therapist, here are just some of the things that get me excited about sharing Intuitive Eating:

  • The practice encourages you to connect with yourself with the belief that you already have what you need within you. In yoga and psychotherapy philosophies this relates to connecting with our true self or authentic self and letting go of ego.
  • It requires the practice of mindfulness: non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.
  • It allows autonomy and leads to empowerment. Diets might provide the illusion of being in control. In reality, when we mindlessly follow external rules that conflict with our internal messages we are giving up our ability to make choices based on our own wisdom. This crosses a psychological boundary and it is a natural human response to rebel when our autonomy is threatened.
  • It focuses on improving body image with the practices of accepting and respecting your body.
  • It is all about meeting our needs through self-care and practicing self-compassion.

If you are interested in learning more about Intuitive Eating, I recommend the book, coaching audio (it’s not just a reading of the book) and the new workbook:

  • Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works
  • Intuitive Eating: A Practical Guide to Make Peace with Food, Free Yourself from Chronic Dieting, Reach Your Natural Weight, Audio CD
  • The Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food

All the above by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN

Connecting with Your Authentic Self in the New Year

“…our True Self wants to experience, connect, create and celebrate. It simplifies. It wants to heal and grow from any conflict and knows that it may have to go through its pain to do so.” -Charles L. Whitfield

The end of the year can be a time of change and mixed emotions. Maybe a combination of excitement, stress, gratitude, connection and even loneliness and grief. We may also start putting pressure on ourselves to make big changes next year to become “better” in some way with the belief that this change will lead us toward happiness. We often set goals for the new year and then in just a few short weeks see the habits fall off leaving us believing we have failed.

Russ Harris, a therapist and educator of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), discusses how our goals are sometimes disconnected from our true self. In his book, The Happiness Trap, he explains “In Western society we tend to lead a goal-focused life. Life is all about achievement, and success is usually defined in terms of status, wealth, and power. Typically, we aren’t that closely connected with our values, and because of that, we can easily get caught up in goals that are not truly meaningful to us.” When we instead allow our personal values to guide our goals, we live a more fulfilling and rewarding life in the present.

If we allow it, the end of the year can be an interesting time of reflection and self-awareness. What if instead of creating New Year’s resolutions based on achievement or what we “should” be doing (according to societal expectations, messages in the media or advertising, our family or social group’s opinions or any external sources), we redirect that energy inward and take time to get to know our authentic selves a little better? What could happen if we examine our own true values and begin to live a life more in sync with our values in the present, not only at the beginning of the year?

Questions to ask yourself to help with reflection on the past year and connecting to your authentic self:

When did I feel fulfilled and at peace this year?  Sometimes we become so convinced that we will only be happy when we reach “x” goal, that we dismiss or ignore the times in the present when we are content and already have what we need to be fulfilled. Living a full life is going to be filled with a variety of emotions, ups, downs and in between. There will never be a goal that we can reach that will put us in a constant state of bliss, this is an illusion and impossible. Feelings are always changing. We can take note of when we do feel good and we don’t have to minimize those times because we had negative emotions at times as well. See if you can reflect on some positive times this year; what situations, thoughts, environments, activities etc. had you feeling fulfilled and at peace? This may give you information about what you want to include more of in the future.

What did I learn this year?  We all make mistakes, we all fall short of goals at times because we are human. Humans are imperfect. We need to make mistakes in order to learn and grow. When practicing self-compassion, we accept our humaneness and we talk to ourselves as we would a friend. How can you speak to yourself as a positive mentor and reflect on what you learned from your experiences this year? This information can help you in making future decisions.

 In what ways did I grow this year?  Don’t forget to give yourself credit for how far you have come. Life is made up of constant change and adaptation and there is no way you avoided growth this year. In what ways are you already living more authentically and how does it feel? Reflect on changes you made, ways you adapted, areas of life where you feel more expanded and less constricted.

Questions to help you connect with your authentic self for intention setting in the new year:

What are my current values? What is truly important to me at this stage in my life?  It can be helpful check in and re-evaluate our values from time to time. Values are the things that are important to you, the things you feel good about investing energy in. Our values are unique to us, there are no right or wrong values and they can change throughout our lives. When we are living a life according to our values, it leads to feelings of contentment and fulfillment. Can you make space in your life this year for what matters to you? Here is a link to a worksheet by Russ Harris that can help you examine your values and consider what is important for you to invest energy in this year. 

What external expectations can I let go of?  We all have core beliefs that may have developed earlier in life, that may have served us at the time but are no longer serving us. We may have lingering voices of unhelpful advice or viewpoints from others that show up in our thoughts automatically. If these thoughts or beliefs no longer fit with our values and our authentic self, we can practice acknowledging them when they show up and simply letting them pass through. We can then redirect our thoughts back to what is important to us. Take time to reflect on the beliefs you want to work on letting go of.

If you find yourself often setting goals and then having trouble following through with them, here are a few things you can be curious about:

  • Is this goal out of touch with my values? It makes sense that it will be difficult to follow through with something that really isn’t that important to you.
  • Are other thoughts or beliefs (that aren’t my true self) getting in the way?
  • Am I avoiding discomfort? Can I make room for the uncomfortable feeling that change may temporarily bring?
  • Are there other forces at work keeping me stuck, is the behavior that I’m trying to change serving me in some way?
  • Are my goals too big? Are the goals realistic for me or even humanly possible? Do I need to break up the goal into smaller objectives while I gain the skills I need?

I hope these questions for self-exploration can help you feel more connected and at peace this year.

The Foundation of Refreshing Sleep

Self-care has been a frequent theme in my recent sessions with clients as well as in my own life. Self-care is the topic I always begin with in therapy (and circle back to on a regular basis) because it is such an important foundation for improving mental health. When I attended a training Friday on Nutritional and Integrative Interventions for Mental Health Disorders with Dr. Anne Procyk, a naturopathic physician; I wasn’t surprised that the first topic of discussion was basic self-care. We began by discussing the basics of the physical basis of mental health: sleep, activity and food. These are the same areas I consider to be “macro” self-care practices. I know we can never get very far in therapy if these are not being addressed. I found her recommendations on sleep to be very useful with some new perspectives, so I’ll dedicate this post to sleep.

We know that lack of sleep and/or poor quality sleep can cause symptoms that may get diagnosed mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and ADHD. We also know that these mental health conditions can have symptoms of disrupted sleep (and sometimes medications prescribed can have side effects of sleep disruption). Even when not the cause of the problem, sleep inadequacy can exacerbate the problem causing a vicious cycle. It is very important to attempt to break this cycle to foster faster and more complete recovery.

Dr. Procyk shared that the main questions she asks in evaluating sleep in her patients are “do you wake up feeling refreshed?” and “do you have good energy throughout the day?”. If the answers are no, sleep needs to be addressed. Most people require 7-9 hours of quality sleep to feel refreshed and function well during their day. It is important to find your personal required number because even shorting yourself one hour can make a huge difference for some people. Be sure to factor in the time it takes for you to fall asleep, not just when you get into bed, when you are counting hours. Dr. Procyk discussed four areas that make up the foundation of refreshing sleep.

1.)     Permission to sleep. We need to give ourselves permission to stop the activities of the day and set aside time for sleep. It simply has to be made a priority. Sleep is a basic human need and without it, things will become out of balance in many ways. Think of it as a self-compassion practice to give yourself permission to rest.

2.)     “Story-time”: a bedtime relaxation routine. Our brains simply can’t go from being engaged to being asleep in two minutes… and many of us expect it to. For people who have trouble falling asleep, Dr. Plock asks her clients “what are you doing before you go to bed?”. She encourages people to think about how we might give a child a bath and read them a book to get them relaxed and ready for bed and to do something similar for yourself. This bedtime routine isn’t limited to something like a sleep meditation (although that can be very helpful for some), it can be anything that works for you- as long as you commit to doing it. She isn’t against screen time before bed if it is being used for something relaxing. She shared a story of a patient who found that cleaning the kitchen before bed was helpful. It helped her calm her mind and feel prepared for the next day and gave her brain a signal that it was ok to relax.

3.)     Comfortable environment. We aren’t just talking about the mattress here. The first thing to address is, “do I feel safe?”. It is impossible for the brain to relax when we do not feel safe in an environment, which makes sense for survival. Check if there are ways to make the environment feel more safe and comfortable. Sometimes emotional residue from bad memories or traumatic experiences in that space can make a space feel unsafe and this needs to be addressed. Other things to check in with include light, noise, pets, family members, temperature etc. Make any adjustments needed to improve your comfort.

4.)     Eliminate caffeine. This one can be difficult to accept for many of us but anyone having difficulty falling or staying asleep might benefit from eliminating caffeine, at least for a trial period. I’ve always gone with the assumption that caffeine wouldn’t have a big effect on sleep if it is consumed early in the day. Dr. Procyk explained that even one cup of coffee in the morning can have lasting effects on people who are sensitive to it. She discussed how even after the caffeine is metabolized it can continue to have secondary effects on our hormones for 2-3 days (which causes our circadian rhythm to get out of sync).  It can also cause panic attacks and heart palpitations so anyone working on managing anxiety might benefit from eliminating caffeine as well. Since caffeine is a drug, if you consume it regularly and attempt to stop you should expect to experience withdrawal symptoms for 1-3 days. This might include feeling tired, lethargic, moody, unfocused and having a headache. These symptoms should improve on days 4-7.

Resetting the circadian rhythm can take some time but the above suggestions can help. The hormones of cortisol and melatonin work to keep us awake during the day and relax and sleep at night. Melatonin supplement is a popular over the counter sleep aide that can be used to help reset the circadian rhythm. Melatonin has better long-term safety studies than other over the counter sleep aides but Dr. Procyk still does not recommend using it long term. It can also be beneficial to make sure you are getting exposure to natural light during the day. If you work indoors, try to take breaks or eat meals outside.

Overall, finding what helps with refreshing sleep will be varied and unique to everyone and requires some experimentation. Keep in mind that the other physical basics of mental health such as activity and food will influence our sleep as well, so addressing all the areas at the same time will produce the best results. More information on activity and food coming soon!