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Ditch the diet mentality with intuitive eating

By Christie Melhorn, June 15 2017 — 

Mindless munching is a normal part of student life. A handful of chips or a bite of chocolate is comforting when you get writer’s block or are sick of working through a difficult problem. Many students attempt to “clean up” their eating over the summer by cutting out Wing Wednesday or their mid-day latte. However, a less restrictive approach is emerging — intuitive eating.

Though many guides are available about intuitive eating, it’s not like many diets that specify exactly what you should eat. It doesn’t guarantee the ideal body or that you will live to be 100-years-old.

Intuitive eating promises a peaceful and accepting relationship between yourself, your body and food. The core rule of intuitive eating is “Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.” The accountability and freedom is terrifying, especially in a culture that tempts us to eat until we collapse or restrict ourselves until we starve.

When French philosopher Rene Descarte stated “I think, therefore I am” in 1637, he probably didn’t realize how much his words would influence the modern Western world. His claim that existence is rooted in cognitive thought inspired a cultural prioritization of logic and mental functioning over intuition and bodily wisdom. A lingering effect of this school of thought is a compromised ability to hear our body’s needs.

Intuitive eating claims that we all eat intuitively as children, before we become convinced bread makes you fat and that self-worth is measured by pant size. Living in a body-conscious, diet-obsessed environment where intuition is less valued than logic can distort our idea of well-being.

Intuitive eating challenges the stereotype of the “healthy” person who only eats organic, does spin class everyday and mediates to flute music. It embraces food and encourages us to unsubscribe from calorie-counting and rules like “don’t eat after 8 p.m.”

Registered dietician Lily Nichols describes hunger as the “physiological drive to eat that occurs ‘below the neck’.” This comes with stomach rumbling and low energy. In contrast, appetite is the “mental drive to eat” and derives above the neck — like when your mouth waters when you walk past Bake Chef. Appetite is triggered by boredom, sensory stimulation and emotional discomfort.

To identify genuine hunger, Nichols recommends sitting with your eyes closed to tune in to where your desire for food is coming from. It helps to place your hands on the parts of your body where you are feeling these sensations.

This step isn’t always necessary. Most of us are familiar with the stomach-wrenching hunger that roars after hours of studying. But knowing what to eat can be tricky.

In the lens of intuitive eating, food isn’t classified as “good” or “bad.” This strips the guilt that comes with eating chips or pizza. While this might sound like an excuse to have a frappucino at lunch everyday, it serves the opposite purpose. Removing the sense of moral conduct attached to food prevents us from subconsciously using junk food as a distraction from a big assignment or as a treat after handing it in.

Nichols recommends asking your body what it wants instead of choosing blindly. I recently discarded a strict diet and can attest that adjusting is difficult. Sometimes, I have no idea what I need. If my body is unresponsive, I imagine different types of foods, like fruit, nuts or protein and see where my mind focuses the most. This usually indicates what my body wants.

If I’m still unsure, I’ll taste test a few of those items, all of which I usually carry in my lunch. I do so with my eyes closed, focusing on the textures and flavors. I go for whatever I impulsively want to eat. Nichols also recommends noting the colour and smell of different foods before eating. The sensory engagement creates a satisfying eating experience that prevents over-indulgence.

As busy students, we sometime have no choice but to wolf down a McMuffin or three cups of coffee to survive, and slowing down to this point may seem tedious. However, learning your body’s needs becomes more natural and immediate with practice. And the non-restrictive nature of intuitive eating is liberating. It helps foster an intimate mind-body connection and self-trust that we don’t realize we can have.

I recommend trying these eating exercises even when you are eating “bad” food.  You may even find that a Tim’s double-double doesn’t sit right or that you enjoy the dense, leafy texture of kale.

Intuitive eating is both intimidating and appealing. It asks us to confront how our relationship with food has been compromised by a system of restriction and reward, body image pressures or even just busyness. This can be surprisingly emotional as it reveals how we use food to manipulate our self-worth. However, the enrichment intuitive eating offers can free us from a false set of expectations and help us actualize a more authentic sense of self.

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