In today’s good news, eating what you want—and when you want, and how much you want—can actually impact your mental health in a good way.
More specifically, we’re talking about intuitive eating (IE). In short, it’s an evidence-based framework that encourages listening to your body and respecting what it needs and wants. The concept was created by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, CEDS-S, writers of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti Diet Approach.
- Reject the diet mentality.
- Honor your hunger.
- Make peace with food.
- Challenge the food police.
- Discover the satisfaction factor.
- Feel your fullness.
- Cope with your emotions with kindness.
- Respect your body.
- Focus on how exercise makes you feel.
- Honor your health with gentle nutrition.
BTW, multiple studies back up the benefits of IE. Experts do, too. “When we aren’t properly fueling our bodies, this can impact our mood,” says Colleen Christensen, RD, an intuitive eating registered dietitian and founder of No Food Rules. “Intuitive eating can fix that.”
How intuitive eating is good for your mood
It helps you avoid feelings of “hanger” or discomfort
Eating more or less than your body wants can feel unpleasant, right? If you’re restricting what or how much you eat, Christensen says, you may feel “hangry,” or easily emotional or annoyed. (Been there, done that!) Plus, as a 2021 study shows, dieting can have the opposite effect as intended, leading to worsened body image and self-esteem.
On the other end, if you keep eating past a comfortable fullness, you may feel mentally uncomfortable from the physical discomfort, she adds. By listening to your body’s cues, you don’t have to worry as much about that.
It allows you to skip over the “shoulds” and focus on foods you enjoy
The nutritional content of food is one small factor among many that can help you decide what to eat. “Eating without guilt means you can make choices around food influenced by lots of factors—taste, preference, hunger, convenience, nutrition, timing—instead of choices from a place of shame or ‘should-ing’ or judgment,” says Brenna O’Malley, RD, a non-diet dietitian and owner of The Wellful.
Not only is this more sustainable, she adds, but it’s also more pleasurable—and there’s no shame in valuing that. “Eating should be enjoyable,” she affirms.
It frees up your mind and widens your social opportunities
You may know the struggle: You’re on a diet, and you can’t stop thinking about when to eat, what to eat, if you’ve eaten too much of one thing, how to stave off your hunger, how to cut calories, how many calories you’ve eaten so far that day, the list goes on.
Again, IE can prevent that unnecessary anxiety. “When you eat intuitively, you free up so much of your mental space, which can allow you to focus on finding more joy in the experience of living,” Christensen says. For example, while at dinner with friends, you can focus more on the conversation than how many calories are in your meal.
Further, this mindset can even encourage you to go to that dinner with friends instead of skipping it. “Many individuals share that during the height of their disordered eating, they’d remove themselves from social events due to a fear of what food might be served, or feeling nervous about comments from others on their food or eating habits,” O’Malley says.
By working on your relationship with food, she continues, you gain tools to help you navigate those situations, as well as increased confidence and trust in your body.
Both O’Malley and Christensen point to how obsessing less over food can help you feel more present with your loved ones, leading to potentially deeper and more meaningful relationships and experiences. And in the long run (and hey, the short run, too), that’s what matters, right?
It leads to blood sugar stability, which can improve mood
Hard science comes into play here, as well. “When you eat intuitively and are no longer stuck in the restrict-binge cycle, you’ll experience less extreme highs and lows with blood sugar on a regular basis, which may be linked to improved mood,” Christensen says.
It reduces how much of your day is anxiety ridden about food
Along the lines of the other points—and generally speaking—intuitive eating is a much more chill and understanding approach. “Intuitive eating emphasizes nuance and flexibility,” O’Malley says. “This can reduce the stress of eating ‘perfectly.’”
She adds that by eating enough food throughout the day, you’re less likely to feel irritable, anxious, and “hangry.”
Do these benefits kick in automatically?
Especially if you’ve been wrapped up in diet culture’s lies or an eating disorder, the idea of eating what and when you want may be scary. Will it really have all of these benefits? How quickly?
Christensen says many people feel better pretty quickly into their intuitive eating journey. At the same time, if you find yourself struggling, that’s normal too. “That doesn’t mean that everything will be smooth sailing right away or that there won’t be ups and downs,” she clarifies. “As with anything new, it takes some learning!”
O’Malley agrees the process isn’t linear and will look different for each person. She shares some positive signs you may see, such as not measuring your food, noticing your food-related thoughts are quieter, deleting food-tracking apps, unfollowing people who don’t make you feel good about yourself, feeling more flexible around food, and preemptively packing snacks.
What if this approach doesn’t seem to help your mood?
Christensen says there isn’t one sole “approach” that works for everyone, so you may want to explore different ones to see what works for you. “Some take a more unstructured ‘all in’ approach and others, such as myself, work in a more step-wise structured fashion,” she explains.
And of course, the importance of reaching out for help—ideally with an intuitive eating-based dietitian and therapist, but community care options as well—cannot be understated. This may be especially helpful for people who don’t have clear hunger cues due to a past eating disorder, medication, etc.
With whatever route you take, O’Malley encourages giving yourself grace. “Remind yourself that you’ve probably been dieting or following food rules for a really long time—you’re well-practiced!” she says. “So undoing that and learning a new way of eating and connecting with your body will take time, and it’s going to feel unfamiliar.”
To get through those tough moments, she suggests reminding yourself of why this intuitive eating journey is important to you, or why dieting hasn’t worked in the past.
Another recommendation she offers: not setting your expectations too high, especially at the beginning. “Framing eating as more of an experiment than an exact science can take some of the pressure off and allow you to learn from your experiences along the way,” she says.
Ups and downs are normal. Throughout it all, remember that you’ve got this. “I truly believe that everyone can learn,” Christensen says. “No one is ‘too far gone.’”
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