Leadership Education in Adolescent Health (LEAH) Fellow in Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital
Today, the social and environmental influences surrounding food and body image make it increasingly difficult for anyone to have a normal relationship with food. Take those pressures and add to them the many variables of adolescence: confusion related to the physical changes that come with puberty, insecurities with body image and/or self, bullying, body comparisons, messages from friends/family, etc. Suddenly, it’s no wonder adolescents may feel inclined to make misguided or unhealthy changes to their eating patterns in hopes of changing their bodies. Such changes can result in disordered eating patterns, preoccupation with food, distorted body image, and/or concerning weight loss/gain.
As a future nutrition professional with an aspiration of working with adolescents, this is a topic I think about every day. How can we debunk nutrition myths and negative societal influences and instead encourage body kindness and food freedom? The best answer I’ve found is an extremely fundamental but important concept known as intuitive eating. Intuitive eating, developed and made popular by two registered dietitians, is a gentle approach to nutrition, which encourages attainment of a healthy relationship with food through learning to respond to our bodies natural hunger and fullness cues. Young children are actually the best models of intuitive eating; however, as they grow up and are increasingly exposed to diet culture, societal messaging about an unrealistic body ideal in our country, and the other influences during adolescence mentioned above, those intuitive eating tendencies can be easily lost in the shuffle.
It’s important to note that discovering or rediscovering how to be an “intuitive eater” should be thought of as an ongoing journey. Much like playing a sport or learning a musical instrument, this approach requires time, practice, and patience. No one should expect to become an intuitive eater overnight, but rather should embrace the opportunity to learn, reflect, and applaud progress along the way.
Intuitive eating is broken down into 10 principles, which can be used to guide the process of becoming an intuitive eater:
- Reject the Diet Mentality – the diet industry is a multi-billion dollar culture that has proven time and time again to fail and even to contribute to more weight gain.
- Honor Your Hunger – our bodies rely on adequate energy to survive and do all of the amazing things they’re capable of doing. Begin to explore what hunger feels like for you, and learn to honor that feeling.
- Make Peace with Food – learn to discard the “good food” vs. “bad food” mentality. Do away with feelings of guilt or shame associated with certain foods or following a meal or snack.
- Challenge the Food Police – whether an internal voice or external messaging from society, friends, or family, intuitive eating aims to eliminate judgement and rules around food.
- Feel Your Fullness – equal to the importance of learning to identify hunger, it’s important to discover the feeling of fullness and to know when your body has had enough to eat for the time being.
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor – eat foods you enjoy! Feel satisfied after a meal or snack. By listening to our body’s cravings, we are more likely to avoid other means of trying to achieve satisfaction, such as overeating or binge-eating.
- Cope with Your Emotions without Using Food – Begin to observe the reason behind reaching for certain foods or at certain times. Are you trying to fill a void related to boredom, anxiety, loneliness, etc.? If so, explore other ways to cope with your emotions, such as taking a walk, calling a friend, or writing in a journal.
- Respect Your Body – our bodies are capable of amazing things. Love and appreciate yours! No positives come from the negative emotions and stress surrounding poor body image. Often, bodies do change as one adopts intuitive eating behaviors, but that should never be the driving goal.
- Exercise – Feel the Difference – Shift your focus around exercise away from the calorie-burning effect and instead toward finding ways to move your body that you enjoy. Be it a hike, dance class, walk, group fitness class… discover what helps you feel energized and joyful.
- Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition – as individuals uncover how it feels to be an intuitive eater, there is often a shift toward craving foods that not only taste good but make one feel good physically. Nourish your body consistently over time with a variety of foods that satisfy all elements of health and well-being.
Use mindfulness to think about each of these during times where food is involved. I challenge you to explore what hunger and fullness feel like for you. Take note of how your body feels after you may have over-eaten or during times where you may not have eaten enough. Allow yourself to explore and honor your food cravings so that you feel satisfied after eating. After all, food is intended to nourish our bodies and to be enjoyed.
Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating. New York: St. Martins Griffin