The rise of intuitive eating
Image credit: Patrick Kovarik / AFP / Getty Images
As Maya Angelou once said: “Eating is so intimate. It’s very sensual. When you invite someone to sit at your table and you want to cook for them, you’re inviting a person into your life.” Every moment – whether celebrating, pacifying, commiserating or comforting – involves food, it’s a cultural cornerstone. So, is it any wonder, that our relationship to what is, in its simplest form, sustenance or fuel, now plays such a central role in defining who we are?
I am no stranger to this complicated relationship. Whenever I find myself in an anxious or stressed state, it tends to be followed by ordering food via a delivery app, and what we refer to off-hand as ‘eating our feelings’. As a child of the 1970s, I hit my twenties during a time when the South Beach diet, the Atkins, the cabbage soup diet etc were household names. And as a beauty and wellness editor, I’ve embarked on every fad diet going – both professionally and personally chasing the promised transformation. I’ve yo-yo-ed between my ideal – and not ideal – weight for years; and while I wouldn’t consider myself someone who has an issue with eating, perhaps our relationship with food is an underlying narrative for us all?
Why are food and emotion so interlinked?
“Food and emotions are inextricably linked. [Food is a key part of] how we’re socialised, how we’re raised. Consider babies, the first thing we do is offer them milk. It starts, right from the first day of life,” explains Laura Thomas PhD, nutritionist and author of anti-diet bestseller, .
“We often vilify that phenomenon of using emotional eating to comfort ourselves. When I’m working with people, it’s more as a clue that something is off kilter,” says Thomas. She explains that the things prompting us to reach for food in moments of stress and anxiety are often rooted back to the habits and moments that shaped us as children.
What is emotional eating?
The term “emotional eater” is commonplace, and usually falls into one of two categories: those who eat more when stressed, and those who eat less. The crux of the matter lies in the action of eating to emotions. “Usually that is something that we would come to way further down the line [when I’m working with a client],” says Thomas. “There are layers to unpack that may include the result of restriction for years, not eating adequately, failing to nourish ourselves. The psychological restriction of food, includes a constant focus on getting enough calories, and ring-fencing some foods as bad,” she explains.
“This, in turn, can trigger a backlash that we then identify as ‘emotional eating’, which is often more about restriction than eating,” Thomas explains.
On meeting a client for the first time, Thomas will decipher what purpose food is playing in their day-to-day life, and then identify what need is not being met, and how food may be being used to replace that. “There’s nothing wrong with food meeting that need. Food can be a really helpful tool in our toolkit. There’s no shame or judgment in that. Its a coping mechanism, a benign coping mechanism. Some might use gambling, alcohol, drugs or sex – behaviours that might not be as adaptive,” she explains.
It’s only when emotional eating is the only thing in our toolkit that it may become a problem. Thomas’s approach thereafter is to “fill up your toolkit. Yes you can cry into your toolkit. Or you go to your therapy or mindfulness practice or other things in your toolkit.”
What role does stress play in our relationship with food?
According to a report by Harvard Health: “Stress can shut down appetite. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.”
However, after this temporary flux the adrenal glands kick in again, releasing another stress hormone, cortisol, which can increase appetite and potentially, the motivation to eat. While a stressful episode may pass, cortisol levels may remain high, which is what leads to the cycle of stress, eat, repeat.
How has diet culture impacted our relationship with food?
Dieting has long been associated with the health and wellness sector, but things are slowly changing. Whereas once, food and fitness trends – from classes to bootcamps, retreats, detoxes and products – were purely designed to shift inches from your waist (and fast), the MO is now far more about improving health (both mental and physical) for the long term.
Thomas has noted a clear distinction between the diet focuses of her younger and older clients: “Especially those in their fifties and sixties. They’ve been living in diet culture for a longer time. Diet culture was normalised. My younger people are starting to push back against that a bit more. Younger people have been through ‘clean eating’ and more of an orthorexic [obsession with healthy eating] relationship with food. Whereas with many of my older clients, I’ve noticed more diet pills, laxative use – the manifestation of the eating is different.”
Celebrity trainer to Gwendoline Christie, Jennifer Lawrence and Olivia Colman and founder of London-based Twenty Two Training, Dalton Wong has noticed the shift too. “Lots of clients who are a bit older had parents who grew up in the war and were used to having to finish everything on their plate. Now we see cultural things that make you attached to food, whether it’s the way you were brought up or where you live. And when it comes to exercise, I have to think about what my clients’ triggers are and what their emotional reaction to food is.”
There’s now a conscious move away from categorising food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. “People assume they developed these ‘bad’ habits because they had no will power or they’re out of control. Are you habitually using food to soothe emotions? Or is it because you have been restricting, you’re not eating enough. Is there a problem with your energy balance?” asks Thomas of her clients.
What’s the relationship between eating and exercise?
Food, exercise and health go hand in hand, says Wong. “When you’re eating, and thinking about eating for exercise, think about what kind of exercise you’re doing. Are you exercising for vanity? Or for performance because you want to run the marathon? Injury prevention or rehabilitation? You will need to eat differently to support these choices.”
Wong’s approach is geared towards optimum performance enjoyment, whatever your goal. “If you’re running, or training for an event like the marathon, 80 per cent [of your training, including nutrition] should be about working towards that, and 20 per cent should be about freedom and enjoyment. If you want to get the best possible result.”
How can we eat more intuitively?
Thomas says we need to recalibrate. Everything from our perception of food (what is good and bad), to our perception of our body signals of satiety. “Think of it as the petrol gage in the car. On one side, you’re running on fumes, you would eat anything, you’re that hungry. On the other end of the spectrum, Christmas day after turkey, mince pies, you’re uncomfortably full, you feel sick.” Recognising hunger cues – which can include mood swings, energy dips, headaches, stomach pain and even salivating – is the start in moving away from these extremes.
Thomas’s approach encourages less self judgement, and more self compassion. Her principles are based on reconnecting the sensations that are going on in the body with the mind, and to find some balance between the two. A move away from emotional reactivity and towards , she says. “It’s about letting the two things connect and talk to each other.”
Padma Lakshmi, author of , food critic, television chef and India’s May 2019 cover star perfectly sums up our complicated, human, flawed and wonderful relationship with food: “I am what feeds me. And how I feed myself at any given moment says a lot about what I’m going through or what I need. I don’t believe I am alone. Yes, we eat for our stomachs, but we hunger with our hearts.”