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How to successfully transition from rigid dieting to eating intuitively

Posted July 23

It's no secret that fad diets don't work; at least not in the long-term. Dieting is actually a consistent predictor of weight gain rather than long-term weight loss. People who recognize this truth are often left scratching their heads wondering what to do to live a healthy lifestyle if they're not dieting.

Many people find intuitive eating on their journey to find a non-dieting healthy lifestyle. At the core of eating intuitively is to make peace with food, honor your body's hunger and fullness cues and to ditch dieting to cultivate optimal mental and physical health.

Most people with chronic dieting in their personal history don't have a hard time grasping the concept that diets don't bring the happiness and health they were looking for. At first glance, intuitive eating can feel loose and abstract and, for many, it can be extremely difficult to take the plunge into intuitive eating because it can feel scary to let go of the rigidity that diets previously provided.

So, how does a person tap into their ability to eat intuitively without the old familiar comforts of structure?

The answer lies in creating structure in your eating routine that's flexible. Emily Fonnesbeck, RDN, has coined the term "flexible structure" with eating — meaning finding ways to settle into intuitive eating by using structured guidelines that are lenient and not all-or-nothing, thus avoiding the roller coaster of emotions and behaviors that diets so often bring.

Here are a few tips on how to transition from dieting to eating intuitively by creating flexible structure in your eating routine and lifestyle.

Have a list of daily non-negotiables

Jessi Haggerty, RDN, advises her clients to create a list of daily tasks and behaviors that are non-negotiable. Just like you brush your teeth every day, it's wise to generate a personalized list of things you do each and every day to take care of yourself. Haggerty says, "The list might be different from client to client — an example might be: drinking two liters of water, eating one serving of leafy greens and going for a walk after dinner. The key is that they have to be things you can add to your day, versus things to eliminate. Plus, all of these things can help you tap into your hunger and fullness cues with more ease."

Track hunger and fullness cues

Lauren Fowler, RDN, recognizes the importance structure plays in people who are transitioning away from dieting. She says, "It may mean moving from calorie counting to tracking your hunger or fullness cues for structure, or it could mean having a weekly meal plan but keeping it flexible. With time, you'll be able to trust yourself more and be able to let go of the rigidity and structure or learn to listen to your body."

Have a flexible weekly meal plan

As Fowler talked about above, creating a flexible meal plan is another way to create structure when you're moving toward a more intuitive eating approach. Maybe you sit down and brainstorm your three favorite well-balanced breakfasts, three lunches and three snacks and then create a weekly dinner plan. Planning, shopping and having food at home for your meals can make eating intuitively far more realistic and practical.

Focus on what you're eating more of rather than what to restrict

Since dieting often focuses on what you can't have, when focusing on eating intuitively, it can be helpful to think about what to eat more of. Erica Hansen, MS, RDN, says, "When I help clients make this transition I like to help them focus on thinking about what they need to eat more of when they do feel hunger. Have they eaten very many fruits or vegetables in the day? Could they use more?"

Have structured meal times

Having structured eating times during the day can help provide times to remember to check in with hunger. Emily Fonnesbeck, RDN, encourages her clients to "check in on hunger every three to four hours. If eating has been chaotic and haphazard, hunger and fullness hormones are very unreliable so basing decisions on intuitive signals is not at all helpful. Falling into some sort of flexible rhythm will normalize these hormones, leading people to starting to realize they can trust themselves and their own intuitive signals. Normalized eating patterns also mean normalized blood sugar and feeling more well-fed and satisfied leading to fewer cravings and feeling more level-headed about food choices, creating more confidence and self-trust."

Create a balanced plate using the plate method

Some people like to create structure with their eating by aiming to have their plates balanced each time they eat a meal. The plate method is simple: divide your plate into four equal parts and fill each quarter with a starch, protein, vegetable and fruit. Obviously for some meals it may make more sense to skip the fruit and in that case, aim for half your plate of vegetables. This idea can create a sense of structure but still maintain some flexibility in terms of what your food choices are for each category. It helps to provide guidelines for portion control as well.

Making the transition from dieting to intuitive eating is a sizable paradigm shift. Find ways to meet yourself where you are. Pick a few ideas that help you feel safe in this transition and find ways to create structure with your eating that's flexible — allowing yourself to move away from rigid, all-or-nothing thinking that dieting creates into a lifestyle that's flexible and intuitive leading toward mentally and physical health and peace.

Paige is a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in helping people heal their relationship with food. She hosts Nutrition Matters Podcast and has a private nutrition consulting business based in Salt Lake City.

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