Intuitive eating is the anti-diet philosophy of eating. The term was first coined in the ‘90s, and the practice has been on the rise as more and more are turned off by a problematic diet culture. College students could discover unique benefits by incorporating intuitive eating into their lifestyles.
Intuitive eating involves trusting your body’s cues about fullness and hunger. What to eat, when to eat it and how much to eat is up to the individual, rather than a predetermined diet plan.
The practice revolves around 10 key principles. Intuitive eating rejects the idea that there is a diet out there that will eventually work, i.e., a “diet mentality.” Making intuitive eating a habit means getting in touch with and trusting biological cues, through honoring hunger and respecting fullness.
This means eating when hungry and learning to stop when comfortably full. If students apply the principles to their life, they can enjoy a more fulfilling college experience. Here are five ways intuitive eating not only emancipates young adults from falling prey to diet culture, but also leads them to a more fulfilling college experience.
1. Food becomes one less thing to stress about
College students are notoriously stressed out. Between a full-time class schedule, exams, clubs and jobs, students often feel overwhelmed. Staying healthy can feel like another burden. Choosing unhealthy foods based on convenience, exhaustion or stress-induced cravings can be frustrating and discouraging when it means breaking a restrictive eating commitment, such as a Pinterest-inspired diet.
With so many other things to worry about when it comes to campus life, food and guilt about eating habits shouldn’t be one of them. And with intuitive eating, it doesn’t have to be.
Intuitive eating means tossing aside calorie counting, categories of “good” and “bad” foods and other restrictive eating patterns. In taking away over-calculation and guilt from the process of nourishment, intuitive eating offers an escape from the negative psychological impacts of dieting, which can affect us even when we are not consciously dieting.
“Diet culture” refers to a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue. Registered dietician Christy Harrison gives this definition and states that because diet culture demonizes certain ways of eating and elevates others, consumers are forced to be hyper-vigilant about their eating and ashamed of making certain food choices.
No wonder “eating right” has become so stressful. With intuitive eating, college students can eliminate stress from parts of the day that should be a reliable source of enjoyment and replenishment.
Furthermore, intuitive eating can free college students to be more in touch with their bodies. This mindset could lead students to not only understand and honor hunger cues, but to honor other bodily cues, such as tiredness and mental burnout. Incorporating intuitive eating into their daily routine can lay the foundation for students to be gentler with themselves and lead healthier lifestyles, decreasing stress levels.
2. Intuitive eating has mental health benefits
Intuitive eating has plenty of proven psychological benefits. Physical benefits include a lower body mass index (BMI) and weight maintenance, but one of the major advantage of the practice is improved psychological health. With mental health struggles being a big part of many students’ college experience, any lifestyle change proven to improve moods is worth considering.
While traditional diets have been known to promote psychological distress, rather than ameliorate it, participants in intuitive eating studies saw increased body acceptance, improved self-esteem and fewer experiences with depression and anxiety.
Some of the core principles of intuitive eating promote these results. Principle No. 7 is to “cope with your emotions with kindness.” Adherents of intuitive eating are to recognize that food restriction can trigger loss of control, which can feel like emotional eating. They are encouraged to find ways other than food to comfort, distract or resolve personal issues.
Principle No. 8 commands participants to “respect your body,” stating “all bodies deserve dignity.”
Intuitive eating emphasizes “gentle nutrition,” reminding people that food choices should honor health while making you feel good. The importance of feeling good is nothing to shrug off in a context where many college students face “an inordinate amount of anxiety.”
Put simply, intuitive eating can make college students feel better overall.
3. Intuitive eating promotes more realistic fitness goals
Many college students are concerned with staying fit, working in trips to the campus gym or intramural sports practices into schedules packed with classes and assignments. Unfortunately, however, studies have shown that during the transition to college, exercise and fitness levels usually decrease and are unlikely to improve as students get older. Intuitive eating can encourage students to maintain or implement regular physical activity by prioritizing the way movement makes them feel.
The intuitive eating philosophy encourages people to “feel the difference” when it comes to getting active, that is, shifting their focus away from the calorie-burning effect of exercise and toward how it feels to move one’s body: “If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm.” College students will feel more motivated to complete that morning or after-class workout if they can visualize feeling more energized, rather than having bigger muscles or a leaner physique.
College students can lead a healthier lifestyle when they choose to incorporate regular exercise into their schedules, which is easier to do when motivated by the mood-lifting benefits of physical activity. Furthermore, exercise relieves stress and improves neural connectivity in the brain. Working out improves memory, concentration and focus. By taking up intuitive eating’s mental benefits-approach to exercise, college students can have a more successful college experience in more ways than one.
4. Students can be a healthy example to their friends
Diet culture is pervasive, including on college campuses. As this op-ed acknowledges, even everyday notices like calorie counts and “healthy choice” labels in dining halls can perpetuate the emphasis on thinness and ideas about “bad foods” over holistic health. Diet culture saturates every space (even virtual ones like social media), creating an environment that feels hostile and self-defeating for thin and fat bodies alike, making young adults susceptible to negative body image and disordered eating patterns.
Centralizing weight and diet negatively impacts women in particular, as they especially are socialized into striving for a thin ideal. Everyday conversations can become vortexes of body- and fat-shaming when comments like “I don’t want to gain weight,” “I shouldn’t eat that” or “I want her body” are interspersed into small talk. By taking up intuitive eating, students can shift those conversations and promote healthy body image among their friends.
Intuitive eating is about listening to personal body cues regarding hunger and fullness, not self-restricting from eating. Students who incorporate the philosophy into their lives will not feed into unhealthy discussions about body image by commiserating with the “failure” to limit calories or carbs. Instead, by shrugging off diet talk and revealing “I prefer to eat what I want,” students can set a precedent among their friends of enjoying food and each other with no guilt or comparisons.
By eating unapologetically, students can give their friends permission to accept themselves, too, leading to a healthier relationship to food for everyone.
5. Intuitive eating means meals are more fun
A key principle of intuitive eating is honoring that food is pleasurable. Principle No. 5 is to “discover the satisfaction factor,” based on a piece of Japanese wisdom that pleasure should be one of the goals of healthy living.
Everyone knows what it is like to look forward to a meal, or get excited about a fresh baked dessert. However, intuitive eating says that, in our compulsion to comply with diet culture, we often overlook that pleasure and satisfaction can be found in the eating experience. Discovering the satisfaction factor is about providing yourself with the experience of eating what you really want, in an environment that is inviting, with the knowledge that the pleasure derived from this experience will actually make you feel more satisfied and content.
College students can benefit from incorporating more simple pleasures into their day-to-day lives. Adopting the intuitive eating philosophy means being intentional about making meals satisfying and pleasurable, which should encourage students to be more proactive about planning and sharing meals with friends.
Intuitive eating pushes students to eat meals other than ramen noodles or a slice of pizza. Discovering the satisfaction factor when it comes to meals on campus would mean strengthening friendships by making meals a social as well as a nourishment break.
Beyond an escape from diet culture, intuitive eating offers unique benefits to young adults in particular. The main principles encourage practices that would lead to a more fulfilling college experience overall — mentally, socially and physically. After minimal research, all you have to know is yourself.