OUTSIDE THE BOX - I'm Overwhelmed by Diets: a Simple Guide to Intuitive Eating

"Outside the Box" posts will concentrate on debated topics, trying to think critically at a time when we are bombarded by information, while we are no experts ourselves. I'm trying to cover different point of views, by also showing you how I manage these issues in my own life. This will be in one way my advice section, in an other just random ramblings about whatever problem is tickling my brain at the moment.

It seems like on the list of "Things Mankind Will Never Agree Upon" (sounds pretty lame, but what you gonna do) the top 3 positions are occupied by:

1. Olives
2. Parenting
3. What is actually healthy

From the title you might have guessed that today I'm going to talk about what I consider a healthy diet, and specifically how I found the right one for me, in an age where everyone seems to have a strong opinion on what one should eat .

If I had to give advice on starting a healthy lifestyle, these would be the most simple things to come to my mind: exercise enough, but not too much, get out on the sun, but not too much, sleep enough and deeply, drink enough water, get some fresh air and preferably don't take your dog on a stroll around some uranium deposit. Ha. I'm funny.
But one aspect of healthy living is debated all the time, and it's nutrition. I never hear the same advice twice about what, when and how much of that should I put in my body, what I definitely shouldn't put in my body, whether I need to give my digestive tract some time to rest, or cleanse the fuck out of it, whether taking supplements is mandatory or useless, and if the former, then what am I supposed to take. Holy crap.
I wanted a simpler approach to eating, no restrictive, creatively named diets (no paleo, gluten-free, vegan or HPLCASD diet for me), nutrient counting, or even that annoying food-pyramid. So I went back to the things I was already sure about in other aspects of healthy living, and took away two principles that could serve as an approach to eating:

1. Everything can be done in moderation.
2. Learn what works best for you. Because everyone's body and needs are different.

I realised these are basically the principles of intuitive eating, that I followed all the way until now, just wasn't mindful about it. And I needed a click-baity title.
For those who aren't familiar with this term: intuitive eating means that you only have to eat whenever, whatever and just as much as your body craves.
It sounds like a no-brainer no-bullshit guide to eating.

Naturally, to put this idea in action in a practical and actually healthy way, you'll have to train your body to crave the right things - if you're already addicted to sugar, that doesn't mean you should only eat chocolate for the rest of your life. Also, no two person has the exact same metabolism, needs the same amount of nutrients (get the "recommended" part in RDA), and can take them up efficiently from the same sources. Now it sounds a lot more trickier. 
Fortunately, you can learn to effectively monitor your eating habits, and understand what your body is actually asking for. So while it sounds contradictory, implementing a few guidelines in the early stages of switching to intuitive eating can be beneficial to become mindful of your body's signals, and to get the right amount of everything, in the right form for your own unique needs.

Brief intermezzo here. I want everyone to deeply understand that weight and healthiness aren't so closely correlated, as we tend to think. Being over- or underweight definitely has an effect on your risk for a lot of diseases, but way smaller than, say, genetic predisposition.
You can eat junk food and not give a shit about exercise, while still staying in the normal or even underweight range, live as healthily as you can, while having a (chronic) disease regardless of weight, or be perfectly healthy, and lead a healthy lifestyle while still being considered overweight.
Realise, that there are three different factors:
- weight
- lifestyle choices
- actual health 
And here comes my pet peeve, Body Mass Index. You can go back where you came from, cause you're a bunch of bullcrap!
BMI is only a tool for both doctors and statistics, to either see the big picture, or to give out half-assed advice, cause nobody got time for that (and we don't know better, unless everyone had their body-fat percentage measured and blood tested 4 times a year). It's something that works in broad lines, but can't be effectively applied on a single person, as there are so many other factors from metabolism rate and bone structure to simply being muscular (muscle weights more than fat) that distort the results.A lot of people would have to be unreasonably restrictive in their diet, or on the other hand, eat a bunch of shit and not move for weeks, to get under the "normal" label, and keeping that up would be really far from a healthy lifestyle. I bet you know someone who has lower or higher than average body temperature or blood pressure, and reaching the average for them would actually indicate a health problem. As long as the amount of fat or lack thereof doesn't impose a direct threat to your organs' functioning, ditch the scale for good, and never go on a highly restrictive diet without consulting with a dietitian (not a nutritionist).

So if you feel like this is the method for you, here are some ideas I find helpful in the process of mastering intuitive eating:

Understand your body's signals
I you're prone to over-eating or emotional eating, it's important to listen to your body. Eat slowly and consciously, avoid distractions (TV, reading or conversations), and pay attention to when you feel almost full. Then just stop. Sometimes it can take about 20 minutes for your brain to get the memo that you're actually completely full.
Only eat again when you feel hungry, and make sure that it's actual hunger, not stress or boredom. Identify your triggers, and find a way to deal with those feelings and situations without impulsive, mindless snacking. Also, make sure you are drinking enough. If you're not used to paying attention to your body, you may confuse thirst for hunger.
I found that I have to make an effort to schedule regular meals, as I easily get distracted, and forget about my basic needs (like peeing, seriously) when I'm out and about. On the other hand, I'm prone to mindless trips to the kitchen when I do something more passive, like watching a movie.

Follow a loose schedule
When your eating habits are all over the place, the best way to assess the actual needs of your body, is to first create a loose schedule and imagine the realistic size of your portions (don't go into the spiral of calorie-counting, please, as long as it's not due to a physical health issue). You can try different approaches depending on what works for your body and metabolism: three bigger meals and no snacking, five smaller meals throughout the day; you can try intermittent fasting (only eating in a designated 8 consecutive hours of the day), if that's your thing. After some time you will naturally follow that rhythm, and won't need to pay attention to the clock.
Your needs may change as time goes on, so feel free to adjust, if your work schedule or your metabolism changes (even from winter to summer, when you might crave lighter meals).
Avoid waiting too much between meals, though, as your energy levels will drop drastically during the day, which results in hunger and fatigue, that you in turn compensate with over-eating, making you feel bloated and sluggish after the meal.

Create guidelines for what to put in your body
This approach of eating is about not restricting yourself from different food groups, but part of listening to your body means understanding how you react to what you put in it. If you have prominent food allergies/intolerance or other issues, like insulin resistance, that's given, but make sure to pay attention to which foods may make you feel uncomfortable, bloated, gassy, trigger heartburn, or have non-digestive related effects, like breakouts or bad PMS. Or you know, sometimes you're just a picky eater, like me.
If you ban certain food groups from your diet, make sure you get those nutrients from other sources by setting guidelines, like "eating leafy greens at least twice a day for magnesium" or getting supplements (e.g B12 and iron for vegans).

Trick your mind
For over-eaters a popular mind-trick is switching to a smaller plate or bowl. You can regulate your portions, and won't feel tempted or unsatisfied by seeing the empty space on your plate, but if you really feel hungry, you can get a second helping.
Eating a fruit (or a soup when eating out) before your main course can also fill you up a bit, and feels like you already completed a meal.
If you're like me, and tend to eat when you're bored as hell, usually doing something with your hand will do the trick (I'm talking about doodling or knitting here).

Don’t feel pressured to eat everything (at home or when eating out)
I was always told by my parents when I was little to only take as much as I'll actually eat. So for a long time I felt like it was an achievement to eat the most I could, preferably the whole plate of what was served to me at a restaurant, and I ate to the point of feeling ill.
Always tell yourself that it’s okay to only eat what you feel like eating. Most meals served at a traditional restaurant are still way too much for me, so I usually take the rest home (which is sometimes half the portion) and eat it later.
The same goes for when you have just a bit too much left of that food you've made, and it wouldn’t be enough for another meal. In this case, try to use the leftovers in your next meal in the form of a sauce, or stuffing it in some vegetables. No African kiddos will get mad at you for not puking back half of that lasagna (I should put a "graphic" tag on my posts).

This is your playground
This method is about making you feel good, and having a healthy relationship with food. I don't believe in magic diets, that will work the same for everyone, and make everybody healthy, thin and beautiful, cure cancer, and ride a unicorn. There are no universal rules, and don't even get me in a conversation about what the prehistoric man ate.
Personally, I'm never hungry upon waking, so no matter how much everyone is preaching about the most important meal of the day, if it makes me feel sluggish, and takes away my appetite for the whole day, I won't eat breakfast. Hand me a cup of hot Earl Grey, and I'll be good till noon. It will get out of fashion, anyway.
A few years ago everyone was all hallelujah about tofu and soy milk, now all you can read about is how it contains phytoestrogens, and no woman should put that in her body. Before that, it was eggs, tomorrow it will be avocado. So instead of trying to keep up with that craziness, just play by your own rules!

So what do I actually eat? (Mostly just note to self)
I'm mostly plant-based, and the hard fact behind that is not that I'm so worried about animal welfare, but that I'm lactose intolerant and allergic to all types of red meat (and fur, milk, saliva, the whole package); I also hate seafood with a passion. Probiotic dairy options actually help a lot with my digestion, though (mascarpone, on the other hand), and I have to tell you all in a similar shoe: rice milk is the only way to go with coffee! You have no idea how long it took me to find that out.
Also, beer is magic, that should be medically prescribed.
I feel my best when I eat veggies and legumes. Potato and simple carbs, like rice and white bread are a no-go, because gas ("graphic"), so I'll have to go with the more colourful sides (brown is a colour, right?).
Also acid reflux, because I wasn't enough of a problematic eater.
Besides balance, I aim to limit my intake of processed food, to not feel like a slob with a sugar-crash, and also fresh, colourful stuff makes me happy. If comfort food is your thing, I advise you to go and watch some How It's Made - no more chicken nuggets for this girl.
I'm not the person with a sweet-tooth, I'd always pick cheese over chocolate, and sweet food can't really satisfy my hunger, but I kind of became addicted to sugar recently (instant gratification). I do pretty well with my other food-rules, but this one is hard. Instead of going cold-turkey, I try to gradually reduce my sugar consumption, because it has not a lot value to it other than brain-food, and can mess with a lot of things from blood-sugar levels to hormones.
So I'm probably not the person you'd want to invite over for dinner.

So that's it, people. Feel free to share your thoughts and requests in the comments, and if you have any interesting experience or advice about diets, make sure to air those out here too!

- Anna


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