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Are You an Intuitive Eater?

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

healthy foods on a table


By Nurhan Dunford, FAPC Oil/Oilseed Specialist


International Food Information Council (IFIC) has been conducting food and health surveys to evaluate consumer opinions, beliefs and behaviors about food and nutrition for the last 15 consecutive years. The 2020 survey highlights how the COVID-19 global pandemic has changed the way we shop for, eat and think about food. It also compares the trends in food attitudes and behaviors since 2010.


It is not surprising the survey found 85% of Americans made at least some change in the food they purchased, ate and cooked because of the pandemic. The biggest change revealed was that 60% more people are cooking at home.


Taste, price, health implications, convenience and environmental sustainability continue to be the most important factors during food selection since 2010. Although the number of consumers considering sustainability while purchasing food has increased 7% from 2019 to 2020, about 63% say they are not sure if their choices are environmentally sustainable. Market share of the products manufactured via sustainable techniques could be higher with some consumer education.


Trusting a brand and recognizing the ingredients used in foods make a huge difference during the selection process. Many consumers are wary about seeing “unfamiliar chemical sounding” words in the ingredient list on food packages. Some advocate the food mantras such as, “If you cannot easily pronounce the ingredients in your food, don’t eat it.” When they see the words thiamine mononitrate or ascorbic acid in the list, they might not realize those are the chemical names for vitamin B1 and C, which are beneficial for maintaining good health. It is interesting that consumers who changed their diet during the last 10 years care more about recognizing the ingredients in the foods they purchase. People over the age of 65 appear to be more trust driven than younger generations.


More than 54% of the consumers say health implications of the food they choose are more important today than 10 years ago – although obsession with body weight and image and dieting have been a cultural phenomenon, especially for women, for decades. Surprisingly, it does not seem to be slowing down. More and more men also have been dieting for body image and health enhancement purposes. The number of people following a specific diet has increased 5% from 2019 to 2020. Intermittent fasting, clean eating, high-fat ketogenic and low carb diets appear to be the most popular ones. Losing weight remains to be the top motivator for dieting at 47%.

Unfortunately, dieting for losing weight and keeping it off have been shown to be ineffective for many. According to the research, 30-40% of the weight lost through dieting is usually regained within one year. In the early 2000s, a new philosophy, “Healthy at Every Size” (HAES), emerged as a response to the failing diet culture. HAES proponents argue dieting and restricting food are not only ineffective but also cause physical and emotional stress. Don’t we all turn to food for comfort during the time of uncertainty and stress? It is not surprising about 32% of the IFIC survey responders say they have been snacking more during the pandemic.


Part of the stress associated with body image and weight obsession is due to the social stigma and discrimination experienced by the individuals. When overweight individuals cannot achieve and/or maintain a “narrowly defined and socially acceptable body size” by following the prevailing weight management strategies such as “eating less, moving more,” they become distressed and, in some cases develop, eating disorders and/or turn to excessive exercise.


The terms “intuitive eating or mindful eating” refer to focusing on the present; acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations; and being fully attentive to what you eat, buy and serve. HAES paradigm emphasizes “intuitive eating, body acceptance regardless of size and shape and physical activity for movement and health, rather than for select performance or to shape the body.” The argument is the increased focus on weight leads to increased stigmatization and weight discrimination, reducing the quality of life and deteriorating both physical and mental health.


HAES supporters argue responding to internal cues of hunger and satiety rather than external norms of specific mealtimes or events can thwart negative body image and eating disorders. Dr. Linda Bacon in her book titled, “Health at every size: The surprising truth about your weight,” argues health indicators such as blood pressure, cholesterols levels or blood sugar levels can be improved by adopting a healthier lifestyle, even without losing weight.


She says, “Removing the obstacles that get in the way of people of all sizes making healthy choices is a more effective approach to attain better health outcomes than following strict diets to manage weight and social body image norms.”


I agree with the professionals on both sides of dieting versus the HAES debate that there is a need for social change related to the acceptance of individuals regardless of their body size and shape. Thin does not necessarily mean healthy and fit. Intuitive eating and moving away from weight-based bias make sense. Adjudicating health outcomes strictly based on weight and labeling individuals with large body size is irresponsible and criticizing them for contributing to the increasing health care costs is harmful. Scientific studies indicate there are built-in biological safeguards preventing some people from maintaining weight loss even with rigorous dieting and exercise. One may have a large body size and be healthy and fit at the same time.


It is time to do the critical thinking and challenge the prevailing social biases about how to choose our food; how much, what and when to eat; and judging others based on their weight and body size. Focus on the healthy lifestyle choices and your body’s response and actual health outcomes of the decisions you make.

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