Body wisdom: A new approach to eating

Published on
September 27, 2021

Working as a dietitian, Katerina Palascha saw how people struggled with the rules that come with a diet. Her observations were in line with a growing body of evidence. The evidence shows that the current dieting paradigm fails. “Many people struggled with the rules” says Katerina. “They were having ups and downs in their weight. This led to them feeling bad about themselves. People weren’t becoming healthier, either mentally or physically.” Katerina knew from experience that trying to diet can have negative effects. “I have struggled with dieting. This changed when I decided to eat when I was hungry, and to stop eating when I was full. I listened to the signals of my own body. I learnt how to respond to them. This improved my health, both physically and mentally.” While Katerina worked as a junior researcher at the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour group, she discovered that there was a name for this eating style. Internally regulated eating is an eating style in which the body’s signals tell whether it is time to eat, and when it’s time to stop eating.

Internally regulated eating, however, is one name for this eating style. It has also been described as intuitive eating, mindful eating and as eating competence. Also, there are different intervention programmes which focus on this eating style, each with a different name. “Within this field, several researchers have worked on how eating can be regulated internally” explains Katerina. For her PhD research, she connected the dots in a field where knowledge was fragmented. “Researchers had developed their own research line. But they didn’t connect with people who did similar things. So, there was a substantial body of work that was already available. However, there wasn’t an overview of the work that had been done. In my PhD research, I provide this overview. It identifies five individual-difference characteristics for this eating style.”

Sensitivity to physiological signals of hunger and satiation is the first characteristic. It refers to a person’s ability to perceive the signals coming from the body. Self-efficacy is next. It is a person’s ability to respond to the body’s signal, knowing when to eat, and how much. Internal trust refers to how much a person trusts their ability to act upon their body’s signals of hunger or satiation. Food legalising refers to a person’s attitude towards food, and especially to indulgent food. People who regulate their eating internally tend to have a relaxed attitude towards food, indulgent foods included. Food enjoyment is the fifth characteristic for internally regulated eating. Savoring the sensory experience that food provides is often found in people who regulate their eating internally. Prior research suggests that eating in response to signals of hunger and satiation associates with lower BMI. This eating style also is associated with a healthy mental attitude towards food and eating, and towards oneself. It is effective in leading to weight loss.

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“The characteristic that surprised me most was food enjoyment” says Katerina. “When I started my research, I was already familiar with regulating my own eating internally. Because of that, I could relate to most of what I read in the literature. But food enjoyment was new to me. Yet, it stands out in other fields of research as well. It is particularly important for managing the food intake effectively. How much people enjoy food impacts how much they eat of it – in a positive way.”

What she has learned, both from the research and personally, has changed Katerina’s approach to eating. “Currently, I am still thinking about how I can promote this eating style. It is not for everyone. Internally regulated eating requires sensitivity to the signals from the body. When I did research, I noticed that some people are highly aware of the signals from their body. Others are to a lesser extent. Internally regulated eating is not a one size fits all approach. If I start sharing this new approach to eating, I will have to take this into account. It will be necessary to screen out those who do not benefit from it. For some, eating based on rules may work well. For those who benefit from internally regulated eating I would like to provide education. Seminars, perhaps, where they learn something new every week. People might do exercises to relearn how to hear signals from the body. Learning how to internally regulate your eating is a journey, in which you reform your relationship with food.”