Whether you’re a follower of all the latest diet trends, or a ‘grab and go’ muncher, it’s easy for food to become just another stressful pressure on the workday to-do list. But a movement known as intuitive eating wants to help us all reconnect with what our bodies really need – and there’s a compelling business case for getting on board.
“Intuitive eating looks slightly different on everybody, but it’s a set of ten overarching principles that are designed to help guide you towards a healthier relationship with food,” explains Laura Thomas PhD, a registered nutritionist and author of Just Eat It: How Intuitive Eating Can Help You Get Your Shit Together Around Food.
“So often what I see with office workers who are super-busy all day long is that they just push on and on, and don’t take a lunch break. By the time they do go for lunch at 2 or 3 o’clock, they’re starving,” she adds. “It means their concentration is worse, their focus is worse, they can’t really think clearly, so they’re a lot less productive.”
Instead, intuitive eating encourages you to honour those hunger pangs before they start affecting your work. In the same way that you give your business what it needs to thrive, intuitive eating is about regularly tuning in and giving your body whatever fuel it really needs in that moment.
Sounds worth a try? Then buckle up for the long haul. “It is a little bit of an investment in terms of the process – there is no shortcut to intuitive eating,” Dr Thomas adds. “But ultimately you will waste a lot less time and energy worrying about food and overthinking it.”
Nick Owen is founder of What-Food, based at Workspace’s China Works in Vauxhall, which aims to make nutrition fun, practical, tasty and relevant. He says, “You can start to observe trends and patterns around your mood, physicality, energy levels, concentration, mobility, sleep and stress.”
Unlearning the diet mindset
In essence, intuitive eating is a mind-body process of unlearning everything you think you know about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and, instead, reconnecting with your body in a kinder and more balanced way. “It’s really taking food down off a pedestal so we can look at it and make an informed decision about what would feel good in that moment – whether that’s something more comforting, or something that’s going to give you energy and stamina, or some combination of both things, rather than following an external diet rule that says, ‘you have to eat the salad’,” Dr Thomas explains.
Owen says, “Part of mindfulness is accepting that no food is off limits, but if a food or a way of eating is not something that is congruent to our goals, we should learn from that to make better future decisions.”
33-year-old Sara Tasker is a creative business coach, Instagram expert, and author of Hashtag Authentic. She discovered intuitive eating after years of skipping meals and “trying to cheat my hunger”. She has been working one-on-one with Dr Thomas.
“I’ve learned that my appetite’s not the enemy,” she explains. “Instead of always thinking about how I can cheat hunger, now it’s much more about how I can respond to my hunger in a way that actually makes me feel satisfied.”
And, Tasker adds, it’s made a remarkable difference to her life as a digital entrepreneur. “Turns out, if you eat breakfast you can actually get some work done in the morning – you don’t fall asleep at your desk!” she laughs.
“A good day for me now starts with breakfast, has regular snacks, and is really when I just don’t worry about food. I’m not constantly thinking about it, or putting calories in an app; I’m just eating and my energy feels consistent throughout the day,” she explains.
Making mindful choices
While intuitive eating might be a new one on you, chances are you’ve already heard of mindful eating, or at least mindfulness – the ancient eastern philosophy that’s entered mainstream wellness lexicon in recent years. Mindfulness involves bringing your consciousness to the present moment and, while mindful eating isn’t the same as intuitive eating, it is an important part of the process.
“It requires the person to be fully present with their body and their mind when they’re eating,” explains Dr Cinzia Pezzolesi, a chartered clinical psychologist who specialises in mindful eating.
“This means becoming more attuned to the natural signals that the body sends us about when we are full or hungry, and there’s also an element of treating your body with respect and compassion.”
Owen says, “We can certainly make time to eat more slowly - and plan that in our day.”
For behavioural change specialist Shahroo Izadi, author of The Kindness Method, reclaiming her lunch breaks and embracing mindful eating have been an important part of being kinder and more nurturing to herself.
“I decided that I would treat work lunches – even when I was working from home or on the go – as if I was having lunch with a friend,” she says. “When I did that, in quite a holistic way, my tiny decisions changed. I take care in where I choose to sit, and how I present my food. I sit at a table, I turn my laptop off, and really try to taste my food, and look at it as a break.
Izadi adds: “I like to associate it with other healthy habits too – so if I’m at home, I’ll have lunch and then go outside for a walk. It’s another opportunity to check in with your body, give it what it needs, and invigorate yourself in as many ways as possible.”
Intuitive eating for busy people
Of course, all of that sounds great in principle – but, as a busy professional, what if you don’t have time to devote a full hour to tuning in with your body and practising mindful lunch breaks?
The good thing is that, unlike every diet you’ve ever been on, there are no rules. Intuitive eating is a set of guiding principles, it’s not hard-and-fast. There’s nothing wrong with grabbing a sandwich and a packet of crisps on the go when you’re very busy.
Dr Thomas says, “If you can’t make every meal a mindful meal, a smaller step would be to have one mindful bite. At the beginning of the meal sit down, think through the texture, the flavour, the temperature, and all the other sensory qualities of the food – just check in with it as literally a bite-sized moment you can enjoy straight away,” she explains.
“Intuitive eating is a process, and it does take time, but the nice thing about it is that it’s flexible,” she adds. “Of course it’s great if you can make time to close your laptop, even if it’s just 10 to 15 minutes, but I’ll sometimes work through my lunch break because I don’t have time.”
Similarly, don’t beat yourself up if you only have time to grab a granola bar between meetings. It’s always better to eat something than to just keep pushing on because you can’t take a perfect lunch break.
Have you tried eating more intuitively and mindfully? Let us know by tweeting @WorkspaceGroup and share your experience. For more nutritional tips, and to find out how eating well can reduce stress, read advice from fitness and nutrition coach Michael Adu.