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WFPB: Restrictive or Intuitive?

Is it possible to align a wholefood, plant-based approach with intuitive eating? Absolutely! It’s all about an abundance of healthful food.

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Intuitive eating is a concept that’s become increasingly well-known since Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch first developed it in the ’90s. These pioneering dietitians founded a movement that provides a valuable counterpoint to unhealthy dieting and weight-loss culture, embracing a non-dieting approach to self-nourishment and care.

By removing food restrictions, the principles of intuitive eating can offer a welcome escape from the ‘black and white’ thinking that often accompanies dieting, fostering a healthier relationship with food. Intuitive eating encourages tuning in with our body’s needs, which can be revolutionary, especially for people who have been trapped in a cycle of yo-yo dieting.

Isn’t plant-based a food restriction?

As long as a plant-based diet is not adopted as a subterfuge for restrictive or disordered eating, it’s absolutely possible to take an intuitive-eating approach. But how does a wholefood, plant-based (WFPB) eating pattern fit in, given that this seeks to exclude highly processed as well as animal-derived foods? Does it go too far and tip us back into a diet mentality?

Although it’s often referred to as the WFPB diet, this way of eating is not like other diets that require a restrictive mindset. Firstly, the goal of a WFPB eating pattern is not weight loss, but health improvement. It will often result in weight loss, but this is a by-product, not the purpose of the lifestyle. The benefits occur without any need for restricting or monitoring dietary intake. In fact, this is actively discouraged.

Instead, a WFPB approach encourages eating to satiety from a rainbow of vibrant whole plant foods that are rich in fibre and phytonutrients and low in calories, while being naturally filling and satisfying.

Secondly, the focus is on what’s included rather than what’s excluded. When you load up on the good stuff, there won’t be any room for processed or animal-derived products. In line with intuitive eating principles, a WFPB way of eating is all about feeling good within ourselves and having a relationship with food that fits with the values of respecting our bodies and honouring our health and wellbeing.

Lastly, it’s also an empowering way for us to take a daily stand for a kinder and fairer world – values of increasing concern for many of us. These are motivations that are both life-affirming and self-affirming, rather than being about restriction or body image.

Intuiting your way to WFPB

Although going fully WFPB is great (with qualified supervision if you’re on medication, given that needs can rapidly change), many people prefer to dip a toe in first and move gradually. This is absolutely fine and very much part of the WFPB philosophy.

The aim is progress not perfection, and any pace that works for you is likely to be self-reinforcing as the benefits make themselves apparent. With that said, there are a number of questions that arise when eating intuitively and WFPB. The first and most obvious is that eating whole or minimally processed plant foods may not feel intuitive at first.

What if I crave junk food?

Processed food and many restaurant foods, especially from the big fast-food chains, are specifically designed to be hyper-palatable, with ‘craveability’ being their holy grail. An entire food industry has been built around tricking our taste buds (and microbiota!) into thinking we want more of what are essentially ‘food-like substances’ – high in added salt, oil, and sugar.

Vegetables

Not only that, but these items are heavily marketed and ever-present in our day-to-day environments. As a result, before we truly tune in to our bodies, we might feel ‘intuitively’ inclined to reach for these types of products. The key here is to come back to your motivations of optimal wellbeing. Seek out and sample healthier wholefood options at a pace that’s right for you and, crucially, give your body a chance to adjust as you try out what will undoubtedly feel unfamiliar (and possibly even boring) at first.

Research suggests that our taste buds take about 12 weeks to adapt to and appreciate new flavours through the fascinating process of neuroadaptation. At the same time, our gut bacteria will also rapidly adjust, influencing our cravings in a healthier direction the more we crowd out the junk with a variety of whole plant foods.

Doesn’t WFPB often lead to weight loss?

A strong theme in intuitive eating is that weight loss should never be the goal. So how does this square with WFPB diet proponents who note that a healthy weight is a protective factor against many chronic diseases and often flag weight optimisation as one of its benefits? Some clarification is needed here.

Intuitive eating doesn’t actually demonise the idea of weight loss where this may be beneficial for an individual’s health, any more than it would where weight gain is needed. The point is that traditional diets don’t work, so weight-related goals are put aside and goals such as healthy living, feeling good, and trusting your body’s cues are prioritised.

In close alignment with this, a WFPB approach isn’t about dieting or weight loss either, rather it’s about attaining and maintaining good health.

What about ‘unconditional permission to eat’?

One of the intuitive eating principles is around giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. Well, if like me you are convinced by the WFPB nutrition science, you no longer consider animal-based or highly processed foods as nourishing food choices, so it’s not about restriction but about what you choose to include based on your convictions. Not only that, but a key aspect of a WFPB diet is that it can be eaten ‘ad libitum’ – with no portion control, calorie counting, or food monitoring – while enjoying the wonderful side effect of better health!

This was powerfully seen in the BROAD study, a highly successful trial in rural New Zealand in a community suffering from high rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. The participants were guided to follow a traffic light system indicating foods that form part of a healthy WFPB diet and encouraged to have as much of these as they liked. Many of the participants reported that ‘not being hungry’ was a key factor in enabling them to stick to the program. The study results spoke for themselves, with participants’ health markers improving dramatically, including natural reductions in BMI, weight, and cholesterol as well as resulting reductions in medication needs.

What if I don’t feel full and satisfied?

Some people associate WFPB eating with ‘rabbit food’ and worry that they’ll no longer feel full or satisfied if they preference these foods. And this certainly wouldn’t fit with the intuitive eating principles of honouring our hunger, feeling our fullness, and discovering what feels satisfying. Fortunately, tuning in to our hunger cues is crucial when we choose a WFPB way of eating, too.

In fact, because whole plant foods usually have a much lower calorie density than foods in a typical Western diet, we are likely to need bigger portion sizes when eating this way, which may seem counterintuitive at first, especially when we’re culturally conditioned to distrust large servings! Eating to fullness, or satiety, when we consume foods high in fat, means we have already consumed excess energy. By contrast, when we follow a WFPB diet without restrictions on quantity, we feel full without having consumed excess energy.

What’s abundantly clear in the literature is that, whatever your size, changing your diet to include predominantly whole plant foods is likely to induce beneficial changes in your biochemistry. And the rewards come quickly, from reduced inflammation to better immunity and hormonal regulation to a thriving gut microbiome. What better way to reinforce an intuitive approach to eating and a truly healthy relationship with food!

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Separating fact from fiction

There are some myths and misconceptions about intuitive eating. Let’s clarify.

Unconditional permission to eat means anything goes, so nutrition doesn’t matter

Not at all! Intuitive eating is all about attuning to your body’s needs and what it calls ‘gentle nutrition’ whereby you make choices that honour your health and what feels good. This results in positive physical and mental health outcomes and an escape from counterproductive cycles of restriction.

Eating intuitively means eating to emotional cues

The intuitive eating principles emphasise coping with our emotions with kindness and specifically counsel against using food to comfort, distract, or numb painful feelings. Instead, they advocate dealing with the source of difficult emotions, recognising that ‘eating for an emotional hunger may only make you feel worse in the long run’.

Weight-related goals are always a sign of disordered eating

False. Intuitive eating principles don’t preclude wanting to achieve or maintain a healthy weight as part of your overall health and wellbeing goals. The point is that achieving a particular body size and shape isn’t the focus.

There is no such thing as a healthy weight

While intuitive eating rejects diet culture, it doesn’t deny the health risks of obesity. What it does do is help people escape cycles of dieting that are known to promote poor body image, guilt, and disordered eating patterns without any lasting weight-loss benefits.

This article is republished with permission from nourishmagazine.com.au.

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