Intuitive Eating: The Not-Diet Diet for People Who Are Sick of Diets

Intuitive Eating: The Not-Diet Diet for People Who Are Sick of Diets

Maybe you read the widely-shared opinion piece in the New York Times calling on women to “smash the Wellness Industry.” Maybe you’ve heard that we’re in the middle of a “backlash against diet culture,” or that “the latest diet trend is not dieting.”

Sounds pretty good, right?

That not-diet diet everyone’s talking about is “intuitive eating,” and it’s the current source of curiosity/obsession among health bloggers, Instagram fitspo accounts, and wellness news publications… including, I guess, VICE? 2019 was a big year for intuitive eating, with trend stories appearing everywhere from NPR to the Cut in the last several months.

This way of eating may be newly resonant, but it’s not new—the philosophy was introduced by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their 1995 book book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works.

“It’s not a fad, and that’s the difference,” said Lisa Sasson, a clinical professor of nutrition at NYU Steinhardt. “I teach it in all my classes.”

Put simply, intuitive eating is intended to eliminate the guilt associated with food and the binary of foods as “good” or “bad.” “It’s more of a psychological attitude; it’s not about counting calories or ‘eat this, don’t eat that,’” Sasson continued. Intuitive eating doesn’t exult any of-the-moment superfoods; there’s no obsessive nutrition label reading.

It is, technically, eat-whatever-you-want, but there’s a bit of public misperception around that: Registered Dietitian Anne Mauney, who also uses Instagram to promote an IE lifestyle (@fannetasticfood), said that even though you’re not paying attention to calories when eating intuitively, you are being conscious of how hungry or full you are. There’s a focus on how foods make you feel, and an emphasis on mindfulness. That means eating slowly, putting down the fork periodically, checking in after a few minutes to see if you’re still hungry, and not continuing to eat just because there’s still food on your plate.

The idea is that the longer you stick to these lifestyle changes, the more you’re in control. “You respect your own body’s signals,” Sasson explained.

It’s also not a weight loss plan, no matter what you might’ve read. “If you Google ‘intuitive eating,’ ‘intuitive eating for weight loss’ comes up pretty early,” Mauney said. “It’s frustrating, because I’ve seen a lot of people marketing intuitive eating for weight loss, which is not at all what it’s about. If you’re really focused on weight loss, it’s going to be almost impossible to be an intuitive eater.”

One of Sasson’s classes is called Nutrition Through the Life Cycle, and she said we’re “a nation with an eating disorder,” behavior that begins when we’re kids. Children rely on hormones that tell them when they’re full or hungry; they know to eat and when not to. It’s parents who make them finish food even if they’re full so they can, say, watch TV or go play. When food becomes more than food—when broccoli is a requirement or cookies become a reward—that’s when people get out of touch with their own body cues. And that internalized message can follow you your whole life, leading to moderate body dissatisfaction or an all out eating disorder.

That’s not the only thing making it tough to practice. There’s also the fact that the moment we live in is that it isn’t built to make eating… well, quite so intuitive.

“We live in a 24/7 world of food advertisements on the television, on the radio, on Facebook and Twitter,” said UCLA’s Dana Hunnes, a senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan Medical Center.

“You know, I was at Macy’s, the department store, a few weeks ago,” Sasson said. “Every floor had food. You could smell the aroma as you’re going through women’s shoes, or women’s dresses. There was an eating opportunity on every floor.”

In a world where SUV’s come outfitted with XL cupholders and snacks are engineered to make us crave more and more of them, eating well can be a challenge. When you’re constantly being bombarded by billboards plastered with 20-foot-tall burgers; scrolling Twitter during, say, a week-long media craze over a certain fast-food fried chicken sandwich; or looking at the umpteenth grain bowl or smoothie bowl in your Instagram feed, it can be difficult to parse “what you want” from “what you think you want.” Hunnes said all that subliminal messaging can dampen or influence our own intuitive thinking, which makes it easy to see why some are skeptical about the IE lifestyle.

So what do you do about it? In short: If you think you want it, eat it. “There’s no judgement either way, this is all just information,” said Molly Bahr, who’s both a licensed mental health counselor and an intuitive eating Instagrammer. “This can be a helpful reframe each time we think we ‘mess up’ with intuitive eating … there is no messing up, it’s just information. How else will we learn our natural body cues, what we find satisfying, or what feels good in our bodies? It’s all an experiment, and we’re gathering data.”

Intuitive eating isn’t a get-fit-quick scheme—dietitians will tell you it’s more of a yearslong and in fact lifelong undertaking. Bahr said it’s a way of eating and living meant for anyone who’s tired of going on diets but not getting the long-term results they expected or hoped for. One of the things she liked about it is that it can truly be tailored to anyone—especially with the help of a dietitian—regardless of their relationship with food.

“Someone with anorexia or who has dieted for a long time may not be able to detect their hunger or fullness cues yet, but they can start with other principles like rejecting the diet mentality and work with a dietitian on how to navigate the hunger and fullness piece until the cues get back on line,” she explained. “Keep in mind, this process can take months and years. No one is expected to get a handle of all 10 principles in 12 weeks—that’s sort of a lingering diet mentality.”

If you’re wondering where to start, or are interested in learning how you can adopt some of the principles in your own life, we asked them to demystify the process and tell us what the intuitive eating-curious need to know.

Brush up on the basics

Bahr recommends reading the books Intuitive Eating, Health At Every Size, The Body Is Not An Apology, and Just Eat It. And she has an array of podcast recommendations: Dietitians Unplugged; Love, Food; Food Psych, Don’t Salt My Game.

If that sounds like a lot of reading and listening and you’re ready to get going right now, she also laid out the 10 principles of intuitive eating (which you can read more in-depth descriptions of here):

1. Reject the diet mentality
Learn about diet culture and why diets don’t “work,” set aside weight loss goals, and let go of dieting behaviors to get out of our heads and into our bodies.

2. Honor your hunger
Eat consistently, throughout the day, including when you notice gentle signs of hunger.

3. Make peace with food
Give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods (excepting those you can’t because of medical conditions, of course).

4. Challenge the food police
Say no to the food rules diet culture has taught us about what, how much, how often, and when to eat.

5. Feel your fullness
Listen for the signs you’re no longer hungry; notice the signals telling you when you’re comfortably full.

6. Discover the satisfaction factor
Eat what you really want to eat. No more food swaps for zucchini when you’re feeling pasta.

7. Cope with your feelings without using food
Seek out and learn additional ways to deal with emotions and practice self compassion.

8. Respect your body
Simply put? Treat and talk to your body with respect.

9. Joyful movement: feel the difference
Engage in activities you find enjoyable, and notice what you like about it (better sleep, more energy).

10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition
Eat a variety of foods and notice how they feel in your body.

Note that these are guidelines, not rules. You don’t have to (and truly, won’t be able to) do all 10 right away. And, Bahr said, there’s no such thing as failure or messing up here; there are wins, and there’s learning. You don’t have to go in order—although principle 10 is listed last for a reason. “If we jump into nutrition too soon, we can quickly turn it into another diet,” Bahr said.

“What happens over time as we start to feed ourselves consistently with food we want, learn our hunger and fullness cues, notice how foods feel in our body, stop constantly trying to lose weight, and cope with our emotions in healthy ways we will naturally begin to crave a variety of foods—including nutrient dense foods—without actually trying to focus on the 10th principle.”

Follow and double-tap responsibly

If you came to intuitive eating by way of Instagram, you might believe the movement is for a certain type of (thin, privileged) person. (Take a scroll through a few lists of intuitive eating Instagrammers to follow, and you’re going to see a lot of white women with incredibly toned upper arms who incorrectly overextend intuitive eating into being a weight loss method.)

“Social media absolutely creates a distorted sense of reality and unrealistic expectations,” Bahr said. The people she chooses to follow don’t center their body on their accounts. In other words, Bahr said, “Their body is not their business card.”

She recommended digging into your personal biases when it comes to intuitive eating online. Do most of the people you follow look like you or your “ideal self”?

“It may be a signal to diversify who you follow. Look for accounts in different sizes, colors, abilities, and lifestyles.”

Honor your hunger, but realize you have the power

“I know how hard it is in the beginning to wrap our minds around this, but there are no rules in intuitive eating,” Bahr said. (Unless, of course, eating something would be fatal.) “As humans, we want what we can’t have; a lot of people discover they don’t actually like the foods they’ve been avoiding. It took me a few boxes of Pop Tart flavors to realize I actually don’t even like them and I haven’t looked back since.”

Bahr described giving yourself this permission to eat as working through a “habituation phase”—think, for example, about how excited you are when you get a new phone, outfit, or even a new relationship. “Now think about how you feel about these items a year later. The overexcitement fades.”

This is where mindfulness comes in: eating slower, chewing, and really being aware of your food. Mauney tells clients to “actually pay attention, put it on a nice plate, really sit down—no distractions—and enjoy that food.” You might realize that half of a cupcake is enough to leave you feeling satisfied, loosening the grip and diminishing the allure that certain foods once held over you.

“When you assign a negative trait to a food, you give it power,” Sasson said. “If you worked in an ice cream shop, and every day you could have two scoops of ice cream, ice cream would not be a big deal anymore. It’s denial and deprivation that can lead to obsession.”

It’s not uncommon to eat emotionally, whether that emotion is loneliness, or sadness, or good old-fashioned boredom. Sasson’s recommendation was to try and find something else you can do when you’re stressed or overwhelmed, and to learn ways to deal that aren’t food—which can provide temporary comfort, sure, but doesn’t deal with the real issue.

Bahr said that in the same way cravings and binge-y behaviors will become less frequent the longer you eat intuitively, external factors will begin to influence your food and drink choices less over time. “Just as we can trust our body to breathe, tell us when we need to go to the bathroom, or go to sleep, we can learn to trust our hunger and fullness cues while also aiming for satisfaction in our eating experience.”

Delete and declutter

Bahr said to throw out the scale (the one for weighing you, and the one for weighing food) and to delete your food tracking app and other fitness trackers, along with old transformation pictures. She recommends unfollowing accounts that promote diet culture, and instead following actual intuitive eating or healthy-at-any-size accounts.

But, again? Don’t feel like you have to do all of that right now.

“I haven’t met anyone that’s completed all these things in one day,” Bahr said. “This takes time. We let go when we’re ready.”

No one is a perfect intuitive eater. “I’m not sure we can ever 100 percent get rid of those [negative] thoughts,” Bahr said. “Just know that we don’t have to believe all our thoughts. They aren’t always helpful. They aren’t orders. And we don’t have to listen to them.”

It might be really, really hard. This is not a way of eating or living that meshes with our get-it-now culture. But over time, you might feel better. Over time, you might be able to find the joy in eating again.

“And who’s to say something that gives you psychological joy isn’t as important as something that’s good for your body?” Sasson asked. “Start to learn the pleasure that food can bring.”

Remember that it’s not a diet. (No, seriously.)

“What is intuitive eating? It’s really that you’re an expert on your own body,” Sasson said.

But once again: It’s a diet only in the “way of eating” sense, not in the “do this to drop 10 pounds fast” sense. “It’s being co-opted by diet culture and sold as the new weight-loss program,” Bahr said, “so it’s confusing to know what’s current and who to listen to.” It’s possible to lose weight with the program; others gain weight.

“For anyone who gains weight after ‘intuitively’ eating, seeing [a] thin, fit celebrity talking about it and praising it may send them mixed signals and may damage their self-esteem,” said UCLA’s Hunnes. And that could lead an IE newbie to return to the disordered patterns they’re familiar with.

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