An anti-diet game changer
Reprinted from the Nourishing and Moving Our Bodies issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 19 (1), pp. 16-18
“If I want to live long enough to watch my kids grow up, I can’t keep letting myself have treats. I’m freaking out every time I see a cookie.”
These are my friend Sarah’s words, and there’s no doubt in my mind about why she fears her food choices. As 40-something women, we both grew up steeped in diet culture and its restrictive rules about food, health and appearance. We’re no strangers to feeling like we’re being “good” and “healthy” when we’re restricting our eating choices, and “bad” and “unhealthy” when we’re eating what we want.
Recently, Sarah’s doctor told her that she’s pre-diabetic, with high blood pressure. She wants to know more about intuitive eating, but she’s suspicious that it’s really just eating whatever she wants, all the time. What if she loses all control and devours an entire grocery aisle of forbidden foods?
Fortunately, her fears about intuitive eating are unfounded.
Intuitive eating is a model for mind-body health that was developed in the mid-1990s by California-based registered dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. The model is robustly evidence-based: there are more than 120 academic research studies showing that intuitive eating is good for physical and mental health, and wellness. Benefits include:
- less disordered eating
- better emotional functioning
- more body appreciation and self-acceptance
- less shame
- more health-focused behaviours
Contrary to Sarah’s fears, intuitive eating is not just eating whatever we want. In fact, intuitive eating is based on ten structured principles. A person’s journey is supported by a book, workbook, guided journal, audiobook and card deck. There are even intuitive eating books written specifically for teens and parents of young children.
Below, I share the 10 principles and tips for trying out the intuitive eating mindset.
- Reject the diet mentality. For many, this is the hardest part of intuitive eating. Unlike weight loss programs that claim to be “anti-diet,” or even co-opt the language of intuitive eating, the true model is explicitly anti-diet and weight-neutral (where health and worthiness are not defined by weight). Some people do lose weight using intuitive eating, but it is not the focus of the model.
Tip: Try to notice, then label and rethink, ideas from diet culture that show up in things you read, see and hear. An example is hearing that a person must lose weight in order to have a beach body, and deciding that all bodies belong at the beach.
- Honour your hunger. To eat intuitively, we have to tune in to, and understand, our body’s cues telling us we need fuel. By challenging diet culture’s teachings about self-deprivation, we get around the primal hunger that leads many to think that their eating is out of control. The practice of self-identifying bodily cues is called interoception, and being aware of body signals is also extremely useful for many other forms of self-care.
Tip: Try taking note, throughout a day, of where your hunger fits on a scale of one to 10, with “one” being extremely hungry, and 10 being extremely full.
- Make peace with food. Many people’s diet histories hold strong narratives about forbidden foods. In this principle, it’s not uncommon for people to discover that, once they fully experience eating them, they don’t actually like the foods they have craved. (This is why I no longer crave fluorescent orange Cheezies.) With unconditional permission to eat, we can be free to enjoy what our body truly needs and wants, and we learn what foods (and quantities) feel good.
Tip: A strategy for making peace with food is to identify a forbidden food and allowing yourself to have that food without guilt, noticing what you like (or don’t like) about it.
- Challenge the food police. Many of us have internalized food rules (i.e., “I would never eat peanut butter because it’s so fattening”). Using this principle, we develop the power to assess food based on what feels right to the body, instead of what we’ve been taught. What many intuitive eating practitioners discover is that our inner rebel voice (the one that sabotages attempts to stay on a diet) is a psychologically healthy part of ourselves that protects our ability to follow our intuition.
Tip: Make a list of rules you’ve learned about food and eating, then consider whether following these rules feels freeing or restrictive.
- Feel your fullness. This principle is all about sensing our hunger and satiety. Diet culture distorts indicators of the amount of food we need to eat. “Drink water when you feel hungry” is an example. People with eating disorders can lose their ability to sense hunger and fullness. For many people, there is also a sadness that accompanies not eating after they’re full.
Tip: A good way to feel your fullness is to practise pausing every few bites to assess how full you are.
- Discover the satisfaction factor. Things get fun again here. For my clients who are worried about their eating habits, I have one simple assignment: make it satisfying. I ask them to choose what they truly want and to set the scene in whatever way feels most appealing to their senses. It doesn’t matter what or how they eat, but they have to feel the pleasure to its fullest extent.
Tip: Choose any food you truly want to enjoy. Make a plan to satisfy your senses while eating that food. Journal about the experience, noticing whether your relationship with food changes.
- Cope with your feelings without using food. Intuitive eating seeks to give people a bigger toolbox for managing emotions. In my case, I discovered that my strongest emotional eating trigger is fatigue. I was adding fuel from food when I really needed rest. When we’re using food at times that food isn’t really needed, it can indicate that we’ve been starved for something else.
Tip: When you have the urge to eat, ask: Am I feeling hunger? Or are other emotions also present? What other strategies can I use to meet my emotional needs?
- Respect your body. This principle promotes appreciative and kind beliefs and behaviours towards our bodies. Weight neutrality includes setting aside ideas about appearance and focusing on what the body can do.
Tip: Make a list of all the things your body helps you do. What are the gifts you receive as a result of living in your body?
- Exercise: Feel the difference and
- Honour your health: Gentle nutrition. The final two principles are intentionally left to the end to avoid triggering diet culture beliefs and behaviours. In intuitive eating, movement and nutrition are all about what the body needs to feel good and function well.
Tip: Notice what types of movement and nutrition feel best in your body.
Intuitive eating has given me and many of my clients new freedom. It has also grounded me in a new way to care for myself and feel good about my choices. Unlike diets, intuitive eating isn’t a “change your body’s appearance in eight weeks” kind of experience. It’s a longer, more transformative journey that shifts perceptions about food, our bodies, our health and our culture—and I truly believe it’s a road worth travelling.
Books: Intuitive eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
You can also find companion resources such as The Intuitive Eating Workbook, an audio version, and a version for teens.
About the author
Avril is a psychotherapist and certified intuitive eating counsellor with a clientele that spans BC. A survivor of pervasive diet culture, she has used intuitive eating, in conjunction with a love of fresh foods and sensory experiences, to learn what feels good in her own body. Avril lives in the Okanagan Valley