I’m totally into intuitive eating. Unlike diets and weight loss plans — all forms of semi-starvation — intuitive eating principles teach how to eat as you did when you were a toddler. And by “intuitive eating”, I mean something far more involved than listening to your body. While it’s a concept I love, it's unhelpful to chronic dieters, those with disordered eating habits, and those in recovery from eating disorders. First, you need to address the diet mentality.
LEARNING THE INTUITIVE EATING LINGO
Intuitive eating is akin to learning a new language. I’m technically bilingual (check out my rockin’ French surname), but I feel super uncomfortable speaking French. I’m resistant to it. I hold a B.A.H in English Lit and a Master's degree in creative writing. I received formal training in book publishing. In French, I feel limited by my elementary vocabulary and overwhelmed by verbs, to the point that I'd rather pretend I don't speak it at all.
If you’ve relied on calorie counters, meal plans, and diets to manage your weight and dictate your eating habits, implementing the intuitive eating principles might feel intimidating, overwhelming, and scary — which is exactly how I feel about speaking a second language. While "lifestyle change" is a nice notion, intuitive eating goes a step further by systematizing everything involved in a lifestyle change, making for a more comfortable transition.
INTUITIVE EATING IS ABOUT SELF-LOVE
The intuitive eating approach was pioneered by Registered Dietitians and disordered eating experts, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in the 90s as a bridge between the anti-diet movement and the health community. Forget obsessing over calorie counts or longing for so-called “forbidden foods”; the intuitive eating principles and methodology offer a guide for eating — free of dieting restrictions or psychologically unhealthy "advice".
It may not sound as sexy as “rapid and effortless weight loss” or ring like “The South Beach Diet”, but homeslice, you don’t need bells and whistles. You need — and deserve — the kind of self-love and freedom that arise from tossing the chains overboard and sailing to the sweet, sweet island of I can work with this, bitch (thanks Amy Schumer.)
The first step? Let’s reject the diet mentality, yo.
EATING INTUITIVELY AND IT FEELS SO…SCARY
I covered some of this over here, but intuitive eating might be right for you if:
- You have “yes” and “no” food lists
- You use calorie counters or won't eat above a certain number (ie. 1200)
- You decide whether or not to eat a food based on the calorie count
- You eat your meals in front of the television or computer, only to finish and wonder where the heck all of your dinner went (I've definitely done this a few times!)
- You feel guilt and/or remorse after eating something delicious
- You’re on a diet or identify as a chronic dieter
- You restrict, deprive, and deny — only to binge on #allthecookies
- You struggle with Binge Eating Disorder or orthorexia
- You’re in the recovery stages of an eating disorder
- You’re “so good” all day…only to find yourself starving at night
- You workout to punish yourself or burn off calories instead of moving because it feels good
- You describe your relationship to food as “love/hate”
- You can’t stop thinking about or obsessing over food
- You have trouble registering hunger and fullness
- You harbour anxiety and fear over going out to dinner, holiday dinners, or dinner parties
When I broach the subject of intuitive eating, most people are afraid. Eat potato chips? Not every day! While the approach is not totally dismissive of nutrition and the role food plays in health, weight loss and nutrition must be placed on the back burner until an individual develops a psychologically amazing relationship to food. Then we can chat about specifics. We’re a culture obsessed with what. What are you going to be when you grow up? What are thinking when you right swipe? What is your 5 year plan? We what and should all over ourselves. I want to hear and know your why.
Chances are you’ve arrived here because something’s not working for you. Maybe you believe there must be a better way.
It’s true a fresh, green salad is objectively more nutritious than a serving of potato chips. But why do those fried potatoes hold so much power over us? Why are we so afraid? On one level, we know dieting is no good for us. We may even know it results, time and time again, in additional weight gain (it does. Science says so.) Like the bad boy who whispers sweet nothings in your ear or that game-playing hot chick, you know it’s going nowhere. Yet the thought of giving up something so-so for the mere possibility of something better? To hedge your bets, you stay.
Perhaps you believe that if you stop dieting, you’ll eat uncontrollably. But this is like saying you’ll never find love again if you end your shitty relationship. Of course you will. But how can you if you’re still tied to what-his-excuse? Dieting is totally a trigger for overeating, because dieting, as far as your body is concerned, is the same as short-term starvation. Once you stop dieting, eventually the drive to eat will regulate, provided you’re managing your stress levels and sleeping the recommended 7-9 hours a night. The same goes with unsatisfying relationships. Suddenly you’ll find yourself swimming in a pool filled with shiny fish. Only love leads to love.
But. And this is a big, bootylicious but. If you entertain the possibility of The Return — if you entertain the advent of a better, more magnificent diet or the possibility your ex may want you back — all bets are off. This belief will imprison you and prevent you from discovering intuitive eating (and finding true, mushy, sappy as all get-out love.)
I don’t know what to eat when I’m not dieting, you say? I’ll be out of control, you say? I’ve got you covered. Intuitive eating is a step-by-step process, involving a lot of guidance and some chummy hand-holding. You won't start at the deep end, I promise. We’ll take some time in the wading pool so you get comfortable, and slowly, seamlessly, move to the other side. Only this time, we’ll make sure to arm you with strategies to keep your head above water so you don't lose your way while off to the island.
THE DIET HANGOVER
Giving up dieting isn’t easy. I would know. Even if you’re not “on a diet”, you might find the ghost of diets past still haunting your food choices. If you’re not on a diet, but still find yourself with your guard up around food, or choosing foods based on something outside of yourself, you may be struggling with the diet mentality. Some example of this kind of pseudo-dieting include:
- Counting carbs. Carb counting has replaced calorie counting. While a low-carbohydrate plan is medically necessary or therapeutic in some instances (ie. Diabetes, PCOS), not all carbs affect the body in the same way. Chris Kresser, whom I have mad respect for, has even stated “whole-food carbohydrates do not affect the body in the same way as processed and refined carbohydrates.” Anecdotally speaking, I’ve used one of those “processed and refined carbohydrates” — white rice — after some heavy workouts. You know how I felt afterwards? Energized, healthy, and ready to take on the world. Carbs are also vital to thyroid function, HPA-axis recovery, and to the optimal functioning of some of your brain cells.
- Eating only approved or safe foods. During my teen years, I only ate low-fat and non-fat foods. Low-fat yogurt. Salad with non-fat salad dressing and egg whites or baked fish. Pasta with low-fat meat sauce. You get the gist. And I was always hungry, anxious, and clinically depressed.
- Limiting food to certain times of the day or not eating after a certain time. I don’t recommend going to bed on full stomach — it can interfere with sleep — but there’s no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to food timing. I would recommend women, especially those 40+, get some protein in first thing for optimal hormone function.
- Feeling the need to pay for certain foods via exercise or vows to “eat better” tomorrow. I don’t know about you, but when I eat a burger, I just want to enjoy it. It’s just a delicious, satisfying choice. That’s it. I’ll admit it’s taken me a long time to get to this place — it is a process — but you can absolutely get here, too. You don't owe anyone an apology for enjoying food.
- Cutting back on food through unconscious undereating. Doing so often results in overeating or binge eating. If you have a special occasion coming up or you feel uncomfortable, I recommend investing in a little self-care. I'm at my best when I’m moving (because it feels good), eating nutritious foods (because they’re energizing), meditating (because it helps me to focus and ditch the ego concerns), doing the lemon water thing (because it makes me feel like I have my shit together), diffusing essential oils (because they’re relaxing), and having wine with friends, possibly with something delicious (because it makes my heart happy.) Try it!
- Drinking diet sodas or coffee to “fill up”. Self-explanatory. When I worked in an office, I used to snack on hummus and raw vegetables. And then it was just raw vegetables. And then it was coffee. Everyone around me could identify what was going on -- except for me.
I could go on.
INTUITIVE EATING PRINCIPLES: HOW TO REJECT THE DIET MENTALITY
- Acknowledge dieting’s dangers. Chronic dieting teaches the body to retain more fat when you start eating again, slows the rate of weight loss with each attempt, decreases metabolism, increases binges and cravings, and ups risk of premature death and heart disease. It also atrophies satiety cues and may lead to changes in body shape (notably more weight in the abdominal area.) Dieting is also linked to eating disorders and may add unnecessary stress.
- Dieting erodes confidence and self-trust. David Garner and Susan Wooley pulled together a case against the high cost of false hope from dieting.
- Forget willpower and obedience. You will always “fail” (and feel like a failure) because you are going against your natural instincts. Trust me when I say this: everything your body does — whether you like it or not — is to keep you alive. You can’t fail at intuitive eating, darling. It’s a learning process and it’s rarely linear, but you can only go up from here.
- Ditch the tools. Banish the scale, calorie counters, and fitness apps. Registered Dietitian Christy Harrison had an epiphany while still in school, when she realized her “ideal weight”, according to her calculations, was the same as the weight she was at during her eating disorder. You don’t need to weigh yourself to be healthy or to feel good about yourself. I’d also like to remind you of your right to refuse weigh-ins at the doctor’s office.
- Choose compassion. So many of my clients are hard on themselves. When we talk about their eating habits and exercise routines, it’s the stuff of nutrition textbooks. The missing part? Self-care. When I asked the members of my group coaching program whether they felt stressed, every hand in the room went up. We’re so conditioned to work harder and do more that it can feel counter-intuitive when the advice is to do less and be kinder to ourselves.
Over to you: what about the diet mentality confuses you? What about intuitive eating do you find challenging? Leave a comment so I can help you out!