Diets don’t work, period. If you’ve dieted once, twice, thirty times, or haven’t stopped a cycle of new diets since you can remember, you might have discovered this by now. But diets are also loud - and because everybody eats, everybody has an opinion on food, which can make it feel radical to even suggest that the best path to health and happiness might just be… no diet at all.
But what does that leave us with? If we challenge everything we’ve been told about how to eat, where does that leave us? In other words: if not diets, then what?
Enter: intuitive eating, the framework that will teach you how to build a flexible and responsive relationship with food. This is usually the part where people say “If I did that, I would just eat whatever I wanted all the time” and I say, “Yes. That’s the point.” (if the idea of eating whatever you want scares you like it did me, keep scrolling for why this is a good thing!)
What is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is an approach to food that’s based in honoring your preferences, making eating decisions from a place of abundance rather than scarcity, and learning to trust your body in guiding your food choices. It stems from the 1995 book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works, and its popularity in the media has created well-deserved buzz.
The ten principles of intuitive eating walk you through a “big picture” view of what the path from diets to intuitive eating may look like.
Acknowledge the ways in which dieting has taken away from your life, and begin to break up with diets by throwing away books and magazines, decluttering your social media feeds, and maybe even throwing away your scale.
Eat regularly (every few hours) and eat enough. This will look different for everyone, but it’s important to tackle this principle early in your intuitive eating work because chronic underfueling can actually mute hunger and fullness signals and create a drive to eat quickly and to the point of discomfort (this is the scarcity mindset of diets talking).
Challenge the notion that certain foods are “good” or “bad” and incorporate foods that were previously off-limits. This is called habituation, and it describes the concept that those “off-limits” foods become less and less appealing as we open up permission to eat them whenever we want.
Question and challenge your self-talk (and what others may say) about food. Where do those beliefs come from? Are they true? How can you replace them with a more moderate and true thought?
Bringing awareness to your fullness can help tune into your body’s needs - with chronic dieting and restriction, our body’s goal once we start eating is usually to get as much as possible, which can lead to us feeling uncomfortably full and trigger restriction in response. Creating a more calm and objective relationship with food allows for the discovery of all of the nuances in fullness, including that it isn’t the same as satisfaction.
Do you like the food you eat, or are you convinced you like it because a meal plan told you you did? This principle hones in on learning what you really like and don’t like, which lets you make food choices that feel more organic to your wants.
While this principle is straightforward in description, I’d add that there is a ton of nuance around this. Having a diverse toolkit to help soothe yourself and ride out discomfort is amazing and so healthy, and food can absolutely be part of that. When food is our only coping tool, however, it can lead to a difficult relationship with food and food becomes a weapon rather than a tool.
I sometimes refer to this as the “body image principle” because this work revolves around creating respect for your body and appreciating the ways it serves you. I think it’s important to note that the goal isn’t body love - it’s body respect. It’s a flexible relationship with your body and shifting your focus away from your body and toward other areas of your life. It’s also about learning to be a caregiver of your body even in times you can’t love it.
This principle, like many others, is so centered on self-discovery: how do you like to move? At what times of day? What does needing rest feel like in your body? Moving without calorie monitors, a strict plan, or to “maximize” energy burn can feel so much more freeing and empowering than numbers ever could.
This principle is last for a reason - we need to make peace with all foods before we can include nutrition in our decision-making process. Otherwise, it’s difficult to tease out cravings from residual food rules and intuitive eating becomes a diet. Gentle nutrition looks different for everyone, but one of my favorite tools is employing practical hunger - combining head knowledge of your life and schedule with body knowledge about how you feel when hungry, what you need, and what would work. One example I like to give is having a meeting scheduled during your usual mealtime, then eating a snack or meal early beforehand. This principle is really where intuitive eating meets real life, practicality, and work that delves into how you can eat with respect for your body’s health and cravings.
Evidence for Intuitive Eating
One question I often get is, “How, as a dietitian, can you recommend that people eat whatever they want?” I think this question may stem from fear of certain foods - often, the follow up statement is, “But if I ate whatever I wanted, I’d only eat X food.” This might be true at the beginning of your journey with intuitive eating, as you begin to rebuild trust with your body that you’ll give it what it wants. The tighter a restriction you’ve placed around food, the longer it may take to feel calmer around that food. When you meet food fear with abundance rather than restriction, it begins to literally rewire your thoughts and emotions around that food (a concept called neuroplasticity).
When you open up permission to eat all foods, that means all foods. So while in the beginning, intake may likely look like foods you were restricting - as you repair your relationship with food, you’ll be able to tune more into what sounds good. Then and only then are you ready for concepts of gentle nutrition, which can still be used to promote health without disordered eating behaviors or chaotic feelings around food.
Intuitive eating is also associated with improved physical and mental health, which may sound surprising - especially if you’ve been dieting for a long time. Intuitive eaters have been found to have decreased risk for cardiovascular disease versus dieters, and a non-diet approach is shown to be effective at improving health (including blood pressure and lipids) in a more sustainable fashion than dieting (which has a high dropout rate and smaller and less sustainable improvements in health).
The Bottom Line
Know that if you have dieted, are currently dieting, or are planning your next diet - there is space for you here, too. I hope that this information gave you food for thought that there are options for eating and a relationship with your body that don’t stem from punishment and restriction.
That being said, I invite you to give intuitive eating a fair shot - which means sitting with the discomfort that the process may bring and continuing to meet diet thoughts with more permission. If there’s one thing I want you to know, it’s that I firmly believe you can have a better relationship with food and your body.