The first time I remember talking about going on a diet, I was about nine years old. I can remember where I was standing, in my grandmother’s house, and saying that I was fat and wanted to go on a diet. I was the oldest of four, and somehow, the only chubby one out of my siblings. My brother used to have this “trick” where he would suck his belly in so hard it seemed like there couldn’t be anything inside him, and you could count all his ribs. I, by contrast, had thighs that always touched, and a wiggly belly.
I grew into a young adult who turned to fitness and dieting to try to control my weight. Having been “overweight” on the BMI chart since my teen years, and eventually starting to move into “ob*se” range, I thought the sensible thing to do was to try to lose weight through diet and exercise. This is the message we hear all the time, and so that is what I did. I started out counting calories, and working out at the gym at my university. I didn’t know what to do there, and after a few embarrassing incidents in classes there, I switched to jogging on the indoor track. That became my thing, and eventually I started running outside, and later did a triathlon. Yet, I remained “overweight.” (Over what weight? I don't know.)
Having babies put my weight loss aspirations on the back burner for a while, though I still worked out when I could. I am sad to say that I spent a significant part of my postpartum period hating my body, and feeling frustrated with myself for looking how I did. Instead of being able to marvel at all my body had done, I was frustrated with how my belly looked, what it didn’t do, and what I thought were my body’s myriad of failures.
As my babies got a bit older, I got back to the battle of the bulge, and ran through a number of different diets. Some were packaged as lifestyle changes, or nutrition plans, but no matter what you call it, if the point is to shrink your body, it is a diet. I tried things that involved shakes, things that were whole foods, things that were highly detailed and had me counting almonds, things that were less restrictive but had me recording every single thing I ate. I tried things that were inexpensive, and things that cost big bucks, including MLM supplements meant to kickstart my metabolism and increase my body’s basal metabolic rate. Most worked in the short term. A few worked in the medium term. But no matter what I did, I could not get my weight into that “normal” range. I could get into the low end of overweight. But never “normal.”
My last diet was about three years ago. It was a bikini body bootcamp with a coach who gave me a very strict meal plan together with MLM supplements and workouts. I followed it, but got so sick of alternating chicken and broccoli and fish and broccoli, while also cooking separate meals for my kids. Then, once a week, I had a “free” meal. During that free meal, I would make myself ill from overeating. Why? Why was I doing this? I started to think I had a binge eating disorder.
After a lot of research on binge eating disorders, I picked up a book called “Reclaiming Yourself from Binge Eating” by Leora Fulvio. She starts with a discussion of her own struggles with binge eating, and went on to explain that binges are caused by restriction. It is the act of restricting foods that causes cravings that are so powerful that you end up binging. She talked about intuitive eating as the solution to this problem. It was the first time I had been exposed to the actual principles of intuitive eating. I next got the original “Intuitive Eating” book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. In it, Tribole and Resch lay out ten principles to help you quit dieting, make peace with food, reclaim your health, and end the battle.
I’m going to explain a bit about the ten principles of intuitive eating. This is not enough information to use to truly embark on an intuitive eating journey, but if your curiosity is piqued, I would be delighted to talk with you about it more.
The Ten Principles of Intuitive Eating
1. Reject the diet mentality.
To really rediscover my ability to eat intuitively, as I had before I started dieting at all, I had to fully squash the idea of losing weight. I couldn’t find real food freedom while still hanging on to the idea that I might lose weight doing this. I had to get angry at the culture that told me my perfectly strong and healthy body was flawed. I had to get angry at the diet industry (worth $72 billion USD in the US alone) that is quite satisfied selling all of us temporary fixes. They know that it is only a short-term solution, and that we will be back, again, throwing more money at them. The greatest predictor of future weight gain is going on a diet. I had to fully reject the idea of intentional weight loss to be able to rediscover myself as an intuitive eater.
2. Honor your hunger.
I had to eat when I was hungry. This seems simple, but years of dieting had screwed up my ability to really understand when I was hungry, and had taught me that ignoring my hunger was “good” and to feel proud of not eating when I was hungry. I had to start feeding my body.
3. Make peace with food.
I had to give myself permission to eat every and anything (if you have legitimate food allergies, clearly that is an exception!). I have been working with a client recently who was struggling with feeling like she was snacking mindlessly. We worked to apply this principle, and to tune in a bit to what she really wanted, and then eat that thing mindfully until she was satisfied. This only works if you have a good base on the previous principles. She found that she was able to apply this skill and eat what she really wanted without feeling bad about it and without making herself overstuffed from what I have come to call eating around the food you really want.
4. Challenge the food police.
Who are the food police? The internal and external voices that tell you that you are “good” for eating certain things or “bad” for eating others. This language is all around us, when we describe desserts as “sinful”. The food police can be your mom asking “Do you really need another helping of potatoes?” or your internal voice suggesting that you’re naughty for eating cookies right before bed. I have a client who was recently able to connect some of her food police thoughts to athletic coaches from her youth who wanted her to maintain a small body. Being able to ignore and shut down these food police is key in rediscovering intuitive eating.
5. Feel your fullness.
Notice that this principle doesn’t say you have to always stop eating when full. It simply says to feel your fullness. Notice it. Part of this principle for me involves eating mindfully, without distractions, and slowly if possible. Some of us may have food police who say we must clear our plates (I know I’m not the only one who heard about the starving children), and being able to shut down those food police is also important to being able to feel our fullness.
6. Discover the satisfaction factor.
I alluded to this in talking about my client who was struggling with mindlessly raiding the pantry. Enjoy what you eat! Eat good food that tastes good, from a plate while seated, and preferably with company you enjoy. Maybe dinner music helps you enjoy your meals. Tuning in to what you really want and then eating it with enjoyment helps you find satisfaction.
7. Cope with your emotions without using food.
Look, some emotional eating is normal. We eat for joy as much as we eat for sadness, anger, or anxiety. However, I like to see folks have a number of different options for coping with emotions. I recently came home after a particularly tough day at work and was about to hit up the snack drawer. Instead, I ate my dinner, and thought about what would really help me cope with my emotions. I realized snacking wasn’t really going to make me feel better, but would just distract me for a bit. Instead, I talked to a friend and did some yoga and felt much better. If you often cope with food, you may find that it is more difficult to find satisfaction. That is because the food won’t fix the feelings, so you just go unsatisfied. I’m not suggesting you NEVER emotionally eat, just be sure you’re tuned in when you do it.
8. Respect your body.
You have a body, but you are more than your body! I had some clients work on thinking of their bodies as “containers” for themselves. And while having a pretty container is cool, having a functioning container that holds some really awesome joyful stuff inside it is probably cooler. My teen years were in the nineties - the thigh gap, Kate Moss, heroin chic years for those who don’t remember them. Part of respecting my body is respecting that is not the shape that my body wants to take. Even while eating a very low calorie diet and working out multiple times a day, I did not get that small. My body just doesn’t want to be that small, and that is okay. Some people have bodies that remain smaller. Even if we all ate the same and exercised the same, we would still have different shapes. It has become kind of vogue in recent years to talk about loving your body, and I think loving your body is great, but not always necessary. Just respect it, and treat it with respect, and see how that changes your thinking.
9. Move your body and feel the difference.
As a personal trainer, this is my favorite principle! That being said, moving your body doesn’t have to take the form of defined exercise. There are so many ways to move your body, and it might happen in a gym, or maybe it is outdoors, or at home. So many of us have attached movement to losing weight that we never really explored movement for fun, joy, for the multitude of health benefits that have nothing to do with changing the size of your body. Notice how it feels to move your body without focusing on weight. What kind of exercise would you do if you were not trying to change the size of your body?
10. Honor your health - gentle nutrition.
Some folks think that intuitive eating throws away nutrition. However, I find the opposite. It returns us to common sense nutrition that is sustainable and logical. Eliminating large groups of foods is neither logical nor sustainable. Gentle nutrition encourages a focus on eating foods in as close to their natural state as possible, while also seeking enjoyment and satisfaction from our foods. Eat a variety of foods, incorporate a lot of plants, make sure you’re getting good sources of protein. People often want a magic bullet, when the real magic bullet is literally that simple.
Intuitive eating is a radical change if you’ve been dieting and struggling with your weight for a lot of your life, but you can rediscover yourself as an intuitive eater, learn to respect your body, and find food freedom!