Ditch That Diet Part 3: Finding Your Way Back to Intuitive Eating

A picture of a silver fork and knife against a white background.

Diet talk is everywhere. It’s in our favorite TV shows and movies. It’s in books and podcasts and blogs. It’s in our social media feeds and in real life conversations with friends and family. It’s even in our churches. Literally, the last three sermons I’ve heard (from three different pastors) have all included diet talk. And by “diet talk” I’m referring to any commentary along the lines of:

  • Talking about your own diet or dieting behaviors, or recommending diets to others 
  • Suggesting people should add or avoid certain foods for weight loss or “health”
  • Praising weight loss or bemoaning weight gain
  • Talking about “being good” or “being bad” based on what you’re eating
  • Shaming or judging yourself or others for food choices or body size
  • Talking about what you are or are not eating for weight loss or “health”
  • Sharing how much weight you’ve lost or gained
  • Talking about how healthy or unhealthy someone looks based on their body size
  • Saying you need to workout before or after a meal to compensate for the food, or recommending this behavior to others
  • Using moralizing terms like “junk” or “clean” to describe your food choices

Diet talk, while as common as talking about the weather, is not quite as innocent. Diet talk creates unhealthy comparisons and promotes unhealthy dieting behaviors. It can trigger disordered eating. It’s often ableist and classist. It makes unfair assumptions about people’s health based on arbitrary evidence. Diet talk moralizes morally neutral subjects, like food and body size. It creates fear, shame and guilt. And it idealizes thin and lean bodies, while oppressing any body that doesn’t fit the thin ideal. 

Sadly, in our diet-obsessed culture, it’s really hard to escape diet talk and even harder to decipher what’s really a diet and what’s not, especially when so many diets claim to not be diets and so many dieters claim to not be dieting.

Now that we have a better understanding of diet talk, let’s quickly review my basic definition of a diet to eliminate any confusion there: A diet is any plan, protocol, regimen, system, lifestyle or product that dictates what, when and how much you can eat with the goal of “health” or weight loss in mind.

Simply put, if you don’t have unconditional permission to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, in whatever quantity feels satisfying to you, you are most certainly following some sort of diet and not your own intuition. And, as we learned in Part 1 and Part 2 of Ditch That Diet, dieting can lead to significant problems, including weight cycling, increased stress and disordered eating. 

But what about eating for health? 

I’m sure, in the minds of many people, having complete and unconditional permission to eat sounds like the opposite of health. And, not too long ago, I would have thought the same thing. So, let’s take a look at some reasons why having complete permission to eat anything you want at anytime is, in fact, much healthier than living life with a diet mentality. 

First, keep in mind, health is both mental and physical. If your diet or dietary lifestyle is stressing you out, if it’s making you more irritable or anxious, or if you find it’s making you more obsessed with food, it is not healthy.

And if you’re thinking that having complete permission to eat would only stress you out even more, think again. The diet industry thrives on getting you to fear certain foods and getting you to distrust your own body. Giving yourself complete permission to eat is only stressful because diet culture told you it is, not because it actually is. Your body already knows what, when and how much to eat. You just have to ignore the toxic diet talk and learn to trust your inner wisdom. 

Imagine grabbing whatever you want from the pantry at anytime without guilt or without having to check to make sure it’s part of your meal plan. Imagine going to a restaurant and getting to choose whatever sounds good to you in the moment without any rules or feeling the need to compare your meal with someone else’s. Imagine never having to curb your appetite with unsatisfying foods again, but, rather, being able to have foods you actually enjoy anytime you want. Imagine eating until you’re completely satisfied, instead of stopping when you’re still hungry. Or, imagine eating a delicious snack when you’re hungry, instead of waiting for some arbitrary “right time” to eat. 

Giving yourself complete permission to eat is the opposite of stressful. It’s pure freedom.

I like how Aaron Flores, RDN said it in his National Eating Disorders Association blog article, “What Does Intuitive Eating Mean?”: 

“…permission is not eating with reckless abandon…but with curiosity and non-judgment. Truly having unconditional permission to eat allows us to learn to how to make peace with food, remove the emotional power of a “fear food” and learn to feel safe around ALL foods.”

Second, our food choices are not the be-all-end-all of our health. While food does play a role in our health outcomes, its role is relatively small. In fact, our individual behaviors account for only about 36% of what makes us healthy or not. Even then, “individual behaviors” are far more than just food choices. Things like alcohol consumption, cigarette use, sleep habits, physical activity, sexual activity and hand washing (to name a few) are also factored in as behaviors, making food choices alone an even smaller percentage of what determines a person’s health outcomes. 

The other 64% of factors that determine our health are genetics, social structures, public policy, our environment and access to health care. What’s more, all of these other factors influence our behaviors. For example, if you don’t live in a safe neighborhood (a social and environmental factor), you’re probably not going to go out for an afternoon jog (an individual behavior). 

I’m personally afraid that too many of us are advocating for superfoods above all, when we should first be advocating for social equity for all. This is not to say that healthy behaviors are not important. They are important and can certainly improve health independent of weight change. But before you suggest that someone avoid highly processed foods, for instance, you better make sure they have a decent grocery store in their neighborhood, access to safe and affordable transportation to get there, and a well-paying job so they can have access to health care and money to buy the groceries in the first place. Otherwise, your suggestion is unhelpful at best, and classist and harmful at worst. 

A picture of a silver fork and knife against a white background. Text reads, "Finding Your Way Back to Intuitive Eating."

Third, eating based on your own intuition (a.k.a. deciding for yourself what, when and how much to eat) has been shown to have better health outcomes than dieting (a.k.a. following someone else’s rules for what, when and how much to eat). 

A study published in 2017 found that “in contrast to rigid dietary control, intuitive eating uniquely and consistently predicted lower levels of disordered eating and body image concerns.” Another study published in 2015 found that women who eat intuitively are more likely to engage in physical activity for pleasure. And the largest intuitive eating study, with 1,405 women and 1,195 men participating, found that intuitive eating was positively related to body appreciation, self-esteem and satisfaction with life. While dieting has been shown time and again to increase stress and body concerns. 

When thinking about dieting versus eating intuitively, it’s also important to take into account that you know your body best. Only you know when you’re hungry and full. Only you know what foods truly satisfy you. No one can tell you what types or quantities of food are “right” for your body because they don’t live in your body. 

One important caveat to this is if you have an eating disorder. In this case, you may need professional help as your hunger and fullness cues are likely very distorted. However, a good treatment team will still give you the freedom to choose foods you like, and will help you work towards eating intuitively and trusting your body again. 

(Side note: Elimination diets claim to help you find “food freedom” and discover what foods are right for your body, but don’t fall prey to this lie. Despite their fancy names and claims, they are no more than your run-of-the-mill, eat-this-not-that diets with methods that are highly flawed, unscientific and even dangerous.) 

Lastly, food is not medicine. Medicine is medicine. You cannot cure or prevent disease by adding or eliminating foods from your diet, but you can certainly stress yourself out or even make yourself sick trying. Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat is giving up trying to control things you can’t control and opting for a peaceful relationship with food and your body instead. 

The good news is, while diets are tricky and confusing, following your intuition is not. In fact, we’re all born intuitive eaters. If you’ve ever watched a baby cry when they’re hungry or refuse a bottle when they’re full, you’ve seen intuitive eating in its purest form. If you’ve ever witnessed a toddler discover their own likes and dislikes at the kitchen table (without pressure from their parents), then you’ve also seen intuitive eating in action. No one told the baby it was hungry or full. No one told the toddler what foods should or shouldn’t interest them. They just knew – intuitively. 

Unfortunately, the more you are exposed to diet talk (a product of diet culture), the harder it is to hear your inner wisdom. But, there is hope! 

In their book, Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S provide ten principles to help you re-discover the intuitive eater within you. If you want more detailed information, I’d recommend investing in the book as there is an entire chapter devoted to each principle. Here, I have briefly summarized the principles in my own words; however, the titles of each principle come directly from Tribole and Resch’s work. 

  1. Reject The Diet Mentality – Set aside the pursuit of weight loss and don’t buy into diet culture’s never-ending false promises. Firmly reject the notion that intentional weight loss is safe, sustainable or a requirement for being healthy. 
  2. Honor Your Hunger – Pay attention to your internal hunger cues. Eat at the first sign of hunger and feed yourself enough satisfying foods to satiate your appetite. Don’t wait until you’re ravenous as this will only lead to bingeing. 
  3. Make Peace with Food – Stop judging and fearing your food choices and give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Remove the words “I should,” “I shouldn’t” and “I can’t” from your eating vocabulary. 
  4. Challenge the Food Police – Tell the rule-following voice in your head – the one that makes you feel guilty for eating freely – to take a hike! You can also politely ask the vocal dieters in your life to honor your choice to not diet by keeping their opinions to themselves. The less diet talk we have inside and outside of ourselves, the better!
  5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor – Eating should result in feelings of pleasure, not feelings of deprivation. You’ll know you’ve eaten enough of the foods you find enjoyable when you experience satisfaction at the end of a meal, rather than a longing for more. 
  6. Feel Your Fulness – Feeling full does not mean you’ve eaten too much. Despite what diet culture would have you believe, feeling full is a normal and natural part of the eating process. Pay attention to your body’s fullness cues and stop eating when you feel comfortably full. 
  7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness – While you are certainly allowed to eat food for comfort at any time, it’s not healthy to have only one coping mechanism for difficult emotions. Be kind to yourself and incorporate additional compassionate and comforting coping strategies into your daily life. 
  8. Respect Your Body – All bodies are deserving of respect and fair treatment, including yours. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, so respect your body for the shape and size it is today, not what it could be as measured against an impossible ideal. 
  9. Movement – Feel the Difference – Let go of strict and punitive exercise regimes that only focus on burning calories or “getting lean” (read: losing weight). Alternatively, focus on how movement makes you feel. How much or what type of exercise is not as important as feeling good and energized during and after moving your body. 
  10. Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition – Eat foods that taste good AND make you feel good. You don’t have to sacrifice taste for health, or vice versa. And you can eat healthfully without eating perfectly. One meal or snack will not make or break your health.

You (yes, YOU) were born with the ability to know when you are hungry and full, to choose what foods you like and dislike, and to know what and how much food will satisfy you at any given time. Again, it is dieting and the constant barrage of diet talk that hushes this inner wisdom over time and replaces it with rules and restriction. But, you can reclaim your inner wisdom. With patience and practice, you can become an intuitive eater once again. 


If you’re looking for additional information on intuitive eating, I personally recommend the following resources:

Books

Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S

Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

Podcasts

Intuitive Eating for the Culture with Christyna Johnson, MS, RDN, LDN

Food Psych with Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN

Websites

The Original Intuitive Eating Pros

National Eating Disorders Association

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