Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach

We live in a diet culture that may be making our collective weight problem worse. That is the underlying premise of the Intuitive Eating concept. What if it is not “overweight” people who are to blame for our obesity crisis? What if it isn’t even the overabundance of food that is causing our weight problems? What if it is our over-obsession with food that is responsible for a nation of disordered eaters? What if that obsession is fueled by a not-so-obvious alliance of food writers, Big Food, the diet industry, and their critics all of whom stand to benefit the confusion they have sown? Last week I reviewed  Anti-Diet which introduced diet culture and how it is disordering our society. This week I introduce the larger context found in Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

“The main purpose of Intuitive Eating is to cultivate a healthy relationship with food, mind, and body. It is a weight-neutral model, meaning that the focus is not on body size, but rather on healing your relationship with food.” (p. 7) Intuitive Eating represents an attempt to stop listening to an overwhelming diet culture and break free of a pattern of disordered eating. The term ‘disordered eating’ represents an unhealthy relationship with food short of typical eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. Tribole and Resch describe dieting as a process as is the road to Intuitive Eating.

An Intuitive Eater is unaffected by external cues to be thin or demands to follow highly restrictive dietary guidelines. The authors note that self-described “lifestyles” and “health-and-wellness” programs are merely smokescreens for what are really restrictive diets. In some ways the book’s prescriptions are reminiscent of Yoni Freedhoff’s The Diet Fix which advises us to set realistic goals and take control of our own destinies. Intuitive Eating encourages us to stop worrying about our weight and to feel good about our bodies. The book provides more of a gentle nudge than a tough-love approach

“Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise, you can trigger a primal drive to overeat.” (p. 84) Both Intuitive Eating and Anti-Diet emphasize that starting a diet is volunteering for starvation. One of the first casualties of a diet is the ability to know when we are hungry and when we are full. A major thrust of IE is to help us regain those signals. Food deprivation is likely to lead to binge eating when the desire to eat becomes too strong. The authors do not buy into the concept of food addiction, despite the prestige it receives from the Yale Food Addiction Center. They point out that it is not recognized by the DSM-5, the Bible of addictive triggers and behavior. Classification of hyperpalatable foods as addictive is criticized by many food researchers around the world. Tribole and Resch suggest that the apparent addictive response is more likely to be a reaction to “chronic food restriction” in dieters.

“The food police monitor the unreasonable rules that diet culture has created. The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loudspeaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the food police away is a critical step in returning to intuitive eating.”  (p. 123) In my book In Defense of Processed Food, I label writers who harangue us about what we should and shouldn’t eat as food pundits. Other terms used to describe such individuals include food evangelists and pop nutritionists. The authors, however, turn this concept around and identify the food police as the inner voices in our heads in response to a diet culture that surrounds us. External signals trigger internal responses. Family, friends, casual observers, busybodies, the media all provide those external signals. The background noise—too many rules—too much contradiction—loss of control—desire to rebel—too many voices drown out our internal resistance.

“Challenging the Food Police” is Principle 4 of the 10 listed in the book to overcome our disordered eating patterns. The concept shies away from an emphasis on rules or foods to avoid. IE seeks an escape from false binary thinking—a food is either good or its bad, healthy or unhealthy—to foster a more nuanced approach to eating. It advocates abandoning destructive thoughts like shoulda, woulda, coulda and replace them with ideas like can, may, and try. IE builds up positive, understanding inner voices to combat the food police in our mind as we introduce a more healthy relationship with food.

bag of fresh, non-organic, non-local carrots
When a carrot won’t cut it . . .
bag of potato chips poured out on a dinner plate
. . . and only chips will do.

“How many times have you eaten a rice cake when you really wanted potato chips? And how many rice cakes, carrots and apples have you eaten attempting to get the same satisfaction you would have found with a handful of chips? (p. 152) The chapter titled “Discover the Satisfaction Factor” describes the importance of satiety and how to keep in touch with a feeling of fullness. Overeating to the point of binge eating is a dieter’s nightmare. Rules that severely restrict what can we eat bring us to a breaking point where we rebel, losing all of our resistance. We try to be good—eating unsatisfying food while we really seek the “phantom food” that we really want! If we realize that we can eat that phantom food any time we desire, then we don’t feel the need to eat it every time we take the opportunity to cheat.

At the same time we are encouraged to appreciate the sensory quality of the foods that we do choose to eat. Savor, savor, savor! Distracted eating, like reading a book as we consume a meal alone, is not a good idea. Focus on the food in front of us. The authors address the beneficial and detrimental aspects of processed foods—not to be avoided but not necessarily a major part of one’s diet. They are particularly not a fan of artificial sweeteners, as they don’t deliver the satisfaction of the real thing.

“What many folks have labeled as emotional eating is merely a psychological and biological consequence of food restriction. It is important to heal the deprivation effects of food, which have both psychological and biological consequences.” (pp. 178-179) Another chapter nudges readers to “Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness.” Intuitive Eating is not a fan of comfort foods as food does not provide proper support for emotions. We would be much better off trying a different activity such as reading an engaging book or soaking in a warm, bubble bath.

Foods fill many purposes including gratification, distraction, sedation, and even self-inflicted punishment. It is important to be in touch with and deal with our own feelings rather than using food as a crutch to salve hurt feelings. As we begin to become an intuitive eater the line between a treat with a phantom food and an all-out binge with comfort foods may be difficult at first, but the distinction should become apparent as we get into the swing of things.

“The problem isn’t your body, it’s our fatphobic culture, which is everywhere including healthcare, schools, places of worship, media, social media, grocery stores, the beauty industry, the fitness industry, family and friends.” (p. 197) I think we can add in food marketing as well. In contrast with Christy Harrison who expresses rage at times in Anti-Diet, Tribole and Resch are much calmer and relaxed. When reading the chapter to “Respect Your Body,” I noticed that it is the only place in the book where emotion by the authors appear to bubble up above the surface. They suggest that we reject diet drinks, diet foods, frequent weighing, and calculating our BMI.

Actually, the authors prefer that we get rid of our bathroom scales all together and bypass scales whenever and wherever we come in contact with them. They find fat shaming, idolizing thinness, and other forms of weight stigma to be reprehensible and even counter-productive. Intuitive Eating introduces the concept of Health at Every Size—accepting our body as it is, rejecting the demands of diet culture, and adopting healthy practices without obsessing about food. The concept of Health at Every Size was an intriguing one that is so counter to today’s beliefs. I tried to find a proponent who would write a guest blog, but I was unsuccessful.* American culture, particularly within the medical community, assumes that the heavier we are, the less healthy we are. Intuitive Eating attributes the adverse relationship between weight and health, to the extent it has been documented, to yo-yo dieting disordered eating and weight stigma.

“We define healthy eating as having a healthy balance of foods and having a healthy relationship with food. Of course, there is a nutritional difference between eating an apple versus a piece of apple pie.” (p. 238) Because nutrition is used to divide foods into healthy and unhealthy categories, “Honor Your Health and Gentle Nutrition” emerges as the final principle introduced by the authors. Orthorexia, “an unhealthy and rigid obsession with eating healthfully,” is discussed. To get rid of food worry, the authors suggest a focus on taste, savoring our food without distraction, quantity, eating enough but not too little, and quality. With respect to quality, Tribole and Resch favor fruits and vegetables but not to the point of leading to resentment; eating less processed foods, particularly those high in sugar and salt and low in nutrients, but not avoiding them; and making sure that high protein foods such as milk, meat, and cheese are consumed. Not that far from the recommendations of Elizabeth Strawbridge. A healthy diet in Intuitive Eating land emphasizes enjoyment, satiety, and variety.

Bottom line. Much of this book and the overall concept is admirable as many of us struggle to fight or submit to the confusing stream of nutritional advice that bombards us daily. It is refreshing to see 10 principles not rules, nudges not dictates, that respect our intellect. It became clear that I am definitely not an Intuitive Eater. I failed the test, miserably. The amount of food that I eat is based on eating moderate portion sizes at specific times during the day, consuming everything on my plate, and abstaining from seconds. Intuitive Eating doesn’t appear to be designed for an elderly, straight, cis male like me, but that is fine. For example, seeking out a leisurely warm bubble bath as a distraction from obsessing about food has no appeal to me. I am trying to savor the food in front of me more, but I am unlikely to stop reading books while eating alone.

While writing this post, Google alerted me to five articles that emphasize domination of diet culture on our eating patterns in a single day:

I am intrigued by the concept of Intuitive Eating, but I am not completely sold at this point. I can see how these guidelines could apply to anyone who feels the crush of a society obsessed with food and eating. It also has relevance to those diagnosed with a classic eating disorder. The authors pay little attention to addressing people with dietary health issues such as diabetes and IBS. I would recommend the book to anyone who is overwhelmed with what to eat and what not to eat, but I would hesitate to recommend using the book or associated workbook as a do-it-yourself project. If possible, seek help from a RD or RDN who specializes in Intuitive Eating. Posts for the next two weeks will be presented by individuals with a background in the field.

Next week: Intuitive Eating in Practice: From Fad Diets to Food Freedom

* In my effort to find someone to guest blog on the topic of Health at Every Size, I was only able to reach advocates who would do so for remuneration. I do not seek ads on this website and do not pay guest bloggers, although I do send each one a signed copy of In Defense of Processed Food. If any reader is interested in writing on the topic or knows of someone who might, please contact me.

8 thoughts on “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach

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