Intuitive Eating in Practice: From Fad Diets to Food Freedom by Kortney Karnok

It is everywhere.

On any given day I might encounter something like:

Coworker Group Text: “Anyone want me to grab you something unhealthy from McDonalds?”

Me, responding in my head because some battles are not worth the energy of fighting out loud…or in a text with coworkers:

“It’s not unhealthy if it is providing pleasure, satisfaction, and sustenance. It’s not inherently unhealthy just because it comes from a fast-food restaurant. It’s NOT unhealthy if it’s providing convenience and nourishment during a busy day and when considered in the totality of your overall dietary habits/patterns. It’s not unhealthy UNTIL you layer on the guilt and judgement of eating something that you plan on eating anyway, so why the additional side of negativity? Is the judgement REALLY going to curb your eating habits? No, probably not! But it will diminish the pleasure of enjoying a simple, fast, and tasty lunch on a busy work day.”

This is my common inner monologue in a world riddled with diet culture, food and health shaming. While my thoughts may not actually play out in a full diatribe every time I hear a reductive comment about food or diets, it is basically what my quickened pulse indicates.

I am an Intuitive Eating and body image coach. One might argue that I have an almost counter-cultural perspective when it comes to food and eating habits as I take a non-diet approach. Every. Single. Day. People thoughtlessly utter negativity regarding food, bodies, or exercise indicating how deeply ingrained diet mentality is with women, and increasingly men, in our society. After nearly a decade working as a personal trainer and “wellness” coach in the fitness industry, including the problematic and dogmatic CrossFit segment of the industry, it became evident that we have an epidemic of body dissatisfaction, disconnection and confusion when it comes to food and eating.

I was reading Anti-Diet and Intuitive Eating and seeking out guest bloggers to provide some experienced insight into a field I had only learned about through reading. I had just added a former student as a Facebook friend when I discovered that Kortney Karnok was an Intuitive Eating coach! How serendipitous! I hope you enjoy reading her guest post as much as I did. (RLS)

Fad Diets in Fitness Culture

I have worked with hundreds of clients who all have one thing in common when they step into the gym: a desire to modify their body. In some performance-focused arenas in the fitness world this can be disguised as a desire to get “better, faster, stronger,” but there is rarely an absence of desire to lose body fat, gain muscles or “tone”. Regardless of the objective, whether it’s vanity, health, performance, or merely recreation and fun, the pursuit of fitness frequently carries a skewed perception of “healthy” especially in regard to dietary habits.

Of course, physical activity and movement (aka exercise) has a tremendous impact on overall health and wellness. I am a huge proponent of the mental health benefits of exercise. However, the fitness industry has created many monsters from dietary dogma. Diet and fitness culture have falsely led us to believe that we can, and must, have total control of our health conditions and physicality. Except we don’t have control, and dieting is nobody’s sole purpose in life.

big fat juicy cheeseburger
All foods fit. What is life without juicy burgers and fluffy buns?

I am complicit in perpetuating harmful diet culture with many clients over the years. Well-intentioned diet and weight loss challenges are sought after and lucrative in fitness spaces. In my experience, certain types of people actually seem to want to pay to suffer in the pursuit of health as they search for complicated programs, diets, and protocols with rigid details to follow. The pressure to meet the demand of clients and gym owners who want to sell the fads is strong. I cannot count the number of “Biggest Loser” or “Whole 30” or “Eat Clean Be Lean” nutrition and lifestyle challenges I have coordinated over the years. While I personally hate Paleo, Whole 30, and the “clean” eating movement, because an excellent education in food science allowed me to embrace “processed” foods and chemicals, I did succumb to a rudimentary fascination with ketogenic dieting and intermittent fasting.

As much as it irritated my sensibilities, “Eat Clean Be Lean” was my most popular program despite knowing “clean” eating had absolutely NOTHING to do with weight loss. It was catchy. People love diet fads. People love rules. Until they don’t. Until they backfire. And they almost always do.

Ironically, many of the same people who were terrified of food additives and “chemicals” were quick to make allowances for dietary supplements like “processed” Quest protein bars, whey or casein protein drinks, branched chain amino acids, beta-alanine and caffeine concoctions with a whole host of dyes and sweeteners and no regulatory oversight. But these same folks were reticent to enjoy the devil wheat or the worst: added sugar.

As I gained more education and experience, I could see the long-term adherence to diet protocols faltering. For example, one client participated in six sessions of the “Eat Clean Be Lean” challenge, and her body fat gradually crept up over time, as expected with yo-yo dieting. Every time she was “off” the program, she binged on all the foods she was deprived of and craving. I cannot help but wonder if this provides insight into why Weight Watchers requires lifelong memberships! I finally began to get fed up.

Intuitive Eating to the Rescue!

Discovering Intuitive Eating by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Reche dramatically transformed my approach to navigating the fad diet foodscape. The concept of Intuitive Eating – eating based on the intersection of internal emotion, instinct, and rational thought – is an evidence-based alternative to dieting, macro-counting, meal timing, ketogenic, “clean” eating, calorie score keeping, intermittent fasting, food-list checking, blood-type balancing or whatever en vogue method du jour of food control is being hyped. The objective of developing a healthy relationship with food and body, rejecting diets and learning to tune in and trust your own body, is a novel concept in our society.

The hardest “sell” for Intuitive Eating, in my experience, is the tenet that weight loss is not a goal. Letting go of a lifelong pursuit of the thin ideal is extremely emotional and difficult for most people. The fear of uncontrolled weight gain is common. Body image and body acceptance work are key components to effectively implement Intuitive Eating. They must go hand-in-hand.

Any interpretation of Intuitive Eating that promises weight loss is misguided at best. Unfortunately, the term “intuitive eating” has been co-opted incorrectly by some people and presented as another form of dietary control leading to weight loss. Strictly adhering to the principles as “rules” defeats the purpose. On the flip-side, it is sometimes misrepresented as a free-for-all approach to eating that does not take health or nutrition into account at all. This is also wrong. Gentle nutrition definitely comes into play.

Many people get tripped up worrying about comfort or emotional eating as “bad,” or they stress about doing it wrong if they succumb to “distracted eating.” Yes, comfort eating and distracted eating are bound to happen. We are all human and living busy lives. Many of my clients have small children. Good luck enjoying a meal without distraction! It is not practical nor realistic to think every eating opportunity will be a perfect mindful experience. These concerns can backfire as forms of mental restriction or diet rules. Self-compassion, flexibility and forgiveness around eating behaviors are crucial. Intuitive Eating is a practice not a final destination.

Principles in Practice: Client Insights

I recall my first session with a particularly successful health and fitness professional. A popular personal trainer, her public eating persona was defined by “clean, unrefined, non-processed, whole foods.” She tearfully expressed how distraught she was that she could not enjoy baking cookies with her young daughter. She felt extremely guilty for missing out on this quintessential mother-daughter childhood experience. After working through the principles utilizing The Intuitive Eating Workbook as a guide, she shared a poignant milestone:

“…When we first started meeting, I told you one of my goals was to be able to bake Christmas cookies with my daughter and not feel stressed because I wouldn’t be able to “control” how many of them I ate.

I remember [working on] changing my eating habits to allow all foods, all the time.  Wow that was SUUUUCH a hard thing to implement. And I will admit, probably for a good 6-8 months I was on and off with it battling the diet police thoughts.  I kept going though…OMG I ate ice cream, candy mix, huge scones, EVERYTHING pretty much every day. And WANTED it and went for it.  It was still tough, but I kept at it.  I remembered you telling me how you could have a bag of Doritos in your house and it was no big deal anymore.  I wanted that so, so bad!

…Rewind to Christmas last year.  Made bunches of cookies.  Ate bunches of cookies. Had fun doing it. But still felt I couldn’t resist.  I felt guilty some of the time but not nearly as much as previous years.  Still EVERY NIGHT I wanted cookies. I thought about them ALL THE TIME. 

Fast forward to this year.  This weekend my daughter and I made cookies again.  We made six kinds that I just CRAVED last year. Honestly, I ate one and felt….meh…..it’s just a cookie. It was good but I just feel different this year.  I don’t feel the pit in my stomach before I leave work knowing I’m going to [binge] later.  I feel like if I want cookies as I walk to the couch from the bed, I’ll eat them, but I just truly don’t care this year.  I’ve gone back and forth making sure this isn’t diet mentality but I am just truly not interested…It just feels different in a good way…”

While Intuitive Eating is not meant to erase ones’ desire for delicious and enjoyable foods, it can decrease the urgency and intensity a person feels if they experience intrusive thoughts about food. It is also not a practice to eat “all foods, all the time.” However, the honeymoon phase working through the principles of “making peace with food” and “challenging the food police” can be scary for people who do not trust that they will not ONLY want pizza, cookies, and donuts for every meal for the rest of their lives if allowed.

A different client followed up with a similarly gratifying example a few months after completing a nine-month Intuitive Eating program. Again, her words speak for themselves:

“…I feel like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I can’t believe all of the extra burden I was carrying, even silly things, like how I look in a swimsuit!  When I’m getting dressed in the morning now, I look at myself in the mirror and always say something about how amazing my body is and how well it serves me.

I have all this extra capacity in my brain when it comes to choosing foods and eating.  My daughter and I stopped at McDonalds yesterday (something I would never have done publicly and without beating myself up previously), and I had the BEST quarter pounder with cheese. It was so juicy and hot. Last year, that would have been a binge for me, and I would have fasted and beat myself up for weeks.

colander full of multicolored grape tomatoes
Too many carbs in tomatoes? Say it isn’t so!

…My husband made a lemon zucchini ricotta pasta the other night…While I was having some, a friend called and talked to me about her Keto diet, and how she can’t eat tomatoes (wtf?), fruits, etc. and mostly just eats meats.  I was trying so hard to not roll my eyes.  In what world could you not eat tomatoes?  I would die!!  I would have totally bought into that bullsh*t last year and tried to hop on that train and lost weight!

Speaking of weight, while I never get on the scale anymore, I was down 25-lbs at the doctor’s office.  The nurse asked what my secret was, and I said, ‘I eat what I want, when I want. It’s amazing!’”

After grasping the principles and learning how to balance eating for satisfaction while caring for mental and physical wellbeing, true food freedom feels like, “I eat what I want, when I want.” All foods fit: no bingeing, no starving, no guilt.

Limitations and Inequity

Despite the successes I have had working with clients who look like me: middle class, young adult to middle-aged white cis-women, it is problematic that Intuitive Eating is only accessible for those with privilege and the means to have abundance of access to food. Unfortunately, this process does not translate to people who experience food insecurity in lower socio-economic classes or marginalized, underserved populations.

The USDA reports over 11% of U.S. households experience food insecurity, and journalist Carrie Arnold points to recent studies indicating people experiencing food insecurity are at higher risk of eating disorder behavior than the general population. This includes a startling finding by eating disorder researcher Carolyn Becker showing rates of disordered eating increase with level of food insecurity from 2.9% in people who were mildly food insecure to 37.6% of people who were severely food insecure to the degree where they reported hungry children in the home. Participants in Becker’s studies reported a high level of guilt and shame associated with the out-of-control eating accompanied by compensatory purging including vomiting, diuretics and laxative use to prevent weight gain in 22.8% of subjects experiencing food insecurity.

This problem flies under the radar of concern when considering the health disparities that arise from inadequate access to high quality food. In this context, while effective for the privileged, Intuitive Eating is not a viable solution for many. This limitation raises the question, how do we do better?

Next week: You are NOT what you eat: Exploring Intuitive Eating’s gentle nutrition principle

 

photo of themasked author getting ready to eat a big bowl of salad
Kortney enjoying a salad in pandemic style.

Kortney has a bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Technology from the University of Georgia and an associate degree in Culinary Arts from the Art Institutes of Atlanta. After several years in the corporate food industry, she traded in her professional aspirations as a food scientist for the world of fitness and health as a personal trainer, weightlifting and Crossfit coach specializing in nutrition. 

After witnessing the harmful impact of diet and fitness culture on so many of her clients, Kortney now helps people repair their messy relationships with food, body, and exercise obsession through a Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating approach as a body image and certified Intuitive Eating counselor, speaker, writer, activist, and body positive personal trainer and wellness coach. Kortney currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin where she is pursuing her master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and hopes to earn her LCSW to provide therapy to those with clinical eating disorders. In the meantime, she works full-time for a local non-profit agency as a child advocacy manager for children in the child welfare system. You can reach Kortney at kortney@kortneykarnok.com

6 thoughts on “Intuitive Eating in Practice: From Fad Diets to Food Freedom by Kortney Karnok

  1. I really enjoyed your post Kortney. Good job 👍. Here are some observations. My first job after my RDN was nutrition counseling in a corporate fitness club. I competed with the trainers for business and understand oh so well the mischief that happens in the fitness space. My biggest disappointment was how uninterested my clients were with nutrition and how single focused they were on weight loss.

    Later I set up the nutrition component of a bariatric wellness program and that was when I read Am I Hungry? Michelle May, 2005 and learned that I am an intuitive eater. I wish more folks could grown up eating intuitively. But that is not the direction our culture seems to be heading.

    Now I’m going to put in a plug for minimally processed food. I’ve been corresponding with Rob on the matter and I’m building my case. I have eaten clean all my life. Whole food, freshly prepared, season and varied depending on where I’ve lived and what kitchen facilities I had access too. Just like the pundits have given Processed Food a bad name, my argument is the the pundits have given a bad name to how I love to cook. I have my theories about why and am still working them out. A reductionist nutrient centric approach to healthy has not helped. A lack of interest or skill or time to cook has not helped. And the financial gain available to disreputable diet social influencers does not help.

    Like

    1. I appreciate the comment and commiseration with the frustrations in the fitness realm! I’m glad to hear what you do personally works for you, and that you’re a natural intuitive eater. I’ll have to check out that book as well. As you know there is so much nuance, food/diet is akin to religion for a lot of people: emotion trumps science/facts some times, but maybe that’s not always a bad thing?
      –Kortney

      Like

      1. So true what you say about feelings versus logic. I like to think we can use both at the same time. As far as the book, it’s a classic. I had to hunt around a bit to even find it on Amazon. Michelle May have been one of the first explorers of eating styles so the book comes highly recommended.

        Like

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