The Beginner’s Guide to Intuitive Eating

There’s a scientific reason to just eat what you want

Illustration: Avalon Nuovo

If history tells us anything, we are on the edge of a new age of extreme dieting, disordered exercising, and systemic size bias. It’s a long-held cultural pattern: Periods of hardship and uncertainty tend to yield extreme diet fads and a general rise in disordered eating. As dietary historian Susan Yager notes, some of our most bizarre and restrictive diet trends emerged in the middle of the Great Depression. A century later, we find ourselves one year into a devastating pandemic, slogging through an economic crisis, and at the start of a winter of uncertainty. We are vulnerable and stressed, and most of us have naturally put on a few pounds after being stuck at home for months. In the decade before Covid, concepts like body positivity and the anti-diet movement were beginning to challenge the monolith of American diet culture. But if history repeats itself, then sometime later this year we will walk out of our doors and into a world even more messed up about food.

But what if this time, we actually learned from history instead of repeating it? Isn’t that what we all crave at the dawn of a new year — a fresh start? Dieting won’t give us that. Neither will cleansing or eating clean or any of the other vocabulary workarounds we use to pretend that all we care about is wellness, not weight loss. (I see you, WW, the two-billion-dollar company formerly known as Weight Watchers.) As the data consistently tells us, dieting simply does not work for most people. So, what if this time around, we just eat whatever we want?

A little background: Tens of millions of Americans — adults, adolescents, and children — attempt to lose weight each year, and for most of my life, I was one of them. Not much changed, except my ever-degrading self-worth and my physical well-being, which took a hit each time I yo-yoed down the scale and back up. I quit the diet cycle in my late twenties and began working with a registered dietician trained in something called intuitive eating. That’s when things actually changed.

Restricting food creates an inherently disordered relationship to it. Only when you stop restricting, really and truly, can food become neutral and eating become normalized.

In a nutshell, intuitive eating is diet deprogramming. Today it’s used by RDs and eating-disorder treatment providers, as well as average lifelong dieters who are ready to break the cycle. It’s an approach developed by dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch over 30 years ago, and eventually published in a book (now in its fourth edition). Tribole and Resch had treated so many chronic dieters in their practice, each with different diet backgrounds, but all with the same fundamentally warped ideas about food, exercise, and their own bodies. They needed to learn how to just eat again, without thinking of food in terms of points, net carbs, cheat meals, etc. But that’s no easy feat in a culture that insists we are incapable of eating without restrictions, that exercise is a means of deleting food, and that both beauty and health take one specific shape, and that shape is a thin, white person of Western European descent. These biases are baked into the very foundation of American culture (thanks a lot, Puritans), so it’s no wonder they’re so hard to shake. Hard, but not impossible.

Both the process and the goal of intuitive eating are simple: Eat whatever you want, whenever you want, and however much you want. Really. Eat the way you did as a kid when you demanded seconds without shame and pushed away your plate when you were full. Tribole, Resch, and many of their professional peers argue that restricting food creates an inherently disordered relationship to it. Only when you stop restricting, really and truly, can food become neutral and eating become normalized.

So that’s the short version: Eat what you want. But the short version tends to make people anxious (and often very angry). I get it! When my RD first brought this up, I was like, “Uh, yeah, I’ve done that before. Didn’t work out great.” But in fact, I hadn’t done that once in my entire conscious life. I’d binged before, yes. And I’d had cheat days (the nonclinical term for binges). But I couldn’t remember a time when I’d noticed myself feeling hungry, and thought, Ooh, I could go for a tuna sandwich right now, and then just ate it, in public, like whatever. Depending on my current regime, eating a tuna sandwich would be entirely contingent upon a careful calculation of my remaining daily points, how hard I’d worked out that day, what the scale had said that morning, the fiber content of the bread it was served on, or if it was available on a low-carb wrap instead. Of course, that approach hadn’t worked out so great for me either. So I decided to try it her way.

But learning to “just eat what you want,” is tough to put into practice when you’re used to doing emotional calculus over every tuna sandwich. That’s why Tribole and Resch developed intuitive eating into a program, broken down into 10 basic principles (not to be confused with rules). The principles include things like: honoring hunger and feeling fullness, making peace with food, and eating things that satisfy you. Many of these tenets are just about reconnecting with the biological instincts we already have, though we’ve been conditioned to ignore or mistrust them. (Fuck your hunger, you don’t eat after 8 p.m.) But the first principle and the most crucial (and daunting) is this: Reject the diet mentality. Consciously, actively decide that you are not going to try to lose weight. That is not the goal anymore. It can’t be. Until you remove deliberate weight-loss from the equation, you’re still on a weight-loss diet, no matter what you call it.

Rejecting the diet mentality requires a great deal of honesty, self-accountability, and perseverance. Most of us have grown up with some degree of body shame, believing that we could and should be a little or a lot thinner. And even those of us who’ve never battled this particular demon have still grown up in a society where thinness is a good thing and fatness is a bad thing. We hold these truths to be self-evident, even though (like a lot of foundational American “truths”) they’re totally made up! And racist! Thank you again, Puritans!

You can’t talk about intuitive eating, or dieting, or anything related to the way Americans eat without also talking about the way Americans think about body size. Fatphobia is one of the most insidious and enduring forms of bias because it’s so often brushed aside as frivolous, or willfully conflated with health consciousness. Chubby kids are dehumanized as symptoms of an obesity crisis. Size-inclusive clothing brands are called out as enablers. Plus-size models are condemned for “glorifying” obesity. I don’t care what she looks like, I’m just worried about her health! First of all, you’re not “worried” about a stranger on Instagram. Like all of us, you’re socially conditioned to disdain her. Size bias does not just shape our ideas about attractiveness. It shapes our ideas about intelligence, responsibility, criminality — all metrics of human worth. Research reveals (among other things) that fat defendants are more likely to be deemed guilty by a jury than their thin counterparts. Fat daughters receive less college financial support from parents than their thin siblings. Fat employees are paid thousands or even tens of thousands less than their thin colleagues. And fat patients are dismissed by medical professionals who deem them “repulsive,” “annoying,” or just “not as good” as thin patients. This results in lower quality of care — which doesn’t help the widely accepted falsehood that if you are fat (or simply not thin) you are automatically, unequivocally unhealthy. This is just not true.

This isn’t the Cold War, and you are not a spy on Her Majesty’s secret service. So rather than try to outwit this nefarious craving, maybe you should just eat a piece of chocolate and get on with your day.

We know that weight alone is a poor metric of health, mortality, and fitness. (There’s a great deal of history and data on this subject, and if you’d like a deeper dive on it, this is a great place to start.) But when it comes to the topic of dieting, this point is even more crucial: weight loss is not a panacea. Again, research suggests that deliberate attempts to lose weight typically don’t result in either long-term weight loss or significantly improved health outcomes. But there is evidence that certain behavior changes that people often undertake while trying to lose weight (increased physical activity, eating more produce, seeking medical care and social support) may indeed improve overall health — though they don’t usually correlate with weight loss. And since most diets are short-lived, so are those potentially health-improving behavior changes.

This is why dieting is so bad for us, individually and culturally. It forces the focus on weight loss, rather than things that might actually improve our health and well-being — things we might actually be able to do. It keeps chasing a prize that most of us won’t catch, let alone keep. It’s a hamster wheel.

That’s why consciously rejecting weight-loss as a goal is the first and most challenging hurdle: We’re terrified of gaining weight, and we assume that’s exactly what will happen if we’re allowed to eat whatever and however much we want. Whenever I talk about intuitive eating with someone unfamiliar, their first response is usually some variation on: “If I just ate what I wanted, I would literally just eat fries.” But that’s just diet culture talking. Of course, you wouldn’t literally just eat fries. Imagine if I literally gave you a huge plate of fresh, hot fries for breakfast, and then for lunch, and another for dinner, always reminding you that I had plenty more in the kitchen, the fryer’s always going, so just say the word. Sure, you might really go to town on that first plate. You’d probably eat past the point of fullness because that’s what you do when you’re being “bad” or having a “special treat.” And that’s what fries have always been to you. So even though I’ve promised that the fries aren’t going anywhere, you’re not really buying that yet. It might take a minute for you to accept this new reality of bottomless fries. But if I kept showing up to offer you fries, at some point you’d be like, “Thanks, but do you have an apple or something?”

This is what happens when all foods are neutral and allowed. When you no longer have to eat by some external protocol, your own internal appetite can come back online and start calling the shots. And our appetites want a wide variety of foods. It’s not satisfying to eat one type of thing, and satisfaction plays a huge role in keeping us nourished and properly fueled. We’re used to thinking that eating for pleasure is the opposite of health — when in fact, it’s a necessary element of healthy, balanced eating. How many times have you wound up eating, say, an entire head of “riced” cauliflower, instead of the regular portion of rice you actually wanted? How many times have you craved a little chocolate in the afternoon, and tried to trick your body with another cup of coffee, leaving you jacked and queasy instead of satisfied? In diet mode, we crave the illicit pleasure of forbidden fruit: fries, chocolate, rice that is rice. But when all foods are allowed, we crave the ones we enjoy and need. Sometimes you feel like rice (guess what: your body needs carbs), and sometimes cauliflower (your body also needs fiber). And sometimes, you just want a piece of chocolate. Maybe there’s a biological reason, or maybe you just want it. This isn’t the Cold War, and you are not a spy on Her Majesty’s secret service. So rather than try to outwit this nefarious craving, maybe you should just eat a piece of chocolate and get on with your day.

Making peace with food is hard — but not the same kind of hard as fighting it.

“But what about nutrition?” “What about food allergies, and health?” “Eat like a toddler? My kid eats cat food.” This should be obvious, but just in case: Intuitive eating does not mean tossing common sense and basic self-care out the window. No one is suggesting diabetics should eat cans of frosting whenever the mood strikes. My kid would eat the cat food, too, if I let her! But I don’t, because I’m a grown-up who is capable of nuanced thought, and if you’re reading this then so are you. So you can probably understand that nutrition is not in conflict with intuitive eating. Really, it’s the opposite. Intuitive eating undoes the conflation of nutrition with dieting, allowing us to recognize it as something that feels genuinely good. The same goes for fitness activities. “Gentle nutrition” and feel-good exercise are both principles of intuitive eating — though it’s important not to get into these topics until you’ve truly made peace with all foods. As Elyse Resch herself once told me, “Of course, we know that green jelly beans are not as nutritious as broccoli. However, there’s got to be the same emotional reaction to [both]. Until you can do that, you can’t think about nutrition.”

Another shocking declaration, I know. But here’s the thing: Making peace with food is hard — but not the same kind of hard as fighting it. Diet culture puts us at odds with eating, our most basic survival instinct. It pits us against our own bodies and teaches us to punish rather than care for them. It perverts the concepts of physical activity and healthful eating into acts of penance — things we do to whip our bodies in certain shapes and sizes. If it feels or tastes good, it’s bad for you. (You’re killing me here, Puritans.) Intuitive eating is about stripping away that dogma and reclaiming the inherent pleasure of nourishing and strengthening and enjoying our bodies. This is another vital principle, with profound impact: Body respect.

Imagine how different life would be if, instead of critiquing or hiding or hating your body, you treated it with complete, unwavering respect. Imagine how radically that would change the way you fed it, tended to it, and moved it through the world. Respecting your body means honoring its needs and desires. Respect means paying it mindful attention and doing what makes it feel good. Respect means acknowledging your body’s natural form, and the natural changes it will go through with every stage of your life. To respect your body is to recognize that it is your closest companion and ally in this life. So treat it kindly. Give it movement; give it rest. If it asks for chocolate in the afternoon, give your body a piece of chocolate with a smile. Enjoy.

New York-based freelance writer and author of Big Girl & I’ll Be There For You. Bylines: Glamour, Vulture, Refinery29, Cup of Jo, Vox and more. kelseymiller.com

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