Every January, many of us set the goal to start the year off right by eating better, the good intention leading us to one diet or another. Then, inevitably, we fall off said diet and right back into the same old (if not far worse) habits.
But a program called intuitive eating is gaining popularity by offering a radically different perspective on healthy eating: What if the problem isn’t failing to stick to diets, but rather a diet industry that profits off our unhealthy relationship to food? What if, instead of seeing food as an adversary or obstacle to staying healthy, we instead sought to redefine healthy eating as whatever gives us pleasure and satisfies our hunger?
“Diet culture’s goal is to try to shrink the body to make someone fit an external cultural ideal of thinness, which is not reasonable for most people. So it sets them up to pursue diets that are bound to fail,” said Elyse Resch, a nutrition therapist and co-author of the Intuitive Eating book that started the movement. In diet culture, weight loss is considered a moral value achieved by demonizing certain food groups and/or following restrictive eating rules. “Nothing about it connects with one’s internal wisdom. But intuitive eating, or anti-diet culture, is all about rediscovering that internal wisdom that we believe we’re all born with.”
“Intuitive eating, or anti-diet culture, is all about rediscovering that internal wisdom that we believe we’re all born with.”
Or as Lauren Smolar, senior director of programming and education at the National Eating Disorder Association put it, “It’s about learning to check in with your own body to figure out what your personal needs are to nourish your body, as opposed to leaning on outside rules that decide what goes into your body or how you move it.” While that sounds simple enough at first, practicing the principles of intuitive eating can be a lifesaver this time of year, “when there’s a lot of messaging around becoming a new you and making big, drastic changes focused on being healthier. It may all sound really well-intentioned and positive, but can suggest behaviors that are really not healthy.”
Research consistently finds that a vast majority of diets lead to only temporary weight loss at best, and at worst can even be predictors of weight gain. But people finally seem to be catching onto that reality, with the weight loss and diet industry in the U.S. peaking at $78 billion in 2019 only to decline by 21 percent during the pandemic, according to MarketData Enterprises. Meanwhile, Google searches for intuitive eating have doubled since January 2020, as #intuitiveeating takes off with younger people, garnering about 840 million views on TikTok. Though more studies and data are needed, evidence suggests the intuitive eating program is linked to not only more stable physical health, but also lasting mental health benefits — on top of having double the retention rate of diets.
“The goal of intuitive eating is to have a satisfying, enjoyable relationship with food and a respectful, dignifying, loving relationship with your body,” said Resch. “It’s a self-care, compassionate framework based on 10 guidelines (which are not rules) to help you get to a place of trusting your body again.”
What intuitive eating is — and isn’t
The 10 principles of intuitive eating, as laid out by Resch and co-author Evelyn Tribole, suggest that you:
- Reject the Diet Mentality, including wholesale permission to “get angry at diet culture that promotes weight loss and the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure.”
- Honor Your Hunger by validating the need to “keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat.”
- Make Peace with Food, which means you “give yourself unconditional permission to eat.”
- Challenge the Food Police by saying “no to thoughts in your head that declare you’re ‘good’ for eating minimal calories or ‘bad’ because you ate a piece of chocolate cake” because those are “the unreasonable rules that diet culture has created.”
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor through sensorial enjoyment of “the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience.”
- Feel Your Fullness, in which you “trust that you will give yourself the foods that you desire” and “listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry.”
- Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness, by first understanding that food restriction can “trigger loss of control, which can feel like emotional eating,” but also that “eating for an emotional hunger may only make you feel worse in the long run.”
- Respect Your Body, including acceptance of “your genetic blueprint” to not only “feel better about who you are” but also to affirm the fact that “all bodies deserve dignity.”
- Movement where you Feel the Difference through a focus on “how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie-burning effect of exercise.”
- Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition, making “food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good. Remember that you don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy.”
But just as people have begun the daunting journey to deprogram themselves of the diet mentality, the industry is already learning to adopt the language of intuitive eating as a way to repackage the same unhealthy cycle.
Weight Watchers is now WW, in the hopes that a rebrand that distances itself from the word “weight” will fool you into believing it’s not the same weight-stigmatizing, body-shaming, calorie-counting diet system that it indeed remains. The hot new app Noom claims it “isn’t a diet” in a million different ways, while using all the tired old tactics of every other unsustainable weight loss program that came before it. Worse still, Noom promises users can hack their psychology to achieve their ideal weight goal, as if sheer mental willpower can overcome one’s natural biology. Meanwhile intermittent fasting, one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest wellness sells, is backed by various scientific studies that present potential health benefits, yet when it comes to losing weight one study found it no better than any other calorie-restrictive diet.
“Diet culture is getting threatened by intuitive eating. We’re in the beginning of a revolution that has just taken hold. People are sick of dieting, of being told what they should eat, what size their body should be,” said Resch. “And the public needs to be educated to pick up on diet culture’s new brainwashing tactics.”
How to spot the difference between a diet and anti-diet
This isn’t just an issue of false advertising, either. The diet industry trend of co-opting keywords associated with anti-dieting like “intuitive,” “wellness,” “behavioral science,” “self-care,” and “healthy lifestyle” can cause serious harm to people desperately looking for an alternative.
“It confuses the movement. So people have a really hard time teasing out when they’re being misled to not listen to their body by mislabeled diets that endorse weight loss techniques as behavior that’s healthy for everyone,” said Smolar.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules for intuitive eating, there are important red flags to look out for in diet culture masquerading as anti-dieting.
Any nutrition program claiming it can help change your body or weight — especially those that paint fantasies of how wonderful your life will be after you’ve achieved this alleged ideal — is a diet, according to Resch. While diets often fail to achieve sustainable weight loss, they do excel at lowering your self-esteem and damaging your body image. But your loss in mental wellbeing is the diet industry’s gain. By ensuring we buy into the “problem” of an unattainable ideal body the industry ensures it can keep selling solutions that perpetuate said “problem,” which keeps us (and our wallets) coming back for more.
To combat this strategy of diet culture, the intuitive eating mindset encourages radical acceptance and respect for the unique “genetic blueprint” of your body. Like a lot of the program’s principles, that’s easier said than done. But the 10 tenets of intuitive eating are living principles meant to be practiced at your pace over a lifetime, if and when each one feels right for you.
“It’s important to start from a place of self-compassion for the fact that you’re up against a multi-billion dollar industry with a lot more money and time than you have. Because there’s no ABC steps to rejecting diet mentality and then you’re done. And that’s hard,” Resch said. “But keep in mind that dieting is a false premise. So think about how you’ve felt when you’ve been on diets, or when you fell off of them. How much better would it be to feel satisfied by food, to find pleasure in eating, to stop feeling so bad about yourself?”
The other major red flag of diet culture that intuitive eating encourages you to reject is restrictive eating in all its various forms.
In popular fad diets like keto and Whole30, restrictive eating instructs you to only eat foods the program deems acceptable, while a diet like intermittent fasting tells you when you’re allowed to eat. But systems like WW and Noom camouflage restrictive eating by claiming that they let you eat whatever you want — the only catch is that there’s a strict limit to how much you can eat. That’s still a restriction and, actually, just a roundabout way of calorie counting.
Both calorie counting apps like MyFitnessPal and dieting in general have already been identified as potential risk factors to developing and exacerbating eating disorder symptoms. Personal accounts from former Noom users also describe how the app damaged their relationship to food by using similar weight-loss strategies, to the point of serious negative impacts to the user’s mental health.
“What looks like a healthy relationship with food for one person will look different for somebody else… So there may be people who are going to naturally need more foods generally labeled as less nutritious, for example, but that are actually important for nourishing their body and giving it the energy it needs,” said Smolar. “So a common red flag for diet culture is any rules for eating intended to guide the entire general public, as opposed to helping you check in individually with what your body needs. Suggesting rules can confuse your ability to listen to your own body, which gets in the way of understanding your health.”
Restricting your food intake to exclusively foods deemed “healthy” can actually be indicative of an overall toxic, unhealthy relationship to food with negative physical and mental health impacts in the long run. Moreover, forcing yourself to abide by such restrictive food rules is often a recipe for disordered eating, like the binge eating that commonly follows “falling off” a diet.
“We want whatever we don’t have. That’s just human nature,” Resch said. “When you feel deprived of either a particular food or amount of whatever it is you want, we are driven by our unmet needs.”
So each time you tell yourself you “can’t” or “shouldn’t” or are “bad” for eating something, you give that food more power over your behavior by triggering an instinctual response to self-deprivation. That power is only amplified by the states of semi-starvation that many calorie-cutting diets instruct you to put your body in.
In Resch’s experience, clients who aren’t fully on board with rejecting this part of diet mentality struggle more with intuitive eating, since they’re still considering dieting in the future. “Even the fear of future deprivation can cause you not to be in tune with your own satisfaction and fullness levels.”
But recognizing, respecting, and accepting without judgment which parts of intuitive eating do and don’t work for you — and all the emotions they can bring up — is a big part of the journey.
“People have not been taught how to eat. Or diets told them how to eat in a way that pulled them away from trusting themselves,” Resch said. “So they’re terrified that if they give up dieting, how will they know what to eat? With intuitive eating, you learn to be led by what pleases your body, your palate, how your body feels when you’ve eaten enough food. People tend to want rules, but the stricter the rule, the bigger the rebellion from deprivation.”
Anyone can do intuitive eating, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you
None of the principles of intuitive eating are meant to be followed in totality at all times.
“Intuitive eating is very nuanced. But people want to take it as a list of absolutes,” said Resch. “It’s just about taking the whole body in, and doing the best we can do with the resources we have. That’s body respect — and self respect.”
In her more explanatory definition of intuitive eating, Resch emphasized that the 10 principles for building a healthier relationship to food accounts for “the dynamic interplay of instinct, emotion, and cognition.” So while our reptilian brains compel us to eat to survive, eating also heavily engages the emotional centers of our minds too, then the cognitive differences that make us human add more layers to figuring out what eating well means for you specifically.
Yet even though this expansive, flexible, and non-judgmental framework means everyone’s invited to practice it in their own way, the challenges of intuitive eating are not equal for everyone.
For one, folks with neurodevelopmental disabilities like ADHD and autism spectrum disorder often do not experience the same hunger and fullness signals that neurotypical people do. In cases where those internal cues aren’t as intuitive, Resch acknowledged that you’ll probably need more external systems that look closer to the “rules” seen in diet culture. You might want to set timers to remember to eat throughout the day to avoid reaching the point of starvation that can lead to binge eating, for example.
“But not getting internal cues of hunger and fullness doesn’t mean you can’t be an intuitive eater. That’s only two of 10 principles,” she said.
Those aren’t the only barriers to entry for aspiring neurodivergent intuitive eaters, either, due to a higher prevalence of eating disorders. While intuitive eating is one of the rare programs NEDA supports, Smolar cautioned that, at first, eating without restriction after a life of restrictive eating patterns can bring up a host of difficult and confusing emotions.
“We have to be very cognizant of the privileges in some of intuitive eating’s principles.”
“Disordered eating and eating disorders are incredibly individualized, so learning how to eat in a way that’s healthy for you can be just as individualized,” she said. “So if you’re finding intuitive eating isn’t the right perspective or that it’s really challenging to navigate the process of rejecting diet mentality, don’t do it alone. Reach out to the NEDA helpline for support or to find professionals that can guide you through the experience.”
Resch also encouraged professional help like nutrition therapists knowledgeable of the program. One criticism sometimes levied against intuitive eating is that not everyone has the time or resources for that kind of laborious internal work. But, Resch argued, if they have the time to learn how to follow the rules of a diet, then they’d also have time to engage with at least some of the principles of intuitive eating.
“We have to be very cognizant of the privileges in some of intuitive eating’s principles. People with food insecurity or of lower income can’t always eat whatever they want when they want it, or don’t know when they can feel full again,” she said. “But other parts are still accessible.”
If you can only afford fast food, that’s still a perfectly valid way to practice making peace with all foods. Since there are no “good” or “bad” foods in intuitive eating, learning to not judge yourself for eating the food that’s accessible to you to satisfy hunger is a very legitimate way of incorporating it into your life. Similarly, finding joy in movement can be no more time-consuming than tossing a ball around with your kid, walking the dog, or stretching while watching TV on the couch.
What makes intuitive eating so challenging is also exactly what makes it anti-diet culture: It’s a radical shift in how we relate to food and define health that only you can map for yourself. Embarking on a journey with so few instructions is scary. But it’s also full of potential for self-discovery.
If you feel like you’d like to talk to someone about your eating behavior, call the National Eating Disorder Association’s helpline at 800-931-2237. You can also text “NEDA” to 741-741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at the Crisis Text Line or visit the nonprofit’s website for more information.