Food & Nutrition

Intuitive Eating Is Transformative and Also Not As Intuitive As It Sounds

The worst relationship I’ve had in my entire 30 years on this planet has been the one I have with food. It started young, as it does for many women who, like me, have had a body deemed unacceptably large since childhood. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to lose weight. I read about the South Beach Diet between Harry Potter book releases and obsessed over “thinspo” tagged posts on LiveJournal. I’ve yo-yo dieted to the point of obsession, from cutting fats, to cutting carbs, to dark times when I simply cut out as much as possible, repeating to myself that it was better to be hungry than fat. I never felt better though, only more anxious, more miserable, and more hopeless.

If any other relationship made me feel so awful, I’d throw in the towel and walk away—but you can’t do that with food. The trouble with food is that we need it to live, to say nothing of the fact that it’s the cornerstone of almost every single social and cultural event. So instead I just kind of gave up. I just ate as thoughtlessly as possible because that felt like the most painless way to get through the day.

Given that history, I swear I could hear a chorus of angels sing when I read “Smash the Wellness Industry” in the New York Times last June. The op-ed was all over my social media feeds, shared most fervently by fellow women. The piece, by novelist Jessica Knoll, got at something that’s been on the lips of the fat positive community for years—that the wellness industry is just the diet industry, repackaged.

Knoll wrote ”at its core…wellness is about weight loss. It demonizes calorically dense and delicious foods, preserving a vicious fallacy: Thin is healthy and healthy is thin.”

Again, this is nothing new to fat folks. Believe me when I say we always knew words like “toxins” and “clean eating” were about achieving a small body. Nonetheless, there was something about this piece that struck a specific chord with me and so many other women. I suppose it wasn’t just the wellness revelation that peaked my interest, but what Knoll said helped her unlearn the mentality around food and body image that she’d been indoctrinated with—that we’ve all been indoctrinated with—intuitive eating. Registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch released the seminal book Intuitive Eating on the topic back in 1995. I’d heard the term before, but didn’t realize that it was meant to help people mend their rocky relationships with food and eating, particularly the ones caused by a lifetime of dieting.

I was immediately intrigued by the notion that my body could feed itself without heavy-handed intervention, and, within a few minutes of reading the article, I’d made an appointment with a local intuitive eating counselor in Toronto. It turns out, though, that I’d just signed up for something much bigger than a diet tweak.

In our first session, sitting in cozy chairs while her dog napped in the corner, my nutritionist laid out the principles of intuitive eating. There are 10 but the quick version is this: honor your feelings of hunger and satisfaction, let go of the idea that certain foods are “good” and others are “bad,” and reject the diet mentality. It isn’t, as it’s been characterized by some, a free-for-all or even a “hunger-fullness diet.” Rather, it’s a way to learn how to eat based on internal cues (your intuition) versus external rules (like, no eating after 7 P.M., count calories every meal, whole foods only, low-carb, etc.). In other words, eating intuitively means taking into account hunger, fullness, and satisfaction, which means that no matter what you eat or why, you’ve done nothing “wrong” or “bad.”

For the very first time, a health professional was telling me to say “fuck you” to diet culture, that my body wasn’t an inherent trainwreck, and that I can live a life unafraid of food. I was elated.

I dove into my first week of intuitive eating full of enthusiasm. I’ve got this, I thought. Just listen to my body, tell dieting to shove it, and live freely. All I had to do was what came naturally, right? How hard could that be?

Turns out, thanks to all the room that the diet mentality has taken up in my mind all my life, it’s pretty tough. I discovered the very first week that it was extraordinarily difficult to identify what my intuition around eating even was. Even though I wanted nothing more than to leave the diet mentality behind, I found myself reflexively trying to diet. I praised myself for “intuitively” choosing a side salad over fries (when what would have really made me feel satisfied was the fries), or water over a snack. “Oh, I was just dehydrated!” I’d think, repeating a phrase diet books had taught me, while my tummy continued to grumble.

I was trying to convince myself that my brain, in a diet culture-free vacuum, would pick a diet-like diet naturally. That there was indeed a skinny person inside of me crying out for vegetables, and nothing but. Or that my default state was to worship at the altar of wellness. This idea is, of course, a staple of diet culture—that if we were just good enough, just disciplined enough, we could become the tiny, perfect being we’re meant to be.

I assumed that merely taking on the ethos of intuitive eating meant that I was free of diet culture. Of course, that wasn’t the case. The truth is that none of us exist in a vacuum—diet culture is incredibly pervasive, and one session with my nutritionist wasn’t nearly enough to shake it. Despite what I was telling myself, I was still trying to lose weight. Somewhere in my lizard brain, I hoped that intuitive eating would just be a diet that stuck.

And, to her credit, my nutritionist saw right through me. At our next session, I gushed over my “intuitively” healthy choices and she called me out.

“Did you actually want water instead of a snack, or is that just what you think you should choose?” she asked me. My heart sank. Once again, I’d failed at a diet.

But I hadn’t, not really. My nutritionist, very compassionately, told me that I was hardly her first client to still be stuck in diet culture and that there are no failures on the road to intuitive eating, just lessons along the way. The lesson at this point was that this wasn’t going to be an easy process, and that it was going to transform way more than just what I put in my mouth. It would have to be a total makeover of how I see myself and my body.

Over our next sessions, my nutritionist continued to blow my mind, both with intuitive eating guidance and her own wisdom. We’ve talked about weight neutrality—that my weight might go down, or it might go up, but I need to make peace with it either way, irrespective of its size. We talked about Health At Every Size, a concept that I admittedly had entirely misunderstood. She told me that no matter my weight, I should feel empowered to pursue optimal health, that health doesn’t have to begin in a smaller body. She’s encouraged me to exercise for fun—imagine!—instead of fixating on burning calories.

I’ve been seeing my nutritionist every few weeks for the last four months, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have this down yet. And, in fairness, in her article Knoll said she had been seeing her own nutritionist for two years before writing her op-ed.

I don’t feel happy about my body all the time, but I do respect it more. I do still tend to deem some foods as “bad,” but I’ve stopped hoarding them as if the diet police are going to take them away. Public gyms still scare me, but I’ve started moving my body in new ways that feel good, like doing yoga along with an app and finally venturing down to the gym in my condo building. I haven’t had the guts to throw out my scale, but I haven’t stepped on it either. I’m growing.

It finally feels like everything I’ve ever preached about fat positivity and diet culture is finally aligning with my actions, and that’s offered me more peace of mind than any diet ever has.

Lauren Strapagiel is a breaking reporter for BuzzFeed News. She writes about internet culture, mental health, LGBTQ issues, and being an anxious lesbian.

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