Intuitive Eating Principles: No. 1 Reject the Diet Mentality

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

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I’m totally into intuitive eating. Unlike diets and weight loss plans — all forms of semi-starvation — intuitive eating principles teach how to eat as you did when you were a toddler. And by “intuitive eating”, I mean something far more involved than listening to your body. While it’s a concept I love, it’s unhelpful to chronic dieters, those with disordered eating habits, and those in recovery from eating disorders. First, you need to address the diet mentality.


Intuitive eating principles | body positive | reject the diet mentality | dieting | nutrition New post this week on sarahberneche.com outlining the first principle of intuitive eating: ditching the diet mentality.

LEARNING THE INTUITIVE EATING LINGO

Intuitive eating is akin to learning a new language. I’m technically bilingual (check out my rockin’ French surname), but I feel super uncomfortable speaking French. I’m resistant to it. I hold a B.A.H in English Lit and a Master’s degree in creative writing. I received formal training in book publishing. In French, I feel limited by my elementary vocabulary and overwhelmed by verbs, to the point that I’d rather pretend I don’t speak it at all.

If you’ve relied on calorie counters, meal plans, and diets to manage your weight and dictate your eating habits, implementing the intuitive eating principles might feel intimidating, overwhelming, and scary — which is exactly how I feel about speaking a second language. While “lifestyle change” is a nice notion, intuitive eating goes a step further by systematizing everything involved in a lifestyle change, making for a more comfortable transition.

INTUITIVE EATING IS ABOUT SELF-LOVE

The intuitive eating approach was pioneered by Registered Dietitians and disordered eating experts, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in the 90s as a bridge between the anti-diet movement and the health community. Forget obsessing over calorie counts or longing for so-called “forbidden foods”; the intuitive eating principles and methodology offer a guide for eating — free of dieting restrictions or psychologically unhealthy “advice”.

It may not sound as sexy as “rapid and effortless weight loss” or ring like “The South Beach Diet”, but homeslice, you don’t need bells and whistles. You need — and deserve — the kind of self-love and freedom that arise from tossing the chains overboard and sailing to the sweet, sweet island of I can work with this, bitch (thanks Amy Schumer.)

The first step? Let’s reject the diet mentality, yo.

EATING INTUITIVELY AND IT FEELS SO…SCARY

I covered some of this over here, but intuitive eating might be right for you if:

  • You have “yes” and “no” food lists

  • You use calorie counters or won’t eat above a certain number (ie. 1200)

  • You decide whether or not to eat a food based on the calorie count

  • You eat your meals in front of the television or computer, only to finish and wonder where the heck all of your dinner went (I’ve definitely done this a few times!)

  • You feel guilt and/or remorse after eating something delicious

  • You’re on a diet or identify as a chronic dieter

  • You restrict, deprive, and deny — only to binge on #allthecookies

  • You struggle with Binge Eating Disorder or orthorexia

  • You’re in the recovery stages of an eating disorder

  • You’re “so good” all day…only to find yourself starving at night

  • You workout to punish yourself or burn off calories instead of moving because it feels good

  • You describe your relationship to food as “love/hate”

  • You can’t stop thinking about or obsessing over food

  • You have trouble registering hunger and fullness

  • You harbour anxiety and fear over going out to dinner, holiday dinners, or dinner parties

When I broach the subject of intuitive eating, most people are afraid. Eat potato chips? Not every day!  While the approach is not totally dismissive of nutrition and the role food plays in health, weight loss and nutrition must be placed on the back burner until an individual develops a psychologically amazing relationship to food. Then we can chat about specifics. We’re a culture obsessed with what. What are you going to be when you grow up? What are thinking when you right swipe? What is your 5 year plan? We what and should all over ourselves. I want to hear and know your why

Chances are you’ve arrived here because something’s not working for you. Maybe you believe there must be a better way.

It’s true a fresh, green salad is objectively more nutritious than a serving of potato chips. But why do those fried potatoes hold so much power over us? Why are we so afraid? On one level, we know dieting is no good for us. We may even know it results, time and time again, in additional weight gain (it does. Science says so.) Like the bad boy who whispers sweet nothings in your ear or that game-playing hot chick, you know it’s going nowhere. Yet the thought of giving up something so-so for the mere possibility of something better? To hedge your bets, you stay.

Perhaps you believe that if you stop dieting, you’ll eat uncontrollably. But this is like saying you’ll never find love again if you end your shitty relationship. Of course you will. But how can you if you’re still tied to what-his-excuse? Dieting is totally a trigger for overeating, because dieting, as far as your body is concerned, is the same as short-term starvation. Once you stop dieting, eventually the drive to eat will regulate, provided you’re managing your stress levels and sleeping the recommended 7-9 hours a night. The same goes with unsatisfying relationships. Suddenly you’ll find yourself swimming in a pool filled with shiny fish. Only love leads to love.

But. And this is a big, bootylicious but. If you entertain the possibility of The Return — if you entertain the advent of a better, more magnificent diet or the possibility your ex may want you back — all bets are off. This belief will imprison you and prevent you from discovering intuitive eating (and finding true, mushy, sappy as all get-out love.)

I don’t know what to eat when I’m not dieting, you say? I’ll be out of control, you say? I’ve got you covered. Intuitive eating is a step-by-step process, involving a lot of guidance and some chummy hand-holding. You won’t start at the deep end, I promise. We’ll take some time in the wading pool so you get comfortable, and slowly, seamlessly, move to the other side. Only this time, we’ll make sure to arm you with strategies to keep your head above water so you don’t lose your way while off to the island.

THE DIET HANGOVER

Giving up dieting isn’t easy. I would know. Even if you’re not “on a diet”, you might find the ghost of diets past still haunting your food choices. If you’re not on a diet, but still find yourself with your guard up around food, or choosing foods based on something outside of yourself, you may be struggling with the diet mentality. Some example of this kind of pseudo-dieting include:

  • Counting carbs. Carb counting has replaced calorie counting. While a low-carbohydrate plan is medically necessary or therapeutic in some instances (ie. Diabetes, PCOS), not all carbs affect the body in the same way. Chris Kresser, whom I have mad respect for, has even stated “whole-food carbohydrates do not affect the body in the same way as processed and refined carbohydrates.” Anecdotally speaking, I’ve used one of those “processed and refined carbohydrates” — white rice — after some heavy workouts. You know how I felt afterwards? Energized, healthy, and ready to take on the world. Carbs are also vital to thyroid function, HPA-axis recovery, and to the optimal functioning of some of your brain cells.

  • Eating only approved or safe foods. During my teen years, I only ate low-fat and non-fat foods. Low-fat yogurt. Salad with non-fat salad dressing and egg whites or baked fish. Pasta with low-fat meat sauce. You get the gist. And I was always hungry, anxious, and clinically depressed.

  • Limiting food to certain times of the day or not eating after a certain time. I don’t recommend going to bed on full stomach — it can interfere with sleep — but there’s no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to food timing. I would recommend women, especially those 40+, get some protein in first thing for optimal hormone function.

  • Feeling the need to pay for certain foods via exercise or vows to “eat better” tomorrow. I don’t know about you, but when I eat a burger, I just want to enjoy it. It’s just a delicious, satisfying choice. That’s it. I’ll admit it’s taken me a long time to get to this place — it is a process — but you can absolutely get here, too. You don’t owe anyone an apology for enjoying food.

  • Cutting back on food through unconscious undereating. Doing so often results in overeating or binge eating. If you have a special occasion coming up or you feel uncomfortable, I recommend investing in a little self-care. I’m at my best when I’m moving (because it feels good), eating nutritious foods (because they’re energizing), meditating (because it helps me to focus and ditch the ego concerns), doing the lemon water thing (because it makes me feel like I have my shit together), diffusing essential oils (because they’re relaxing), and having wine with friends, possibly with something delicious (because it makes my heart happy.) Try it!

  • Drinking diet sodas or coffee to “fill up”. Self-explanatory. When I worked in an office, I used to snack on hummus and raw vegetables. And then it was just raw vegetables. And then it was coffee. Everyone around me could identify what was going on — except for me.

I could go on.

INTUITIVE EATING PRINCIPLES: HOW TO REJECT THE DIET MENTALITY

  1. Acknowledge dieting’s dangers. Chronic dieting teaches the body to retain more fat when you start eating again, slows the rate of weight loss with each attempt, decreases metabolism, increases binges and cravings, and ups risk of premature death and heart disease. It also atrophies satiety cues and may lead to changes in body shape (notably more weight in the abdominal area.) Dieting is also linked to eating disorders and may add unnecessary stress.

  2. Dieting erodes confidence and self-trust. David Garner and Susan Wooley pulled together a case against the high cost of false hope from dieting.

  3. Forget willpower and obedience. You will always “fail” (and feel like a failure) because you are going against your natural instincts. Trust me when I say this: everything your body does — whether you like it or not — is to keep you alive. You can’t fail at intuitive eating, darling. It’s a learning process and it’s rarely linear, but you can only go up from here.

  4. Ditch the tools. Banish the scale, calorie counters, and fitness apps. Registered Dietitian Christy Harrison had an epiphany while still in school, when she realized her “ideal weight”, according to her calculations, was the same as the weight she was at during her eating disorder. You don’t need to weigh yourself to be healthy or to feel good about yourself. I’d also like to remind you of your right to refuse weigh-ins at the doctor’s office.

  5. Choose compassion. So many of my clients are hard on themselves. When we talk about their eating habits and exercise routines, it’s the stuff of nutrition textbooks. The missing part? Self-care. When I asked the members of my group coaching program whether they felt stressed, every hand in the room went up. We’re so conditioned to work harder and do more that it can feel counter-intuitive when the advice is to do less and be kinder to ourselves.

Over to you: what about the diet mentality confuses you? What about intuitive eating do you find challenging? Leave a comment so I can help you out! 

Comments +

  1. Kaylyn Madany says:

    What confuses me is that a lot of people think that sugar and processed foods are part of a healthy diet. I do have a "yes" and "no" foods list, but while the "yes" list is super long: vegetables, meat, eggs, cheese, nuts, berries and most other fruit, dark chocolate, and healthy fats, my "no" list is short: sugar, processed foods, grains, and bananas (too much sugar for me). I don’t diet. I eat lots of fat (ketogenic lifestyle), don’t count calories, and work out because it’s stress relief and it makes me feel good physically. I don’t crave sugar or starchy carbs anymore, and my only problem keeping me from being a fully intuitive eater is that I tend to stress eat or eat when I’m bored. Where is the intersection of healthy eating and intuitive eating? Can we make room for a healthy lifestyle without labeling it a "diet"? And is sugar healthy for anyone?

    • Sarah Berneche says:

      Hey Kaylyn! Thanks for your comment. Professionally, I would agree that processed foods and sugar can be a part of a healthy diet — a part of. We don’t have to eat 100% healthy to be healthy. A balanced diet is one that incorporates many different types of foods, both physical health foods (nutritious foods) and mental health foods (fun or play foods.) Intermittent access to sugar can also lead individuals to feel ‘addicted’ to sugar — that treating it like an ordinary food can actually position us to feel more in control of the foods we do eat (this is also reflected in the latest research on sugar and food addiction.)

      I would also say that stress eating or eating when you’re bored can be markers of an intuitive eater. And while finding alternative ways of dealing with stress may ultimately prove more productive, going to food to cope with difficult emotions makes a lot of sense, even if food can’t truly comfort us.

      To answer your questions, intuitive eating is healthy eating. It’s balanced. It makes room for gentle nutrition (there’s an entire chapter at the back.) It’s science-based. I think there’s enormous confusion regarding what’s healthy and not healthy, and much of this stems from sensationalism vs. data. It’s important to differentiate between what is science-based and what is, essentially, snake oil. Just as the low-fat movement dictated so many of our decisions and many came to view fat as the enemy, I want to reflect how the exact same thing is happening now with carbohydrates and sugar. It’s not different, and it’s not helpful, especially in light of the rise of eating disorder symptomatology and diagnosis.

      I think if you’re following a healthy lifestyle, that would be the only label. A healthy lifestyle, by definition, doesn’t follow any tenants of diet culture – it’s flexible, balanced, varied, and makes room for mistakes in eating.

      And yes. We do use sugar to power up our brains (only some of our neurons can function on ketones — the rest need glucose.) Of course, it’s encouraged to get glucose from a variety of sources, but I also don’t think anyone would feel very good subsisting on a diet of all white sugar or refined products. Is there a limit to how much sugar we can handle or need? Of course, but the same can be said for all other foods. If you only ate kale, you’d be missing out on a host of nutrients. If you ate a lot of fruit, you’d get a stomach ache. If you ate only meat and cheese, you’d miss out on fibre. And this is why we, intuitive eating professionals, advocate that all foods can fit within a healthy diet.

      • Kaylyn Madany says:

        Thanks for your reply! I’m glad to know that my stress eating is part of intuitive eating and it will all balance out. I do allow for flexibility in my eating and do NOT ascribe to diet culture. I find that avoiding sugar most of the time actually helped me recover from my sugar addiction. Now I can enjoy a small serving of a sugary dessert every once in awhile and it be tempted to have more. One thing I’m still unsure about is your statement that carbs and sugar being bad is just snake-oil. Although the studies are relatively new, there is plenty of scientific evidence for the detrimental effects of sugar and it being a big player in metabolic syndrome. And since diabetes, heart disease, etc. can occur in those who are of a normal weight and appear healthy, it is not a dieting or weight loss issue. As someone with PCOS and insulin resistance, I was pre-diabetic at the age of 20, which got me started on my low carb journey four years ago. Although I have reversed the pre-diabetes diagnosis through changing my diet (not going on a diet), the point is that I was a healthy weight when I learned all this. I’m curious what your thoughts are on this TEDx talk about sugar. https://youtu.be/gmC4Rm5cpOI

        • Kaylyn Madany says:

          *not be tempted to have more. Where I was talking about sugar.

        • Sarah Berneche says:

          Most of the studies we see linking sugar to metabolic syndrome do so based on correlation, not causation (there’s also a strong, known genetic component.) Let’s say, though, that these studies are true and excess sugar consumption, however you wish to define that, is a major player in metabolic syndrome. You’re going to want to consider why someone might consume large amounts of sugar in the first place. Are they bingeing, do they have a history of binge eating? (Much more common than people think, especially since food restriction is so normalized.) What about socioeconomic determinants? Poor people typically have lower health outcomes, in part because they lack access to nutritious foods. When it comes down to it, potato chips are more filling than an apple, so this happens a lot.

          There’s a lot more to health than food and weight, of course – and socioeconomic determinants of health is HUGE. I believe you when you mention your history with insulin resistance and PCOS, and yes, carbohydrate reduction may be helpful (and may be something someone naturally gravitates to – if you’re not able to use glucose effectively, you’re not going to feel well consuming as much as others may.) But making changes for therapeutic purposes is different than making changes because sugar is an assumed drug (it’s not – there’s no research to support this.) Generally people say it’s because it lights up the pleasure centres of the brain, but so does looking at puppies. There’s more on that here – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/28330706/.

          And while we don’t have a biological requirement for sucrose, I suppose, glucose is important for brain function as I mentioned. This is a really great study – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3900881/. And while you would very well survive on zero sucrose, there’s great risk in promoting this, particularly as it relates to mental health (eating disorders.)

          There’s also no evidence that limiting sucrose or nixing it completely is any healthier than eating it in what some would call ‘moderation’. Most of the participants used in sugar studies still consume, at the very low end, 50g of sugar/day of added sugar per day (about the amount in 2 large cookies, 2-3 regular-sized candy bars, or 16oz of soda pop). So when you’re seeing these links between sugar and metabolic syndrome, we’re talking a lot of sugar – much more than we’d be consuming as intuitive eaters attuned to the way our bodies feel.

          • Kaylyn Madany says:

            Thank you for taking the time to reply again. Have you read The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker? It’s a great book on intuitive eating that I read a few weeks ago.

  2. Lisa Cassidy says:

    I’m have no trouble letting go of guilt. I’ve been trying all types of food, but the guilt of enjoying something I used to consider “bad” invades my thoughts after I eat. I want to enjoy life and food. I’m so programmed to feel shame. It’s still feeling like I’m cheating. How do I move past this? I hope it gets easier!

    • Sarah Berneche says:

      Hi Lisa!

      Apologies for the delay in my response. The guilt you feel around certain foods implies you feel you shouldn’t be eating them and/or that it’s wrong to do so. Intuitive eating is usually easy to "intellectualize", but moving through the emotions is something entirely different. You will find the more you eat these "forbidden" foods (and they must be consumed regularly for this to be effective), the more the guilt will reduce until there’s nothing left to it. Just keeping doing it and being aware of how you’re doing it (i.e. in public or hiding in the kitchen? Openly displaying chocolate wrappers or hiding them in the garbage? Eating cookies throughout the day as snacks or only at night, when you would’ve previously overeaten them/binged on them/etc? Context really matters here.) Let me know if I can help further in any way. x

  3. Lisa Cassidy says:

    Edit.. I AM having trouble letting go of guilt!
    Sorry about the typo

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