WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU SAT DOWN AND REALLY ENJOYED YOUR FOOD, WITHOUT GUILT OR SECOND-GUESSING? CAN’T REMEMBER? MAYBE IT’S TIME TO TRY INTUITIVE EATING.
E IGHT YEARS AGO NICOLE LANG, 35, BEGAN following a low-carb diet to get ready for her wedding. She didn’t love the food but lost weight fast— until she didn’t. Her weight plateaued, and then, when she didn’t stick with the diet, she regained. Every now and then she’d go back to the plan, gaining and losing the same 15 to 20 pounds over and over. In March of last year, Lang had finally had enough: “I just started thinking, There has to be a better way; there has to be something else—I’ve been doing this on and off for years.” So when a dietitian friend, Alissa Rumsey, R.D., posted on Instagram that she was leading a Ditch the Diet Challenge, Lang signed up. Over the course of a week, she learned about the principles of intuitive eating, and a light bulb went off. “It was like, I’m not crazy; I’m not a failure for not being able to stay on a low-carb diet and lose weight,” she says. This new approach, as she describes it, was a feeling of freedom—from cravings, from restrictive food choices, from guilt.
The idea of intuitive eating is not new. Dietitians Evelyn Tribole, R.D., and Elyse Resch, R.D., coined the term back in 1995 with a book of the same name, but it got lost in the shuffle of the nineties diet craze as experts engaged in heated debates about low-fat versus low-carb diets. Now intuitive eating is back in a big way, thanks to a growing community of dietitians who want clients to forget guilt and rediscover the joy of food. The shift is due in part to this: Dieting doesn’t result in sustained weight loss for most people. “Studies show that diets are effective in the short term but not in the long term,” says Traci Mann, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, who has analyzed dozens of diets and their results. Dieting can even lead to weight gain. Experts now agree that focusing on what you eat—counting every calorie or carb—leads to failure; it’s more effective to focus on listening to your body and meeting its needs.
Changing the Rules Jessica Jones, R.D., a San Francisco Bay Area dietitian, used to take a more traditional, weight-focused approach with her clients. “I wasn’t really convinced that I was helping people transform the way they eat in a way that felt sustainable,” she says. Constantly counting calories and pounds even led some of her patients to develop disordered eating habits. After hearing about intuitive eating from colleagues, Jones took a course with Tribole. Now she uses the principles of intuitive eating to coach some of her clients, especially those who have struggled with disordered eating. Likewise, Rumsey used to provide eating guidelines and meal plans to her clients. They’d do great for a while only to come back months later, right back where they started. Frustrated, she took a course on intuitive eating and now encourages the women and men she sees to eat things they enjoy and pay attention to how different foods make them feel. After an adjustment period, she says, “they eat a wider variety of foods and have a more balanced diet overall.” Giving yourself permission to eat foods that satisfy you is one of the keys to intuitive eating. Craving a doughnut for breakfast? Have the doughnut. Still hungry after a full meal? Keep eating. If you’ve ever been on a diet (which is the majority of us—60 percent of girls report trying to lose weight before they even graduate high school), this idea may sound insane. “People often think, If I could eat whatever I wanted, I’d just eat cookies all day long!” says Tribole. “But when someone tells me that, it’s usually more of a reflection of how long they’ve been deprived. Would you really want cookies every day? All day long?” It also misses another key tenet of intuitive eating: how food makes you feel. If you want doughnuts for breakfast, fine. But how do you feel after? Does the sugar rush give you a headache? Did your energy crash just before you walked into an important meeting? Tribole trains her clients to ask, How will I feel physically if I eat this? Does it feel good? Does it sustain me? “By taking all this into account, you make food choices based on your own direct experience,” she explains. “There’s no right or wrong answer. You get to feel any way you want to.” When Lang started eating this way, she had toast with butter and jelly for breakfast every day, a craving that she chalks up to having restricted carbs for so long. (It’s common at first for people to go overboard with foods that have been off-limits, says Rumsey.) Eventually Lang tired of toast and realized that the breakfast didn’t keep her energy up for long. Now she’ll round things out with fruit and protein, or grab a breakfast sandwich, which usually keeps her satisfied until lunch. “People tell me over and over how much mind space this frees up,” says Rumsey. “They don’t beat themselves up for days or feel guilty. They can eat what they want and enjoy it, and then be done and move on.”
Choosing Nourishment, Not Guilt Intuitive-eating experts also talk a lot about “gentle nutrition.” “Nutrition is important,” says Rumsey, “but it shouldn’t be something that causes stress.” Gentle nutrition is about making food choices that honor your health and make you feel good. Sound vague? The ambiguity is intentional, Tribole explains, because even well-meaning nutrition guidelines can feel like a diet, with “good” and “bad” foods, and habits and rules that might lead to guilt if broken. There should be joy in eating, says Tribole, but for many of us it’s punitive. “Sometimes I’ll start working with a patient by asking, ‘What would it be like to eat in a way that’s satisfying for you?’ I’ve had patients say, ‘You know, I really would love to eat vegetables, but I hate vegetables.’ Often what we discover is that whatever diet they were on made them eat those foods steamed or plain or in ways that just didn’t taste good. Maybe you drizzle olive oil, maybe put a little flavoring on—there are so many different ways to enjoy food.” Lang had gotten to the point that she dreaded eating salads on her low-carb diet, always without the crunchy extras. “Now, I’m not waking up craving broccoli,” she says with a laugh, “but there are days I want to go home and make a salad for lunch. It’s been a big shift.”
Redefining Success Lang admits she’s disappointed that she hasn’t lost weight, but she didn’t gain tons either. “It is hard not having the reinforcement of people saying, ‘Wow, look how much weight you’ve lost,’ ” she says. “But I’m having all these mental breakthroughs. I’m learning to be as healthy as I can be. I’m setting a good example for my three-year-old.” She also feels more in control around food and isn’t dealing with cravings 24/7. And after years of struggling to stick to an exercise plan, she recently started the same Couch to 5K program that she followed before her wedding. “Before it was, You gotta do this to be skinny one day,” she says. Now? “I want to do it. I was surprised myself when it clicked like that.” That’s what’s most appealing about intuitive eating, says Tribole. “You get to be in charge of your body. Intuitive eating puts you front and center. No one can be the boss of you. No one can possibly know your feelings and what satisfies you. Only you can know that. And no diet teaches you that.” Success with intuitive eating looks different for everyone, but Tribole sums it up like this: You’re no longer anxious about food and your body. You can eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. You can cope with your feelings without using food. You can focus on health without the cycle of guilt and shame. The longer you’ve been dieting, the longer it may take to get to this point, says Tribole, but it isn’t a pass-or-fail process. “Let’s say at breakfast you ate when you thought you were hungry and you stopped when you thought you had enough to eat,” says Tribole. “And maybe it turns out, two hours later you’re ravenous—it wasn’t enough food. No big deal!” You eat a snack and maybe eat a bigger breakfast next time. These things are discoveries, ways to learn about your health and your body, not mistakes. Like Lang, many people hope intuitive eating will lead to weight loss. Tribole’s response? “I don’t know what your body is going to do.” This is hard for many people to accept, she says, but she reiterates that the focus is establishing healthy behavior, not weight or the size of your clothes. “I see some people who lose weight with intuitive eating,” says Jones. “They’re not necessarily trying to manipulate their body; they’re just trying to eat in a balanced way that feels physically and mentally satisfying to them.” People who have a history of dieting and severe restriction may gain weight when they start giving their body what it needs. And many people find that when they stop counting calories and start eating in a balanced way that feels right, their weight doesn’t change. But their relationship with food changes dramatically. “Guilt is not something that should be associated with eating,” says Tribole. “Unless you killed somebody or stole the food or stole the money to get the food, there should be no morality involved with eating.” Her point: Food is energy, but it’s also pleasure. When you’re able to relax around food, eating can be joyful— a way to honor traditions, bond with friends, or celebrate. As Jones puts it: “People just come to a place where they have more peace and they’re not spending their life fighting against their body.” Because, really, there are so many more important things worth fighting for.