(Photo: Jessica Nash)
Say the phrase “intuitive eating” and most people will give you that nod. You know, that nod that means, Oh dear, I did not realize you were a crazy person, but I don’t want to be rude. Please, tell me more about chemtrails. And, I get it — really. At first blush, intuitive eating sounds like choosing your meals using psychic powers. But, in fact, it’s the opposite. Intuitive eating means eating like a normal, rational human being.
Of course, a lot of us don’t act that normal and rational around food.
Unless you were raised in some food-neutral Utopia with absolutely no outside influences on your eating habits or body image, you’re probably going to develop some unhelpful habits and attitudes around eating. The naysayers cry, “So, snap out of it. Just eat normally — it’s that simple!"
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But, for the millions of us who’ve dieted all our lives (and/or grappled with eating disorders) it’s not simple at all. We need help to break the cycle. We need guidance and baby steps and a lot of practice. For us, it’s a real challenge to eat food like it’s just food. That’s why intuitive eating exists.
Still, the naysayers seem to have a lot of opinions on this topic. They say intuitive eating means eating junk food all day, ignoring your health, and generally giving up and giving in. I cannot imagine why they say these things except perhaps they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. Could that be it?
If so, I’m happy to help! Here, I’d like to provide a little basic myth-busting on intuitive eating. If you want more info, there’s a whole book on the subject (get this: it’s called Intuitive Eating). But, for now, let’s start with these 12 myths about intuitive eating that you should know the truth about before you try it — or judge it.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Got a question — or your own Anti-Diet story to tell? Email me at email@example.com.
(Photo: Ingalls Photo)
1. It’s A Diet
Let’s start with the obvious: nope. Intuitive eating a way to learn to eat outside the diet mentality. (It’s also often used in eating disorder treatment as a way of helping patients create new, healthy relationships with food.)
It’s how you learn to un-link food from all those old diet-based rules and start looking at it in terms of satisfaction. On a diet, you might look at a potato and ask yourself: How many carbs or calories is in it? If I eat it, what will I have to not eat later? Am I being good today or bad? If bad, fuck it, might as well throw on some sour cream and cheese and bacon. And, more bacon. With intuitive eating, you simply look at the potato and ask: Do I want it? You may naturally consider other factors as well (we’ll get to that), but it all starts with this question.
In short, with intuitive eating, the potato is just a potato.
(Photo: Ruby Yeh)
2. Listen To Your Body = Don’t Listen To Your Brain
I don’t know why this is so misunderstood, because the thinking part of intuitive eating is baked right in. What do you use to “intuit,” people? Your damn brain! Intuitive eating teaches you to eat based on your body’s signals, but that doesn’t make you a mindless id, forbidden from making considered decisions.
Think about the potato again. Let’s say I’m flying to my dad’s place the morning of Thanksgiving and I stop for breakfast at an airport restaurant. Perhaps the hash brown potatoes sound appealing, but I may decide to skip them anyway because I know I’m going to have some kick-ass mashed potatoes when I sit down to Thanksgiving dinner that afternoon. I really want to enjoy those potatoes, and I don’t want to get potato’d out on airport hash browns. So, I (intuitively) skip them in order to give myself that truly satisfying potato experience later.
On the flip side, sometimes you’re not hungry, but you need to eat anyway. What if I wasn’t hungry at all at the airport? I know I should probably eat anyway, because I’m about to get on an airplane during one of the busiest travel days of the year. My body doesn’t account for flight delays. My brain does.
3. You’re Going To Gain Weight
Or, lose weight, or plateau, or whatever. Sorry, but weight’s not the point here. It can’t be. You cannot simultaneously create a neutral relationship with food and focus on weight loss. As goals, they are diametrically opposed.
Certainly, weight change is a likely side effect of changing your eating habits. But, that change isn’t going to look the same for everyone. If your body has excess weight to lose, you probably will lose it eventually. But, as you learn your new lifestyle, you’ll go through a lot of phases, and your weight may reflect that. Change is hard and takes time. A diet may promise you 30 pounds in 30 days no matter what your weight, health, or lifestyle is right now. But, who’s buying that? Intuitive eating is about real, long-term change.
Another thing to remember is that normal eaters fluctuate, too. Our bodies reflect our lives and we have to learn to recognize that without judgment. When has judgment ever made anything better?
(Photo: Jessica Nash)
4. Nutrition Isn’t A Factor
False! Nutrition is an important factor, as it should be in everyone’s lives! The goal with nutrition in intuitive eating is to learn to stop talking about it in dogmatic, restrictive, fad- and diet-based terms. The concept of nutrition often gets so warped in dieting that we stop thinking of it as something natural and enjoyable. It becomes a weapon with which we punish ourselves. It’s a mess.
With intuitive eating, it’s not about telling you, “eat this, not that,” but asking, “what makes your body feel good?” And, getting the honest answer. As much as I honor my tastes and cravings, I honor the fact that protein makes my body feel fueled and full. I realize that roughage helps me digest better, so I get some greens on the plate. I recognize the fact that movie popcorn butter sometimes tastes really good, but also gives me a stomachache. That doesn’t mean I’m banned from having it. It just means I take that into account.
Our bodies have biological nutritional needs, and intuitive eating is what helps you learn to really hear them.
(Photo: Ruby Yeh)
5. NO EXERCISE
Um, no. What? Of course, exercise. Regular exercise is good for you and makes you feel better, period. Intuitive eating emphasizes the benefits of fitness, urging you to dissociate it from weight-loss worries.
This is a huge challenge. If you’re used to thinking StairMaster = 600 calories = I will weigh less tomorrow and therefore be a better, more worthy person and maybe even get to have a frozen yogurt — exercise isn’t going to feel like fun. But, as with food, intuitive eating tries to get you to think about exercise without judgment. That means trying new things with an open mind, challenging yourself with curiosity, and truly paying attention to how your body feels. Maybe running’s not your thing. Maybe you have injuries to contend with. But if you find the things that make you feel good — and do them — then your body is going to feel good, too.
(Photo: Jessica Nash)
6. Eat What You Want = Eat Garbage, Who Cares?
Again, eating what you want doesn’t mean running around like an animal going for the brightest, most chocolate-covered choice allthe time. I often reference the example of eating like you did as a child. But, I’m not literally suggesting you eat baby food. I’m suggesting you engage in the process of eating like a child does: totally engaged with your hunger, eating until satisfied, and then stopping.
A three-year-old doesn’t know how many net carbs are in a banana. She doesn’t even know what she likes. She’s figuring it out. She’s saying, “Yes, I like this, and no, I don’t like that” (perhaps not quite so eloquently). She doesn’t fret over asking for seconds. She doesn’t have any preconceived notions about food. It’s not until we start telling her what she must eat and what she can’t that those good/bad concepts begin to form. Until then, food is neutral, and she can eat it as such. That’s what I mean by “eat like a child.” Eat like it’s not going to make you a good or bad person.
(Photo: Rockie Nolan)
7. Intuitive Eating Means Eating Cheeseburgers All Day, Every Day
False again, but I add this one because at the beginning it might feel true.
When you’re first set free from dieting prison, you might get a little excited. Plus, your brain is used to that in-between-diets phase, and it knows the routine: Stock up on the good stuff now, because it’s only a matter of time before the cheeseburger’s off the table again. Whatever your forbidden fruit was — cheeseburgers, fries, pizza — you might go through an initial phase where you’re eating more of those things, and that’s normal. It’s scary, but normal. And, this I promise: It passes. Eventually, you realize the cheeseburgers aren’t going anywhere, and so you don’t have to hoard them. Your body gets the message: Oh, these are always available? Thank God, because I didn’t want to tell you this, but I’m getting pretty sick of them right now. Do we have any fish in the house?
(Photo: Lauren Perlstein)
8. Let’s Make Everyone Fat!
A lot of people conflate intuitive eating with the fat-acceptance movement. There is some overlap in that the both emphasize body acceptance, but these are two very different things. The fat-acceptance movement is about de-stigmatizing fatness in culture, fostering healthy plus-size body image, and fighting the very real discriminatory practices that are used against fat people.
I think most people involved with intuitive eating would support those efforts, but ultimately, it’s about your relationship to food. Body image plays a crucial role in that, but it’s not the whole ball game. And, even if you’re not doing intuitive eating, body image is its own big, long ball game.
By Kelsey Miller