I Tried Intuitive Eating for 2 Weeks—Here's What Happened
This holistic approach to eating has already improved my relationship to food.
I first learned about intuitive eating on social media, where I saw pictures of people eating junk food alongside captions explaining it was "intuitive eating." They were kidding, but it intrigued me, so I looked it up. The book on intuitive eating (called, aptly Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works) was published by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, two dietitians with a focus in nutritional therapy, in 1995. The cover of the book reads "Make peace with food, free yourself from chronic dieting forever, rediscover the pleasures of eating." Nothing gets my attention like the pleasures of eating so I ordered the book and dove in. Two weeks, I decided, would be enough to get my feet wet.
I sat down to start reading the book and immediately started to feel hungry. I had been craving macaroni and cheese for several days at this point, but had been resisting the craving because, in the midst of a recent move, I'd been eating a lot of junk food. The thesis of intuitive eating became clear quickly—if you try to deny yourself certain foods, you'll end up eating in the long term when your willpower eventually fails you, as it is evolutionarily disposed to do. Based on the book, I should just go ahead and eat the macaroni and cheese, so I did.
Though I'm not a dieter, I tend to feel like everything I eat at home should be vegetable heavy and low on carbs to balance out my indulgent eating at restaurants, where I like to try as much I can, always tasting what's on my companions' plates. According to the book, that makes me a mix of "The Careful Eater" who tends to be "vigilant about what foods they put into their body" and "The Refuse-Not Unconscious Eater" who is "vulnerable to the mere presence of food regardless if hungry or full."
When I sat down to eat (with no distractions, as the book recommends) it was…not that good. It felt true that by giving myself permission to eat it, rather than waiting for a late-night craving, I had removed some of the mystique around the food. I ate half the box and left the rest for my boyfriend to finish. It turns out this is normal—the authors say it's pretty common that people realize they don't even like certain things that they've been denying themselves for years.
By day four, I finished the book and was fully immersed in following its steps. The book itself is pretty involved. In addition to the ten principles, there are five stages to the process, which the authors say most people move through slowly.
Up until this point, I had been at home, cooking meals and walking a lot, since I live in a city. But I was nervous heading into a week of travel visiting a friend in New York, then spending several days in Asheville, North Carolina. I knew there were a lot of junk (what the book calls "play food") ahead of me—foods that are high in emotional satisfaction, but low in nutritional value. Working from home, it had been fairly easy to "honor my hunger" and "respect my fullness," but I was worried about applying the principles in an environment where I had less control and more temptation to overeat.
As I sat down to dinner at a Sri Lankan restaurant after a long day running around the city, I felt like my intuitive eating journey was in jeopardy. I'd been excited to eat there for a while, and I was also ravenous—a pitfall the book warns against. Getting too hungry leads to eating without regard for how you feel, based on evolutionary biology. We ordered generously and I began to eat quickly. By the end of the meal, I was uncomfortably full.
But as the regret began to build, I remembered another key lesson from the book, which was not to treat the guidelines as hard and fast rules. Breaking the habit of self-punishment around food is a really important step in learning to trust your body and trust food—both key steps in the path to becoming an intuitive eater. And so I moved on. I turned down a dessert that didn't appeal to me and forgot about the meal, rather than punishing myself the next day by skipping meals or walking extra, which I knew would only lead to another meal of non-intuitive eating.
On day eight, I woke up in a mountain house close to one of my favorite donut shops in the world. When I arrived at the shop, I was excited to eat, though I wasn't physically very hungry. This is what the authors call "taste hunger," or eating because an item is appealing or because of an occasion. They explain that this is part of an intuitive relationship with food and recommend embracing it.
In the past when I've visited this shop, I've tried to exercise restraint by just ordering one doughnut only to succumb later by getting a second, resulting in feeling ashamed. Instead of exercising restraint this time, I fully indulged my craving and ordered three doughnuts—one of each of my favorite flavors.
I felt, as the book told me I would: nervous about letting myself fully succumb to a craving for something so "unhealthy." But as I ate, another of the book's predictions came true. I enjoyed each bite more, knowing that I could have as much as I wanted, and I ended up giving about half of what I ordered to a friend. Later in the day, I found myself craving something lighter and gave into that craving, eating a hearty salad for dinner. I felt really free.
On day fourteen, I finally returned home from traveling and took stock. As I showered off the grime of the plane, I realized I didn't feel quite as sluggish and tired as I normally do upon return from a vacation. I was proud of my progress until I went to my closet and remembered that the limited clothes I actually enjoy wearing were still packed away and needed washing, and the rest of my clothes were worn and ill-fitting. Once again, I realized, I had fallen into a trap that the book warns against.
"Principle 8: Respect Your Body" highlights the importance of treating your body with integrity, which includes the need to dress it comfortably. Without realizing it, I had been waiting to replace too-small undergarments and worn-out jeans that had been making me uncomfortable, both physically and mentally. These garments had been making me feel bad about myself without even realizing it. They definitely had to go.
Should You Try Intuitive Eating?
Here's my disclaimer about all of this: I am lucky to be a naturally healthy woman with the money to buy plenty of food and a bodyweight that falls within the acceptable range for doctors and society. The book addresses including health-related dietary restrictions, but doesn't talk as much about the societal stigma for larger-bodied people, or about how to approach intuitive eating if you can't actually afford to eat what you want whenever you want it.
That said, the book continuously predicted how I would feel and how to avoid the pitfalls. I started out thinking that it might not be that helpful to me as someone who hasn't prescribed to tons of fad diets. Instead, their rules got to the heart of a lot of my food insecurities and gave me actionable steps to get through them.
Tribole and Resch put research and words to a lot of ideas I've held about eating for a long time—namely that it is just as important for food to be satisfying as it is for it to be nourishing. They offer a lot of reasons to get angry at all the noise about what our bodies "should" and "shouldn't" look like, and they offer specific steps on how to re-wire your thinking around food. They say that this process can take years, but in just two weeks I felt a significant shift toward trusting my body and coming to terms with how it looks. That, surely, is worth something.