There's a reason intuitive eating is trending right now: it may be an even more effective way to lose weight, boost body image and learn to stop judging foods as good or bad. Food is food. It's OK to love it all.

Lynne Curry
February 05, 2020
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Illustration by Lauréne Boglio

It's fair to say it was Whole30 that broke me. But it could have been intermittent fasting, South Beach, the Zone, clean eating or any of the many diets I've tried—from Weight Watchers during high school to five-day detoxes in my 40s. Year in and year out, I followed all their rules without questioning why I was always on a new wellness plan to shed the same damn 15 pounds.

In the spring of 2018, on my third round of Whole30, I hit a wall on day six. Suddenly, banning chickpeas and brown rice seemed ludicrous to me. I adore them—along with bread and pasta, preferably with wine (also verboten). And I worried what messages my two adolescent daughters were absorbing as I spooned Bolognese sauce over a baked sweet potato while they ate it on spaghetti. None of it made sense anymore.

If diets aren't the answer, what is?

Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., gets this a lot. As the founder of Street Smart Nutrition in Kansas City, she works to help jaded dieters find a better approach to eating. "Diets rarely deliver the results you want them to, and there's a growing backlash," she told me. So many people, like me, have recognized that dieting only succeeds in making us feel like failures. They're rejecting those rigid plans and embracing a radically different type of un-diet: intuitive eating—sometimes referred to as mindful eating (although there are differences). Surveys show that interest in intuitive eating has more than doubled in the past five years and continues to rise. During that same time frame there's also been a steady decline in the number of Americans who care about dieting, from 67% to 49%.

Despite its trending status, intuitive eating is not some newfangled idea. Two California nutritionists, Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D.N., and Elyse Resch, M.S., R.D.N., developed the concept 25 years ago—back when Atkins was all the rage. But their method has clearly struck a cultural chord. How it works: Rather than offering meal plans or lists of foods to eat and avoid, it rests on 10 principles that encourage you to ditch the diet mentality, make peace with food, trust your hunger cues and allow yourself to enjoy what you crave—no guilt allowed. Food is not to be feared or labeled as good or bad, and you are not good or bad because of what you choose to put in your mouth. Instead, the idea is to follow your innate ability to self-regulate food intake—the one most of us are born with, yet tend to ignore or override at some point in our lives.

Proponents of intuitive eating will tell you that weight loss is not the goal. But for many people, it's a happy side benefit. A study published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders, for example, found that intuitive eaters consumed fewer calories of a pasta meal they were provided and had lower BMIs compared to dieters. Research has discovered other advantages as well, including better body image, fewer food cravings, less weight yo-yoing and a greater ability to maintain a healthy weight over time.

I first read about this no-diet way of life after my Whole30 debacle. I was primed to jump off the merry-go-round of dieting, restricting and poor self-image. One day on the beach, I watched a woman in her 40s walk by, rocking an emerald bikini. I wondered: What would it be like to feel that comfortable in your own skin, regardless of what you actually look like? At that moment I realized that intuitive eating made more sense than any 30-day wellness plan. But I worried how it would work in real life. It felt like the nutritional equivalent of BASE jumping. Would I free-fall straight into obesity? I was scared. Food—or at least certain foods—was something I'd learned to fear. How would I know what, how and when to eat if there were no rules, no safety net?

"It doesn't have to be super-complicated. It just takes a lot of mindfulness," Lara Pence, Psy.D., assured me. She's a clinical psychologist who specializes in food and body acceptance issues. In her view, permission to eat simply replaces restrictions with options. (Although she noted that intuitive eating doesn't always work for everyone, like athletes or those with certain medical conditions.) Pence suggested I ask myself, "What am I looking for right now? What do I truly want?" An intuitive eater includes foods that feel the most satisfying and shifts away from those that don't. Of course, this permission could also be used as an excuse to down a dozen doughnuts or to eat to cover up your emotions, she said, so honest self-reflection is essential.

I've got this, I thought during those early days. I am a kale, avocado and wild salmon lover, and I felt confident making nutritious choices for myself. Before reaching for food, I took stock of my hunger level. And, like deciding what outfit to put on, I considered: would yogurt and fruit feel good right now or do I need a cheese omelet?

But it's a lot to unlearn and relearn after years of self-denial. And I soon found myself falling back into sneaky dieting habits. Although I wasn't counting calories or macros, I became a "careful eater." Subconsciously, I was trapped in the clean-eating mindset, restricting myself to only whole, organic and unprocessed foods. To be clear: whole, organic and unprocessed foods are amazing. The problem is the restricting part.

How to de-stress your diet

"Setting something up as 'clean' paints the alternative as dirty or bad or wrong," explained Christy Harrison, M.P.H., R.D., author of Anti-Diet. And that's just another form of the food police. To embrace this way of life, I had to soften my black-and-white thinking. There's room for salmon, kale and corn chips in a healthy diet. Have faith, Harrison said, because our worst fear about intuitive eating—that we'll lose control, especially around "forbidden" foods—is unfounded. It's actually dieting that causes people to have trouble with overindulging. A study published in the journal Eating Behaviors found that restrictive eating led to food obsessions, overeating and bingeing on "bad" foods. (It's a psychological fact that when people slip on a strict diet, they often feel like they might as well go out with a bang.) Intuitive eating, however, had the opposite effect on all of these factors. While I'll never look at Fritos the same way as a piece of fruit, I stopped demonizing foods. And I found that when I allowed myself to have peanut M&M's, I would have a few—not the whole bag—and move on to other things. I felt a giant sense of success and relief at no longer being captive to my own cravings. It was more addictive—in the best way—than chocolate (learn more about why you should honor your food cravings).

From then on, eating became less preoccupying and stressful. And I was less hyperconscious about my choices, whether at home or dining out. I focused on nourishing myself and I abandoned old habits, like skipping lunch and later feeling so lightheaded and famished that I'd scarf cheese and crackers. I slowed down during meals, even on busy workdays, and as a result, I felt more satisfied afterward.

When the holidays came, "cheating" was no longer a thing in my life. I sampled the sugar cookies I baked with my daughters, sipped cocktails with my husband and rang in New Year's Day with a sourdough waffle. Did I worry that I would gain weight? Sure, but I let those thoughts drift by. I didn't let them snowball into anxiety that if I had a slice of pie with whipped cream, I wouldn't be able to stop. Just the opposite happened: I usually wanted just a bite of dessert, if I wanted any at all. Even when I did indulge in all the festivities, it didn't mean that I'd fallen off the deep end with no way back. And I applied the gold-standard intuitive-eating advice—if you don't love it, don't eat it, and if you love it, savor it—to social situations, from dinner with friends to a family trip to Spain in the spring. Ham, bread and wine were staples during that month of travel, but as wonderful as they were, I found myself yearning for a salad too.

Even the way I meal-planned for my family changed. Before intuitive eating, I consciously excluded any weeknight dinners containing carbs or I substituted "approved" foods for myself. Now it was more enjoyable, since my chief concern was making simple, balanced meals—even when a time crunch meant quesadillas for everyone. I ate the Bolognese as it was meant to be: with the pasta. I might want just a small bowl of it; I might be hungry enough for seconds.

The tricky thing with talking about intuitive eating is that most of what changes is internal. "The actions that we take may look strikingly similar to when we were dieting," Harbstreet told me. "The primary difference is just the mindset and the motivation behind those behaviors."

Illustration by Lauréne Boglio

A more zen mindset

This mindset shift went not only for food choices, but also for body image. One of the tenets of intuitive eating is to accept your genetics with the same detachment as your shoe size. I won't pretend it was easy to abandon the idea that my health and self-worth were directly tied to the three digits on the scale. But at the gym, I stopped choosing the fat-burning setting on the StairMaster, and I moved my goals away from losing weight and toward training for activities I love—trail running, hiking and backcountry skiing. Gradually, my self-talk changed too. I purposefully banished negative thoughts about my arm fat or the width of my hips and instead focused on how good it felt to be strong and fit. "You truly may never reach a point where you can say, 'I love my body and accept it wholeheartedly.' And that's fine," Harbstreet said. "But you can appreciate what your body does for you and provide it with what it needs."

As imperfect and uneven as this journey has been, it's made such a difference in my life. One year later, I feel better in my body than I have since I was mountain climbing every weekend in my 20s, and I have lost 15 pounds, although I wouldn't attribute it solely to intuitive eating. The most significant change, though, is that I don't waste mental energy agonizing over food or my body size anymore. Do I still stress-eat potato chips sometimes? Yes. But I don't guilt myself or promise to "make up for it."

All I know is that the un-dieting lifestyle is so much richer than I could have imagined—and I'm not just talking about the brownies and wine. On vacation this past summer, I rocked my tankini simply because I feel more comfortable in my own skin and treat myself with kindness on most days. After the beach, when my daughters asked to stop at the ice cream stand, I paused to decide if I wanted a scoop or not. Either way, we'd sit together under the summer sun with damp hair and sandy feet. I watched them happily spoon ice cream into their mouths and we savored the experience of it all. That's what I call real food freedom.

Lynne Curry is an Oregon-based food writer and author of a grass-fed beef cookbook, Pure Beef.

This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine January/February 2020.