How to Break Up with Diet Culture (and Still Feel Your Best)

Practicing intuitive eating could help you feel better than ever before.

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What if someone told you that you could walk away from dieting forever and feel better than you ever have? What if this person also told you there's a method that can help your unique body function optimally, without counting calories, worrying about workouts or shaming yourself for actually enjoying food? You'd do it in a heartbeat, right? There's just one catch: Your body size may change. You may find your body weight lower, or higher than it currently is. But if done with awareness, this method will also help you make peace with your body no matter what shape or size it takes. Are you still in?

What Is Intuitive Eating?

We're talking about intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is a method of approaching food and movement using a combination of your natural instincts, emotions and logical thoughts.

"I like to think of it as a self-care eating framework," says Evelyn Tribole over Zoom. Tribole created the movement in 1995 with fellow dietitian Elyse Resch; the two women first outlined the concept in their book, Intuitive Eating (buy it: $14 on Amazon).

The concept of intuitive eating is bracketed by 10 principles, which we'll cover a little bit later in this article. The science behind intuitive eating is real: When you listen to your hunger cues and act upon them, you're honoring your biological and psychological needs; this in turn signals satiety and satisfaction in your brain.

Intuitive eating is a lifelong practice. Unlike a diet, it's is not something you'll ever 'perfect'; there's no arrival point. At the heart of the method is the act of listening to your body and mind cues for what, when, and how much to eat… and then honoring those cravings and desires to the best of your ability in the moment.

Here are the 10 principles of intuitive eating, which Tribole and Resch explain at length in their book and website.

  1. Reject the diet mentality
  2. Honor your hunger
  3. Make peace with food
  4. Challenge the food police
  5. Discover the satisfaction factor
  6. Feel your fullness
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
  8. Respect your body
  9. Movement—feel the difference
  10. Honor your health—gentle nutrition

Read more about what each step can mean in real life eating and how you can apply them in your life.

How Diet Culture Is Different from Intuitive Eating

You definitely know what a diet is—maybe you've even been on one, or are on one right now. But have you heard of diet culture? Diet culture is a system of beliefs perpetuated by people, companies and organizations that profit off of consumer's dissatisfaction with their bodies. Diet culture promotes weight loss as the most important goal in your wellness journey, and it vilifies some foods while praising others (if you've ever seen an Instagram post promoting zucchini noodles over wheat pasta as a "healthier" choice, you've seen diet culture in action).

Because these businesses profit off of your body dissatisfaction, it's in their best interest to make you believe that you'll be happier, more successful and healthier once you lose weight… preferably by using their product or program. The kicker? Tribole says it succinctly: "Most diets fail."

If you've ever tried and "failed" at a diet, or quit one, it's not your fault. Our bodies are biologically designed to override calorie restriction, and it's even been shown that dieting can decrease your metabolism. So knowing that the dieting cards are stacked against you, why not try something that will actually feel good?

"You deserve to eat for pleasure; we're wired for this," explains Tribole. "Intuitive eating helps you to rediscover the joy in eating." She also points out that although diets force us to override those natural pleasure receptors, all in the name of a fantasy. This creates confusion in our own cravings, and causes many people to feel like they can't "trust" themselves around food.

Intuitive eating rejects dieting. It encourages us to use our innate wisdom and the 10 principles to make our own choices around food and movement. And it's important to note that any practice that prioritizes "weight loss" or "thinness" is not intuitive eating (despite the fact that some big diet and weight-loss companies are now co-opting the term in their marketing).

How to Quit Dieting and Start Eating Intuitively

How do you trade dieting for intuitive eating? First, be gentle with yourself. If you're a chronic dieter, or have struggled with your weight, know that how you feel is valid. We live in a society that vilifies fat. "Healthy" is seemingly synonymous with "thin," even though there's evidence that wellness is attainable at any weight.

It's natural and understandable to fear being shamed, judged or deemed unlovable. And at the heart of it, isn't that really why diets are so alluring? They offer the promise of desirability and success. It's normal to want those things, and to worry about not getting them. Unfortunately, the majority of diets are just a siren song. In fact, studies have proven that up to 80% fail.

You'll unlock the magic of intuitive eating by adopting the 10 principles into your life. And here's the really lovely part: You can't fail at intuitive eating. It's a lifelong commitment to gentle learning through permission, observation and awareness. Worried you'll go off the deep end and eat everything in sight? Give yourself permission, and see what happens. Sit with the sensations in your body and mind. Use that information to gently steer yourself in a direction that's right for you. Part of the process is to be aware of the emotions and feelings that arise after a meal or snack. Slowly integrate the 10 principles into your life and watch what happens.

Adopting a new way of being can seem overwhelming at first. Start small. Tribole has written a new book, Intuitive Eating for Every Day (preorder it: $17 on Amazon), which offers 365 very-doable tips and inspirations for implementing the practice, like committing to a week without your fitness tracker, allowing yourself to eat a "fear food" without judgment or asking yourself, "How do I want to feel when I finish this meal?" And you don't have to do all this on your own. Find a registered dietitian who focuses on intuitive eating at their practice and book an appointment. Most insurance covers at least three sessions with a dietitian, if not more.

Although intuitive eating looks different for everyone, it will help you place less emphasis and importance on your body size and rediscover the pleasure that food can bring. Why is intuitive eating worth the effort? Perhaps the most crucial benefit is the ability to place more importance on how you feel than how you look. Says Tribole, "Every diet you try is postponing your life. You deserve to flourish and thrive. You deserve to feel good."

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