Intuitive Eating: Diet Backlash and Eating Styles
This post in the third in a series on the topic of intuitive eating. Where Intuitive Eating is capitalized and italicized, it refers to the text Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Where intuitive eating is in plain text, it refers to a more generalized non-diet nutrition framework or style of eating.
I’m back this week to take you through a brief introduction of Intuitive Eating. This post is essentially a highlights reel of Chapters Two and Three of the fourth edition of the text written from my perspective as an intuitive eating practitioner. As always, I encourage you to read the book or workbook for additional context and support.
The Intuitive Eating Workbook
And before I go on, here’s my standard disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for individualized medical on mental health care. It does not constitute a patient-provider relationship. The content of this post might not feel useful to you right now – please take the information that serves you and leave the rest.
It can be difficult to describe intuitive eating to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with a non-diet approach. I typically say something like, “a nutrition framework that prioritizes hunger, fullness, and satisfaction” . . . but that leaves a lot of questions unanswered and a lot of room for misinterpretation. Intuitive Eating is a style of eating based on ten principles to interrupt the diet voice and bolster our innate, internal wisdom to guide eating. Intuitive eating is not a food free for all! It’s not f*ck it mentality or binge eating. And, while it’s flexible, it’s not unstructured.
Do you need intuitive eating? Is it worth giving it a try? I’d encourage you to start by reflecting on the ways dieting isn’t working for you. Diet-backlash is an almost inevitable compensatory biologic response to dieting – think about a pendulum swinging from diet to diet-backlash. Some symptoms of diet backlash include:
Last supper eating
Last supper eating seems pretty self-explanatory right? Like ordering a pizza the day before you start your new diet. But last supper eating might show up even when you don’t physically restrict your food. As people move through cycles of dieting, the restriction and backlash phases typically become more extreme and occur more frequently so that the diet cycle begins to look more like a spiral.
As diet thoughts start to overlap backlash behaviors, it’s common for people to engage in last supper eating every day or even at every meal. If you’re constantly telling yourself you’ll start dieting next week or “do better” tomorrow, you’re almost certainly doing some last supper eating
Feeling you don’t deserve to eat, that you must earn your food, or that everything you eat is wrong
Friends, you absolutely deserve to eat. In fact, you need to eat! But frequent dieting makes people question every food choice. It makes sense that, after years of different diets with different conflicting rules, you’d start to feel that everything you put in your mouth is undeserved or wrong. Notice if you have lots of “should/shouldn’t” thoughts around food or eating. Like, “I shouldn’t be hungry right now” or, “I should workout extra hard tomorrow to make up for this ice cream.”
Food shame has become such a diet culture norm that most of us don’t even realize how much it impacts us. But these constant intrusive food thoughts are absolutely exhausting and can lead to intense anxiety and body distrust over time.
I can’t express how alarmed I am by diet culture’s normalization of disordered eating. Food and exercise tracking (My Fitness Pal, Noom, WW), binging (“cheat meals” and intermittent fasting), cutting out entire food groups (Keto, Paleo, Whole 30) – these are all totally normal in diet culture despite being diagnosable eating disorder behaviors. Diets, at their core, are always about caloric restriction. Did you know that 1600 calories a day is considered semi-starvation level for adults? And yet most popular diet programs recommend far less than this. If all of the above seems . . . pretty normal to you, you’re almost certainly experiencing diet-backlash and likely disordered eating as well.
Many people who come to intuitive eating have already begun to recognize how diets have failed them. Maybe these diet-backlash symptoms feel relatable, but you aren’t currently dieting? Odds are your eating is still influenced by diet culture, past diet rules, and/or food anxiety or shame. Consider some common eating patterns that may not feel like dieting but conflict with intuitive eating:
The Clean Eater
The clean eater may seem chill around food, allowing themselves to eat foods they enjoy(ish) in quantities that feel satisfying. But the clean eater is beholden to strict food rules, with an ever-shrinking list of allowable foods. The clean eater is often influenced by arbitrary and shifting diet culture opinions on the types of food they should eat. And the clean eater engages in all or nothing thinking when labeling some foods as “good” (clean) and others as “bad”.
The Chronic Restrained Eater
A close relative of the clean eater, the chronic restrained eater may also abide by diet culture dictated food rules. But the hallmark of the chronic restrained eater is frequent, sometimes intense hunger. This eater restricts their intake, only allowing food when they are urgently hungry. They may also eat cautiously, taking in only enough to soothe their hunger but not enough to feel full.
The Evening Eater
A common pattern of eating, the evening eater spends their day restricted, distracted, or both, only to find themselves ravenously hungry in the evening. The evening eater may try to “be good” during the day, choosing meals that are insufficient or unsatisfying. (Another iteration of all or nothing thinking.) Or they may find themselves so busy or stressed that they don’t even notice they’re hungry. But once the evening eater is home for the night, they find themselves insatiable, often snacking before and after dinner, and going to bed feeling overly full and guilty.
The Chaotic Eater
The chaotic eater doesn’t have a plan. Mealtimes vary from day to day or meals are skipped all together. This eater may also resort to “snack-meals” – snack food items that are eaten in meal sized quantities. Some chaotic eaters need tools to establish more consistency in their eating. However, it’s worth noting that most chaotic eaters intend to restrict. They may avoid grocery shopping or packing a lunch in the hopes that they won’t be able to eat without having food on hand. This almost always backfires, resulting in urgent eating that can feel binge-like at times.
The F*ck It Eater
This eater has swung to the “nothing” end of all or nothing thinking. The f*ck it eater often chooses the foods they perceive as the worst option despite taste preferences or internal cues. In many cases, the f*ck it eater considers themselves off a diet, but knows the next diet is right around the corner. An important caveat here is that early in intuitive eating, it’s normal and appropriate to eat lots of foods that were previously restricted. It can be tough to differentiate between f*ck it eating and early intuitive eating – both styles may include lots of pizza and brownies. But the f*ck it eater will typically experience increasing levels of guilt and shame about their eating while the intuitive eater’s distress is reduced with time.
Are you experiencing diet backlash? Does your style of eating conflict with intuitive eating, even if you're not currently dieting?
It can be difficult to name why we need intuitive eating – diet culture doesn’t give us the language. But we all deserve an easeful, guilt-free, and satisfying relationship with food. And if this post is resonating with you, I encourage you to check back in a few weeks for more. Because maybe intuitive eating is just what you’ve been looking for.