Intuitive Eating Principle One: Ditch the Diet Mentality
This post in the fifth 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.
“If dieting programs had to stand up to the same scrutiny as medication, they would never be allowed for public consumption.” - Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, The Intuitive Eating Workbook
Maybe you already have a sense that diets don't work. You’ve likely experienced for yourself how diets fail – leaving you food obsessed and more stressed about weight than you were pre-diet. But you may not realize that your experience is supported by scientific evidence. Diets don’t work! They don’t work for weight loss, and they don’t work for better health. In fact, if diets were a prescription medicine, they would never be approved by the FDA, because the evidence so strongly demonstrates their ineffectiveness. (For more on this, see: Why Intuitive Eating? Diets Don’t Work or: The Science of Diet Failure.)
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.
Perhaps you already know the evidence behind diet failure. Maybe your rational brain understands the flaws of dieting – the metabolic shifts, the hormonal disruptions, the changes in muscle and fat distribution. But knowing something in your head isn’t the same as fully believing it . . . fully feeling it.
So. many. people. find themselves somewhere between knowing and feeling. And unfortunately, getting stuck in the in-between can derail intuitive eating. You may know it’s ok, even good, to eat when you’re hungry, but still feel you shouldn’t be eating so much if you want to lose weight. Maybe you know that incorporating more satisfying meals can help reduce binges or binge-like eating. But you feel you need to restrict certain types of foods because they’ve been off limits on previous diets.
Ok now here’s a whole lotta nuance and grey area . . . .
You can pursue intuitive eating even if you haven’t fully ditched the diet mentality just yet, as long as you are actively working to unlearn diet culture.
It's totally normal and totally ok to want to lose weight or be tempted by diets. You can absolutely eat more intuitively while still feeling uncomfortable at your current weight. You can know diets don’t work but feel you should pursue weight loss. The thing is, getting too caught up in diet or weight loss thoughts will hold you back, and might even leave you feeling intuitive eating can’t work for you. If you’re still on the lookout for a new weight loss plan, or telling yourself you’ll try intuitive eating, but only for a few months, you’re setting yourself up to fail.
I gotta stress that I highly, highly recommend you check out Intuitive Eating and the companion workbook for help ditching the diet mentality. These texts offer lots of useful content, journaling prompts, and CBT based mindfulness tools, to help move you from knowing to fully feeling that diets don’t work. But if you aren’t ready for the books just yet, or you’re needing some additional tips, scroll on -
The Intuitive Eating Workbook
Consider how diets have failed you in the past
Many people experience relatively easeful weight loss with their first few diets. Sure, diets are never fun, but that first one way-back-when worked pretty well and it wasn’t even that restrictive . . . . That first diet was a trap! After that diet, your body began learning how to better protect you in case of famine. Have you noticed how every diet since feels a little harder to stick to, with slower weight loss, or no weight loss at all? Are you still holding onto the fantasy of those first diets? Hoping that if you can just find the *right* eating pattern, you’ll lose weight again like you did all those years ago?
It's useful to take some time to reflect on how diets are failing you. What have diets promised that they haven’t delivered on? What have been the consequences (physical, emotional, social, financial) of all those diets? What happens to your eating and your emotional state when you begin planning your next diet?
I recommend giving yourself lots of time to sit with these questions. Journal about the thoughts and feelings that come up. Talk through it with your therapist or dietitian. If you’ve spent your life on and off diets, it’s likely that you’ll start uncovering some difficult stuff. Be patient with yourself and know that whatever you’re feeling is totally valid.
Be kind (but firm) with the part of you that wants to lose weight or try another diet.
I repeat: It’s totally normal and totally ok if you still want to lose weight. We live in a culture that prioritizes thinness and weight loss over pretty much everything else. For people in bigger bodies, weight loss and dieting are likely intertwined with safety and dignity. It is disingenuous to pretend that thin people and fat people are treated equally in our current society, and acknowledging this reality is a part of healing.
How can you treat the part of you that wants to lose weight with kindness and compassion? How can you validate your desire to lose weight? Can you appreciate how this part of you has protected you in the past? This might sound like, “There’s a part of me that still really wants to lose weight. It makes sense that I want to lose weight because I’ve always been taught that thinness is morally good, healthy, and desirable. The part of me that wants to lose weight is just trying to protect me from being bullied or rejected because of my size.”
If you’re here, reading along, I promise there’s another part of you that’s fed up with dieting and truly wants to heal. After you’ve honored the part of you that wants to lose weight, it’s time for the ready-to-heal part of you to step in. In this case, the ready-to-heal part is the clear minded leader, committed to intuitive eating. This might sound like, “There’s a part of me that still really wants to lose weight AND I know that fixating on weight loss or going on another diet is only going to make things worse. I’m choosing to prioritize intuitive eating over weight loss.”
Focus on what feels good, what’s aligned with your values, and what enhances your life.
Imagine a garden of lovely flowers that, alas, is overgrown with weeds. Perhaps some of the weeds can easily be pulled up. But some are stubborn, with deep roots that intertwine with the flowers you’re hoping to foster. The flowers are the positive physical and emotional sensations you experience when you eat more intuitively. The weeds with the deep roots, those are the diet and weight loss thoughts that linger even when they’re no longer welcome.
This metaphor is borrowed from author and psychologist Emily Nagaski, Ph.D. who reminds us, “What you pay attention to grows” and encourages us to worry less about the weeds and nurture the flowers instead. The more you ruminate on diet and weight loss thoughts, the louder and more urgent they’ll become. But when you shift your focus back to the benefits of intuitive eating, the diet thoughts begin to fizzle and fade.
This is hard work. It’s human nature to get stuck in the scary and uncomfortable thoughts. So, when you notice these thoughts getting louder, could you pause and ask yourself, “Is this thought moving me towards my goals? Is it enhancing my life? Does this thought feel good?” If the answer is no, take a deep breath and shift your focus back to the positive. You’ll probably have to do this a lot a first, several times each day. But with time and patience, the flowers will overpower the weeds.
Don’t let yourself stagnate in the space between knowing diets don’t work and fully feeling you deserve a satisfying and nourishing relationship with food. If you’ve been working on ditching the diet mentality for a while but still find yourself stuck, please know that help is available. Reach out to a Health at Every Size aligned therapist or dietitian for the support you need.