Why Intuitive Eating? Diets Don't Work.
Updated: Oct 7, 2022
This post in the first 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.
Food Wonderful turned *five* this month and I can’t begin to express how humbled I am to see how my lovely little nutrition practice has grown. When I launched back in 2017, I could not have imagined where I’d be today - full time in private practice, helping clients to heal their relationship with food, and providing meaningful nutrition counseling way beyond the generic handouts and rushed appointments that are the norm for most dietitians.
It's been a winding road to get to this point. And if I’m honest, the most unexpected turn was stumbling onto Intuitive Eating (like the actual book, by dietitians by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, not the hashtag on social media) shortly after launching Food Wonderful.
A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach
Before intuitive eating, I sold “weight management” and believed that my clients could lose weight through only-kind of-restrictive dietary changes. (This is super cringe-worthy now.) I’d previously invested years, years, learning about behavior change strategies and human metabolism, believing that the key to long term weight loss was out there somewhere. But no matter how much I learned, or how dedicated the client, my “sensible dieting” and “mindfulness” approach just didn’t seem to be working.
Then I read Intuitive Eating and just like that, everything clicked into place. All the challenges my clients had experienced trying to lose weight were right there, validated in print. “This is it,” I thought. “This is the key to long term, sustainable nutrition.” And for once, it was about prioritizing nourishment, satisfaction, and wellbeing above weight loss . . .
But 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 in this post might not feel useful to you right now – please take the information that serves you and leave the rest.
Eating more intuitively offers countless physical and mental health benefits. But the reality is, most of us (myself included) first come to intuitive eating when we begin to recognize that diets simply don’t work. So let’s explore the pitfalls of dieting first:
Diets Don’t Work! (for weight loss)
Just as I’d observed with my clients, diets simply were not working. Intuitive Eating confirmed what I’d begun to suspect. That clients might lose some weight, but not as much as they expected. That the more restrictive the diet, the less sustainable. And that even those clients who seemed to lose weight in the “healthiest” possible ways still gained it back, and usually more.
And as it turns out, there was more than just lived experience to back up the ineffectiveness of diets. Intuitive Eating opened my eyes to the decades of research demonstrating that diets slow metabolism, that dieting is an independent predictor of weight gain (people who diet the most, gain the most weight through their lifespan, regardless of their weight to begin with), and that, much like our height, our weight is genetically predetermined.
Diets Don’t Work! (for better body image)
Diet culture offers the never-ending false hope that weight loss is just what we need to transform our lives. Want to land that dream job? Meet your ideal partner? Make tons of money, be super cool, and live happily ever after? Diet culture promises all this (and more!) is just around the corner once we lose weight. The subtext being that once we feel more confident, all our problems will disappear, or at least become easier to manage.
The truth is that dieting is associated with worse body image. Dieting leads to an increased fixation on body size and perceived flaws. Many diet and fitness programs encourage participants to engage in self-objectifying or body checking behaviors like frequent weighing or “progress” photos. These types of behaviors result in decreased body acceptance, decreased body trust, and increased focus on physical appearance over physical and mental wellbeing. All of this leaves us feeling worse about ourselves (definitely not more confident!) and keeps us stuck in the diet cycle.
Diet Don’t Work! (for improved health)
Imagine your doctor offered you a medication to lower your blood sugars. This medication, he tells you, will work great for about three to six months. For the next year or so, it will keep working, but not as effectively. And after that, well, after that your blood sugars are probably going to be higher than they were to start with. Would you take this medication? No?
Friends. This medication is dieting.
There are loads of 12 weeks studies demonstrating that people can improve all sorts of health metrics through dieting. But what happens after six months? Or two years? Most studies don’t follow participants long term, but those that do consistently show that dieting and weight cycling (losing and gaining weight repeatedly) leads to higher blood pressure, poor glucose control, and increased cardiovascular risk. In fact, some studies suggest that all the negative health outcomes we associate with higher body weight can actually be explained by dieting and weight cycling.
So ok, have I talked you out of dieting yet? The unfortunate reality is, most of us rely on dieting or food rules to guide our eating. It can feel as if, without a diet, we’re clueless on how to feed ourselves. This is why the very first step towards intuitive eating is opening ourselves up to the possibility that there’s another way. That maybe diets aren’t working for us . . . and maybe they’re doing a lot of damage.
Take some time to let this all sink in. And check back for more on why intuitive eating does work in the next few weeks.