A few months ago, I started listening to a new podcast called Food Psych, hosted by Christy Harrison, a certified Intuitive Eating Counselor as well as a Registered Dietician Nutritionist. I had heard of intuitive eating before (although it hadn't been called that) through Geneen Roth's books, but I had never actually tried to put it into practice.
I am nothing if not a victim of diet culture; I have been thinking about diets, and shaming myself for eating, for as long as I can remember. I still remember the vivid horror I felt, at 9 years old, that my thighs were bigger than my best friend's and how I needed to fix it immediately.
For years, I've known that my eating behavior was not normal or healthy. I fixated on food at all times: worrying about it, wanting it, dreading it. I never really knew when I was hungry; I ate when I was expected to, then I ate out of stress, boredom, or feeling nothing. I read an article recently called Hunger Makes Me (that I highly, highly recommend) and I never identified more with a passage of writing than this one:
I will rely on any other cue—the ease or difficulty of procuring food, the time of day, what other people are doing, the timing of my work and gym and social plans—before I’ll remember to look inward. Imagine being told that your biggest secret—your weirdest sexual fantasy, your most embarrassing faceplant, your favorite Nickelback song—was supposed to dictate your behavior, publicly, as many as three times a day.
When I started listening to Food Psych, something clicked inside of me.
All these things we view as healthy--going low carb or no carb, posting on fitness Instagrams, taking diet advice from uneducated strangers on the internet, signing up for Weight Watchers--are killing us. Diets, I've since learned, only increase your chances of gaining weight. A study of diabetes patients found that the group that was instructed to diet actually ended up in worse health than the control group that maintained an "overweight" status.
Here's the thing: weight doesn't determine your health. You're just as likely to get diabetes if you're fit and healthy as if you're overweight. If your reaction to reading that sentence is "No, I've learned diabetes is a fat person disease!", then congratulations, you got played by the diet industry. We are seeing just as high of numbers of diabetes diagnoses in fit, healthy people as overweight people, leading us to believe that diabetes is more genetic than we have previously believed.
That's just one example. There are many.
Beyond that, diet culture confuses us about what we feel: we eat what we've planned, when we're supposed to, versus eating what our body craves when it is actually hungry. When you get rid of "taboo foods," when you allow yourself to eat a cookie when you're hungry and want a cookie, but also allow yourself to eat a salad when you're hungry and your body craves a salad, then you are letting your body lead you. The arbitrary lines of "good" and "bad" foods cause us to obsess over them.
This is all damaging behavior. I know it is, because I'm living it and it's damaging me, mentally and physically.
I started reading a book called The Intuitive Eating Workbook (I'm still working through it, but will review it soon) that walks the reader through the 10 principles of intuitive eating. It's hard work and I won't pretend I'm perfect at it already. It's hard to get rid of everything I've ever known in terms of "healthy" food and "healthy" bodies. But opening myself up to body positivity and health at every size, I can only see my mental health improving.
The hardest part of practicing intuitive eating is telling others around you to stop talking about their diets, to stop talking about dieting around you in general. I find (and really, have always found) that diet talk triggers my anxiety eating, but after starting to practice intuitive eating, it's even worse. The moment someone starts talking about never eating cookies again, or giving up cake or bread for life, I start to doubt what I'm doing. I start to wonder if maybe intuitive eating is wrong and all these diets are right. Certainly, all those fitness Instagrams seem happy...
The truth is though that I can't imagine a life where I permanently give up a bad food. I would never be happy never eating cake with my son or baking cookies with him just to eat the dough. That's just not a life worth living, nor is it sustainable--because eventually you'll be confronted by your "off limits" food. It's not a matter of having self-control. It's a matter of listening to your body and allowing yourself to eat.
But I still struggle with telling others that I cannot listen to diet talk. I still struggle with confronting the beliefs other people still hold about diet culture (and who believe I should be actively dieting). I still struggle with health anxiety that I'm giving myself diabetes or going to die early for no reason.
It all takes work. But I can tell you: intuitive eating, truly, changed my life.