When I was 15, I became preoccupied with the fear of getting fat. I became obsessed with counting fat grams and knew the fat content in almost every food imaginable.  I strictly monitored my activity level and remember driving home from cross country practice one day worried I’d run only six miles.  On Sundays when I didn’t run, I’d do jumping jacks in my room.  My sisters and I would normally bicker about who had to run downstairs to print the family calendar for family planning meetings, but I began running to get it, knowing it would burn a few extra calories.  I lost weight, weighing in at only 105 lbs. at 5’6″, which is too thin for my frame.  Almost every waking thought was devoted to food intake or burning calories.  Even though I didn’t have a full-blown eating disorder, mentally I was pretty close.

Lucky for me, my parents had a book in the house titled, Lean and Free 2000 Plus by Dana Thornock.  In the book, Dana shares her experience battling her weight as a teenager and young adult,  dieting frequently but still growing to a size 18-20.  Exasperated with her weight, she began a focused study of nutrition and learned that our bodies don’t know the difference between dieting and famine, so when we restrict our caloric intake, our metabolisms are wired to slow down and retain what we eat rather than burning it off.  Dana increased her calories to 2000+ a day, implemented wise nutritional principles, and incorporated aerobics and weight training a few times a week.  As a result, she slimmed down to a size 4 pant/skirt, size 6 dress.

As a teenager, I was so intrigued with Dana’s story.  I made sure to eat regularly for fear that if I didn’t eat, I would get fat.  Reading that book helped me avoid a serious eating disorder.

For the next 15 years, I always espoused that diets were bad, but I still engaged in “diet-like” behaviors.  Before eating a cookie or brownie, I’d evaluate my recent food intake and activity level to determine if dessert was okay.  When I was worried about my weight, I would add up my caloric intake to determine if I could eat an extra snack.  I thought certain foods were “good” and others were “bad”.  I thought letting myself go a little hungry and finding strategies to eat less would keep me thin.  At times I weighed myself obsessively, sometimes multiple times a day.  My well-being was largely influenced by the reading on that scale.  The scale wielded so much power.

About five years ago, I read Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.  The book completely changed the way I approach food and the process of eating. Intuitive eating taught me to listen to my body and trust my hunger.

The goal of intuitive eating is to make peace with food and honor our bodies signals. Weight loss is not the primary goal, but the authors cite that weight loss usually follows if you’re sitting above your body’s natural healthy weight which they target as around what a person weighed in high school.

One of the main premises of the book is that dieting fundamentally fails and is often a predictor of weight gain.  In the authors’ separate clinical practices as dietitians,  doctors would routinely send them clients who needed help losing weight.  Evelyn and Elyse would teach their clients sound nutritional principles, put together an eating program that included elements of choice and flexibility, and their clients initially lost weight.  However, several months or years later, the clients often returned, ashamed they’d gained the weight back and needing help to lose the weight again, blaming themselves for not being disciplined and sticking to the program.  However, after noticing this same pattern emerge again and again, the authors separately concluded that what they were teaching their clients fundamentally did not work.  Even though they didn’t view their nutrition programs as diets, essentially they were.

Diets fail at helping people lose and keep weight off 90-95% of the time and often instill depression, anxiety, and an obsession with food.  UCLA researchers conducted a rigorous analysis of 31 long-term weight loss studies and determined that “dieting is actually a consistent predictor of future weight gain.”

Another main premise of the book is that our bodies know exactly how much and the types of food we need to thrive.  I absolutely agree with this.  How can any diet plan know which types of food your body needs right now?  How can it exactly calculate how much food you need based on your height, weight, gender, eating history, natural metabolism, and your activity level for that day?  Even if you exercise for 30-60 minutes a day, a diet doesn’t know if the rest of the day you sat at your desk, or if you were cleaning, gardening, building a deck, or pushing a cart full of toddlers all over a grocery store.  But your body knows exactly your daily activity level and will tell you what foods and amounts you need if you listen.  Additionally, if a eat less than you need by following a diet or program, your body will ultimately learn to live on less, slowing your metabolism and triggering cravings.  If it gives you permission to eat more than you need, negative consequences will follow.

Another reason to be wary of diets, food programs, and nutritional studies is that the prevailing nutritional “wisdom” of the day contradicts itself ALL THE TIME.

  • Remember the 90’s?  Fat will make you fat, eat whole grains plentifully (and we promptly all started eating tons of processed carbs).
    • Now we’re learning that eliminating all that fat might have been making us sicker and fatter.  Check out the cover article for the June 23, 2014 issue of Time magazine, titled “Ending the War on Fat.”
  • Then came Atkins: Carbs are horrible for you, eat lots of fat and protein and you’ll lose weight.
  • Go Vegan!  Consuming animal products is bad for you.
  • Eat Paleo! We evolved to eat animal products and vegetables, but not grains.
  • Eat three servings of dairy a day!  You need all that calcium for your bones.
    • Others contest that we didn’t evolve to consume dairy and it’s bad for us.
  • Eat lots of fiber! 
  • Don’t eat wheat!
  • Eat fruit, but only low-glycemic ones!
  • Eat vegetables, but not the starchy ones!
  • Eat based on your blood type.
  • And on, and on, and on…..

I trust that my body knows what I need better than any fleeting study or program.

Here’s an overview of key intuitive eating principles:

  • Eat every time you’re hungry.  Don’t let yourself go hungry.
  • Stop eating when you’re satisfied.
    • If you begin to feel full during a meal and there’s still food on your plate, tell yourself you can eat the rest anytime.  There’s no scarcity problem here.  Just eat the amount that makes you feel pleasantly satisfied.
  • Give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever your body is asking for.  Free yourself from deprivation.  Deprivation only makes us want something more.
    • If someone tells me I can’t eat chocolate, all I think about is chocolate.  If someone tells me I have to eat broccoli and blueberries, they lose their luster.
    • When you give yourself complete permission to eat anything you like, you can determine what you truly want to eat.  Food becomes just food instead of an inner battle of willpower.
  • Eat what you love.  If you don’t love it, don’t eat it.
    • If you eat what you love, you’ll feel satisfied quicker and eat less.
    • If you want a peach or a lovely fruit salad, eat the fruit.  If you want chips, eat the chips.  If you want a burrito for breakfast, by all means, eat a burrito.
  • All food is just food.  There are no good foods or bad foods.  There are no “shoulds” or shouldn’ts” as in, “I should eat a salad for lunch but I should not eat a brownie afterward.”
  • If you want to eat and you’re not hungry, ask yourself why.  Are you actually wanting to eat because you’re tired, bored, sad, anxious, or to relax?  Deal with your emotions directly rather than using food.
  • Become process-focused.
    • Don’t measure your food.
    • Don’t count calories.
    • Do not weigh yourself. (Once every month or two is fine.)
    • Don’t try on your skinny jeans to see if you’re losing or gaining weight.
    • All these outward measurements distract you from focusing on the process of listening to your body’s signals.
  • Accept your body’s blueprint. Each body looks different.  Just as we have unique shoe sizes, our bodies come in different shapes and sizes.  The authors suggest each person’s natural size and shape is similar to where they were in high school.
  • Don’t judge the way you’re eating, just observe.
    • I like how the authors’ pointed out that our bodies equalize caloric intake over the course of a few days.  Instead of judging that I’m eating a ton one day, I might trace it back to a long run I’d done a couple days before or a day when I didn’t eat quite enough.
  • Incorporate nutritional principles when you want two things equally.  If both a peach and peach pie sound equally good, go for the peach.  But if you really want the pie, please, eat the pie.
  • Most people who engage in intuitive eating for a while find that they naturally gravitate towards eating 90% healthy food, 10% play food.
    • That is absolutely true for me.  I eat a little treat most every day, but then I’m good.
    • I can hear the skeptic in you saying, “But if I gave myself complete permission to eat whatever I want, I would just eat chips, cookies, and ice cream all day.”  Maybe you would for a day or two, but I doubt that if you gave yourself complete permission to eat whatever you like, your body would continually crave junk food.  Intuitive eating is about learning how to eat to make yourself feel good.
  • Exercise gently, not to burn calories but to care for your body and feel good.
    • Again, this is another area where I struggled.  For years, I did summer training for high school cross country not so much to be faster come race-time, but because I was afraid of getting fat.  Even years later, I would drag myself out of bed in the morning to run after sleepless nights with babies for fear that if I didn’t run, I would gain weight.  Now, I get out of bed to run because it makes me feel good physically and psychologically, a much more peaceful way to approach my morning run.  If I’m sick, rather than making myself run to burn calories, I let myself rest and heal.

I know, this whole intuitive eating mentality can be really hard to accept.  It’s a total paradigm shift.  It can feel pretty scary initially. 

When I started intuitive eating, I realized I’d been a pseudo-dieter for years.  I openly professed that I didn’t diet and diets were bad, but I still harbored beliefs of what and how much I should eat, and I would try to employ strategies to help me eat less, thinking that would help me be thin.

I started incorporating intuitive eating principles after my third child was born.  I was running regularly but the weight was not coming off nearly fast enough.  I read Intuitive Eating and decided this is the way I want to live whether I lost the weight or not.  I didn’t want to live with the fear of gaining weight.  I didn’t want to weigh myself twice a day.  I didn’t want to deprive myself of treats and then gorge on birthday cake.  Even if I didn’t lose all the weight, that was okay, because this was the way I wanted to live.

  • I stopped weighing myself obsessively and weighed myself only every month of two.
  • If I wanted Oreos or chips at the grocery store, I would promptly throw them in my cart.  I didn’t want to ever feel deprived.
  • Before I ate something I asked myself, “Am I hungry? Is this what I really want?”   Sometimes when I wanted to eat, I realized I actually needed a nap instead. Often when I thought I wanted a cookie, I actually wanted a peach, apple, or orange.  But if I wanted the cookie, I ate the cookie.
  • I naturally gravitated towards eating more fat. I ate more chips and savored them.  Seriously, I would close my eyes.  I started eating avocados and nuts guilt-free.  I started drinking 2% milk.  Fat kept me feel longer and kept my blood sugar stable.
  • I ate fewer carbs. Eating pasta and muffins made me feel icky – I started noticing the way it jacked up my blood sugar.  Eating crackers did not satisfy me.
  • I started eating more produce because I loved the way it tasted and I loved the energy it gave me.
  • I began eating more in the first half of the day and less in the last half, which makes sense because I usually run in the morning.
  • I started easily passing by the cookie table after a preschool graduation or piano recital because I realized I didn’t actually like store-bought cookies very much.  I would way rather eat some of my favorite ice cream at home.
  • I stopped baking as often.  I realized I often baked because I was hungry and when I’m hungry, baked goods sound amazing.  When I was constantly keeping up with my body’s caloric needs and never felt deprived, my cravings went way down.
  • I almost never felt gross because I’d eaten too much or eaten the wrong thing.
  • I felt more peaceful.  I felt more present.
  • I lost all the baby weight plus a little more.

Even years later, I’m not perfect at this intuitive eating thing.  Sometimes I still wrestle with those food and scale demons, those “shoulds” and “should nots”.  When I’m hungry but worried I’m eating too much, I try not to judge my hunger and eat anyway.  I remind myself to trust my hunger and it hasn’t led me astray.

In the end, intuitive eating has changed me in more than just the way I eat.  It’s taught me to find peace in completing a process as well as I can and then letting go of worry about results.  Eating for pleasure has helped me take a moment to find pleasure in the beautiful things all around me – the feeling of sun on my skin, seeing a tree in bloom, the music of a favorite melody, the taste of fresh raspberries.  Honoring the signals that my body sends has given me freedom to honor signals that come from within the rest of me; to take time to think about what I want to do, rather than always thinking of what I “should” do.  I experience vacations more intuitively, allowing myself to see what I want, rest when I want, and eat what I want, rather than sticking to an itinerary of things I must see and do while I’m there. Now I run more intuitively, cutting a workout short when needed and extending a run when I feel great rather than sticking to the schedule.  I’ve learned before taking an action to consider how it will make me feel when it’s complete. Ultimately, intuitive eating has taught me to live a little more intuitively – to focus on the process, to be more present, to enjoy the moment.

Give intuitive eating and intuitive living a try.  I hope it enriches your life like it did mine.