Intuitive Eating Basics // Principle 1 - Reject the Diet Mentality

In an effort to put together some content before baby girl arrives I thought it would be a good idea to cover the basics of intuitive eating over here on the blog and my social media pages. For those of you who have been following me for a while, you’ll know that this philosophy underpins a lot of the content that I share, and consequently has been something I’ve received many questions about from many people over the past few months. Before we get started with today’s post, let’s quickly do a quick recap.

WHAT IS INTUITIVE EATING?

Intuitive Eating (IE) is a nutrition philosophy based on the foundational understanding that becoming more attuned to hunger and fullness cues and developing a ‘normal’ relationship with food is a more effective way to reach a weight that is healthy for your unique body, rather than cutting out food groups, restricting food intake, or any other form of dieting. This approach to eating fights against the fat phobia and weight stigma so present in our society (bias, assumptions, attitudes and treatment based on someone’s size), as this stigma has been shown to result in negative health outcomes. IE was first described by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their 1995 book* by the same name. It is based on 10 key principles (here is a great graphic that includes each of them) that aim to help you break free from the cycle of dieting and allow you to develop a ‘normal’ relationship with food. It aims to help us get back in tune with our internal cues, move away from external cues like food rules and restrictions, and teaches us how to trust our body again. These carefully thought out principles are:

  1. Reject the diet mentality

  2. Honour your hunger

  3. Make peace with food

  4. Challenge the food police

  5. Respect your fullness

  6. Discover the satisfaction factor

  7. Honour your feelings without using food

  8. Respect your body

  9. Exercise - Feel the difference

  10. Honour your health

For a really great breakdown of what IE is (and what it isn’t), I would recommend taking some time to listen to the following podcast episodes:

 
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Ok, let’s dive into the first principle of IE :

REJECTING THE DIET MENTALITY 🙅🏽‍♀️

First things first, it is really important to recognise that IE is NOT a diet. It does not promise you weight loss, nor does it promise to lead you down a path that’ll leave you fitting into that pair of jeans you’ve set your mind on, hitting a specific number on the scale, or looking like society’s crazy idea of ‘perfect’. One of its most fundamental principles is to reject the diet mentality, and to learn to live a life free from its clutches. Rejecting the diet mentality requires you to throw out all of those things that offer you the false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. It challenges you to let go of that lingering hope that a new, better diet or ‘lifestyle program’ might be on the other side of the fence. We know that diets give us false hope and empty promises, and research has shown time and time again that they don't work in the long-run for most people. Dieting is associated with a number of negative physical and psychological consequences:

  • It messes up our relationship with food

  • It causes us to lose trust in our bodies

  • It makes us feel bad about the shape and size of the bodies that we have

  • It can result in disordered eating behaviours, low self-esteem and self-worth, and emotional distress

  • It is associated with increased weight gain in the longer-term, and in particular accumulation of more visceral adipose tissue

Common fears around rejecting diets

The idea of not being on a diet and not having rules around the foods that you can and can’t eat can be really scary. Ditching the diet mentality can be really tough, because it requires you to break-up with the chronic restriction, micro-managing, and fad diets that you’ve been holding onto for years, and forces you to address some of the societal pressures associated with body weight and size as you make room for a healthier relationship with food and body image. Here are just some of the common fears that may pop into your head as you choose to say goodbye to the dieting mindset for good:

  • If I stop dieting, I'll never stop eating bad foods - Dieting and restriction can often be a trigger for overeating. Underfueling your body and being very restrictive with certain foods will inevitably leave your body feeling deprived and in need of energy. When we place certain foods on a pedestal, they gain the 'forbidden fruit' appeal, and generally when we decide not to every eat them again they become the only thing we can think about. The great thing is that once you are able to re-learn how to tune into and trust your body again, once you are able to make peace with all foods, and once your body knows that that you will feed it adequately and not deprive it, more often than not the intense drive to eat those foods will decrease.

  • I won't know how to eat if I'm not on a diet that tells me how - The crazy thing is that dieting causes us to no longer be able to recognise and respond to the innate signals that should guide our eating. If we have become caught up in dieting and restrictive eating for a long period of time, it can feel a bit overwhelming not to have rules and a structure in place that tell us what we are and aren’t allowed to do. In their book*, Tribole & Resch compare diving into the world of IE to what it feels like when learning how to swim: 'The feeling of being surrounded by water can be terrifying to the novice swimmer…Similarly, being surrounded by food can be terrifying to the chronic dieter, who is learning how to eat again'. The reality is that you will only be able to learn once you choose to jump in the water and start to swim, and as you take the (very brave) leap of faith to stop relying on diets to guide your eating choices. It is only once you are able to do this that you will be able to learn how to once again trust your body's internal cues.

  • I will be completely out of control - Diets and rigid meal plans may give us a sense of structure and control, but in reality they teach us to distrust our internal signals and rather rely on external rules that tell us what, when, how much, and in what situations we are allowed to eat. This false sense of structure and control that they provide feels more like a prison than something allowing us the freedom and flexibility that we should be able to experience in everyday life. Rejecting the diet mentality allows us to learn to trust our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and tap into our hunger and fullness cues in a way that truly allows us to be empowered to make decisions about food and our bodies that are right for us.

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The diet cycle

The diet cycle, where we end up in a daily battle with our bodies, more often than not ends up producing the same outcomes. Does this sound familiar?

  1. A desire to be thin - It’s time to start a new diet / revamp your food and exercise regime, whether it’s because it’s a new year, you’ve got a big event coming up that you want to whip your body into shape for, you’ve bought into the whole ‘summer bodies are made in winter’ thing, or you’re actually just feeling unhappy and displeased with something else in your life and want to have control over something. You’ve got a new diet or ‘lifestyle’ set out, have read the book, done the grocery shopping, have meal prepped for the week, and are feeling pretty motivated and ready to do things perfectly.

  2. Restrictive diet - It’s day 1, and you follow all the rules to a T. You eliminate all of the foods on the ‘red’ / forbidden list, stack your plate with all the veggies, and make sure to get in those daily workouts.

  3. Diet mentality - You quickly slip into the diet mentality and become hyper-vigilant of your food choices. You’re likely to be macro-counting, reading food labels to stay below a certain calorie limit, or have loads of food rules that tell you what, when, and how much you are allowed to eat.

  4. Initial weight loss - You’re feeling pretty stoked that you’ve lost a bit of weight already, and only a few days into this new lifestyle. Chances are that most of the weight that you’ve lost will be water weight lost as your body uses up its glycogen stores to make up for your calorie deficit. You probably don’t realise this, and at this point are pretty encouraged by your incredible self-discipline and ability to achieve the desired results so quickly.

  5. Hunger & cravings - By now your restrictive diet and more intense exercise regime has resulted in you being in a calorie deficit, which means that you’re burning more energy than you’re consuming. As your body begins to break down protein from muscles and fat stores for energy, it realises that food is no longer freely available and that it needs to protect you from the threat of famine. Your appetite will likely change as neurotransmitters and hormones send signals to your brain telling you to find food and eat it. You might give in to the constant hunger and cravings, and be too fatigued to keep up the intense exercise regime. Or you might be able to ‘exert enough willpower’ to push through and keep following those rules to a T.

  6. Giving up - The thing is, even when you’re on a diet your body has specific calorie needs. When you don’t meet these needs and those hunger signals are ignored over time, your body will begin to make adjustments such as slowing down metabolism, becoming more efficient at extracting nutrients from food, and overall expelling less energy on a day-to-day basis. Needless to say, things might begin to fall apart when your weight loss begins to slow down and even plateau. You might have a hard day at work, have a fight with a friend, or just feel a bit low and end up jumping head first into that box of cookies or jar of peanut butter.

  7. Guilt, shame & anxiety - You then end up feeling awful about this. Your ‘binge’ (which in these cases is more often than not a subjective binge) leaves you feeling guilty, ashamed, and riddled with feelings of anxiety. You criticise yourself for a lack of self-control, probably feel like a failure, and think ‘how could I have let this happen again?’.

  8. Weight regain - For most people, reaching this point will result in regaining a bit or even more weight than was initially lost, and the cycle will probably begin again with the promise of the next best diet.

 
From Laura Thomas’ book,  Just Eat It* , adapted from Lucy Aphramor [1,2]

From Laura Thomas’ book, Just Eat It*, adapted from Lucy Aphramor [1,2]

 

how can you recognise a diet?

Something important to note here is that fully embracing this principle also requires you to reject even the diets disguised as ‘healthy eating plans’, ‘lifestyle changes’, ‘sustainable eating programmes’, or ‘clean eating’ that promise you the ‘perfect’ body. Emily Fonnesbeck shares a pretty comprehensive list in this blogpost of the things that make even a psuedo-diet a diet, which can help you identify the kinds of things that you should probably choose to step away from as you reject the diet mentality and work through the IE process. A diet is anything that:

  1. Is restrictive, and requires you to cut out foods / food groups / specific ingredients.

  2. Tells you exactly what, when, how much, and how often you are and aren’t allowed to eat.

  3. Promises you miraculous results. Things like ‘cures all inflammation’, ‘heals your gut’, or ‘speeds up weight loss’.

  4. Explains things in really complex terms and uses many personal or (n=1) anecdotes so that you feel like those selling it to you are super smart and have your best interests at heart, when in reality it is a whole lot of pseudoscience being wrapped up nicely in an effort to make money.

  5. Requires strict counting / numbers. This can include tracking macros, grams of food, calories, hours between meals (the list goes on).

  6. Impacts your social life and causes you to avoid social situations because this will result in you breaking food rules. Basically anything that requires you to plan your life around food, rather than just having food be a small part of your life will constitute as a diet.

  7. Causes emotional distress. Did you know that dieters report higher anxiety scores and more depressive symptoms than non-dieters? Dieting and being rigid around food can cause us to become far less resilient, adaptable and flexible to real life, which inevitably can cause a whole lot of emotional distress.

  8. Requires you to rely on external rules, rather than encouraging you to trust in your body’s innate abilities. Diets tell us that we have no power when it comes to food and that we can’t be trusted. They make us dependent on external rules, rather than allowing us to make independent and self-directed decisions around food and our bodies

  9. Encourages you to spend a whole lot of money on supplements, meal replacement concoctions, pills, powders, and other products.

  10. Is not sustainable in the long-run.  

Top Tips for rejecting the diet mentality:

1. Reflect

Reflect on the ways in which dieting and focusing on weight loss has served you over the years, and ask yourself some of these questions. If it helps you, write down your answers so that you can look back on them and reflect when the going gets tough and you’re tempted to jump back in to the diet mentality.

  • How has dieting served me over the years?

  • Where has it got me to at this point in my life?

  • What has it done to my body?

  • How has it made me feel - physically AND mentally?

  • Did dieting ever deliver what it promised, or did it leave me feeling like a failure with lack of willpower and ‘self discipline’?

  • How did it impact my social life and my ability to enjoy food?

  • What could I be doing with my time and energy instead of focusing so much on food and my body?

As you reflect on these things, you’re allowed to get angry at the lies that you’ve been sold by the dieting industry and wellness gurus who have all promised quick and easy weight loss, and who have told you that you need to be a certain size or number on the scale to be valuable, worthy, beautiful, and capable of doing amazing things. Remember that diets are set up for failure, and that research has shown time and time again that the act of dieting / weight cycling increases your risk of gaining weight because it messes with your body’s metabolism and set point.

2. Refresh

Hit the refresh button and choose to ditch your dieting tools. Seriously - get rid of your scale, take off that Fitbit, and delete your calorie counting apps. Reject the idea that there are any good diets out there, and throw out all of those books and magazines that promote diets and easy, quick weight loss solutions. Unfollow social media accounts that promote messages riddled with restriction and shame when it comes to food and your body. Replace them with a whole lot of self-compassion, and allow yourself to become curious as you explore the other IE principles. It ain’t easy, but this is a really important step to take as you start to tune into your body again.

3. Renew

Renew your mind as you take time to learn more about why diets suck and the negative impact of weight cycling. Dig into the amazing free resources that are available out there to help you to learn more about IE (from actual IE experts, not just those who have read an Insta post or two and think that they know what they’re talking about). Choose to listen to the stories of those living in bodies that look different from your own.

 
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To end things off

I just want to add in a quick note here at the end of this post to encourage you to show yourself a whole lot of self-compassion and grace as you work through this process. Rejecting the diet mentality can be really hard, especially after what is likely to be >20 years of being programmed to think in a certain way. Be kind to yourself. Do what you can to fill your life with things that will help inform, educate, and encourage you as you work through this principle of IE. As you work through this ongoing process of recognising and breaking down the diet culture messages around you, celebrate your victories.You’ve got this!


References

[1] Thomas L. Just Eat It. Bluebird; 2019. 416 pp. Available from: https://amzn.to/2EZM30Q *

[2] Aphramor LA. Stages of Change Perspective to Diet, Non-Diet and Health Gain Approaches for Weight Concerns. Health Digest [Internet]. 2017 May [cited 2019 Mar]. Available from: https://lucyaphramor.com/dietitian/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Issue-124-a-stages-of-change-perspective-to-diet-non-diet-and-health-gain-approaches-for-weight-concern.pdf

[3] Rumsey A. Why You Shouldn’t Go On A Diet This Year. 2018 Jan 8 [cited 2019 Mar]. Available from: https://alissarumsey.com/nutrition/why-not-to-go-on-a-diet/

[4] Rumsey A. What Is Intuitive Eating? 2018 Aug 24 [cited 2019 Mar]. Available from: https://alissarumsey.com/intuitive-eating/what-is-intuitive-eating/

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