It only took 27 years, but now I’m a bona fide intuitive eater

Image description: Colour photo of three small chocolate bowls, each filled with fresh strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, on white plates with blue and gold around the edges.
Image description: Colour photo of three small chocolate bowls, each filled with fresh strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, on white plates with blue and gold around the edges.

It sort of snuck up on me. I’ve known about “intuitive eating” for over 25 years. When I was a graduate student in Cambridge, MA, I used to browse the shelves at Wordsworth Books looking for something, anything, that might help me lose my obsession with food and weight and dieting. Like many of us, I tried diets, thinking that if I could just lose the weight I’d stop obsessing. That didn’t work. Even when I lost the weight I didn’t stop obsessing. A lot of the time I didn’t lose the weight anyway. And the attempts to lose it just increased my obsession with food.

At some point in the very early nineties, I stumbled upon a new approach — intuitive eating.  The idea behind it is simple: eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’ve had enough. Eat what you want to eat. There are no “good” foods or “bad” foods. For a chronic dieter who constantly moralized foods as good and bad, who weighed and measured portions and always felt deprived, who thought all day about what to eat and when, whose too-small meals were over too soon because there was so little on the plate, intuitive eating sounded like the key to freedom.

I hardly even cared anymore whether I would lose weight (well, okay, I cared a little). I just wanted to be okay with food and okay with my body.  It was a little bit terrifying to think what would happen if I released the restrictions and changed my way of thinking. But it was more terrifying to anticipate living like I was forever. That was around 1990. Fast forward to our “Fittest by 50 Challenge” that got the blog started back in 2012.  By January of the challenge, after a brief encounter with “sports nutrition,” I reconnected with intuitive eating.

The basic approach is championed by a host of authors such as Geneen Roth (Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating), Carol H. Munter and Jane R. Hirschmann (Overcoming Overeating), and Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (Intuitive Eating). The idea is that you can release yourself from food and weight obsession by releasing yourself from the restrictive approach mandated by “the diet mentality.”

In Intuitive Eating, Tribole and Resch outline ten principles. They have a comprehensive website where you can find these principles and become a part of a larger community who subscribes to this way of eating. The ten principles are:

  1. reject the diet mentality
  2. honor your hunger
  3. make peace with food
  4. challenge the food police
  5. feel your fullness
  6. discover the satisfaction factor
  7. cope with your emotions without using food
  8. respect your body
  9. exercise: feel the difference
  10. honor your health with gentle nutrition

I remember reading their description of what it was like to live like a seasoned intuitive eater. They said you stopped thinking about food all the time. You wouldn’t care any longer about the number on the bathroom scale. All foods would be permissible and you would reach for what you really wanted at the time. They said that though you might think that would mean that for the rest of your life you’d eat chocolate chip cookies all the time and never want a celery stick, that would turn out not to be true. Sometimes you might be offered cake and not feel like it. Other times you might order a veggie burger and fries and not eat all the fries. Not eat all the fries? Yeah right!

When I read that for the first time, even when I read it in 2012, I felt skeptical that I would ever get there. But through the past five years of blogging, I have devoted myself to living by the principles of intuitive eating. I do reject the diet mentality — there is nothing anyone could ever do to convince me to go another weight loss diet ever again. I honor my hunger by eating when I’m hungry. This was a foreign concept to me when I first started intuitive eating. I was so used to eating by the clock — if it’s noon it must be lunch time — that I didn’t even know what hunger actually felt like.

I do not agonize about food anymore, nor do I accept what the food police tell me. Eating chocolate instead of strawberries doesn’t mean I’m “bad.” Eating salad instead of fries doesn’t make me “good.” That is why I wrote the post “Why Food Is Beyond Good and Evil.”

If there was one thing I wanted to do was to stop eating to the point of discomfort. But when you’re deprived most of the time, it’s all or nothing. Either I’m “virtuously” eating steamed vegetables with brown rice and cubed tofu, or going to town on too many pieces of deep dish pizza. By “too many pieces” I mean more pieces than I need to feel satisfied.

But over time I’ve learned how to listen to my body and can tell, for the most part, when it’s time to stop. I eat foods that I enjoy, so it’s easier to feel satisfied.  I don’t need food to soothe me anymore. This is not to say I never reach for chocolate when I’m in a funk. If I do, I do it with awareness not out of compulsion. I can and do have chocolate in my pantry all the time. One bar can sit there for months. This was not a thing that used to happen.

Our fitness challenge helped me learn to respect my body. Wow — I did two Olympic distance triathlons just before I turned fifty! And I’ve since run a marathon and several half marathons. And my body is pretty awesome. And it deserves good treatment. So there.

I also subscribe to the final two principles: I exercise and I honor my health.

The other day a friend said that I am a very “disciplined” eater. I challenged that assessment, asking what he meant. He said, “well, I’ve seen you eat potato chips and you just eat a few then put the bag away.” It’s true. I do that. But not out of discipline. That was the old way, the “diet mentality” way. I now do it because that’s what I feel like doing. I want a few chips. So I eat a few chips.

Now I realize intuitive eating has its detractors. Sam doesn’t believe in it at all because, she says, her thyroid meds mean she’s never hungry. If she only ate when she was hungry she wouldn’t eat.

Catherine is also skeptical. One of her reasons is that environmental factors are also important.

That’s fine. Me? I’m a huge fan. And though it may not be the cure-all that works for everyone, it has taken me from being a food-obsessed chronic dieter with a history of disordered eating, to a confident eater who enjoys food but is neither intimidated by it nor indifferent to it. I enjoy it and am fortunate enough to be in a position to acquire and to eat a range of delicious foods. That is an incredible achievement for me. It’s only within the past week or so that I realize that I actually live by the ten principles of intuitive eating pretty much all the time now. Coupled with that, I have maintained my weight within a 5 pound range effortlessly since 2013. It’s definitely a manner of eating that I embrace and feel fortunate to have learned.

Have you had any experience with intuitive eating? If so, we’d love to hear about it.


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