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.


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

  1. I’ve never heard of it before, but it sounds great. I think perhaps I’m intuitively an Intuitive eater!? Life is too short to not love and respect our food and our bodies, plus we’re SO privileged here in the West…

    1. We are so privileged — you’ve got that right. You probably haven’t heard of it because it sounds as if this hasn’t been a struggle area for you. But for those who have “issues” with food, it’s a less familiar but possibly welcome approach that can relieve years of obsession and preoccupation, coupled with body hatred. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Could it be that intuitive eating becomes easy only after the forties? I never got the hang of it when I was younger but now (45), I am a natural intuitive eater.

    1. I wonder about that. Maybe. Lots of things become easier with age because we get more perspective. Thanks for your insight!

  3. For me #7 is the issue. I eat great all day long but the evening is when the emotional eating begins. I do get pleasure from eating and there is also situational eating (e.g. I could never possibly go to a movie and not get popcorn)! I’m not sure how to break #7.

    1. #7 is a tough one for lots of people. For me it started to resolve when I finally developed different ways of handling my emotions. Situational eating and all those strong associations is also challenging. My most likely over-eating scenario is a social event with a “food table.” But over the years even that has become less daunting for me by taking active steps not to hang around the table. I am not usually one to give advice, and if having popcorn is one of the aspects of going to a movie that you really enjoy, then great. Enjoy it. But if you feel badly about it and find yourself eating popcorn that you don’t really want to eat, what about a one-time experiment where you go to ONE movie and see what it feels like not to have popcorn. Again, if it’s a part of the experience, there’s nothing wrong with that. In general my view is that once we have more acceptance and less judgment around it all, things fall into place. Thanks for you comment!

  4. I like Geneen Roth. Her books helped me.
    I like the idea of intuitive eating, but it is s practice that must be cultivated. I have low hunger and a general fear of food from years of stomach problems. I also have a strong diet mentality from years of disordered eating.
    Intuitive eating is a way to make peace with food, but it’s taking a long time. I slide back into rules and rigidity often.

    Slow and steady. Intuitive eating does work. Just not overnight,

    1. I can relate (as I can to so much of what you say in your comments, Anne). Definitely not an overnight thing. It’s a constant letting go of old ideas. Thanks for your comment!

  5. I believe intuitive eating works best along with exercise of choice that one loves to do often (several times / wk.).

    That said, sometimes I do think abit more about certain foods. But then there are foods that I simply don’t care for. I don’t hate it, I just don’t make it myself, buy it nor serve it to others: ie. deep fried food. Sure I’ll eat a donut, maybe 8 times annually..because it was out in the workplace kitchen for employees. Yes, true I’m not that keen on Japanese tempura or any Chinese deep fried foods. There’s a partial reason for this: My mother just rarely made/served it to us. So I have carried over those childhood eating patterns…..58 yrs. forward. So that must be also intuitive eating….

    Intuitive eating is helped a lot if a child grows up appreciating good diverse cuisine, fancy dishes for special occasions/celebrations and at least 1 parent who doesn’t lecture but simply places healthy food prepared in different ways, at different times. in front of children and gives child time to eat.

    I believe grativating towards healthy food helps when it starts early in childhood. I don’t view food as some seducer….food to me, is often cultural expression and community sharing/bonding. It is not just calories.I have lost 2 family members and some of my best memories are certain family meals shared with them.

  6. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    We blog a lot about working out and different kinds of training here. And lately with all the book media Sam and I have talked quite a bit about our Fittest by 50 Challenge. One of my proudest achievements, that I started back at in earnest during the Challenge, had nothing to do with workouts and training. It was putting the scale away, stopping tracking and monitoring food in an external way, and committing to the principles of Intuitive Eating. As I reported as last summer drew to an end, it only took 27 years but I finally made it! And I’m happy to say that I’m still there. No longer do I obsess about what I’m going to eat, when I’m going to eat it and how much of it I’m going to consume! Yay for freedom from obsession! p.s. I realize it’s not an approach for everyone but it’s definitely changed my life (made me a lot happier). Here’s last summer’s post about it. If you’ve spent your life obsessed with food, eating, and weight, it may be worth a shot. #tbt

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