This month, millions of Americans will kick off 2020 with a diet reset. The healthier — and leaner — version of ourselves will be achieved only by controlling our eating habits, especially around carbs and sugar. Or so we believe.
But a radical new approach to health has also been gaining traction. It’s called intuitive eating. Hang on to your green smoothie, because it contradicts everything we’ve learned about health and weight loss. And it’s the antithesis of wellness programs from keto to intermittent fasting to “eating clean.”
Intuitive eating posits that the very best diet is no diet at all. Instead of strict food rules, we should tune into our natural-born urges to eat what we want, when we want. While it sounds like a crazy fad diet, research is mounting to support its merits.
For one thing, diets definitively do not work: 95 percent of people who lose weight on a diet regain it within five years. An exhaustive study of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey published in November 2019 found that although more Americans are trying to lose weight mainly by controlling food consumption, body mass indexes and obesity rates continue to climb.
But the problems go beyond traditional weight loss programs. Chasing the “perfect diet” is, itself, a potential health risk. Clean eating, for example, emphasizes local, organic, non-GMO, unprocessed and plant-based food. But fixating on avocados, coconut oil and quinoa while demonizing processed foods takes eating healthy to a dangerous extreme. According to a June 2019 study in the Journal of Eating Disorders, the popularity of clean eating among college students belies its potential for disordered eating, or orthorexia nervosa.
As a food magazine editor in the mid-2000s, Christy Harrison wrote about the gluten-free and low-carb lifestyle, believing she was promoting healthy food choices. But at home, she binged. “I’d have an ungodly number of rice cakes to try to get the satisfaction I would have gotten if I had just allowed myself to have a sandwich on bread,” she told HuffPost.
Now a registered dietitian with the popular Food Psych podcast, Harrison is leading a counter-revolution against diet culture. Her new book, “Anti-Diet,” is a takedown of the $60 billion weight loss industry along with celebrity-endorsed detoxes and well-intentioned environmental food rules she calls “sneaky forms of dieting.”
Based on deprivation, diets not only lead to food obsessions and binging but take a bigger toll. “You start to see that it’s not actually giving you what you want,” she said, “and is taking away a lot of important aspects of your life — your time and money, your well-being, your happiness.”
According to Harrison and a growing chorus of holistic health practitioners, the antidote is intuitive eating.
The brainchild of registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in the mid-1990s, the 10 principles of intuitive eating are designed to heal our relationship with food and our bodies. “The journey to intuitive eating is like taking a cross-country hiking trip,” the authors write in “Intuitive Eating.” Unlike dieting, the process is nonlinear and personalized with a nonjudgmental focus on wellness, not weight loss.
The concept has resonated with the body positivity movement, including the movement Health at Every Size, and lately has sparked a new brand of Instagrammers like @erinliveswhole and @olive.eeeats showcasing the anti-diet way of life.
But let’s back up. If intuitive eating is based on internal eating cues, can we really trust ourselves?
“Eating is fundamental to human survival,” journalist Virginia Sole-Smith told HuffPost. The author of “The Eating Instinct” found convincing evidence that we are all born with a set of instincts to eat and self-regulate our food intake. Even toddlers do it. The trouble starts when we grow up in a culture that replaces comfort and pleasure around food with guilt, shame and fear. “We’re so convinced that eating the wrong things will make us fat,” she said.
You can blame the diet industry, but Sole-Smith, along with Harrison, lays equal blame on the natural food movement. For 20 years, the efforts to call out environmental, social and racial injustices in the food system have also demonized industrialized food as “bad” and “dirty.” And if we choose to eat them, we are unhealthy by association.
While living on chia yogurt bowls and turmeric chickpea curry sounds good, it’s not sustainable for most people. “I think the pressure to eat as clean and whole and natural as possible is wearing people out,” Sole-Smith said.
Sure, it’s a scary idea to trust our own eating instincts. We’re afraid of losing control, but Sole-Smith said, “You’re not going to want to eat doughnuts day in, day out because after a while your body will crave something different.”
The research backs her up. Ohio State University body image and eating behavior researcher Tracy L. Tylka has conducted large-scale studies to assess three main elements of intuitive eating: eating for physical rather than emotional reasons, unconditional permission to eat, and reliance on hunger and satiety cues. She concludes that intuitive eaters “are aware of and trust their body’s internal hunger and satiety cues and use these cues to determine when and how much to eat.”
Current research indicates that intuitive eaters are less prone to binge, have lower BMIs and have less disordered eating. They also experience more body appreciation, self-compassion and optimism as well as higher self-esteem.
It appears, after all, that you are not what you eat. For people like me who have lived by clean eating, it’s hard to let go of long-held ideas of good and bad food. But has all the food shaming benefited anyone?
For everyone ready for dramatic change in the next decade, Sole-Smith offers a simple anti-diet challenge: Dare to enjoy your food.
She added: “You really can’t have a healthy relationship with food if you can’t take pleasure in food.”