What Is Intuitive Eating and How Can It Help You Ditch Fad Diets for Good?

UPDATED: June 26, 2023
PUBLISHED: December 28, 2021
What Is Intuitive Eating and How Can It Help You Ditch Fad Diets for Good?

Here they come. Holiday feasts followed incongruously by healthy eating tips, after which we will be inundated with advice as to which diet will help you shed the weight you put on over the holidays.

What if—hear me out here—you just said, “Screw it, I’m going to eat what I want this holiday season?” What if you walked past the plate of fudge, stopped, cut yourself a big ol’ piece, stuffed it in your face, and didn’t feel guilty about it, didn’t run extra laps to make up for it, didn’t do anything but thank Whoever It Is You Thank for creating fudge in the first place?

What if—more crazy talk coming—you adopted a similar attitude all year long? What if you let your weight be your weight and didn’t obsess with myriad complicated, expensive and ultimately ineffective ways to control it?

Christy Harrison, a solopreneur, author and intuitive-eating coach, wrote Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating after struggling with disordered eating. 

Popularized by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, intuitive eating has 10 principles, which (at the risk of oversimplifying) can be summarized as eating the way you were born to. You eat following physical, not emotional, cues. You eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. Although this does not give you a license to eat fudge for all three meals, you ignore the food police, your own shame and other cultural pressures.

Intuitive eating is not a diet but rather a way of thinking about food. “It’s stripping away all of the diet mentality stuff, all the diet-culture baggage, and rules and regulations,” Harrison says.

Harrison says re-ordering her thinking about food has made her more grounded and more productive as a solopreneur. Energy she used to spend on obsessing about food she now is free to use elsewhere. 

“I don’t think I would have been able to focus on so many different projects—writing a book, having a podcast, doing a private practice, doing all these interviews, all the stuff that I juggle as a solopreneur on a day-to-day basis.”

In her book and an interview, she offered insight about how to build a healthier view of food.

Health and wellness are not the be-all, end-all. 

This might be the most challenging of Harrison’s views. It is possible to overdo an obsession with health and wellness, she says. “[Allow] your body to end up at the weight it wants to be, which I think is a scary thing for a lot of people in this culture, because this culture does really stigmatize higher weight bodies.”

It’s OK to eat what you want. “When you destigmatize foods and look at them all as equally worthy options, it takes away the irresistible pull toward ‘forbidden’ foods (don’t those always taste the sweetest?),” Harrison writes in Anti-Diet. “Instead, you’re able to choose what you truly want and need in any given moment.”

Diet culture teaches us not just that this or that eating plan will help us lose weight but that it is morally superior. When you eat the wrong food, or too much of it, or both, you fail. If you eat to deal with that failure, the shame gets worse. Harrison and others assail that mode of thinking. 

“The battle of the bulge is a battle against biology, so obesity is not some moral failing. I can’t stress enough that becoming overweight is a normal, natural response to the abnormal, unnatural ubiquity of calorie-dense, sugary and fatty foods,” writes Michael Greger in How Not to Diet.

Avoid highs and lows. 

Extremes in any direction—overly restrictive diets, too much exercise for the sole purpose of burning off calories, obsession with which foods are “right and wrong,” an unyielding focus on what and how much you eat—are harmful, physically, mentally and emotionally. “That’s kind of part of this larger cultural context in which polarization is being rewarded,” Harrison says.

Listen to your body, not the news. 

“The first step that I would recommend for people is tuning out all of that breaking news about the food that you should avoid,” and here she jokingly mimicked news reports: “‘Chocolate is good for you, it’ll make you live longer. Just kidding, chocolate will take 10 years off your life.’”

Gluten, dairy, meat, whatever—someone says eat it, and someone else says don’t. None of them are completely right. “Drawn to the trendiest approaches, many people who strive to lose weight constantly bounce between fads: low-fat, low-carb, South Beach, Atkins, DASH, Zone, Ornish, keto, intermittent fasting… the list goes on and on,” writes Brad Stulberg in The Practice of Groundedness. “The best diet is one to which you can stick.”

That’s easier said than done. Ninety-five percent of dieters put the weight they lost back on. As many as two-thirds gain more weight than they lost.

None of this is new. Harrison writes that since the 1960s, the problems with diet culture have been covered and discussed. And yet here we are, in 2021, still chasing novel ways to be thin, without thinking deeply about whether that’s a goal worthy of the time, energy and money we spend on it, or if the means we are using to pursue it are likely to work. 

You are not what you eat. 

“A healthy attitude towards food is not having your identity so wrapped up in what you eat, or how you move your body, or your body size or things like that,” Harrison says.

Defy the “Life Thief.”

Harrison calls the omnipresence of diet culture the Life Thief, and defines it like this: “This system of beliefs that lionizes smaller bodies, demonizes larger ones, demonizes certain foods and elevates others. This system of beliefs really steals our time, our energy, our money, our happiness and our well-being.”

Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis. He writes about sports, travel, adventure and professional development. Email him at [email protected].