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How to Fail at Intuitive Eating in 3 Easy Steps - Barbara Spanjers: Ever feel like you're not doing Intuitive Eating right? Maybe you're approaching it the same way you'd approach a diet. Here are three surefire ways to "fail" at IE.

Raise your hand if you just “know” you’ll fail at Intuitive Eating. Maybe you’ve already had that experience.

At its heart, Intuitive Eating is a way to help you heal your relationship with food. Research studies indicate that this non-diet approach to eating can bring about multiple positive changes including better body image, less disordered eating, improved blood pressure, and more stable weight. However, it is often treated with suspicion by medical providers and laypeople alike. Eat whatever you are hungry for instead of what you “should” eat? That’s crazy-talk!

strawberry ice cream bar with text over the photo: "How to Fail at Intuitive Eating in 3 Easy Steps"

On the upside, some are willing to give it a go. Unfortunately, however, people often take the Intuitive Eating principles, smush them up, and reorganize them through the lens of diet culture. When this happens, the philosophy gets muddied. It’s kind of like a smoothie, but far less satisfying.

Whether you are trying to adhere to the Intuitive Eating principles, or you are presented with someone else’s interpretation (e.g. a health coach, nutritionist, therapist, or even a friend), you may believe that this approach doesn’t work for you.

Giving up dieting is a nonlinear process, and the timeline may vary from person to person. One of the keys of Intuitive Eating is flexibility around food. When you attempt to honestly listen to your body, then you can only do Intuitive Eating right; you can’t fail at Intuitive Eating. But if you’ve dipped your toe into the non-diet waters and are having trouble adapting, take a step back. Look at whether you’re viewing a non-diet approach through a diet lens. If you are, it’s no wonder that it feels impossible.

So…here’s how to fail at Intuitive Eating in three easy steps.

Step 1. Take the guidelines as strict rules to be enforced.

As developed by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating is grounded in ten basic principles. These include Reject the Diet Mentality and Challenge the Food Police, which help increase eating flexibility. It would be ironic if strict rules were supposed to teach flexibility, right? That’s why these are guidelines, not orders.

One of the most common misunderstandings about Intuitive Eating is believing you can only eat when you are hungry and must stop when full. This reflects Principle #2: Honor Your Hunger… sort ofWhat happens then, if you eat when you aren’t hungry? A non-flexible diet mentality will shout EPIC FAIL and chock it up as defeat. This can trigger overeating, as in, “what the hell, I already blew it, so I’ll try this new thang again tomorrow.” This is quintessential diet mentality, with its black and white get-it-perfect-starting-Monday assumptions.

In reality, assessing your hunger is just one piece of the process. You are allowed to eat even if you aren’t physically hungry. Because you’re a grownup, and that’s part of the grownup deal.

The same rigidity can be applied to the question of when to stop eating: What happens if you don’t stop eating when you’re full? If you typically weigh or measure your food portions, it can be tricky to identify bodily cues of fullness. This is a great topic to approach with curiosity, not judgment. If you believe you must stop eating when full, what happens if you don’t actually end the meal then? Too often, it whips up feelings of failure. Again, a black and white attitude can make you keep eating even more than you would have, even if you didn’t stop eating when you started to feel comfortably full.

There is no magical level of fullness where you must/should/ought to stop. Even the most experienced intuitive eaters overeat sometimes.

Step 2. Try to use Intuitive Eating as a method for weight loss.

I know, I know. Intuitive Eating (even if it’s called a different name) is often sold as a method of weight loss. However, this is a serious misinterpretation! Yes, some studies show that people who eat intuitively tend to have a lower body mass index. However, Intuitive Eating does NOT have a goal of weight loss. It is all about your beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors around food.

Whenever you see weight loss as an expected outcome of Intuitive Eating, it means the principles have been hijacked. If this bootleg version of Intuitive Eating were a tangible good, it’d be the counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbag sold out of a car trunk for pennies on the dollar. It may look good superficially, but there is no lasting quality beneath the façade.

If weight loss isn’t guaranteed, or even a goal, then why bother? Because despite the current zeitgeist to the contrary, weight loss is not the key to happiness, or even health. Intuitive Eating helps increase one’s sense of well-being, and decrease the anxiety around food that compels frequent overeating or even bingeing. Increased well-being is ultimately more important than weight. (Yes, it is – I see you shaking your head over there.)


Step 3. Treat Intuitive Eating as an excuse for an ongoing free-for-all

For chronic dieters, Intuitive Eating probably seems like a wackadoodle idea. Because diets – even those framed as sensible — tend to have an all-or-nothing bent. Diet culture evokes dichotomous words like good/bad; on/off; and willpower/cheat. Newbies often assume that if you don’t watch what you eat, you will be out of control. That if you don’t place perfect nutrition at the top of your priorities, you will carry on a torrid affair with the Pillsbury Dough Boy. And that if you give up dieting/clean eating/etc., you have stopped caring about yourself.

But truthfully, it’s none of those things. Stepping out of diet-world is not about letting yourself go. It’s about letting yourself be.

Ironically, trying to be in total control often leads to overeating, major cravings for forbidden foods, and even bingeing. Relying on willpower and being “good” is a great way to keep food in a place of power over you.

That power doesn’t disappear immediately when you decide to try Intuitive Eating, however. When you shift to a non-diet approach, you might eat a lot of sweets and other forbidden foods. This is a temporary reaction to long-term restriction. Over time, those previously naughty foods lose their allure. That is when you are able to have cookies in the pantry and forget they are there after you eat a few. It’s when you realize that the pizza rolls you used to eat in secret don’t even taste very good, so you stop buying them.

Being patient is not part of diet culture, where headlines scream about losing 10 or more pounds in a matter of days. That is why, in my opinion, the most important principle of Intuitive Eating is the first one: Reject the Diet Mentality. It underlies all the other principles. When you can truly reject the diet mentality, the other principles are much easier to grasp.