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Is Intuitive Eating Just Another Diet in Disguise?

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I’ve been on a diet ever since I can remember. When I was a child, my mother was perpetually trying to lose weight, and I fell in lockstep behind her, eating only cottage cheese or drinking only diet soda. Throughout my life, I’ve gone through periods of eating one meal a day or eating eight “mini-meals” a day and periods of cutting out all fat or eating only ice cream. 


At this point, dieting is so much a part of my wiring that I can’t seem to sit down to a meal without dissecting my plate calorie by calorie. I think more in terms of what I should or shouldn’t eat than whether I’m truly hungry. Has this obsessive focus on dieting done me any good? Well, I’m not overweight, but it is a lot of work. And fad diets sure do a number on one’s self-esteem. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like an abject failure because I didn’t manage to, say, eat only grapefruit for a week. 


So what if there was a way to give up dieting altogether? What if I could let go of agonizing over my waistline and embrace a healthy lifestyle rather than militant weight-loss regimes? According to Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, intuitive eating is the solution. 


Infants as Model Eaters
Ms. Tribole bases her idea of intuitive eating on the idea that infants don’t binge or starve themselves. It’s only a culture obsessed with weight and dieting that has interrupted our natural cues about when and how much to eat. If you take away the fear of deprivation that dieting creates, Ms. Tribole believes, your natural hunger and taste cues will provide you with a more trustworthy template for healthy living than your cognitive ideas about what you should and shouldn’t eat. 


A big part of this letting go of the diet mentality is “weight neutrality.” If we keep searching for an ideal weight or chasing a social norm that doesn’t fit our own bodies, we will continue to feel deprived and our bodies will continue to compensate by pestering us for empty calories. It is dieting, says Ms. Tribole, which is making us fat. 


The Ten Principles
In her most recent book, Intuitive Eating, Ms. Tribole lays out her ten rules for not dieting:


  1. Reject the diet mentality. Diets give you “false hope” and make you feel like a failure when they inevitably don’t work.
  2. Honor your hunger and keep your body “biologically fed” with enough calories and carbohydrates daily. Otherwise, you will fall victim to the primal drive to overeat.
  3. Make peace with food. Give yourself “unconditional permission to eat” and say goodbye to deprivation, which will ultimately sabotage your efforts.
  4. Challenge the “Food Police” and all your prejudices about “good” and “bad” food.
  5. Respect your fullness. Pause mid-meal to ask yourself how the food tastes and to assess your hunger level.
  6. Discover the “Satisfaction Factor.” Ms. Tribole cites Japanese “wisdom” that pleasure is as much a goal of healthy living as anything else. Eating well is part of that pleasure.
  7. Honor your feelings without using food, since eating provides only short-term comfort.
  8. Respect your body. Accept your genetic blueprint and think of your body size the same way you would your shoe size. I mean, you wouldn’t ask size eleven feet to fit into size eight, would you?
  9. Exercise, but not militantly. Forget calorie-burning, and enjoy how good it feels to move. (In the interests of full-disclosure, Ms. Tribole qualified for the 1984 Olympic trials in the women’s marathon.)
  10. Honor your health. You don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. “Progress, not perfection” is what matters. 


Umm … is it just me, or do all of these rules sound remarkably like … a diet? I mean, they all sound great and healthy and empowering, but I actually think being on a diet would be simpler. Take the cabbage soup diet, for example: eat cabbage soup. Period. How am I supposed to quit focusing on weight and eating when there is so much to remember? 


One Size Does Not Fit All
I have tried intuitive eating, and found it’s not for me. I either end up eating way too much or way too little to be healthy, and I’m not alone. An article by Mandy Katz in the July 15, 2009 issue of the New York Times entitled, “Tossing Out the Diet and Embracing Fat,” included interviews from both women who had lost weight through intuitive eating, and those who had gained it … a lot of it. 


The problem is that Ms. Tribole and other proponents of intuitive eating (Kate Harding: Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere, Susie Orbach: Fat Is a Feminist Issue, etc.) offer that same false hope they accuse all diets of promising—if you do X, Y, and Z, you will be thinner, healthier, happier, etc. And then, when you actually do X, Y, and Z, but find yourself neither thinner, healthier, nor happier, you feel like a failure. 


Intuitive eating may work for some, but not all, just as what works for me (calorie counting) won’t work for everyone else. Tribole is right. We have come a long way from our non-dieting ancestors, who not only ate whenever there was a bloody carcass in front of them, but didn’t give a darn what it looked like on their thighs. But she’s wrong that we can reverse this trend. We do live in a weight and image-conscious society. And because we are fortunate enough to live in a world where food is abundant and available, we need to develop our own rules to govern its consumption. 


Call them rules, call them principles, call them whatever you like. It’s all a diet.

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