Late last night, I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole. I do this often. I’ll watch hours of true crime stories, makeup tutorials, or fifteen-minute windows into what Instagram influencers eat in a day. Following that last one led me to the YouTube account of Victoria Garrick, a vlogger focused on the concept of intuitive eating. I had heard the term before and even familiarized myself with the concept as it always sounded like the most viable solution to my binge-and-purge problem. Garrick even talks about overcoming her own binge eating disorder through intuitive eating.
We are all born intuitive eaters. We don’t come out of the womb calling foods good or bad, and we aren’t acutely aware of how much heavier we are than the other babies in the maternity ward. We unlatched from our mom’s nipple when we were good and done, and well into our toddler years, we happily left half a sandwich and three chips on a plate when we didn’t feel like putting more food inside our stomachs. We simply knew that we had to eat and that we didn’t like feeling extremely full. At a certain point, we lose this ability. We begin considering what we’re eating and how it’s going to affect the way we look. We forget how to live with a sense of food freedom. As adults, relearning how to maintain food freedom is easier said than done.
Intuitive eating revolves around learning how to read your body in order to make choices about food and exercise that feel optimally satisfying and reject the idea that restriction will lead you to a happy relationship with your body. In theory, you’re supposed to eat whatever you want whenever you want and move your body without the goal of burning calories. I know that, if carried out properly, intuitive eating leads to a feeling of food freedom that I’ve never truly known. In practice, the idea of letting go of my restrictive habits terrifies me.
I shouldn’t be terrified of intuitive eating- I should be optimistic about it. I go to bed and wake up most mornings thinking about food because I’ve either made “good” choices and I’m starving or I’ve made “bad” choices and I’m reeling in the guilt. Intuitive eating is supposed to negate these feelings of deprivation and guilt, and while there are no rules per se, registered dietician and author Evelyn Tribole developed and defined 10 guiding principles for intuitive eating. I have familiarized myself with each principle and consider intuitive eating to be my only real goal in regards to my health, but I also find the idea of intuitive eating and its ten principles terrifying. The terror I feel when I read these principles is my mind’s reaction to years of conditioning to follow food rules and restrict myself, and that terror functions as an excuse to stay firmly rooted in my old ways.
Without further adieu, let’s take a look at the Principles (and take a look at the full list and descriptions by Tibole here.
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
I have been on a diet for as long as I can remember, and those diets have led me to an ongoing pattern of weight loss and weight gain. Diets promise us weight loss, not sustainability. I know that I was aware of my weight from a young age, and began consciously restricting my eating habits before my tenth birthday. Like many others, I have been mentally committed to diet culture and the idea that I will one day be rail-thin longer than I’ve committed to anything else. Diet and weight loss have become part of my identity because it has always topped my list of priorities. When weight loss is top of mind day in and day out, it’s very difficult to shift focus to the goals I have that would truly fulfill more in a way that a new and improved body never could. The idea of this is tantalizing, but my fear of weight gain has prevented me from letting go of my tendency to equate health with food restrictions.
2. Honor Your Hunger
When I want to lose weight, I tend to put off eating until I physically can’t stand it anymore. In theory, I’m doing this to ensure that I will satisfy the most hunger with the smallest amount of food. In practice, I’m setting myself up for failure. Decisions about how much food I’m going to eat are always made before I even begin eating, and the idea that I might toss two raviolis instead of eating them at the end of a meal feels asinine. If I’m served a plate at a restaurant, I’ll mentally (and sometimes physically, like, with a knife) divide my food in half and plan to take the rest home. At many restaurants, half of a portion of food isn’t nearly enough. I tried this at a popular salad chain recently, and by the time I’d finished the “acceptable” half of my plate, I’d barely made a dent in the post-workout hunger I’d developed. Trusting my brain and not my body to make food decisions for me leaves having eaten too much or too little more often than not, and I’m not too confident in my ability to three-bears it into the perfect amount.
3. Make Peace with Food
Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. Making peace with food requires a mental commitment to removing food labels like “good” and “bad.” Food peace is eating without allowing guilt to enter your mind after eating. Imagine making decisions about food without taking into consideration the calorie content of that food. Imagine being familiar only with how the food tastes and makes you feel rather than how it might make you look. Can you? Because I truly, genuinely, wholly cannot. But that’s what making peace with food is- it’s eating something because you want it. The fear comes from the idea that if I don’t mentally file foods under labels that tell me whether or not they should be in my body, I’ll continually make bad choices simply because they taste good.
4. Challenge the Food Police
But the police are scary!!! In this town, I am the Food Sherriff, and I police every aspect of my food intake with immense fortitude. I mentally steer myself away from bad choices at gunpoint to avoid the harsh punishments I inflict on myself when those choices are made. I respect the food police (points for self-respect?) a thousand times more than I respect the actual police until I’m ready to rob a bank (binge), and then I have my getaway car started in the bathroom (purge). Challenging the food police requires a continuous conscious effort to combat the voices in your head that tell you “no” the second your eyes land on something tasty in the fridge and letting your stomach say “yes.” I worry my stomach doesn’t know what’s best for me, and without the Food Police, we’ll have total anarchy.
5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
By this principle, we are supposed to consider pleasure to be a key factor of health. It makes sense because allowing the concept of pleasure into your diet cultivates a natural sense of balance. There’s no right or wrong time to consume certain foods, and you don’t need to save them for special occasions. When you only have cake once a year on your birthday, you can’t be too surprised when you power through half of it in one night after the party dies down. I’m so used to depriving myself of foods I love that I tend to go way overboard when I finally let myself have a little bit of those forbidden treats. I’m the girl who’s eating half of the cake in one sitting. If I allow cake in my home on any old Tuesday, who’s going to stop me from polishing it off? (Especially now that we’ve defunded the Food Police!!!)
6. Feel Your Fullness
When we are infants, we have a tendency to scream when we feel hungry and to abandon food when we’re done with it. I still tend to scream when I need to be fed, but the concept of leaving food on my plate to be tossed into the trash doesn’t even feel like an option. If I have three or four bites left on a plate and it’s not enough to save for later, I will eat them no matter how hungry I am. I’ll convince myself that this will be the last time for a long time that I’ll be able to have the food and that it would be a waste to not finish. Though unintentional, I’ll end up uncomfortably full and filled with regret about the entire meal rather than just the few bites that put me over the edge. The regret leads to food guilt. When we allow ourselves to disconnect from the food once we’d had enough to feel full, we don’t have to feel that guilt and we don’t have to feel like we’ll never have it again. In real-time, this is where the terror comes from. I develop an irrational fear that those three bites of pasta are the last three bites of pasta I’ll ever have. Feeling my fullness means that I can let those bites go because I can eat again whenever I want. But if I can have it again whenever I want, why wouldn’t I have it EVERY. SINGLE. DAY? I wouldn’t because I’d eventually get sick of pasta, but I never claimed to be logical.
7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
Coping with your emotions with kindness implies that you have to be willing to cope with your emotions at all. I have to tell you, as a master of compartmentalization, coping with my emotions tends to be a hard no for me. When I find myself in a state of binging, I’ve moved far beyond the point of processing the negative emotions the day has left me with. I’m fully aware that the nature of my eating is emotional. The act of chewing and swallowing couples with the pain of my expanding stomach to steer my mind away from troubling thoughts. There’s that classic idea of overeating as trying to fill some kind of hole, and honey, that is right on the money. This is without a doubt the most terrifying principle because, without emotional eating, I’m just left with…emotions. And I do not like to FEEL THINGS.
8. Respect Your Body
Tibole describes this principle as accepting your genetic blueprint. Accept…my genetic…blueprint. This is meant to say that we should accept that not all bodies are built the same and that goals should be healthy, realistic, and non-aesthetic. And, okay. Of course, I am aware that as a 5’10 woman who was once told at the age of nine that she has “baby-making hips,” I will never be a size 0. But I’m not sure that I’m convinced that I can give up on the idea of becoming as close to that size as humanly possible. Logically, I know I won’t ever rid my body of every spare ounce of fat, but my fantasy of becoming a 90s modelesque waif clashes with my intuitive desire to finish every day with no less than seven Oreos. Accepting my body seems like a much more realistic goal, but I can’t grasp on to logic long enough to let go of my fantasy body. It seems illogically true that if I aim for perfection, I will see results. If I don’t have the goal of perfection, how will I ever reach “good enough?”
9. Movement — Feel the Difference
The idea of exercising for any reason other than burning a metric boatload of calories seems wildly fruitless to me. I’m supposed to want to be strong and healthy, but I don’t. I never have. I’ve only ever wanted to be thin. I’ve heard the logical reason for weight training and other types of exercise, but in my instant gratification charged mindset I’m always only looking to wake up a pound lighter the next day. I used to do the math on that very equation to optimize the speed of my weight loss regularly. I would lose pound after pound for a few weeks, then I would re-inflate to a higher weight than I’d ever reached. Every time, I’d tell myself that if I just stick with it then I’ll get where I need to go. The weight gain was, to me, always the result of my lack of self-control, and not of a misdirected belief in a certain method. Of course, I knew what was happening, but I always thought I’d lose the weight first, quickly and all at once, and deal with the fallout of figuring out how to maintain it after. Up until recently, I’d set my fitness goal as no less than 6 miles of running or walking per day, followed by a virtual barre workout. Most days, I feel pretty spent after half of one of those. The idea that committing myself to fitness in small increments of time will build an overall healthier relationship makes me feel like I’ll simply give up after not seeing results rather than continue on a healthy path. Without the almost-instant gratification of pounds lost every few days, how am I supposed to be motivated?
10. Honor Your Health — Gentle Nutrition
If I’m not telling myself that I need to eat a carrot, I’m scared of how long I will go without eating a carrot. Because I’m on and off of diets so often, my consumption patterns tend to stay all “good” or all “bad” for lengths of time before I fall off the wagon or climb back on. To honor your health is to incorporate all foods you enjoy, healthy or unhealthy, into your daily life. I love a good kale salad. Well massaged kale drenched in a tahini dressing is absolutely delectable. But, if I’m not on a diet, even if I’m in the mood for kale, I’m more likely to reach for pizza and tell myself that I’ll spend the money on salad next week when I’m getting myself back in check. It’s not healthy, and it’s not productive to cycle yourself in and out of what you consider to be healthy and balanced. Regardless of this, I’m scared of how often I’ll choose pizza if I tell myself that it’s literally always an option.
These principles, in conscious practice, are set to lead us to a more sustainable and satisfying approach to body maintenance. Sustainability in relation to my diet and exercise routines has never felt like an option for me because the only option I ever consider is drastic and rapid change. I never consider that I don’t need to know exactly what I weigh at the start of every day. and that I can simply live without desiring weight loss or fearing weight gain. Rationally, I know that embraces these principles and carrying them out will allow me to find freedom from the food prison I’ve locked myself up in. In practice, they set off every anxiety I’ve developed around food.
In practicing intuitive eating, my fear is centered around the idea that I will one day step on the scale and see that I’ve gained weight and I simply don’t know why. Then, I will have to reassess my habits and consciously change them which defeats the purpose of intuitive decision making altogether. This is to say that I don’t trust myself. In trusting my intuition, I have to know that I won’t argue with myself about what my body is telling me it needs. Sometimes my body needs bread when I want to lose five pounds, and the deprivation I’ll feel from not having what I’m craving will lead me to spiral. When I spiral, I become hyperfocused on what’s happening with the scale.
From what I have seen from the videos I’ve watched from practitioners of intuitive eating, many of them choose not to step on the scale. The idea of not knowing what I way at any given time is scary in and of itself because without the number on the scale there’s no confirmation that the choices I’m making are correct. But that’s just the thing- in an intuitive lifestyle, your weight isn’t correct or incorrect. It simply just is.