For many of us, diet culture has contributed to a difficult relationship with food and a poor body image. But many people are forging a path to freedom from diet and food struggles through intuitive eating.
The term “diet culture” refers to the value that society puts on us having a certain body size, weight and shape. It praises weight loss and equates thinness with health. Diet culture is pervasive, and is ingrained in us from an early age, with many people starting on diets as children. From Weight Watchers to Atkins, Whole30, keto and Noom, fad diets are everywhere, and we’re told that they’re the ticket to achieving the ideal body. The classic dieting story goes something like this: We go on a new diet, we lose some weight right off the bat, friends and family start to notice, we begin to feel great about ourselves and our confidence soars. But after a while, the body’s natural instinct to escape starvation mode kicks in. At that point, no amount of willpower to maintain the strict diet can override the body’s signals, and we end up “cheating,” or often bingeing on foods that were deemed “off-limits,” which is what our body is now craving. We feel shame, and pledge that “The diet starts again on Monday,” only to have the cycle begin all over again. Inevitably, over time, many of us end up gaining back the weight we originally lost and, in some cases, we gain even more, which leaves us feeling dejected, and like failures.
The fact is, it’s not the person that failed the diet; it’s the diet that failed
the person. Research shows that 95 percent of dieters regain the weight they lost within one to five years, meaning that diets don’t work for permanent weight loss for the vast majority of people. If that’s the case, why do so many of us keep dieting over and over and expecting different results? It turns out that dieting, eating and our relationship with food is incredibly complex.
It’s well known that COVID-19 has had a severe negative impact on the mental health of many Canadians. One way this is showing up is through a spike in eating disorders, both in children and teens, as well as adults. But it’s not just clinically diagnosed eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder that are affecting us; many people are reporting struggling with varying degrees of eating problems as
a result of COVID-19.
In my own practice, as a registered dietitian, I hear clients describe these struggles. Many report pandemic weight gain. During these unprecedented times, anxiety, stress and uncertainty have affected us all. Daily routines were upended. While stuck at home throughout lockdowns, we had unrestricted access to the pantry, and an abundance of time with nothing to do but eat out of boredom, loneliness or stress. Job loss forced some to cut food budgets and ration their food intake, while others turned to comfort eating as a means of coping. Many people were less active, drank more alcohol and experienced sleep problems. All of this combined with social isolation, and it’s no wonder that many people turned to comfort eating during the pandemic; it’s a completely natural human response. After all, eating is effective at soothing negative emotions, especially when other coping mechanisms aren’t available. But if your eating feels out of control or becomes your only way of dealing with emotions, that’s a sign you may want to look at your relationship with food.
Intuitive eating may be right for you if any of these statements ring true:
- You feel like you can’t trust yourself around food.
- You binge eat, “out of control” eat or eat emotionally.
- You think about food constantly.
- The number on the scale determines your sense of self-worth.
- You struggle with your body image.
Intuitive eating is a framework that rejects restrictive diets and food rules and focuses instead on tuning in to internal cues of body awareness in order to guide our food choices. It’s an approach that looks at health holistically and is a weight-neutral model, meaning the focus is not on body size, but rather on developing a healthy relationship with food and your body. It promotes finding ways to respect and appreciate your body and the way you view eating and exercise from a place of self-care, permission and body acceptance, rather than weight stigma and restriction. Intuitive eaters learn to make peace with food, let go of the diet mentality and cope with their emotions in more productive and helpful ways.
The intuitive eating movement has exploded in popularity recently, as a sort of revolution against diet culture. More and more experts in nutrition, health and wellness are incorporating its principles into their practice, as the industry is waking up to the harm that weight stigma can do. There are more than 125 published studies to date that demonstrate the benefits of intuitive eating. Studies indicate that people who are intuitive eaters have better markers of health, including lower blood pressure, blood lipid levels and overall risk for heart disease. They have a better body image, better awareness of hunger and fullness, higher self-esteem, higher life satisfaction, more optimism and positive emotions, greater motivation to exercise for pleasure and more proactive coping methods. It’s also shown that people who score high on the intuitive eating scale eat a more diverse diet and take more pleasure in eating. Intuitive eating is associated with weight stability (meaning your weight doesn’t fluctuate), a lower BMI and less binge eating. Research also indicates that intuitive eaters don’t eat more “junk food” compared with people who scored lower on the scale, meaning that when all foods are allowed and seen as equal, the body naturally craves a variety of nutritious and “fun” foods, in a healthy balance.
Want to get started with intuitive eating? Here's where to begin:
- Look for where diet culture shows up in your life, and consciously reject it. Throw out books and magazines that tout the latest “quick fix” weight-loss solution. Kindly let your coworker know you’re not interested in hearing about the diet they just started. Unfollow social media accounts that promote diet culture. Become aware of the ingrained food rules you have (e.g., “carbs are bad”), recognize that it’s diet culture talking, and start to let them go.
- Eliminate distractions during mealtimes and bring your awareness to your body signals. Before eating, tune in to your feeling of hunger and rate it on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being ravenous and 10 being painfully stuffed. About mid-way through the meal, pause to rate your hunger level again. Repeat this again at the end of the meal. Also take note of any thoughts or emotions you have before, during or after the meal. Get in the habit of doing this for a week. What patterns do you notice? What hunger/fullness ratings feel best?
- Start to think of feeding yourself as a form of self-care. Focus on simple strategies to provide nourishment to your body, such as eating balanced meals regularly throughout the day to give you consistent energy and including plenty of fruits and vegetables with meals and snacks. Foods are not “good” or “bad”—they’re just foods, and none are “off-limits.” But tune in to your body and become aware of what types of foods make your body feel good. Give yourself permission to enjoy the tastes you love, without the guilt.
- Look at your overall well-being and focus on healthy behaviours, instead of narrowly fixating on weight. Find a form of movement you enjoy that makes you feel energized and uplifted, and do it regularly. Reduce your alcohol consumption. Ensure you get eight hours of sleep each night. Quit smoking. Limit your screen time. Find positive ways to manage stress, such as developing a meditation practice.