What if, instead of promising to go on a diet this year, your resolution is to go on a non-diet?
That is what Angela Yazbek did two years ago, and she says she has never been healthier or happier. Yazbek is a yoga teacher and former CBC producer in Toronto who started following intuitive eating principles after years of limiting and obsessing about her food. Instead of skipping meals, Yazbek now happily eats three meals a day according to her cravings – and as much or as little as she wants.
Intuitive eating isn’t really a plan, nor is it a diet. Instead, it is a way of approaching food that is so simple it should be obvious. In a nutshell, it’s eating when you are hungry, stopping when you are full and eating as much as what you want, when you want it. Sounds radical, doesn’t it?
It’s not necessarily a new concept, either – dietitians have been promoting this way of eating as far back as 1995 – but the approach has recently started to gain momentum online in an environment otherwise chock-full of messaging that promotes restrictive eating. There’s no shortage of Instagram accounts plugging “clean eating” or trendy diets such as keto, and some so-called experts promote the idea that thinness, goodness and avoiding certain food groups, such as grains or dairy, are all intertwined.
But advocates of intuitive eating say this has driven people away from listening to their bodies, and that an obsession with thinness has resulted in a constant anxiety that nobody is ever good enough. This fear, some argue, is crucial for the diet and fitness industry, one that generates hundreds of billions of dollars by capitalizing on people’s continued failure to lose weight – or a fear of gaining it.
Instead, intuitive eating aims to take the morality and shame out of eating and puts the spotlight on enjoying food. Thin people are not morally superior, and neither is eating a kale salad, says Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian in New York City who runs a private practice, as well as online coaching. In our diet- and clean-eating-obsessed world, these ideas are often met with skepticism, as if eating what you want is the most unnatural and preposterous thing to do in the world.
The only way to make peace with food and your body, even if you don’t achieve the culturally approved-thin look, say intuitive eaters, is to stop obsessing about food, and learn to enjoy it – junk food and vegetables alike.
Online, Rumsey advises tuning into your body’s health cues on her popular Instagram account, with memes such as “You know what’s healthier than kale? A good relationship with food” and “Self-control: I have to eat vegetables at every meal to be healthy vs. Self-care: vegetables provide me with the nutrients my body needs.”
Most people’s first reaction to the idea of eating whatever they want is shock, Rumsey says. They worry that they would gorge on forbidden foods, never eat anything healthy and gain loads of weight. But she says that eventually people ditch the potato chips and eat healthy food because they realize that they feel better when they eat vegetables.
Intuitive eating has given Yazbek a new sense of peace with food and herself. She spent years worrying about every morsel that went into her mouth, trying out myriad trendy diets and working out constantly in an effort to achieve what she considered the “perfect body.” She got lots of social approval for being very thin, despite the costs to her sanity and time. These days, she eats more food than she used to but spends less time thinking about food. She enjoys her life more, saying “the stress and panic that I felt at every meal is gone.”
Toronto-based dietitian Dara Gurau of the How to Eat blog came to intuitive eating after watching her daughter choose her own foods naturally, and realizing that the intuitive approach was a healthier option – for kids and adults. She just wants people to relax about food, and to accept that food is just food, without any moral values. But she understands that it is a process and people may need some psychological support from an intuitive eating specialist or therapist.
Intuitive eating is based on the 10 principles set out in the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, whose most recent edition was published in 2009. These principles include: rejecting the diet mentality; honouring your hunger; respecting your fullness and honouring your health.
Tribole began recommending this approach because she became frustrated with the constant focus on weight management and dieting that is often part of her field. She says restrictive dieting sets people up to fail and encourages a disconnect between their body and food. “As a dietitian it was frustrating to watch people fail. But you are not the failure, it’s the diet that failed you.”
She says the science shows that restricting food naturally leads to bingeing – not a person’s moral failure. “There should not be any morality on food. If you killed the farmer to get the food, then you are breaking the moral code.” Otherwise, give yourself permission to eat what you want.
Not all experts agree. “Food is not intuitive. I wish it was,” says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of a behavioural weight-management program in Ottawa. He says that in our current food culture, it is impossible to be a true intuitive eater.
“The goal of processed food is to make people eat more and more,” Freedhoff says. “Intuition is likely to fail when it comes to the hypercaloric and ultraprocessed foods that are all around us.” Processed food is engineered for us to want more of it, and that overrides whatever intuition we feel about it.
Freedhoff takes particular issue with the most radical part of intuitive eating – that a person’s weight is not important – saying the science shows that excess weight negatively affects the quality of health and that people can safely lose 10 per cent to 15 per cent of their weight and have improved quality of life. He has no issues with people who restrict their diets, to a degree, “I’m an egalitarian: If you are meeting your nutritional needs and you like the way you are living, then that’s good.”
But he does say that people should lead the healthiest life that they can enjoy, and that means different things to different people.
People who choose to eat intuitively may find that their weight goes up, especially if they weren’t eating enough calories or were banning a lot of food before they changed their diet. Rumsey explains that the first few months of intuitive eating can be rocky for some people as their weight will change, but after the adjustment period they reach their natural “set point,” which may be higher, or lower than they expected.
The peace intuitive eating has given Yazbek has opened up time for prioritizing more important things, such as her family, her friends and kids. At two sizes larger than when she began eating intuitively, her new body is curvier but still strong and slim. The fact that she no longer spends hours planning her meals, panicking about what she is going to eat, or searching for snacks that fit whatever restrictive diet she was in, makes it worth it. And the joy she now finds in listening and nourishing her body has infused her entire life.
“I honestly feel lighter now,” she says.