What if the secret to dieting is not to diet at all?
That’s the premise of several “dieting” books that have hit the shelves in 2019. Caroline Dooner’s bestselling The F*ck It Diet, Laura Thomas’s Just Eat It, Jenna Hollenstein’s Eat to Love, and celebrated Food Psych podcast host Christy Harrison’s forthcoming Anti-Diet all boast bright, simple covers and carry similar messages: that diets are damaging and even toxic to our bodies and minds, and that if we really want to take back ownership of our bodies, the only way out is to dispose of dieting altogether. The answer, according to these authors, is something called intuitive eating. And you don’t need a health shake, a meal plan, a fitness routine, or even a calorie-counting app to make it work. You simply need to listen to your body’s own natural hunger and fullness cues.
If you think that idea sounds too good to be true, you’re not alone in your skepticism. Despite the boom of anti-diet dieting, 2019 has also been the year of keto, celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston swear by intermittent fasting, and you need look no further than Instagram to find physical trainers who swear by paleo or parents who proudly caption images of the meals they prepare for their families with “#whole30mom.” Thanks to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, ridiculous menus like Helen Gurley Brown’s wine and egg diet that Vogue published in the 1970s can go viral.
But even if diet culture remains alive and well, the rising popularity of books that advocate abandoning your diet makes one thing clear: Consumers who are fed up with chronic dieting may be hungry for a revolution. The same social media platforms that can be used to spread diets are now becoming a space where people recommend intuitive eating-friendly podcasts like Food Psych, form supportive Intuitive Eating Facebook groups, and circulate cheerful illustrations like the one of intuitive eating (IE) cofounder Evelyn Tribole declaring that food is “not a moral issue.”
Radical as it may be, ditching diet culture isn’t actually such a new idea. The founders of the intuitive eating movement, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, published the first edition of their book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works over two decades ago, in 1995. According to Resch, she and Tribole were both registered dieticians who shared an office space. They were each working on their own separate writing projects, and when they realized their ideas overlapped, they decided to join forces. Their book—which has since spawned second, third, and fourth editions, and most recently the Intuitive Eating Workbook for Teens—was born.
Resch told the Daily Dot that she thinks the current spike in interest in intuitive eating is thanks in part to the Me Too movement. She explained: “The #MeToo movement… has [spread] the idea that our bodies are not to be controlled by other people, and I think that there is a correlation between women finally starting to stand up for themselves and not being physically or sexually abused [and saying no to diet culture]. I think that dieting is abusive and weight stigma is abusive.”
Resch’s hypothesis may not be such a big logical leap. It’s no secret that diet culture teaches us our bodies need to be restricted and controlled. So, in an era when women are saying they’re tired of having to fight for ownership of their bodies, it follows that we’d see a departure from traditional diet culture.
Just as women employed social media to create a collective swell of voices for Me Too, the new leaders of intuitive eating and their followers are vocal and passionate about sharing their dieting discoveries online. Likewise, though the aims of intuitive eating’s founders and its followers may be noble, the attention-seeking world of social media often muddies messages and warps images. The internet may be spreading the good word of intuitive eating, but it’s also spreading a new aspirational image of what “freedom” from dieting looks like. And it’s one that may not always be so healthy.
Intuitive eating founder Evelyn Tribole is grateful for the advances of social media. “I’m thrilled at how much attention it’s getting,” she told the Daily Dot. Facebook groups like Intuitive Eating for Beginners boast nearly 5,000 members. The Intuitive Eating and Body Love Support Group has over 6,000 members. And that influence has spilled over into the professional realm. “We now have over 900 professionals who are certified and trained in [intuitive eating] in 23 countries,” Tribole said. Meanwhile, over on Instagram, there are over 1.1 million posts hashtagged #intuitiveeating. “I couldn’t believe how many donuts I saw!” Evelyn Tribole said, laughing as she scrolled through the hashtag recently. The enthusiastic posting of cakes, pizzas, and burgers tickled her. “It’s like, oh my God, people get excited about what they can eat!”
Perhaps more so than #MeToo, intuitive eating’s online evolution mirrors the complications of the #BodyPositivity movement. Many have critiqued body positivity posts where thin women in skimpy clothing wax poetic about embracing the skin they’re in. The effect can be othering: Instead of creating the feelings of inclusion that the body positivity movement originally intended to evoke, anyone with a less than perfect figure is reminded that there is a hierarchy of which bodies are deemed beautiful and lovable and which are seen as less than. While there are largely image-free forums—like an intuitive eating subreddit where one can learn about intuitive eating without being inundated with aspirational images of thin women learning to love themselves—scroll through Instagram, and you’ll likely notice a distinct pattern.
Much like influencers post glam shots of the views from their hotel rooms, influential intuitive eaters post boastful images of all the indulgent treats they get to eat. Consider, for example, a picture intuitive eating coach Alissa Rumsey recently shared with her 22,000 followers of herself eating a chocolate-dipped key lime pie.
Rumsey’s caption reflects on rejecting “traditional” beauty standards, explaining that she prefers “joy.” Rumsey later edited the post to acknowledge her thin privilege after a follower called her out, but scroll down further, and you’ll see that the same post is promoting an online course called “Body Image Reboot.” According to Rumsey’s website, nutrition coaching starts at $299 a month, includes a 75-minute initial consultation, two 35-minute follow up sessions per month, copies of Intuitive Eating and the Intuitive Eating Workbook, weekly intuitive eating journal reviews and feedback, and “unlimited email support.”
Similarly, Claudia Felty, a “non-diet dietician” with over 50,000 followers, often posts split-screen images of “truths” and “myths” about the foods we deem healthy and unhealthy. In many posts, she shares images of herself feigning misery while dieting alongside herself grinning while not dieting. In one post, she holds a bowl of chocolates while grimacing anxiously under the label “silly.” Under the “smart” alternative, Felty smiles as she lifts a chocolate to her lips.
The posts illustrate what makes intuitive eating so enticing—and what makes it so confusing. IE coaches insist that they aren’t here to help you lose weight, but it’s impossible to disentangle any diet, even one where you avoid dieting, from issues of body image. After all, diets are sold to us as a way to shrink our bodies to a more ideal size. And, since so many of the women marketing intuitive eating today are doing so in very small bodies—while eating sugary, fatty, or high-carb foods like cake and pizza—it’s hard to imagine that its popularity isn’t also thanks to the highly Instagrammable ideal that it promises its clients. Intuitive eating seems to be saying you can have your cake and eat it, too.
So what is intuitive eating, really? Traditionally, the operating principle of diets is restriction. There are things you cannot eat in certain quantities for a specified period of time. Intuitive eating turns that principle on its head. All food is allowed, there is no portion-sizing, no calorie-counting, and there are no windows of time when eating is forbidden. You eat, quite simply, when you are hungry until you aren’t hungry anymore. And eating when you aren’t hungry is allowed, too. The idea isn’t to eat donuts for every meal, nor is it to stick to leafy greens every day, but rather to make room for all kinds of food and to eat according to what your body is actually asking for—a simple, but often challenging task for anyone who’s spent years ignoring her body’s signals.
In fact, intuitive eating is so deceptively simple that it can easily be warped into a tool for dieting. If you do a cursory search of Instagram for intuitive eating coaches, you’ll find women who call themselves intuitive eating experts who also say they’ll teach you how to lose weight. According to Resch, anyone who advertises such a service is perverting the true message of intuitive eating. “Intuitive eating is about radical acceptance,” she said, and she cautioned against anyone who presents intuitive eating as a tool for intentionally changing your body size.
Resch did, however, note that over the years she and Tribole have had to edit out weight-focused language to clarify their message. “We were not as evolved as we thought,” she explained. “We thought we were doing this really great thing—it was a non-diet approach, it was making peace with food—but there was an agenda, probably for some people, of ‘if you tune into your signals, you’ll get to a better body weight.’ A lot of people thought that.”
Author of The F*ck It Diet, Caroline Dooner, recalls that when she first read Intuitive Eating, she misinterpreted its message. “I read it when I was 18 years old and had seriously disordered eating, but had no idea that I did … So I interpreted it as a way to lose weight. [I thought] it was supposed to be about … listening [to your body] so closely that you eat the smallest possible amount.” Dooner explained that she rediscovered the principles of what she now recognizes as intuitive eating through many years of blogging and personal research. In a quest to understand her own complicated relationship with food, Dooner began blogging anonymously on her website, the F*ck It Diet, around 2012.
“I was writing about it and it was really scary to me because it was so new,” Dooner said. Dooner had pursued acting and found herself constantly obsessing over maintaining or reducing her weight.
It was only when she started to read about the Health At Every Size movement that she realized that, “The scapegoating of weight … can put us in a tumultuous relationship with food.” According to the Association for Size Diversity and Health, the principles of Health at Every Size are weight inclusivity, health enhancement, respectful care, eating for wellbeing, and life-enhancing movement. In other words, anyone at any size can pursue health through nutrition, care, and movement, with allowance for personal choices and without the goal of altering their body size. While there is no formal relationship between HAES and intuitive eating, the movements are often uttered in the same breath because of their shared body acceptance philosophies.
Although Dooner identifies neither as a dietician nor a scientist, she felt compelled to write about her journey. “What I am is a communicator and a writer. I felt comfortable to share the information [I was learning] and infusing it with humor.” She eventually began working as a life and nutritional coach. When she turned her blog into a book, she said she was inspired to share the emotional message she, personally, had been longing to hear. “Intuitive Eating has a wonderful message, but I couldn’t hear it from that book.” According to Dooner, the aggressive and funny language in her book is based on a desire to connect with the more emotional aspects of the challenges of making peace with food.
One of the big emotions Dooner mentioned repeatedly was fear. “People are scared of how hungry they are… I needed someone to tell me that [hunger] is normal. It actually makes sense if we reframe it.”
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Brooklyn, New York-based social worker Caitlin Steitzer practices the principles of intuitive eating with her clients, but she said she, too, has found that language is crucial to getting her message across. She has also found that choosing the wrong words may even deter clients who might benefit from the principles of intuitive eating. Last winter, Steitzer started an intuitive eating support group in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “When I called the group an intuitive eating group, no one signed up,” said Steitzer. “So I changed the name to ‘Overcoming Emotional Eating’ and suddenly so many people were interested.”
Rachel Coleman, a personal assistant based in Brooklyn, found intuitive eating through the recommendations of other women online. Coleman, who said she struggled with disordered eating in high school, had recently gotten engaged. “[In the past] I had lost a bunch of weight successfully on Weight Watchers and then worked for them, which was a nightmare,” she said. Having had a terrible experience, Coleman had quit Weight Watchers, but with her wedding approaching, she found herself feeling pressure to rejoin their program. “I consider myself very feminist and anti-captialist and all that and I was like, ‘It’s bullshit that people have to lose weight for their weddings.’ But then I found myself rejoining Weight Watchers because I was paranoid that if I didn’t have a bunch of rules, I wasn’t going to fit into my dress. That was my diet bottom.” When she turned to her Facebook groups for guidance, podcasts like Food Psych and books like Intuitive Eating and The F*ck It Diet came highly recommended.
Excited by these new ideas, Coleman began posting pictures of her anti-diet journey on Instagram and captioning them with hashtags like #thefuckitdiet, #antidiet, and #antidietbride. At first, Coleman said, she marveled at her own bravery. But she soon came to realize that she had been ignorant of her privilege. “When I made the decision that I wasn’t going to lose weight for the wedding, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m an activist! This is incredible!’ But then within a few months I had to realize that my body is not the [most] important body in the conversation.”
For Coleman, who describes herself as being in a “medium-sized body,” listening to Harrison interview diverse guests on the Food Psych podcast has been instrumental in raising her awareness about fatphobia and fat activism. “The social justice component has become huge to me. My eyes are open to the fat phobia of the world and I can’t stand idly by anymore. At first, I wanted to have peace and now… I feel like I can never diet again because if I do I’m playing into white supremacy.”
The argument that diet culture is racist has been gaining traction in the wellness community in recent years. Possibly the most in-depth look at this theory is Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Strings, who explained her research on an episode of Food Psych earlier this year, traces the roots of diet culture as far back as the 18th century, when “fatness was derided as evidence of African ‘savagery’ and immorality. Slenderness, by contrast was considered evidence of Christian elevation and Anglo-saxon superiority.” To put it more plainly, Strings’ research shows that fatphobia was never really rooted in science, or even nobler aims of improving health, so much as it was about categorizing bodies and races as superior or inferior.
In the early days of The F*ck It Diet blog, Dooner discovered that she wasn’t the only nontraditional researcher in the world of intuitive eating. Comedian Margaret Cho had blogged about her own version of “the fuck-it diet” in 2003. Cho also did a bit about her diet onstage.
In the bit, Cho describes a process of going “within” as she contemplates whether or not to eat food. She inhales deeply before saying “Ah, fuck it!” and pantomimes eating the food anyway. It’s a hilarious bit, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that while she tell it, Cho looks remarkably slender. On her blog, Cho explains in earnest that she had been asked the secret to her recent weight loss. But, she says, the secret was that there was no secret. She had quit chronic dieting and it had, temporarily, led to weight gain, but it had also eventually led to a better relationship with food, which ultimately caused her to lose a significant amount of weight.
Cho’s anecdote points to the deceptive allure of intuitive eating. While its founders and many of its modern leaders insist that the goal of intuitive eating should never be weight loss, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that the most visible women preaching this message today happen to be pretty, white, and very thin. Would the public be as receptive to their messages if they weren’t? Or, perhaps more importantly, would a publisher even consider such ideas marketable enough to offer a book deal if the woman pitching them was a woman of color in a larger body?
Dooner acknowledges that her privilege is real. For now, she has chosen to not use her image as much as possible. Her book’s cover is simply its title in splashy colorful letters across a black background. In addition to being aware of how she markets her book, Dooner said, “I think it’s just important for me to never claim to be an authority on the fat experience or fat politics because that is really something I need to defer to other people and their experience.”
Kara Loewentheil, a body-positive life coach and host of the Unf*ck Your Brain podcast, practices intuitive eating. But she struggled with it for years before getting to a place of greater comfort. She reflected that initially, the appearance of her own intuitive eating coach, Jenna Hollenstein, both attracted her to the program and made her feel as though intuitive eating might not “work” for her. “I for sure felt conflicted,” Loewentheil said. “I could feel the power of what she was teaching me, but my brain was like, ‘OK but when you stopped restricting, you ended up smaller than I’ve ever been, even when I was starving myself.’”
According to Loewentheil, it took years of her own thought-work to get more comfortable with the principles of Health at Every Size and intuitive eating. And while she acknowledges that the mainstream images of the intuitive eating movement are thin white women, she doesn’t anticipate that it will always be that way. Said Loewentheil, “We need messengers of all shapes and sizes and appearances. I benefit from white privilege, I’m hourglass-shaped and femmey, but I’m for sure fat and I do have a successful coaching business. Part of it is the bias in the public and some of it is the book publishing bias. I believed I couldn’t be a fat life coach for years until I changed that thought, and now I’ve found the opposite to be true.”
In episode 190 of the Food Psych podcast, Christy Harrison interviews Caroline Dooner for the third time. Over the course of the episode, Dooner and Harrison marvel at how much their lives have changed since their first conversation over four years ago. At one point Dooner laughs, “I feel like a different person!” The conversation feels authentic, but it points to what, perhaps, the new wave of Intuitive Eating books and coaches are selling us: the promise of transformation. Even if we are no longer being sold the idea that we need to change our bodies to be happy, it’s possible to pin a new, idealistic, and equally unattainable fantasy onto this shifted model of wellness.
According to Resch, however, the key to intuitive eating isn’t focusing on altering yourself or your life. It’s centering feelings of satisfaction. Resch, who is now in her 70s, called eating “one of the greatest pleasures in life.” She added, “When you’re having a meal and your taste buds are bursting and it looks great and smells great—it’s a wonderful experience. I think we have to accept that this is one of our rights to have pleasure. And I think intuitive eating brings you to that pleasure.”