Episode Two: Relearning How to Eat
How has my relationship with food changed throughout my life?
We are all born intuitive eaters, though most of us shift away from this practice at some point during our lives — often around the same time we are introduced to diet culture.
But no matter how long it’s been since you last had a positive relationship with food, it’s possible to tune back into your body and reclaim the practice of eating intuitively. For dietician Vincci Tsui, the turning point was realizing that there was no way to reconcile her belief in Health at Every Size with her work in a bariatric clinic: “I remember there were comments from fat people who said: I couldn't trust a dietician who worked in bariatric surgery and said that they were Health at Every Size. So, that was really a wake-up call to me that I couldn't try to straddle both sides.” Author Virginia Sole-Smith returned to intuitive eating by modeling for her daughter that comfort and pleasure could be derived from food in the wake of medical trauma: “Once you can bring back comfort that we are hardwired to seek from food, then you find that the rest of your relationship with food starts to fall into place.”
Let’s dig deeper:
- When was the last time your relationship to food and eating felt neutral or positive? How do you remember experiencing life at that time?
- How would you describe your relationship to food and eating today?
- What types of foods have you been taught to avoid, and where did you learn this?
- What events, relationships, beliefs, or forces (whether internal or external) have led to turning points in your own relationship with food and eating?
Why don’t diets work?
Our bodies are wired for survival, which means that when we restrict our food intake, our bodies function the same as they would during a time of famine. “Your brain declares a state of emergency,” says neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt. “And its job one is to get you back to what it considers to be your normal weight.” In order to get back to this normal weight, our bodies motivate and make it possible for us to find food by increasing our appetite and limiting the number of calories we burn when we move — neither of which is particularly helpful when you’re attempting to lose weight.
Another reason restrictive diets don’t work is because of something known as our “defended range,” a term for the span of about 10-15 pounds that a body considers to be its ideal weight. Research shows that when a person’s weight fluctuates outside of this defended range in either direction, their body will use every possible resource to return itself to that 10-15 pound span. It is possible to change this defended range, but this process can take years — by which point most people who engaged in restrictive dieting will have gained back even more weight than they lost in the first place. In other words, recognizing that diets don’t work also means trusting that our bodies know best when it comes to our survival.
Let's dig deeper:
- Reflect on the different diets you’ve tried. What were those like for you?
- How did your body react to those diets, in the short AND long term?
- What food rules do you currently still hold, even if you aren’t practicing what you would consider a “diet”?
- If you’ve attempted to change your weight, what have you noticed about how your body maintains its defended range?
- In what ways do your current eating patterns incorporate or work against your body’s built-in survival instincts?
- What do you notice about your internal dialogue about food when you are dieting versus when you aren’t?
- If you were to let go of the attempt to change your body size, what would you have MORE time and energy for?
What’s really guiding my eating habits?
Diets promote the idea that our eating habits should be dictated not by hunger or fullness, but by a desire to reach or maintain a “healthy” weight. Although intuitive eating isn’t a diet in and of itself, it can be challenging not to approach it from this same diet-centered lens. “There's a tendency to think: Okay, well, if I just focus on my hunger and fullness cues, then I'll lose weight,” says author Virginia Sole-Smith. “What we really need to do is separate the act of eating from weight management, because when we focus on that, it truly disconnects us from being able to feed ourselves in a way that's joyful and sustainable.”
Eating habits can also be influenced by factors like cravings or even the weather, and dieticians assure us that this is completely normal. Christyna Johnson describes how during hot summers in Texas she is more likely to crave cold and crunchy foods, whereas during the winter she might be inclined to eat something warm, savory, and creamy — adding that the practice of intuitive eating means recognizing these preferences and honoring them. Eating habits can also be influenced or even restricted by factors outside of diet culture, such as food and economic insecurity or chronic illnesses like diabetes or celiac disease that prevent the body from processing certain foods.
Let's dig deeper:
Dietician Christyna Johnson emphasizes the importance of, when possible, identifying what you’re hungry for by checking in with your body. She recommends asking yourself questions like these: “How am I feeling? Am I feeling energized? Am I feeling like I have what I need to get through the day, or am I feeling like something's missing?”
Dr. Sandra Aamodt is a neuroscientist and science writer. She is the author of Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession with Weight Loss.
Vincci Tsui is a former bariatric dietitian turned certified intuitive eating counselor and body-liberation advocate. She is the author of The Mindful Eating Workbook: Simple Practices for Nurturing a Positive Relationship with Food.
- The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
- “Why diets don’t usually work” (TED Talk) Sandra Aamodt
- “What is Noom and does it really work?” (article) - Virginia Sole-Smith
- “How to Fight Diet Culture at your family dinner table” (article) - Virginia Sole-Smith
- “Let’s Talk about Weight” (blog post) - Vincci Tsui
- “Intuitive Eating for the Culture” (podcast episode) - Christyna Johnson