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Intuited: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
I was born an intuitive eater, and so were you. Crying to let a caregiver know you were hungry and pushing away the food source when you were full: eating intuitively. Diving into a slice of birthday cake as a kid and not worrying about restricting yourself from sweets afterwards as a consequence: eating intuitively.

For me, this was a way of life probably until college. I grew up in a house with parents who didn't have rules about what or how often I ate. Being in a thin body meant I avoided other folks comments on my weight as well, but when I left home, the diet culture noise got to me. And I started to overthink how I ate. A friend always started her lunch at the salad bar. Should I? My suitemates didn't keep carby snacks in their dorm room. Am I over snacking? My fears about food and completely normal body changes grew all the way through my 20s, until I finally came across the principles of intuitive eating on social media, which brought me back to a way of eating that used to be so familiar. One based on my own body's cues. This is Embodied. I am Anita Rao.

It seems so simple. Listen to your body about when and what to eat, but when you're taught to believe that losing weight is the key to health and controlling your food is how you lose weight. It's hard to dial it back to the basics. So how do we move from dieting to approaching food in a new way? It starts with understanding our brains.

Sandra Aamodt
So from an evolutionary perspective, the function of your brain's weight regulation system is basically to keep you from starving to death. Because over hundreds of thousands of years, that has been the major threat to most people. Food abundance is very recent and still globally pretty rare.

Anita Rao
That's Sandra Aamodt, neuroscientist and author of the book "Why Diets Make Us Fat." For Sandra, studying neuroscience was the key to unlocking her own toxic relationship with dieting. She realized that her body's resistance to weight loss efforts was it functioning exactly as it was supposed to.

Sandra Aamodt
So when you lose weight — and this is true whether you do it on purpose, or because there's a famine — your brain declares a state of emergency. And it's job one is to get you back to what it considers to be your normal weight. There are two very effective tools that it uses to do that. One is that your appetite increases, so you become more motivated to seek out food. And the other is that you actually become more fuel efficient. So you can walk farther on the same number of calories to look for food. That totally makes sense if there's a famine, but if you're trying to lose weight deliberately — it's not very helpful.

Anita Rao
Our brains are constantly attempting to keep our body weight within a span of about 10 to 15 pounds. This is what Sandra calls our defended range. Drop below the defended range and that state of emergency kicks in trying to get your weight back up — rise above it, and you'll burn more energy and have less appetite, but it turns out there is a difference between the body's response when you're on one end of the defended range versus the other.

Sandra Aamodt
The difference between them is that on the low end, your brain is incredibly persistent. Six years it's been measured after somebody has lost a lot of weight, their brain is still really pushing hard to get them to gain it back. The metabolism is still suppressed. The appetite is still up. In contrast, if you end up weighing more, then your brain will try for a couple of months to push you back down. But after a while, it seems to adjust and decide: Okay, that's our new normal.

Anita Rao
Well, the interesting thing about all of this, too, is that — you say our brains have decided through genetics, maybe through early sleep patterns, through stress, through all of these factors — that this is an ideal weight range for our body, but then when we try to push ourselves to lower the range, the body fights back so hard that it almost seems like this weight cycling is part of what gets the body to then keep moving this range higher and higher. Is that true that weight cycling does, in fact, contribute to that range going higher and higher over time?

Sandra Aamodt
It can. So when scientists want to study binge eating in the laboratory, the way that they can reliably induce binge eating in rats and mice is by repeatedly food restricting the animals three, four times. They have them lose 10 or 20% of their weight, gain it back, lose it — and then you give the animals something really tasty. Oreo cookies or Captain Crunch — and the animals that have been repeatedly dieted like that will basically just stuff themselves until they can't eat anymore. It sounds kind of familiar to me from my own history.

Anita Rao
So many people have heard from family or friends or doctors that, you know: If you just lose a few pounds, you're going to feel happier and healthier. And from your research, your own experience shows us it really doesn't work because our brains are wired to keep our bodies in a particular way, and weight loss doesn't necessarily mean greater health. So what actually does have a greater impact on our health metrics?

Sandra Aamodt
I think we've been grabbing this problem totally from the wrong end. There are a bunch of straightforward things that everybody knows will improve health. And that includes exercise; it includes getting proper nutrition — like eating a lot of vegetables — getting enough sleep; reducing stress. Turns out, all of those things work just as well in people of any body weight. So if it's that difficult to lose weight and keep it off, why are we asking people to do the very hardest possible thing? When something as straightforward as going out and taking a brisk walk for half an hour a day has a much stronger effect on health. Almost like it isn't about health at all.

Anita Rao
Learning the science of how our bodies respond to food restriction has been so eye opening, and it makes every failed diet attempt in my own life make so much sense. But learning and actually doing something with that knowledge are two different things. Sandra said once you learn through dieting to ignore your body's cues about food, it can be really hard to start hearing them again — and that's where intuitive eating comes in.

Vincci Tsui
Intuitive eating is a term and a framework that was coined and created by two dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resche. And in intuitive eating, there are 10 principles, and all 10 of the principles either work toward boosting our ability to re-attune to our inner cues or inner wisdom. And also, I think taking away some of those barriers to attuning to our inner wisdom.

Anita Rao
That's Vincci Tsui, a registered dietician and intuitive eating counselor. Those 10 principles she mentioned include things like rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger and feeling your fullness — all in order to have a peaceful and respectful relationship to food and your body. Vincci's private practice is all about helping her clients understand these principles and get started on their own intuitive eating journeys.

Vincci Tsui
I often start with telling people to kind of build a foundation or almost like a scaffolding of eating. There is some structured eating involved, and so when I talk to folks often it is: Are they eating something about every three to four hours, and are their meals and snacks including a variety of foods? If they have access to those things it helps us to then build that foundation or structure. And then from there — so you're starting to practice eating every three to four hours — that gives us a cue to check in: Okay, well, before you eat, check in with your body. Do you feel hungry — or not even do you feel hungry — but: What does it feel like when you are about to eat? Because oftentimes, and I think, even though for a lot of people, we experience hunger as sensations kind of in our stomach. For some people, it can feel very different. Like even for some people, it's noticing that they have more thoughts about food, or noticing that their mood shifts. They get hangry and cranky. Those are maybe some of the more subtle signs of hunger that people aren't necessarily picking up on, or that they've learned to not pick up on. And then I guess with fullness, it's sort of that same idea. It's like: Okay, well after you eat, checking in on what that feels like in your body, and also giving yourself permission — like if you're not feeling completely full, to eat more, which I think is often a challenge for people because there are so many, I guess, societal scripts as to what is considered an appropriate amount to eat, what are considered appropriate times to eat — those sorts of things.

Anita Rao
I know what you might be thinking, because I had trouble with this when I first started learning about intuitive eating. If you follow this principle of eating whatever you want, whenever you want it — what's going to stop you from eating a pint of Talenti ice cream every single day for the rest of your life?

Vincci Tsui
This principle, this idea of making peace with food is definitely the scariest for a lot of people. And I think part of what makes it scary too, is that like, a lot of times when people do try this on their own, their fears sort of come true, right? That initially there is often this like — some people describe it as last supper eating, or that it just kind of feels like that's the only thing they want. And it is because your body or subconscious or inner wisdom or — whatever you want to call it — is really trying to make up for years and years of restricting that food, whether it's physically restricting it like actually not eating it, or that mental restriction as well like telling yourself that you shouldn't have it — that it's bad that you're having it. All of those things are forms of restriction that your body is kind of responding to, but I guess with that — there is this idea of habituation that we do see, and habituation is a bit of a tricky thing in and of itself. Because I think sometimes people go into it thinking: Oh, I'm just going to eat ice cream and peanut butter every day until I get sick of it, and that's what habituation is. And it's not so much about getting sick of something, because you might just really love ice cream and peanut butter for the rest of your life. That's not a bad life to have, and so I know Evelyn Tribole, kind of often, will use the 'I Love You' sort of analogy to talk about habituation and this idea of like: when you think about if you have a romantic partner, the first time you say I love you to them, there's like a lot of build up and anticipation. Because who's gonna say it first? And are they going to say it back, and like when you finally say: I love you — it's almost like a next step forward in your relationship. And I think that's the same emotional charge that sometimes people have when it comes to food. Whereas over time, if you've been with your partner for a long time, you just kind of say: I love you, bye, when you're hanging up the phone, in the house, that kind of idea. And it's not because like you don't love them, but it's just that emotional charge surrounding those words like isn't necessarily there anymore. And that's sort of what habituation is with food. It's really just about taking the power of that emotional power, that emotional charge away from the food so that all foods are morally equal.

Anita Rao
To build off Vincci's metaphor, every relationship takes time and effort. And that's definitely true for our relationship with food, even with the intuitive eating principles as a guide. That was the case for Virginia Sole-Smith, the author of "The Eating Instinct" and the newsletter "Burnt Toast." Virginia practices intuitive eating today, but she spent years dieting and trying to make her body smaller.

Virginia Sole-Smith
The turning point for me was when my older daughter was born in 2013. She was born with a rare congenital heart condition and sort of an unexpected side effect was that she stopped eating completely in response to the medical trauma she experienced. And that process was really transformative for me, personally, because it made me realize just how much so many of us don't feel like food is safe, and don't feel like we can trust ourselves around food. And what I learned in the process of helping her heal from that trauma and learn to eat again — is that eating doesn't work if we don't feel safe, if we don't derive comfort and pleasure from it. Once you can bring back that 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.

Anita Rao
For college student Bobby Kasmire, intuitive eating helped him stop putting food into restrictive categories.

Bobby Kasmire
For the longest time, I looked at foods as — this food is good, and this food is bad, and you shouldn't eat this, you should eat this. And intuitive eating has really opened up my knowledge to understanding that — sure, there are some foods that are naturally more nutritious than others, but that doesn't make them inherently bad for you. Because all foods provide you with energy. I always had a tough time with stopping when I'm full, because in the back of my mind, for some reason, I thought like: I gotta have as much food as possible now because like, I'm not gonna be able to have it later. Because I thought these foods were bad for me, so I wanted to eat all them now and restrict them later, but realizing that and recognizing that: Oh, like these foods aren't necessarily bad for me, like, that's okay. Like if I'm full, I'm full — I can always go back and have these foods later. That's also something that I never really thought of before.

Anita Rao
The goal of intuitive eating is to get beyond the principles to a place where eating just feels like a part of life and not something that takes up so much mental energy. The question I always return back to when I get stuck on my own intuitive eating journey is if: I weren't thinking about food, what else would it be able to give my time and attention to? That question is something that's also motivated Christyna Johnson.

Christyna Johnson
Because I wasn't so fixated on what I was or wasn't eating, [or] the next time I was going to eat, I had a lot more space to pay attention to my relationships. I had more space to do things that I enjoy more. On a professional front, it gave me space to think about the change I wanted to make in the world, but I had the mental capacity to do it. So I wasn't so focused on what I was or wasn't eating.

Anita Rao
Christyna is an anti-diet registered dietitian, just like Vincci. She helps her clients confront the toxic messages they've learned from diet culture, but she also knows that a complete rejection of food rules isn't always possible, especially if you have a chronic condition like celiac disease or diabetes. But it is still possible to eat intuitively.

Christyna Johnson
Understanding — whether that's celiac disease or some sort of chronic illness — that's still part of your health and needs to be honored. But that doesn't mean that you aren't still allowed to find pleasure in food. Because oftentimes, when someone has celiac disease, or some sort of chronic illness, there's this sort of punishment that comes along with — especially when it's chronic illness — you did this to yourself. And so now, you must be relegated to not enjoying what you eat as a form of punishment or penance for living with this chronic illness. And so reminding them that this is a part of the health that is important for them to honor, but also: You're still allowed to enjoy food. You're not relegated to the sort of life of punishment that comes with food, and helping them navigate those spaces while still taking care to manage whether they are having any sort of difficulties with managing their illnesses, or making sure that they are staying safe if they have a sort of food allergy. Or in the case of celiac disease, autoimmune disorder — managing to make sure that part's not flaring up, but that they are still nourishing themselves; adequately enjoying what they're eating, having fun and not feeling like they can't connect to people over food because they are so off in the corner with their own punishing foods.

Anita Rao
That's really helpful. And Vincci, I would love to ask you that question and maybe specifically tailored to diabetes. I know for folks in larger bodies who have diabetes — often step one from many medical providers is: Lose x pounds that will help you regulate your blood sugar, and we can go from there to talk about next steps. What would your approach be for someone who comes in with a condition like diabetes?

Vincci Tsui
Yeah, I would say with diabetes, experimenting and consent are two very important things. And so it might be looking at how their carbohydrate intake is spread out throughout the day, or it could be looking at combining high carbohydrate foods with protein sources, and so that helps to slow down our digestion and also makes and kind of helps to blunt that blood sugar spike. And so I will often give people: Okay, well, these are the things that we sort of see in the evidence that was helpful for managing blood sugar — Is there anything there that looks like that's something that might fit for you? But it's really about experimenting, giving people choice, and giving people consent to do things that are evidence based, as opposed to pursuing something that's not safe or reliable or effective.

Anita Rao
These practices that Christyna and Vincci have for making sure a body is healthy and happy, there's a phrase for them in the intuitive eating world: gentle nutrition. It's the 10th and final principle, and it can be good to go back to as a reminder that eating is a holistic activity that serves the body and the mind.

Christyna Johnson
I think gentle nutrition is what some would perceive to be elusive, sometimes, especially if they've come from this very long history of dieting or diet culture. And this sort of thought of like: How is it possible to approach nutrition without the rules and regulations? And what I will often teach people is — this is a way of looking internally to figure out how you want to nourish yourself in terms of paying attention to 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? Or if someone's coming in and they're struggling with constipation — well, where's their fiber at? And how do you take these things in without feeling like it's a rule of like: Oh, you have to eat whole grain bread. You don't have to eat whole grain bread if that doesn't sound fun to you. What about other ways to have whole grains? Are there ways that sound more interesting or satisfying for you to have that whole grain and not feel like you're boxed into this particular rule?

Anita Rao
Here's another important takeaway for your intuitive eating journey. Be patient with yourself. The messages you've internalized about how, when or what to eat are deeply ingrained, layered with trauma, shame, and likely a lot of internalized fatphobia. Pushing back on rules and restrictions you developed — perhaps in an effort to protect yourself from the pain and judgment of others — will take time. And be patient with everyone else, because diet culture is a water we're all swimming in — as listener Adwoa Asante has seen over and over.

Adwoa Asante
It's really hard to talk about it with friends and family who are still dieting, because I now don't exercise food rules in my diet. And it's really hard to have conversation, because there are some friends where it takes up the entire conversation. I could ask: How was your day? And they will go through every sugar or carb or piece of bread that they avoided that day, or what they plan to eat for dinner. And I'm always trying to liberate myself, always trying to get free of being bound by some of the food rules — whether they're explicit or implicit and trying to express to them that if you withhold from yourself, you're more likely to binge it. I've tried to explain this framework to my friends, and for the most part, they just don't understand — or as one person said: It was just permission for me to eat however I wanted, which in some cases is true.

Anita Rao
That diet messaging will never truly go away, but there are ways to be careful consumers of it, especially when it comes to intuitive eating. Here's author Virginia Sole-Smith, again.

Virginia Sole-Smith
I hear from readers saying: I know diets don't work. I don't want to be dieting anymore, but what about this plan? What about — insert whatever new diet trend here — and what they want me to tell them is that: This one is different. Because that's what the marketing of the plan is telling them. This one's not a diet. This is a lifestyle change. This one's using science. This is going to be something different. And it's never different. They're all diets. They're all selling you restriction and selling you the myth that you need to make your body smaller in order to be a happier person. I'm also clear that intuitive eating itself cannot be used as a diet. I think there's a tendency to think: Okay, well if I just focus on my hunger and fullness cues then I'll lose weight. 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.

Anita Rao
If you'd rather not discuss diets with your friends, that's a boundary you can set, Virginia says. And if you do hear any toxic diet talk, it's okay to speak up. Here's what college student Bobby does in those situations.

Bobby Kasmire
You know, if I'm out to eat with my family or something like that, and one of my family members will go like: Oh, I'll go on an extra long walk tomorrow to burn this off — say: Hey, you don't have to do that. That's fine. Like, it's okay to eat foods that are less nutritious than others. Like, it's okay. You don't have to go burn that off. Like, you honored a craving, that's all that matters. It's like listening to what your body needs and what it wants, so if I ever overhear someone saying: Oh, I'll be healthy today and get a salad — I'll be like: Well, if you're not craving a salad, don't get a salad. Get what you want, because it's gonna be okay in the end. I promise you.

Anita Rao
The intuitive eating path is so different for all of these folks and benefited them each uniquely, but the principles of intuitive eating are also about rejecting diet culture and oppression on a much larger scale, and defining health in a way that includes all bodies. Here's Christyna.

Christyna Johnson
When we think about intuitive eating, we solely see it as a sort of surface level way of nourishing oneself, and then hopefully approaching body image in a way that's more inclusive. But I think if we start to dig a little bit more underneath that we can really see the roots of where this is coming from, and how our current understanding of health, especially in Western societies, was never meant to include people of color. It was never meant to include disabled people or people in larger bodies. And so if we keep that in mind, then it becomes this sort of rebellious act of taking care of yourself and being able to say: No, I'm allowed to exist. I'm allowed to exist as I am. And I'm gonna take care of myself in a way that I think is worthy and honorable, because I deserve to be cared for in this way.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina public radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

Josie Taris produced the show with editorial help from Kaia Findlay and Amanda Magnus. Audrey Smith also produces for us and Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla wrote our theme music. This is part two of our three part New Year's special series: Resolved. It's all about diet culture, and how you can reset your relationship with food movement in your body in this new year. We have a discussion guide that accompanies each episode of this series. It gives you questions to think about as you listen, shares articles and resources to learn more about all of the topics and gives you more info on all the guests you met in the show. You can find that at our website embodiedwunc.org.

The show is supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup, weaverstreetmarket.coop. Until next time, I'm Anita Rao — taking on the taboo with you.