How to know if it’s diet culture or intuitive eating: 5 telltale signs that it’s not intuitive eating.

January 6th, 2020 by Sara Upson

Eating Well selected intuitive eating as the number one food and wellness trend for 2020.   It’s included on the same list as CBD and grain free foods. Last year’s number one trend was cauliflower everything…

On one hand I’m really excited for more people to learn about intuitive eating.  On the other hand I dread the diet culture manipulation, co-opting of intuitive eating and turning it into something it’s not.  I can’t even imagine how the authors of intuitive eating must feel!

It’s scary to think about something so life altering, impactful, and evidence based to be labeled a trend.  Fashion is a trend, technology trends, music trends- but a way of eating consistent with how you were born- that helps you find freedom from food and improve health isn’t a trend.  It’s something that’s ongoing

Knowing that diet culture will try to capitalize on intuitive eating as a trend this post is all about how to spot the diet culture version (or fake) intuitive eating.

Here are 5 signs that it’s diet culture, not intuitive eating.  

1.  It focuses on or promises weight loss.

Intuitive eating is not about weight loss.  The number one way you’ll see diet culture manipulate intuitive eating is by promising weight loss.  That if you follow the 10 principles and truly listen to your body and eat intuitively then your body will intuitively lose weight.  No, no no.  If someone is selling intuitive eating as weight loss- don’t walk away- run away.

In the earlier editions of IE the authors did talk more about weight loss as an outcome BUT they have moved away from this connection and I predict will do so even more in the 4th edition out this May.  (So only read the 3rd or 4th edition.)

Intuitive eating focuses on changing your relationship with food.  It’s about changing how you think about food, your relationship with food how you use food, how you feel about food, your behaviors around food, your connections with food, your body image, your thoughts and feelings around exercise- and so much more.  The diet culture version of intuitive eating will continuously try to make it about weight loss or changing your body.

Intuitive eating is not about changing your body.   The truth is, with intuitive eating you’ll have one of three results: gain weight, lose weight, or stay the same.  And we won’t know what’s going to happen- and we don’t attach to the outcome because it interferes with your ability to trust your body’s wisdom around food and become an intuitive eater.

A focus on changing your body directly interferes with the process of intuitive eating and is harmful.  The pursuit of weight loss directly interferes with your ability to connect with your body and become an intuitive eater.  It’s hard (if not impossible) to honor body cues if you’re focused on a clothing size or number on the scale.  

Making intuitive eating about weight will likely make you feel like you’ve failed.  If the definition of success with intuitive eating is weight loss (it’s not) but per the diet culture version it is- then you’ll feel like you’ve failed if you don’t lose weight.  Furthermore, the focus on weight will make you feel like intuitive eating isn’t working.  It will make you feel like a failure and you’ll likely convince yourself you couldn’t do intuitive eating “right”. 

The focus on weight isn’t intuitive eating it’s a diet. You can’t fail at intuitive eating.  There’s no right or wrong path.  Know that the focus on weight isn’t intuitive eating, it’s diet culture and it’s harmful on so many levels.

2.  Only allows eating for hunger and fullness.

Part of intuitive eating is reconnecting to hunger and fullness- but it’s only a small part of intuitive eating.  There are so many people/diet plans that teach hunger and fullness as a diet.  That you can only eat when you’re hungry and that you should immediately stop when full.  This isn’t at all what intuitive eating is about.  

Intuitive eating isn’t limited to hunger and fullness.  Intuitive eating is much more flexible and allows space for many different reasons to eat, and certainly beyond hunger and fullness.  After all, hunger and fullness are only 2 of 10 principles in the book- that means there are 8 other principles included!  

large blue circle with 8 principles of intuitive eating, small blue circle with hunger and fullness (2 or 10 principles)

Intuitive includes so much nuance for exploration around food and eating.  Intuitive eating is about reconnecting with your body, discovering hunger and fullness sensations AND also about practical elements of eating even when you’re not hungry, self- care, taste hunger- eating just because it sounds good, eating with emotions.  It’s also about enjoying more food because it tastes good.  

A sole focus on hunger and fullness isn’t intuitive eating, it’s a diet.  Hunger based eating is just another diet that focuses on eating when hungry- it’s not intuitive eating.   The scope of intuitive eating goes well beyond hunger and fullness. Just diet culture limits it to hunger and fullness- and again- it’s harmful.

3.   Includes food labels & says that you should intuitively choose healthy food.

Intuitive eating creates neutrality with food and allows space for all food preferences.  The Diet culture version of intuitive eating continues to label and categorize food as good/bad, healthy or unhealthy.  

The diet culture version of intuitive eating gives you permission to identify what you want, but then says you should “intuitively” have something else.  That if a food is “bad” or “unhealthy” that you can only acknowledge that you want it, but that you shouldn’t actually eat it (unless it’s your cheat day- another telltale sign that it’s not intuitive eating). 

Intuitive eating includes the satisfaction factor and permission to choose foods that you want, period.  If you want a hamburger you have a hamburger, If you want pizza, pizza, ice cream, ice cream, salad, salad, cottage cheese, cottage cheese- you get the point.  If you can get the food then you do.  (It’s not always possible to get exactly what you want- but if you can within reason, then you do.)

Intuitive eating does actually include eating what you want, when you want (in addition to many other factors) and holds space for body connection and desires.  Diet culture manipulates this to be recognizing what you want and then either choosing something else or creating a low calorie, substituted version of what it is you desire.  

It’s common to fear what would happen if you gave yourself full permission to eat what you wanted when you wanted.  The belief is that you would eat cookies, candy, cakes, pasta, breads, (whatever your forbidden food is) all the time, but it’s not what happens.  You certainly might have those more in the beginning and in the exploration phase- but intuitive eating will balance your eating with permission to eat all foods.  

A focus on labeling foods, replacing foods, or “intuitively” choosing something else isn’t intuitive eating- it’s a diet.  It’s permission and seeking satisfaction that creates food neutrality, balance and true intuitive eating.  You don’t have to replace foods or “choose something else.”  That’s not intuitive eating.  It’s diet culture- and so harmful.

4.  Includes restriction of any kind

Intuitive eating does not rely on food rules of any kind to tell you what, when or how much to eat.  Intuitive eating helps you connect to internal body cues to know when to eat and what you want.  Furthermore it creates space for curiosity and compassion and says there’s no right or wrong.

Diet culture versions of intuitive eating will say that it’s intuitive eating but then include restriction.  For example:

  • you can intuitively eat whatever you want as long as it fits in your macros, points , or calorie allotment. 
  • you can intuitively eat whatever you want as long as you do so between the hours of X:00am- x:00pm.  
  • you can intuitively eat whatever you want as long as… (or whatever diet culture rule associated with that way of eating.)

You can’t intuitively eat and restrict.  The first principle of intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality and the examples above ARE the diet mentality.  Not only do they depend on external ways of eating (something that tells you what, when, or how much to eat) but they’re also are the antithesis of intuitive eating.  It’s diet culture and it’s harmful.

**Side note- intuitive eating can work with true food intolerances, allergies or medical concerns where restriction is necessary.  Yes, it’s more complicated and it uses a lot of self compassion, awareness, connection, and honoring your body.  I encourage you to speak with a well-trained intuitive eating professional to explore this more.  

5.  Has a timeframe or end point

Intuitive eating is about the process of reconnecting to your body- about curiosity and exploration.  It doesn’t have a timeline or time frame.  There’s no end point or a finish line that you cross.  There’s no right or wrong way.  And intuitive eating certainly doesn’t come with a 10 week or 3 month promise or a plan to cycle to something else before or after intuitive eating 

It takes time to become an intuitive eater.  Part of the process of becoming an intuitive eater is self compassion and allowing yourself as much time as you need without judgment.    The time it takes you to make peace with food is different for everyone and no one can promise you a specific time frame.  If someone is promising a time frame- it’s not intuitive eating, it’s diet culture.  

Having a timeline interferes with intuitive eating and is harmful.  A time line or a plan to give intuitive eating a certain amount of time will automatically create stress and deprivation- which interferes with intuitive eating.   Intuitive eating is about the process, the curiosity, discovery, exploration, self compassion, the learning and connection- not an end result, specific date, or time frame.  That’s diet culture.  

So if you see intuitive eating advertised with weight loss, a sole focus on hunger and fullness, food labels or “intuitively” choosing other foods, restriction, or a time frame- it’s not intuitive eating.  It’s diet culture and it’s harmful because all of these directly interfere with intuitive eating.  

It’s diet culture that will make “intuitive eating” a trend because what diet culture presents isn’t actually intuitive eating.  And consequently, when someone goes on the pathway to become a diet culture version of intuitive eating- it won’t work and they’ll feel like a failure- like intuitive eating couldn’t even work for them- when in reality it was never intuitive eating to begin with.

So while I’m glad more people might learn about intuitive eating,  I’m also saddened and frustrated that people will stop writing their keto cookbooks and instead start writing about the latest trend when in reality- it’s not intuitive eating and they have no idea what they’re talking about!

Even worse, I’m sure diet culture will find other ways to manipulate intuitive eating.  These are the big ones I see frequently.  What else have you seen or would you add to this list?

2 Responses to “How to know if it’s diet culture or intuitive eating: 5 telltale signs that it’s not intuitive eating.”

January 17, 2020 at 5:40 pm, Five Tips on How to Survive National Diet Month - FaithFoodandFreedom said:

[…] friend and awesome dietitian, Sara Upson, is doing a great series on Instagram and wrote a blog about Intuitive Eating. Check out her post or IG series for more help identifying diet culture […]

February 03, 2020 at 6:48 am, It’s not you. It’s not the food. It’s diet culture. And you can unlearn diet culture. – MySignatureNutrition said:

[…] Diet culture has strict rules around which foods are good or bad, healthy or unhealthy and even rules on when you should eat, how you should eat your food, and how much you should have.  As a result, instead of feeling better about eating- as diet culture promises- it just makes you feel worse.  To help with the “problem” diet culture then diet culture offers another food rule or restriction. […]

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