In my 15+ years of learning about, applying and coaching others on making peace with food and intuitive eating, I have witnessed many amazing successes. I’ve seen women who went on diet after diet, always in the gym trying to burn off calories, having no life and believing she didn’t deserve one – until she lost the weight.
And I’ve seen these women absolutely transform when they give up the dieting and endless exercise, make peace with food and their bodies and get on with living their lives right now. When they understand how obsessing over food and weight all day, every day has been holding them back from living – as well as from losing weight and keeping it off – there’s no stopping them! They start changing their thoughts, beliefs, behavior and focus and getting on with the lives they are meant to have.
While I have many awesome stories I could share, including my own, what continues to break my heart and pushes me to keep getting the word out, are those that make an attempt at learning intuitive eating, but give up in frustration, insisting it doesn’t “work”.
I see blog posts, articles and I’ve even seen posts in intuitive eating forums, where those that have not yet seen “results” will publicly declare that intuitive eating caused them to eat more “junk food” or gain 50 pounds. Even worse, without understanding why these things are happening, they will warn anyone that will listen that intuitive eating doesn’t work and is a waste of time.
I can only imagine how difficult it would be to gain 50 pounds or to find yourself compulsively eating foods you thought you were trying to make peace with. Every time I read something like this, I really want to respond. I want to reach out and tell them what is really going on, the real reason it didn’t work.
However, I’ve learned the hard way that there are some that don’t want to know. It’s easier to believe it doesn’t work so they can go back to the disordered eating and destructive dieting that feels more comfortable. That’s not criticism, I’m not mad or irritated by this behavior. It’s very natural for any one of us to turn to the familiar, whether it’s in our best interest or not. I truly have compassion for those that struggle like this. I also can imagine that those that gained weight would have a difficult time trusting their hunger or fullness signals again, even if they could see what actually went wrong.
Hopefully I’m wrong and many who have had negative experiences while working on intuitive eating do come back. What I know from my years as an intuitive eating coach is that the people who gain significant amounts of weight or give up too soon actually aren’t following the intuitive eating principles – they are on the “intuitive eating diet,” as I have come to call it.
Sure, I know intuitive eating is not a diet. I go to great lengths to make sure my clients understand it’s not even a program. It’s not a plan, a system, a project or a method. It’s not something that has a beginning or an end. It is a journey, a continuous experience that brings challenges and triumphs along the way. You have setbacks, but they turn out to be learning experiences that help you move further along your journey.
My favorite way to describe what intuitive eating is, is the word “practice.” In a practice, you have days that bring obstacles and other days that flow quite easily. The biggest difference between a practice and a “program” or a “system” is in a practice, you expect to have setbacks and you welcome them as much as the triumphs because the learning from setbacks is powerful and motivating.
Would you beat yourself up in your yoga “practice” if, after learning about headstands, you couldn’t do one perfectly? Hopefully not. Even if you did, I bet it didn’t send you into days of guilt, shame and negative self-talk.
The Diet Mentality Sneaks In
You may be wondering how, exactly, intuitive eating, the most popular term used for the process of rejecting diets and learning to make peace with food and your body, becomes an actual “diet”. From my experience, it happens when the “diet mentality” sneaks in without being noticed.
For example, perfectionism goes hand-in-hand with dieting. Dieters are always striving for perfection – in what they eat, how they look, their weight, their pants size, etc. Their role models in all the air-brushed magazine ads look perfect. The diet commercials tell you (indirectly but less than subtly) that your life will be perfect when you lose the weight.
Many of us also grew up in households that placed a high value on achievement and perfectionism. Trying to be perfect is an unrealistic way of life and downright deadly when it manifests into a full-blown eating disorder, as it does in many young girls (and men and women of all ages in recent years) suffering from anorexia or bulimia.
Black-and-white-thinking (another part of diet mentality) also takes the best attempts at overcoming overeating and embracing intuitive eating and turns them on their head. This way of thinking (also known as all-or-nothing-thinking) allows for two choices, black or white. All or nothing. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Restrictive, rigid rules-based dieting or all-out, eat until you need to sleep it off overeating or binging.
When black-and-white-thinkers learn that intuitive eating is about eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are satisfied/full most of the time, they hear, “Eat ONLY when you are hungry, and stop ALWAYS when you are satisfied/full.” It instantly becomes a diet because there are very strict rules about when you start and stop eating. There is no room for the “gray areas” between the black and white where you have choices and can decide to step outside the boundaries of hunger and satisfaction.
Another way that intuitive eating can be turned into a diet is in how one looks at setbacks or mistakes. Even worse, minor setbacks can be seen as failure. This failure isn’t always placed on the diet, it’s placed on the person who couldn’t stay on the diet. In a “practice”, there is plenty of room to make a so-called mistake. The best thing about “mistakes” is that they are how we learn best. It would be wonderful if we all could learn without mistakes, but it’s just a fact of life. Does the child just learning to ride her bike get yelled at when she runs into a fence or tips the bike over? Hopefully not! It’s a setback that will teach her how to steer a little bit better or what it feels like to have the balance needed to stay upright while riding.
Setbacks and mistakes are not failures. Past diet attempts that didn’t work or that didn’t yield long term results are not failures – and you are not a failure for not being able to stay on them. Diets are designed to not work, in many cases. So you could say that every time you “blew” a diet, you were successful! Once you understand this concept that mistakes or setbacks are simply learning opportunities, you will see many things in your life in a new way, including intuitive eating, or overeating, or even under-eating at times.
When the diet mentality is allowed to take over while attempting to bring intuitive eating into your life, it’s an easy step over the line and back into dieting behavior. This is why some people find themselves gaining large amounts of weight. They begin their intuitive eating path by making all foods permissible. This is an appropriate first step. But when the diet mentality takes hold, they don’t move from this stage into learning about physical hunger and fullness and starting to connect to their bodies.
Instead, they keep overeating because in their minds, they were told they could eat anything they want, anytime they want. They get stuck here, largely due to all-or-nothing thinking. When they come out of the fog 50 pounds heavier, they believe intuitive eating caused it and they decide it does not work.
Many of those that quit in frustration early on in the process do so because they aren’t seeing “results”. It’s helpful to define what results are when learning intuitive eating. First, and most importantly, weight loss is not a result. It is a “side effect” of making peace with food and your body, repairing your metabolism, and accepting yourself in the present, regardless of your weight or size.
Notice I did not say “give up on yourself” or “lose hope and let yourself go”. Acceptance means you believe you are a worthy and complete human being right now and at any time and you don’t need to be “fixed” or changed before you are “good enough”. When you hold weight loss as your only sign of improvement or results, you will always end up back in diet mentality, striving once again for perfection and feeling like a failure when you don’t reach it. You begin to impose rules, like “I can ONLY eat when I’m hungry” and “I MUST stop when I am full”. Then rules about snacking, “junk food,” and exercise start showing up. Before you know it, you are right back into the diet – binge – guilt – diet again cycle.
There are several ways intuitive eating can turn into a diet. While it’s important to know how it happens so you can see signs and hopefully stop the progression early on, the ideal way of dealing with this problem is to make sure it never gets started.
Watch Your Thinking!
There are three specific strategies that, when put in place, will help you stay in your intuitive eating practice and far away from the intuitive eating diet. First, you need to remove weight loss as a goal. This may sound impossible, but give this a chance.
You didn’t gain the weight because you were trying to gain it, right? It happened for reasons that you may not yet be aware of, but that is fine for now. Every diet offered always has weight loss as its main objective. Why? Because it sells.
Intuitive eating starts with a goal or intention of relearning your internal cues for hunger and fullness. Have you ever done that on a diet? It also focuses on your thoughts and beliefs, which drive your behavior. In dieting, you are told to change your behavior by following the “rules”, but your subconscious will always win at some point (formerly called “failure”).
If you can put weight loss “on the back burner” while you focus on realigning your thoughts and beliefs, you can trust that your body will be working on healing your metabolism at the same time. And, if you’re not at your natural weight, by the time you have healed your mind from diet mentality and you are engaging in good self-care and self-compassion, your body may be ready to let go of the weight.
However, we really aren’t in control of our weight, it’s up to our body and what’s right for it. So I can’t make any promises about when you might see weight loss, but I can promise it will not come off without learning to accept yourself in the present and believing you are worthy of being happy right now.
A second strategy that can give you perspective, as well as some relief, from the desire for instant results is changing how you see the intuitive eating process. As mentioned earlier, it is a practice, as opposed to a program that usually has a start and an end.
In programs you usually stop with the tools and skills when you are through. In intuitive eating, we go through a process that continues essentially for life. It’s a practice you use and improve on constantly. Because of this, it gets better and easier over time. For many, it eventually does go back to feeling quite natural and innate. For others, it may take a bit more consciousness here and there but it does get easier for everyone.
If you can think of it as a “journey”, you’ll have a more realistic perspective. Knowing the processes take time, and need time to do their work, can make the journey easier. It’s also easier to handle those setbacks, knowing they are necessary learning opportunities. Instead of beating yourself up when you have a setback, ask, “What can I learn from this experience?” In many cases, the learning can accelerate the process! Over time the skills and tools you’re learning get easier and more automatic, the setbacks are further and further apart and the intensity of each episode is less intense. In your journey, time allows for an easier and easier road, while life gets better along the way!
Finally, one of the best things you can do for yourself (aside from adopting intuitive eating into your life), is to find someone who has first-hand personal experience with what you’re going through. Make sure he or she has adopted intuitive eating into his or her life, and is skilled in helping others.
Whoever you choose should never force his or her own agenda or beliefs on you, but instead allows you to work through your thoughts and beliefs so you can find your own answers. Only you know if something you are told or asked to do is right for you. Make sure this person is going to allow you a non-judgmental, safe environment where you can share anything without the fear of sounding strange or ridiculous. I did some pretty strange things, both when I was chronically dieting, and when I was compulsively overeating and binging. Only someone who has been through similar situations will really “get it”.
Most of all, when you work with someone who has lived through the same pain and struggle and knows how to move through it, you can be assured that you will be shown the way, and if diet mentality begins to show up, it will be pointed out to you before it turns into a diet that sets you back to the point that you actually want to give up or believe that intuitive eating does not work.
Whether you have tried to work on intuitive eating before or not, and whether you were able to fully embrace it or if you had a “falling out” with it, now is always the best time to get going or keep going.
The great thing about intuitive eating not being a program is you don’t ever start or stop, you’re just either using the tools and skills or you aren’t. So there’s no reason to “start tomorrow” or to “restart Monday” or any other typical diet-like promise. Just decide right now that you will eat again the next time you’re hungry and eat what you really want. Most importantly – enjoy it!
Are you concerned about ending up on the Intuitive Eating Diet? Are you having trouble navigating your way along your journey? Maybe you want to get started but don’t know the best way for you? If so, I would love to offer you a 100% free intuitive eating strategy session where we can talk about what’s happening and how you can move forward towards a live full of peace – with food, your body and yourself! You can go to www.TalkWithGillian.com to request your session, or simply email me at Gillian@HealthierOutcomes.com and let me know you would like to schedule a strategy session. I look forward to it!