To understand how I have modified (ruthlessly twisted and manipulated?) intuitive eating, which I will share with you after Christmas, you must first know what it is. Here is a succinct summary, which comes from the website of Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA, the authors of a 1995 book and its 2003 update entitled Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. These women claim to be the “original” experts on the topic, and I won’t dispute that. I will, however, roll my eyes at them for using the explosive adjective “Revolutionary” and I will also accuse them of being too vague. “Program that Works” to do what? Take off weight? Come to peace with your body and food? Whatever YOU want it to do (and will make money for the authors).
Both size acceptance proponents and weight-loss promoters claim Intuitive Eating as a native belief system. And this confusion has been unhelpful in a manner that should horrify these authors. It gives the imprimatur of size acceptance to something that can be twisted into weight-loss disorder. The authors come from the vantage point of counseling people with eating disorders. They certainly weren’t intending people to use their concepts in a disordered manner, and yet that may be happening, and I may be an example of it.
Another example of Tribole and Resch’s vagueness would be the first line from the succinct summary I linked: Intuitive eating is an approach that teaches you how to create a healthy relationship with your food, mind, and body–where you ultimately become the expert of your own body.
Again: approach to WHAT? It probably should say approach to eating . . . But even adding this clarification, it is vague. I’m sure that Weight Watchers would feel comfortable inserting its logo in place of the phrase “Intuitive Eating.” As would Slim4Life. As would Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS). As would any number of diets that believe themselves not to be diets (or promote themselves as such), but rather “approaches,” or “lifestyles” that just happen to lead to (presumed radical and permanent) weight loss.
Lacking a modifier, however, others have stepped in to clarify the word “approach.” For example, this article begins: “Intuitive eating has become popular as a healthier approach to weight loss and weight management.” The article then references and links to the site above. It goes on to advance confusing and exaggerated claims for Intuitive Eating. For example, without providing a link it references this study and concludes that intuitive eating “is associated with weight loss as measured by body mass index, lower triglycerides and improvement in heart disease risk factors.” (emphasis mine.) First of all, only BMI might signal weight loss, but that’s not really what the study found. A Health at Every Size (HAES) approach to food management and exercise, which included intuitive eating was found to be more sustainable for two years than traditional dieting, which meant people were more likely to maintain their weights (and, in some cases, modest losses) and sustain healthier behaviors. Another myth this article advances is that dieters think they’re going to return to their old eating patterns once they’ve lost weight. I’ve pooh poohed this notion before. This article, Intuitive Eating: Lose Weight Without a Diet continues with the weight-loss theme, and even promises that you will lose weight. (Note: the fad diet ads that pop up with this article may be communicating something about its integrity.) My size acceptance friends are often shocked to learn that intuitive eating has been “corrupted” in this way, but I think it may have begun this way, and Tribole and Resch don’t contradict this kind of use even now.
In the introduction to their 2003 edition, they claim intuitive eating to be the “bridge between the antidiet movement and the health community. While the anti-dieting movement shuns dieting and hails body acceptance (thankfully), it often fails to address the health risks of obesity and eating. How do you reconcile forbidden food issues and still eat healthfully while not dieting? We will tell you how in this book.” I’m scratching my head. Fails to address the health risks of eating? That’s not size acceptance parlance.
Now, true confessions, I’ve never read the book. I came to Intuitive Eating in the early 1990s by way of the Boone Hospital Center Well Aware weight-loss program. It was a six-week course taught by registered dieticians that featured a three-ring binder based on the Intuitive Eating concept (I think it was before Tribole and Resch published their book, but had already popularized their ideas among dieticians – and Boone was always cutting edge).
It was made clear to me, that if I attained the proper body wisdom, I would lose weight down to my body’s “natural” size, which would be normal or close to it on a BMI chart, since no body “wants” to be fat. So, I went about collecting body wisdom.
I learned how to listen to my body’s cues, to place my hunger and satiety on a scale of one to ten, and start eating at a level three, regardless of the time on the clock, and continue only until (presumably) I reached a five to seven (though my satiety was always off kilter). I set aside an afternoon and evening where I could just read a book while ticking down the scale of hunger, truly feeling, experiencing a four, then a three, a two, a one, and making notes on such things as when my stomach growled, nausea kicked in, and when my head got light and woozy. Then I ate – small amounts spaced in 20 minute intervals – that ultimately provided satiety when added together, and I wrote down those feelings to share in class.
One night, we were told to arrive at class hungry. Then we sat communally, each chewing a single corn chip till it liquefied in our mouths, and we discussed the change in flavor and texture through the process. Then we did the same with a chocolate kiss. Then other foods in tiniest portions. We learned to savor, to treasure, to eschew mindlessness. We talked about removing moral judgment from various foods. We could eat whatever we wanted, as long as we were hungry and ate only until satisfied.
We were told that ultimately our bodies would crave healthier foods. We would “naturally” fall into a pattern where 80 to 90 percent of our food choices would be healthy, and 10 to 20 percent would be “treat” food. We concentrated. Obsessed. While taking that class, I thought about my relationship with food pretty much all day, every day. It reminded me some of my “method” acting training. We immersed ourselves and became True Believers. But I don’t think any of us lost much weight.
The final evening was supposed to be a celebration. The instructors gushed at us, congratulated us for being healthier in our bodies now. Some of my classmates seemed happy, claimed to be transformed people, but that could have been a show for our kind, enthusiastic instructors. I, however, didn’t completely disguise my disappointed that I’d only lost four pounds in six weeks. The instructors assured me that my body would gradually lose more weight, till I reached my “natural” size. But I didn’t buy it. And they invited me to take the class again for free, if I wanted. But I didn’t. Even without much weight loss, they assured me, I was healthier. I didn’t buy that either. The content of my diet hadn’t changed all that much from when I counted calories. I’ve always liked healthy foods 90 percent of the time (though in recent years I’ve re-evaluated what “healthy” means). Here I was in possession of body wisdom, but still fat ol’ me.
When I lost the weight this last time, in 2002, I picked up pieces of that old intuitive eating class and I’ve made those pieces part of my maintenance mindset. Much of intuitive eating in the pure sense just proved impractical, but I would call my eating “intuition assisted” now. We’ll look at this topic more in depth after I emerge from Christmas. In the meantime, have a merry Christmas, yourself, if that’s your holiday. If it’s not, be warm and well anyway. Oh, and eat the way that suits you best and makes you happiest, intuitive or otherwise.