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Debunking Diet Culture: Exploring Intuitive Eating

Apr 15, 2022

What Is Diet Culture?

Low-fat, Atkins®, South Beach, Jenny Craig®—there are countless diets available for people who want to lose weight, yet, most people who try to diet end up gaining the weight back—and then some. As the summer months approach, it’s tough to navigate television and social media without being bombarded with ads for weight-loss and nutrition plans. While there are certainly sustainable nutrition plans on the market, most diet plans are restrictive, unsustainable, and fail to create long-term results for most people.

According to the Alliance for Eating Disorders, toxic diet culture includes “Any programs that encourage extreme weight loss, require restricting yourself, and suggest cutting calories […] as well as programs that advertise weight loss pills and shakes.”

Diet culture is the belief that the way a person looks on the outside is more valuable than the way they feel on the inside. Diet culture shuns actual health and wellness in favor of reaching for a body type deemed ideal by society. Instead of working toward sustainable, long-term health, diet culture promotes quick fixes and encourages the idea that food is to be earned through exercise and deprivation.

What Diet Culture Gets Wrong

It’s clear: diets don’t work. Long-term, sustainable lifestyle changes do. Diet culture equates thinness with beauty and doesn’t give much pause to the way the foods we eat make us feel.

Dieting often takes an all-or-nothing approach to eating. This means that “willpower” to not eat high-calorie or other off-plan foods is celebrated. Diet culture doesn’t celebrate health, rather, it celebrates restriction and looking a certain way.

Many diet plans encourage people to go all-out for a few weeks or to participate in challenges that include a low-calorie diet to “get ready” for summer. These programs do not allow people to learn how to properly fuel their bodies in a way that leads to long-term health. Instead, restrictive programs, for many people, often result in working to restrict until they can’t anymore—eventually resulting in binging, a lack of exercise, and a decreased motivation to work toward getting healthy.

Intuitive Eating: A New Approach

Intuitive eating is exactly what it sounds like: listening to your body’s needs and honoring those needs. For people who have participated in diet culture for years (or even decades), it can take some time to reconnect with the body and learn what foods actually fuel progress and health.

The first step to intuitive eating? Reject diet mentality. When you’re eating intuitively, you’re giving your body what it needs, and operating under the truth that providing your body with the fuel it wants will give you energy and health. Intuitive eating isn’t about restriction or cutting out food groups. Rather, it’s about learning to recognize your body’s hunger and fullness signals, and learning how to pay attention to which foods make your body feel great.

If you’re new to the idea of providing your body with the food that it needs to thrive, it’s important to start the process of learning how to eat intuitively with kindness. There’s no question you’ll fall back into your diet mentality from time to time—after all, humans are creatures of habit. When you find this happening, (gently) remind yourself that that’s not how you treat your body anymore and start to think about what food you do or do not need in order to feel your best.

A Word of Caution

In today’s hurried, highly-processed world, it’s easy to fall victim to quick and convenient food options that are available everywhere we turn. From chips in the checkout line of the grocery store to a barrage of snacks every time we stop at a gas station, convenience food is in your face—constantly.

Convenience foods are engineered to be more desirable than real foods. Our bodies have evolved to value salt, sugar, and fat, and convenience foods are full of all three. While salt, sugar, and fat are necessary in appropriate amounts, the nutrition and flavor profiles of convenience foods are generally designed to be irresistible.

If you decide that intuitive eating is the right fit for you, it’s important to stick to whole foods as much as possible. Convenience foods are designed to appeal to all of our senses, and it can take some time for the body to grasp the fact that real, whole foods provide better fuel than grab-and-go options.

Intuitive eating requires that we pay attention to what our bodies really need—water, fiber, etc.—not just what we’re craving at the moment.

Tracking Progress

Intuitive eating offers a new way to get to know what works for your body—and what doesn’t. If you decide to move forward with intuitive eating, it’s important to choose a method of tracking your progress that lets you know whether you’re on track toward your goals.

If you’re working to increase your energy levels, try tracking your steps as you switch to intuitive eating. Notice whether your activity levels increase or decrease, and pay attention to the foods that make you feel fueled and energized. If you’re working to lose weight, hop on the scale at least once a week to ensure you’re still moving in the right direction. Working to build strength? Be sure to track your lifts to make sure the foods you’re choosing are supporting your gains.

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