I am a non-diet Dietitian, the irony of that is not lost on me. After many years of doing what I do, helping people make conscious decisions around food, movement, and their health, I have come to the firm conclusion that steering people away from diets, not towards them, is the best way for me to help people achieve better health.
This can seem counter-cultural in a world where being a weight watcher and diet doer is the norm. Many of us stay watchful of the scale and what we eat and doing one diet after another because we don't know there is any other way to be healthy and care for ourselves.
Unfortunately, the data shows that the more we focus on our weight and get caught in the perpetual cycle of being on and off diets, the worse off we are and, ironically, the further we move away from truly finding health. We worry that if we are not dieting and restricting this or that food or food group that we will be completely out of control and the number on the scale will steadily rise and our health will take a nosedive. What we don't realize is that it is the dieting and restriction that create the out-of-control feelings we have around food and greatly contribute to our lack of control around food.
Dieting Doesn't Work
Research suggests that restrictive dieting can lead to a higher body mass index (BMI) over time and a greater future likelihood of being overweight. When we look at studies on diets, as many as two-thirds of people who embark on weight loss efforts end up gaining more weight than they lost. Dieting not only doesn't work it is at the very root of many of our issues around food and our bodies. While many people diet to lose weight or for health reasons, the paradox is that for most people the weight is lost and regained, and health remains elusive.
Not only do diets fail at making us thinner, they also actually succeed at making us less healthy. Dieting and our collective billions of annual dollars spent on weight-loss lead to food and body preoccupation, guilt about eating, and higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, overeating and bingeing, lower self-esteem, weight cycling, and disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders.
As a result, of our quest for thinness at all costs-
- body weights are higher than ever in adults and children
- we are obsessed and preoccupied with food and being thin
- more than 50% of thirteen-year-old American girls are unhappy with their bodies, growing to 80% by age seventeen and remaining there into adulthood
- the prevalence of eating disorders has more than doubled from the 2000-2006 period to the 2013-2018 period.
In one 2008 survey 65% of women aged twenty-five to forty-five had some form of disordered eating, and another 10% met the criteria for eating disorders. This means that 3 out of 4 women eat abnormally or think and behave abnormally around food, including skipping meals, restricting major food groups, binge eating, restrained and controlled eating, and feel guilt and stress around food. 3 out of 4 women!
Although this behavior has become normalized in our society, it is anything but normal and creates distress for a lot of people. Something as simple as nourishing ourselves has become one of our biggest stressors.
Many of the clients I talk with have been on so many diets that they could be considered professional dieters. Many have been restricting their food so long that it doesn’t even feel like a diet anymore, it is just a way of life. We keep trying because we are told it is what we are supposed to do, and we are convinced there is no other way. Even the thought of not being on or thinking about the next diet or mode of restriction we will try can be scary stuff. We stay with the thing we know, dieting, because the unknown can be terrifying.
An Alternative Approach
So, if diets don't always help you lose weight, especially in the long-term, and could contribute to psychological problems and a disordered relationship with food, what other solutions are there? The great news is that there is another way, an alternative path that doesn't involve dieting, self-loathing, guilt, shame, or self-control. Intuitive eating and the non-diet approach can get you out of the seemingly never-ending diet cycle to a place where food is not something to be battled and instead help food take its rightful place as only one important area of your life.
Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to eating that emphasizes internal cues and paying attention to our bodies over external diet rules, fad diets or trends. As a non-diet approach, the focus is shifted away from the scale, and instead on promoting health-enhancing behaviors, better body image, and finding peace and enjoyment with food. To help guide eating choices, intuitive eating helps you get back in touch with internal cues, like hunger and fullness, cravings, and how food makes you feel. Intuitive eating ultimately is about re-learning to trust our innate inner body wisdom to make choices around food that feel good in our body, without judgment and without influence from diet culture.
So Many Benefits
A common misconception with the non-diet approach is that if we aren't dieting, restricting, or fretting about food and the shape and size of our body then we are letting ourselves go or not actively working towards better health. The opposite is true.
Intuitive eating teaches you to have a healthy relationship with food by empowering you to trust your ability to meet your needs. It helps you distinguish between physical hunger and emotional hunger and ultimately to reconnect with our innate ability to know when, what, and how much to eat to find nutritional health and a weight appropriate for us. We are all born with this innate ability but diet culture and messages we receive about food and our bodies gets in the way. Tapping into this innate ability and the signs and signals our bodies give us results in improved overall physical and psychological health.
The over 125 research studies on intuitive eating show many benefits including:
- Improved cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Better HDL (good) cholesterol
- Lower blood pressure
- Better body image
- Higher self-esteem
- Lower levels of C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation
- Greater motivation to exercise
- Improved metabolism
- Lower BMI
- Decreased rates of disordered and emotional eating
- Diminished stress levels
- Increased satisfaction with life
5 Stand Out Benefits
Let's talk about what stands out to me as the five most important benefits.
#1 Improved blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
Intuitive eaters have been found to have improvements in blood pressure levels, lower triglyceride levels, higher HDL (good) cholesterol, and lower overall cardiovascular risk. Part of intuitive eating is letting go of the “good” and “bad” messaging around food and giving yourself permission to eat a variety of foods. When people hear this it can bring up fears of letting their health go. The research on intuitive eating tells a different story, with improvements across the board for these very important health parameters. Unlike a diet that you might go on in the hopes of positively impacting these same parameters, intuitive eating is a more long lasting approach.
#2 Lower levels of inflammation.
Inflammation is a nutritional/health buzzword of late and I get asked about which foods to eat or not eat to avoid it. The concept of inflammation in the body is more complicated than eat this, not that. In the end there are many factors that impact levels of inflammation in the body. Interestingly, people working on intuitive eating showed lower levels of C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation.
#3 Higher self-esteem and better body image.
In a review of 24 studies that examined the psychosocial effect intuitive eating had on adult women, intuitive eating was associated with less disordered eating, more positive body image, and greater overall emotional functioning. Another study published in the Journal of Eating Behaviors compared restrictive diets and intuitive eating among men and women found that intuitive eating consistently presented lower levels of disordered eating and higher levels of body appreciation. Many studies have shown improvements in psychological wellbeing among participants in intuitive eating programs showing improvements in self-acceptance, improved body satisfaction, decreased body image avoidance, decreased body preoccupation, decreased drive for thinness, and decreased negative self-talk.
#4 Diminished stress, depression, and anxiety levels.
What I hear from clients is that decisions around food have become increasingly stressful. We worry about food and its impact on our health and body shape and size. The misinformation and conflicting information that is so prevalent only add to our stress, making simple decisions around food a nightmare.
When we can take the pressure off by learning how to check in with ourselves about what, when, and how much to eat, instead of Dr. Google, it naturally has a positive impact on stress. Several studies also observed improvements in depression, quality of life, anxiety, and general wellbeing. A big part of intuitive eating is learning self-compassion skills and beginning to treat yourself as you would a friend or loved one. You learn how to be kinder and more understanding to yourself, and instead of beating yourself up, you think about ways you can comfort and care for yourself.
#5 Improvements in emotional eating.
Emotional eating and turning to food to cope with stress, boredom, loneliness, or really any emotion is a main reason people reach out to me for help. In moving towards intuitive eating, you develop tools to help manage stress and emotions. Food isn't a bad coping skill, in fact it is a very common one. The key is for it to not be one of your only coping skills. With intuitive eating you are also able to emotionally eat, and learn how to tune in, instead of numbing out, to recognize and become more aware of why it is happening and what your other options are.
All these many benefits are why I have embraced teaching nutrition, movement, and self-care from a non-diet perspective. I not only see, hear, and read about these benefits in the research, books, podcasts, etc. on intuitive eating, but also have witnessed them with the clients that I work with day in and day out both individually and in my small groups.