Knowing how to start intuitive eating can be challenging. Especially if you think of your diet as a part of who you are.
I know this because I wasn’t always an intuitive eater. Obviously. I work in food and nutrition media, and I spent years writing about “clean” eating and all kinds of other diets. (Not to mention, the disordered eating habits and the fixation on “healthy” eating that led me to write about these things in the first place.) It took me years to really unlearn diet culture’s rules and to abandon its sh*tty values — thinness, restriction, good and bad foods, “discipline” around food and eating, the idea that caring about health means being extremely vigilant about what you eat, etc.
The hardest thing was that somewhere along the way, diet culture’s values had kind of become my values.
I’m sure that anyone who works in a health- or nutrition-related field can relate. Orthorexia is an “unhealthy focus on healthy eating.” And, it’s much more prevalent among nutrition experts than the general population. One study found that as many as 50 percent of dietitians have significant orthorexic tendencies. Many people with eating disorders disordered eating habits choose careers in food and nutrition because they’re (or, “we’re,” since I absolutely count myself in this group) so preoccupied with food.
But many, many others can probably relate, too. Diet culture values are so pervasive (and normalized) that they get to everyone. Think about it. Most diets sell themselves as lifestyles. Start following one, and that diet and all of its rules (or, “guidelines”) naturally become a big part of your life. Follow the diet for long enough and it starts to feel like part of who you are.
For me, it was “clean” eating.
I joined a CrossFit gym and was suddenly surrounded by people who talked an awful lot about not only what they ate, but what they didn’t eat. There were Whole30 challenges. People without real nutrition credentials put on seminars extolling the virtues of “whole” foods. Then I started writing about “clean” eating online, and people seemed to love it. It’s hard to believe I bought into any of it, thinking back.
Actually, it’s not hard to believe at all. This is literally what diet culture does. It promises that a certain way of eating will drastically change your life for the better. Then, it makes that way of eating just difficult and specific enough that you believe it. It all sounds great, so you follow these food rules and become The Person Who Eats Healthy (or “clean” or “vegan” or whatever).
The thing is, “healthy” eating isn’t an identity.
First, let’s get something straight. There’s no one definition of “healthy” eating. In most cases, going out of your way to eat certain foods and avoid others isn’t healthy at all.
With that out of the way, here’s the other important part: “Healthy” eating isn’t an identity. Not a healthy one, anyway. It can certainly feel like part of your identity, if you’re known as the person who always orders the salad. Or the person who measures their food. The person who absolutely doesn’t eat XYZ foods. Or the person who “has so much self control” around food (although usually not in private). But what you eat or don’t eat in the name of health doesn’t define who you are. Your cultural (or even taste) food preferences? Sure. Your “clean” eating habits? No.
The first step in untangling food rules with your true values is to figure out what those values are.
Are you struggling to let go of food rules because they feel like part of who you are? It’s best to work with a therapist. (I’m not a therapist. I’m not even a registered dietitian yet.)
If that’s out of reach for you, here’s what psychologist Breese Annable told me last year when I interviewed her for an Outside story about why “clean” eating is problematic and how to let it go:
“One thing I work on with people is really figuring out, ‘What are my values in life?’ Certainly, health might be one value, and that can be fine. You don’t have to eliminate health as one part of your identity. The problem is when it’s too much of your identity — that can have really big consequences. I encourage people to think about what’s really important to them. What other parts of life are really meaningful or bring them joy? Getting clear on those things are and incorporating them into your life can bring variety and a sense of balance.”
Before you can even think about how to start intuitive eating, you need to realize that food isn’t the most important thing in your life.
The next step is to acknowledge that your strict food rules are getting in the way of your other values.
Say you take stock of your values and realize that your career and your relationships are both extremely important to you. (I feel this way!) Think about how your food rules affect your relationships.
Do those rules sometimes make you feel disconnected from other people at a meal or at a gathering? Do they make it hard to be present? What about your career? Do thoughts about food, weight, or diets distract you from your work?
Having real relationships and pursuing work in a meaningful way both get so much easier when you aren’t daydreaming about food or Googling a restaurant menu to figure out what you “can” and “can’t” order.
Finally, you’ll probably realize that your food rules aren’t even serving your health.
If health is a value for you — it doesn’t have to be! — you might worry that abandoning the relentless pursuit of “healthy” eating might get in the way of that. That’s understandable, because it’s what all the diet and “wellness” messages out there want you to believe.
But actually, the opposite happens. You’ll feel so much healthier when you stop obsessing about your health. If you’re worried about how to start intuitive eating and whether it will be worth it, know that it will.
The bottom line? Intuitive eating can make your life so much fuller.
“Healthy” eating is not an identity. Health might be a value of yours, but what you eat or don’t eat doesn’t define who you are. The question of how to start intuitive eating is about more than just setting priorities and abandoning food rules. If you’re struggling with food and want to learn how to become an intuitive eater, a Health at Every Size®-aligned therapist or dietitian can help you through intuitive eating coaching. (You can find one here.) It’s not easy work and it won’t happen overnight, but the balance that it will bring back to your life will make it absolutely worth it.