Is the "eat what you want, when you want" strategy right for you?
What would happen if you ate chocolate chip cookie dough for every meal for two weeks straight? Conventional wisdom says "disaster." And yet this is exactly how Geneen Roth, author of many books on intuitive eating, saved her sanity, gave up dieting forever, and ultimately lost 40 pounds (and kept it off for more than two decades).
Roth's story started like many others with chronic yo-yo dieting and chronic body dissatisfaction, but instead of continuing down that road, one day Roth decided she was finished telling her body what it should and shouldn't eat. It was time to let her body tell her what it wanted. This small change turned into a revolution, and by the time I discovered Intuitive Eating three years ago, it had grown into a phenomenon of Oprah-level proportions. (Seriously--Oprah loves Roth.)
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating (IE) is a style of non-dieting that teaches people to trust their body's signals--the opposite of what most diets do. Rather than trying to "suppress your appetite" or "stoke your metabolism," you focus on eating what your body tells you it needs and wants and stopping when you are full. Therein lies the best part of Intuitive Eating: you eat what you truly want, when you want it. It's also the hardest part: you eat whatever you truly want, only when you truly want it.
A common misconception with IE is that it's a no-holds-barred food fest where you eat anything and everything without limits. While that may sound like diet heaven at first, it would not make your body feel good in the end. And eating what makes your body feel its best is exactly what you are trying to do. You discover pretty quickly--once you start paying attention--that eating bags of jelly beans every day makes you feel tired and sick, while filling up on a salad with protein, veggies, and homemade dressing is energizing (and delicious). It's that slight change of perspective--it's not that the jelly beans are "bad" or "off limits" but rather that you don't feel good when you eat a lot of them--that makes all the difference.
Why I Chose Intuitive Eating
Having grown up hating my body and feeling betrayed by my appetite, I struggled with eating disorders for most of my life. Finally, as a mom of four children, I knew I had to find a better way to deal with my weight. My kids needed a healthy example, yes, but most of all they just needed me, and I couldn't be there for them if I was obsessed with food. In one of the most gut-wrenching decisions of my life, I decided to follow Roth's example and forget all my "food rules." No food was "good" or "bad" any longer. There was only one condition I placed upon my eating: I needed to be conscious of my food and fully present when I ate it.
Within a few months I'd easily lost the last 10 pounds of baby weight--without dieting, counting calories or giving up dessert--and I've stayed within two pounds of that weight for the past three years. For someone whose weight fluctuated more than the stock market, this is nothing short of a miracle.
How to Start Eating Intuitively
The first step is making these two little changes:
1. Eat un-distracted. Sit down with no books, no TV, no computers, and (at first) no serious conversation to distract you. Without making judgments about it, you want to pay attention to everything you eat. Note how it tastes, how it smells, how you feel when you eat it.
2. Eat only when you are hungry and stop when you are full. I thought that years of stifling, ignoring, or masking my body's hunger cues would make this impossible for me, but our bodies are smart. As I learned to trust mine, I learned that it would, in fact, tell me when it needed food and when it didn't.
It's hard to eat this way in a world with TV screens in restaurant tables and unlimited appetizers. Pushing away your plate when everyone else is still digging into their food is hard. Eating a piece of rich dark chocolate when everyone else is giving up sugar is hard. But none of it is as hard as fighting your body for the rest of your life. Doing these two things will make a huge difference in how you think about food. Food is not a punishment or forbidden fruit or even a decadent excess; it's a life-sustaining gift.