For the last three months, I’ve been studying[i] and immersing myself in Intuitive Eating (IE)/Health At Every Size (HAES) world. For me, these aren’t new and mind-boggling ideas, but the act of setting aside time, investing from my limited funds, and taking action (beyond reading, assessing, and pondering) has launched a new self-care adventure. While I thought this journey would wrap up quickly, I’ve discovered there’s so much more to learn.
First, I appreciate that IE and HAES rely on and encourage research; these are not personal theories masquerading as science. I’m relieved to know both are inclusive and respectful of diversity in general. They focus, of course, on diversity in size: not everyone can (or should) attain or retain a body size that meets the cultural ideal. They also note that cultural ideals change. With that in mind, they encourage letting go of judgment, comparison, and competition.
IE includes 10 principles that build upon one another to guide folks along this path. These tools, not rules, include rejecting the diet mentality, honoring hunger, making peace with food, challenging the food police, feeling fullness/satiety, making eating pleasurable, learning non-food ways to cope with emotions, respecting your body, exercising, and using nutritional guidelines thoughtfully. Mindfulness and self-compassion are part of this approach.
HAES is not quite as structured in design, but has additional resources available, including a rich website[ii]
HAES focuses on 3 components: Respect, Critical Awareness, and Compassionate Self-Care. In a follow-up book, HAES leaders pose this question: “What if we ditched the diet mentality that attaches so much importance to size and health and fitness, and focused instead on relating to ourselves and one another with understanding and compassion?”[iii] Imagine how amazing it would be to live in that world!
First, The “Bad News”
We have, it seems, allowed ourselves to be sucked in by the Wizards of Diet Culture. They’ve placed the nation in a trance and convinced us that good health is only possible for the slender, in spite of data showing overweight people outlive normal and underweight people[iv].
These sly wizards convinced us we must all forever fight the war on fat, purge our lives of “bad” (sinful, unhealthy, dangerous) foods to focus on “good” (virtuous, healthy) foods. Fat folks must wholeheartedly pursue the mythically gorgeous slender person within every fat body, and continue until we die.
These wizards, who rake in somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 Billion a year on the War, conveniently forget our bodies fight famine so efficiently that, long term[v] weight rebound is significantly more common (for 75% to 99% of dieters) than weight loss maintenance. The diet-path (conveniently rebranded as wellness plans, lifestyle adjustments, and in other promising terms) is supported by our culture, particularly for women, for many reasons, but men are also welcome.
The Alternative Approach
The alternative is relatively simple: to make peace with food and our bodies, to look forward to a diet-free life (intuitively eating what our bodies desire while attending to nutritional needs), to enjoy what we eat, and to move our bodies in fun ways regardless of size.
This approach requests giving up the idea that there’s an effective, healthy, diet-based weight-loss solution (to include food plans, programs, lifestyle solutions, and diets-by-any-other-name) for folks who don’t have special health needs (diagnosed by a doctor) or eating disorders.[vi] We are asked to recognize size is not a measure of worth and when we feel stressed, falter along the path, or feel we’ve failed, we’re encouraged to develop self-compassion and cut ourselves some slack.
The end goal is to reestablish a cooperative relationship between our brains and bodies and to return to normal, healthy eating based on our intuitive understanding of our body’s needs. The focus remains intuitive, not emotional. Even “healthy” people eat periodically to celebrate, just for pleasure, or for emotional reasons. However, an accomplished intuitive eater would neither continuously overeat foods to the point of feeling sick nor deprive themselves of specific foods they like based on equating some foods (sugar, for example) with moral depravity.
For IE the To-Do list is sensible: give up the forbidden food list, swear off restriction, chuck the notions about healthy/unhealthy foods developed over a lifetime of dieting, let the body decide how to define food-bliss. Give in to the body’s needs for as long as it takes for the body to trust that famine is not coming again.
Oh, and IE/HAES suggest doing so without guilt or shame.
Potential Payoffs… and the Catch
Eventually the “forbidden” loses some appeal and becomes just-another-food and not forbidden-fruit or a symbol of rebellion.
Eventually, eating becomes a pleasure, not a chore, so we quit eating food only because it’s “healthy.” Instead, we gravitate toward what our bodies are asking for.
We learn to listen to our bodies, recognizing when we’re hungry and when we’re satisfied.
The goal is for our weight to stabilize. It may happen relatively quickly or take months or years of keeping the connection open between our mind and body.
The Catch? This may not be the miracle folks hope for; any individual’s natural weight may be higher or lower than they prefer. Our bodies seek a set-point that is different (through genetics) for all of us, so we humans would naturally present some variety of body sizes and shapes. However, IE also points out that those of us who have repeated dieting and weight-gain cycles, the “yo yo dieting” most likely has changed our natural weight or “set point.” This awesome biological imperative to survive famines – whether starvation is imposed by our environment or self-imposed – slows our metabolism[vii] so we may weigh more and eat less than before. This Diet Tax leads us to the realization we must let go of and mourn the fantasy-body, and accept ourselves and others where and as they are.
Remember the thing about the forbidden foods losing power? It was not overnight, but through my own experience, I can attest to this. For example, for decades eating a particular jelly bean (I allowed myself to eat once a year) seemed to launch a scary binge worthy of an addict. Many jelly beans later, it’s just a little, sweet, flavorful bit of food-fluff that I love but rarely want to eat. I remain amazed by this transformation.
About that pleasurable eating thing: Oatmeal was one of those breakfast foods I would force myself to eat, usually when traveling (exhausted and hungry, up at 4 a.m., 6 a.m. flight, meetings starting at 8 a.m.), because it was available and seemed the only healthy choice. It always gave me heartburn. Always. Weeks into IE, I woke up one morning and wanted oatmeal. What?! My brain started spinning, but I prepared oatmeal. I enjoyed the oatmeal. Daily for two weeks. And no heartburn. I’m now opting out of oatmeal, but I know it doesn’t give me heartburn! Go figure.
Recently one of the activities involved making a list of foods I love. Not the things I’ll eat, based on what’s available in the fridge, but foods I truly love. It took me a surprising amount of time to come up with a short list of 8. The second part of the exercise was to take time to savor one or more of the foods. I completed this challenge in a sushi restaurant, by myself, mid-day. To me there is something beautiful about fresh sushi. In addition, it reminds me of people and places I love. I enjoyed the presentation, smell, taste, calm atmosphere of the restaurant. Ah, the difference between the first glorious bite and the last still-really-good bite. Wow. I vowed to do this more often.
Letting go of comparison and adopting compassion sound simple, but they’re both things I have to work at consciously. I have to stop myself from scanning a crowd to see if there’s anyone fatter than me, turn off the critic who expects certain people (fat women and elders, for example, like me) to dress a particular way (such as hiding as many curves and bumps as possible). Social media is a great antidote for me and I so admire the gorgeous fat women with their Hollywood hair and makeup and crop tops. Although it won’t be me wearing a bikini (it’s just not-me), I’m glad to see they’re so readily available in larger sizer and I moved away from the black work wardrobe I had to bright colored tops (they’re me) that don’t hang tunic-length to camouflage my round abdomen and large butt.
Simply recognizing hunger and satiety isn’t cut and dried, easy-peasy stuff for someone who dieted repeatedly. After decades of eating to a schedule or postponing eating until I reached a state of ravenous hunger, I didn’t recognize the huge variation between I-could-have-a-bite and I’m-so-hungry-I’ll-eat-anything. I do now, and I act on that info!
Silly as it sounds, surrendering my membership in The Clean Plate Club remains one of the more challenging steps for me, whether it’s throwing out food when I’m eating at home (I will do it, but I have to pause to remind myself it’s okay) or leaving food on a plate when eating out. Still, I’m so thankful I’m aware of this (can’t change what I’m blind to).
Other lessons included examining Diet Culture, learning techniques related to self-compassion, finding ways to trust my body’s messages relating to hunger and satiety, examining the roles of stigma and stress, and expanding thinking to a more inclusive world view. And there are lessons I have yet to dive into…
The Journey Continues
One day I think I’d like to take my master’s degree in counseling psychology and somehow become an expert in this area. For the present, though, as a plus-size woman I’m examining my own prejudices against super-size folks, my mindset that says everybody “should” strive for “health” (though who can define what this is?), and integrating IE into my world while respecting some food allergies and sensitivities.
Currently my tools include: reading related materials and seeking body positive messages and people, meditating and praying, devoting time to self-compassion, consciously viewing movies and print media through a realistic lens (compared to everyday people, those touched-up Hollywood folks appear plastic), and actively refusing to support folks and businesses with stigmatizing behaviors/policies.
By whatever name it’s called, food restriction to drop pounds clearly doesn’t work for most people. Reducing exercise to punishment/atonement turns something joyful into a chore. Reconnecting to our own intuition seems the logical, science-based alternative.
And this is just the beginning… I’ve got a long way to go. Can’t wait to see how it turns out!
[i] Completing a course, Intuitive Eating Fundamentals. For more information, visit https://christyharrison.com/online-courses . Using The Intuitive Eating Workbook (Tribole) as a companion to the course. Also re-reading the books Intuitive Eating (Tribole and Resch), Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight (Bacon), and Body Respect (Bacon and Aphramor). Reading Body of Truth (Brown).
[iii] From “Body Respect” (Bacon and Aphramor)
[iv] Multiple resources mention this data, including Body of Truth (Harriet Brown), The Obesity Myth/The Diet Myth (Paul Campos), Naked Statistics (Charles Whelan), and Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere (Harding and Kirby)
[v] 10 years of steady retention is quite rare and many studies rely on self-report (which is not always reliable)
[vi] Folks with known health challenges, like celiac or diabetes, and folks with eating disorders can practice IE/HAES, but other supports may be needed. For example, depending upon the individual, supports may include one or more people such as a HAES-aware registered dietician, an IE-informed therapist, a physical therapist, and their physician.
[vii] Suggest looking up info on “The Biggest Loser” to see how much difference this one valiant attempt at weight loss cost the participants. Approaching diets as a short-term solution appears illogical, given the long-term consequences.