You know that conversation you’ve had with yourself in your head – the one that goes a bit like, “Well, if I have the bread then I can’t have the potatoes” or “If I eat the brownie then I’ll need to do a four-mile run tomorrow”? You devise elaborate mental equations to determine what, when and how much you are allowed to eat, based on what you’ve already eaten that day, how many “bad” foods you’ve had, if you’re planning on having a drink at dinner and how hard you pushed it in your body-pump class that morning.
Like many (or possibly even most) women, I’ve deployed advanced algebraic computations to try and figure out what the hell I should eat. If I’d perceived I’d broken a self-imposed food rule, I’d have beaten myself up about it, carrying the weight of self-judgement, shame and guilt around with me for days afterwards. If I ate anything off my “shit list” (you know, that place where all “naughty” foods live, except at Christmas when they’re given a free pass?), it would automatically open the floodgates leading to a three-day long food bender. Little did I know, at that point, that it was the severe restriction I had been placing on foods that was driving the binge/restrict cycle I found myself caught in.
Oh, and I have a PhD in nutrition. No, seriously – you’d have thought that, if anyone, I’d have it all figured out, right? But the reality was that studying nutrition more deeply entrenched the diet mentality. I literally had to be able to regurgitate the calorie and macro values of commonly eaten foods off the top of my head. I was basically a human MyFitnessPal. In fact, a study of US dietitians found that around 50% of the sample they surveyed had symptoms concordant with orthorexia nervosa.
But it’s not just nutritionists that struggle to find a healthy relationship with food. Almost 60% of women in the UK are on a diet or attempting to lose weight, despite the burgeoning body-positivity and fat-liberation movements. And estimates of disordered eating are as high as half to three-quarters of women. So, what is it that makes us feel weird about food?
Contrary to what most people believe, dieting isn’t a benign pastime; research has shown it can erode self-esteem, increase body-checking and obsession with food, increase the reward value of food, cause body-shaming and negative mood states (like anxiety and depression), and lead to disordered eating patterns. Dieting is also one of the strongest predictors for future weight gain, underscoring the futility and masochism of the act. Finally, and most critically, restrained eating is one of the strongest risk factors for the development of binge-eating and bulimia nervosa.
But here’s the thing: most of us probably don’t even identify with “being on a diet” – that’s something our mums do. We follow “wellness”. Think: “Pegan” (a diet based on both vegan and paleo principles), Whole30 and the gut-health trend. But these seemingly new-wave "lifestyles" are really just diet culture 2.0.
When we are following external rules, restrictions and food fads, there is always the potential to “mess up”. There is always a bandwagon to fall off. And when we are constantly trying to micromanage our bodies, we will never believe that they are good enough.
When we are following external rules, restrictions and food fads, there is always the potential to ‘mess up’. There is always a bandwagon to fall off
This is why I think Intuitive Eating is the anti-diet that’s much needed this January. Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based practice that is meant to help people stop over-thinking food, get out of their heads and learn to trust their bodies’ innate signals for hunger, fullness, pleasure and satisfaction and sense of wellbeing to guide their choices about food. It’s about learning what feels good for your body and shirking off other people’s expectations of how you should eat. This is exactly what sets it apart from diets – there are no rules. It is a process of discovery and, ultimately, being in tune with your body’s messages that allows you to be flexible and go with the flow, rather than perceiving that you effed up, so now you have to go all in and devour the entire pan of brownies.
And what’s really neat about this approach is that research confirms intuitive eaters not only have fewer internalised food rules and less food anxiety, but also fewer feelings of being “out of control” around food. In terms of psychological health, they have less body dissatisfaction and preoccupation and lower levels of self-silencing (basically, ignoring your own feelings and emotions) and negative mood states. They also have more enjoyment of food and higher body appreciation, life satisfaction and self-esteem. Pretty much the exact opposite of dieting. We also know that Intuitive Eating supports long-term physical health, reducing risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Like I said, Intuitive Eating is a process (sometimes an iterative one!) that helps us reconnect with our body; there are 10 principles that guide you through breaking down food rules and restrictions and then teach you how to eat from the ground up, incorporating mindful eating, body neutrality and how to build your emotional coping tool kit so it has more than just food in it. Finally, you’ll learn about movement because it feels good (as opposed to punishing exercise) and how to approach nutrition in a flexible way. But the very first step in the process is learning to ditch the diets.
Diet culture is an oppressive system that teaches us to hate our bodies. It tells us that we will be more loveable/cooler/smarter/valuable if we take up less space in the world and conform to unrealistic beauty ideals. It teaches us to use our time, energy, money and other valuable resources to fix a problem that doesn’t actually exist. And make no mistake, this is a deliberate patriarchal play to keep us just subdued and hungry enough that we don’t have the energy to fight.
What if, this year, we were all to unsubscribe from diet culture once and for all? What if we were to use the headspace we normally dedicate to solving the “problem” of what to eat and channel it into something bigger than ourselves?
This January, I’m asking women all across the country to become a diet-culture dropout. I’m encouraging you to rise up and push back against the tyranny of body hate and food fear by raising awareness of how pervasive these ideas are. January is the month of diet-culture bullshit, so I’m calling on you to help me shut it down.
Over the next few weeks, whenever you spot an advert, article or product insinuating that we should shrink our bodies to feel better about ourselves or that we need to lose weight to be more valuable, snap a picture on your phone, upload to Instagram stories or your grid and let us know why it’s problematic. (We’ve created a set of stickers inside the Instagram story GIFs function that you can use to help get the point across – just search “Laura Thomas” to find them. Don’t forget to tag me @laurathomasphd and use #JustEatIt, so I can re-share the message!)
And if you want to learn more about how Intuitive Eating can help you get your shit together around food, then check out my book Just Eat It, dropping on 10 January.