What Happens When Diet Culture Co-Opts Intuitive Eating Language

Photo: Getty Images / lechatnoir
Intuitive eating—a science-backed approach to food that rejects diets and rules, encourages body acceptance, and shows you how to tune into your body’s hunger, fullness, cravings, and needs—has recently become incredibly popular. The hashtag has over 1 million posts on Instagram and 300 million views on TikTok to date, and the approach has been making headlines for years. It would be wrong to call it a fad, though. Rather, intuitive eating, which goes hand-in-hand with the Health at Every Size® movement, is an entirely new way of thinking about food, nutrition, and health.

Experts In This Article
  • Evelyn Tribole, RDN, Evelyn Tribole, RDN, is the co-author of "Intuitive Eating" and a certified eating disorder registered dietitian.
  • Kimberly M. Daniels, PsyD, Kimberly M. Daniels, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist passionate about helping those struggling with eating and weight concerns to make peace with food and their bodies and enjoy a new, healthy life.

“Our intention in creating the model was to alleviate the suffering that dieting causes,” says Evelyn Tribole, RDN, co-creator of intuitive eating who, along with fellow dietitian Elyse Resch, published the first edition of the Intuitive Eating book in 1995. This philosophy is evident in the model’s 10 principles, which encourage you to reject diets and food rules, understand that permanent weight loss isn’t realistic or necessary for health, and respect your body as-is by giving it what it needs. It’s not another diet, it’s the anti-diet.

Alas, as intuitive eating has gained more mainstream attention, many programs, experts, and influencers have started co-opting its language and ideas to promote exactly what intuitive eating is fighting against—weight loss and weight control, food restriction, and ignoring your hunger cues and cravings. It’s ironic, yes, but it’s also incredibly harmful, confusing, and undermining to both intuitive eating as a movement and to anyone who’s trying to practice it.

Fasting is the opposite of intuitive

The most recent example of this comes in the form of the new book Intuitive Fasting: The Flexible Four-Week Intermittent Fasting Plan To Recharge Your Metabolism and Renew Your Health, written by a naturopath and promoted by Gwyneth Paltrow. (It was published by her imprint, Goop Press.) In an Instagram post promoting the book, Paltrow said that the book was a combination of "intuitive eating with intermittent fasting and ketotarian principles," and that the goal of the program was to help people "be willing to listen to ourselves, to our own bodies, to our intuition." Some of this language comes straight from the intuitive eating playbook—namely, the emphasis on intuition and listening to one's body.

Yet experts are quick to point out that fasting is anything but intuitive. “One of the main goals of intuitive eating is to help people learn how to tune in to their bodies and to respond to what their bodies need,” says Kim Daniels, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified intuitive eating counselor. Meanwhile, intermittent fasting asks you to abstain from eating for specific periods of time—either set hours of the day or specific days of the week, depending on the plan. “Calling fasting ‘intuitive’ doesn’t make any sense. Purposefully denying yourself food is the exact opposite of intuitive, and most definitely goes against everything that intuitive eating stands for,” Dr. Daniels says.

Want to learn more about actual intuitive eating? Here's the 411 from a dietitian: 

Intuitive eating isn’t the hunger-fullness diet

"Intuitive fasting" is an extreme example of diets co-opting intuitive eating language, and it’s easy to spot the hypocrisy of it. But other cases of intuitive eating language being misused are more subtle.

One of the most common examples of this is the co-opting of "mindful" eating. Mindful eating is a huge part of two core principles of intuitive eating (honoring your hunger and feeling your fullness), and its intention, along with the other eight principles of intuitive eating, is to help people become more in-tune with their bodies and better understand how to meet their needs through food without resorting to diets or restriction. However, diet culture has twisted mindful eating and tried to apply it to weight loss—basically, encouraging people to be "mindful" about eating in order to prevent overeating.

Take the “banana test” from Blogilates founder Cassey Ho. There’s plenty of intuitive eating language in the video caption; Ho says that “some people are 'intuitive' and can eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full,” but that she just can’t seem to do this. Instead of eating what you crave, she says, you should ask yourself: “Will a [banana] satisfy you right now? Or does only a [burger] or [cookie] sound good? If you chose [burger] or [cookie], you’re not actually hungry. If you chose [banana], go eat!” (Ho isn't the only one to have a "test" for hunger; some dietitians recommend drinking water or other strategies to distract people from their cravings.)

While it might sound reasonable at first glance to check in with your hunger cues before eating, litmus testing them in this specific way implies that bananas are “good” and cookies or burgers are “bad,” which goes against the ethos of intuitive eating. “What tends to happen when we think of some foods as good and others as bad is that people internalize, ‘I’m eating a bad food, therefore, I’m bad,’” Tribole says. “Health exists on a gradient,” she adds. “We don’t need to eat 'pristinely' to be healthy.”

Similarly, many diets claim to be more "intuitive" or "flexible" because they don't actively ask adherents to count calories. Yet many of these plans still ask people to track their food intake through points, colors (green foods being "healthy" and red foods being "unhealthy"), macronutrients, or other metrics. While some people might find these methods useful for nutritional purposes, these habits are not part of intuitive eating and should be not branded as such.

True intuitive eating means giving yourself permission to eat the cookie or the burger or anything else, whenever you want it. It means that you don’t ever need to second-guess whether you’re hungry “enough” to warrant eating. “It’s not the hunger-and-fullness diet,” says Tribole, who sees intuitive eating misrepresented this way all the time. Sure, part of what you learn on the journey to intuitive eating is how to feel your hunger and fullness. But you’re not meant to constantly fixate on these cues, only eating when you’re hungry and always stopping just when you start to feel full.

These strategies are also not meant to control your weight or food intake. In fact, the very first principle of intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality—so cherry-picking a few of the principles (as some diets and influencers have done) and applying them to weight loss is deeply disingenuous.

Intuitive eating is evidence-based, “intuitive” fasting or weight loss are not

Tribole doesn’t take kindly to people capitalizing on the success of intuitive eating in order to sell diet programs. “It’s misappropriating our work and using it in a way that was never intended,” Tribole says. “It’s a mindf**k.”

This kind of appropriation isn't just confusing for consumers, but it also can lead to harm, Tribole argues. “These things that co-opt intuitive eating, they’re making a lot of promises when there’s no evidence to back those claims,” she says.

Want to learn more about intuitive eating and diet culture? Check out the latest episode of The Well+Good Podcast:

The biggest risk comes for people with eating disorders or a history of disordered eating patterns. While intuitive eating itself is often used as a tool for eating disorder recovery, things like "intuitive fasting" and other restrictive behaviors imply that it’s acceptable, even healthy, to deny your hunger, restrict your food intake, or avoid certain foods for no medical reason. “Anyone with a history of an eating disorder or disordered eating could be especially harmed by this,” Dr. Daniels says, explaining that most eating disorders, even binge eating disorder, begin with restriction.

Despite the fact that restriction is known to be both a cause and a characteristic of eating disorders, and that experts estimate 9 percent of the U.S. population will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, those who promote diets as “intuitive” overlook this potential harm. Someone looking to break free from disordered eating habits may go looking for intuitive eating on the recommendation of a health-care provider or a friend and instead stumble upon something that has the potential to make their problems far worse. “Many people with a history of an eating disorder will look for anything with ‘scientific proof’ that supports the practice of restriction,” Dr. Daniels says.

Yet Tribole and other anti-diet experts argue that the science backing up restrictive eating patterns is scant. “People promoting diets will say, ‘Oh, the science says…' Well, show me that science,” Tribole says. "Was the study in rats? Humans? How long was it? How many subjects? Did researchers measure for unintended consequences?” Indeed, the vast majority of research on fasting has been done in rodents, and the few human studies that exist are small and short-term, and don’t take into account how fasting potentially impacts eating disorders and other aspects of mental and social health. And weight-loss diets themselves tend not to support long-term results: A 2020 review in The BMJ took data from 121 clinical trials with nearly 22,000 total participants and found that while most diets led to short-term weight loss, participants regained that weight within a year.

Meanwhile, there is a growing body of evidence to support the merits of intuitive eating—140 studies and counting, Tribole says. A 2013 study of over 2,500 college-aged adults found that intuitive eating was associated with improved self-esteem, higher body appreciation, less preoccupation with food and body, and a decreased risk of eating disorders. And a 2017 analysis of data from over 40,000 French adults found that intuitive eaters ate a more varied and nutritious diet overall than people who follow food rules or make some foods forbidden.

If you’re interested in intuitive eating, go to the source

If intuitive eating is something that appeals to you, expert guidance is essential, especially given how its message can be distorted. Start by reading the Intuitive Eating book, which is now in its fourth edition and filled with up-to-date information.

If you’re working with a professional—which you absolutely should do if you have an eating disorder—look for a dietitian and/or therapist who is a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. This means they’ve completed a detailed course on intuitive eating and have worked directly with Tribole and Resch on their counseling approach. (There are over 1,300 Certified Intuitive Eating Counselors, most listed in this directory).

Realistically, there’s no surefire way to stop diet programs and wellness influencers from co-opting intuitive eating language. The best you can do is learn to spot fake intuitive eating and tune it out. “Any time a program is asking you to disconnect from your body, that’s a red flag,” Tribole says. “Any time a program asks you to count things—food groups, numbers, points, hours in a day—any time someone is telling you what you should or shouldn’t be eating, that’s a problem.” These things are inherently not intuitive, and should never be framed as such.

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