A Non-Diet Diet: The Case for Eating Whatever You Want

Eat like a caveman. Never mind — actually, don’t eat animal products at all. Or, okay, eat them, but only fish, and only sometimes.

But don’t eat anything for two whole days out of the week. No, you know what? Bananas. Just bananas. These are only a handful of the recent diets that celebrity authors and nutrition bloggers have told us hold the one true key to achieving a healthy weight. But what if it were a lot simpler than that?

As evidence builds that conventional weight-loss methods simply don’t work in the long term, some nutritionists and psychologists are encouraging a kind of non-diet diet, in which you eat what you want when you want it. It’s called intuitive eating, or sometimes, mindful eating, and those who practice and preach this nutritional philosophy say your body instinctively knows what it needs. Your job is to shut up and learn to listen to it.

The whole thing seems a little hippie-dippy — until, that is, you learn that there’s some solid early evidence suggesting that the practice actually works to help people reach a healthy weight.

The phrase intuitive eating was coined and popularized by registered dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, who published the first edition of their book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works, in 1995; a third edition was released last year. More recently, Ohio State University psychologist Tracy Tylka made the practice a bit more scientific by developing a formalized scale specialists can use to measure whether their patients are eating in an intuitive way.

Tylka’s scale includes these skills:

  • Rely on internal hunger and fullness cues. Some nutritionists teach their clients to better listen to their bodies by keeping a “hunger-o-meter,” ranking their hunger on a scale from 0 to 10, while also jotting down their physical hunger symptoms before and after they eat. Resch also recommends that her clients take a couple of deep breaths before starting a meal, and then eat slowly, checking in with themselves to mentally gauge whether they’re still feeling hungry every so often.
  • Eat for physical rather than emotional reasons. In other words, stop eating your feelings. Research has shown that we often eat not because we’re hungry, but because we’re bored, happy, sad, or stressed.
  • Give yourself permission to eat absolutely anything. For intuitive eaters, there are no “good” or “bad” foods. That’s not to say that there’s no nutritional difference between an apple and apple pie, Tribole says. The idea here is that after eating the pie, intuitive eaters will naturally be drawn to more nutritious foods at the next meal, balancing out that extra fat and sugar.

It might sound easy on the surface. But it does take quite a bit of practice,” says Michelle Gallant, a Harvard University Health Services nutritionist who teaches a popular ten-week seminar on intuitive eating. She says that when people first hear about the idea, they tell her, “Well, that means I’ll be eating burgers and fries all the time.” That’s the common misconception about this approach — that it’s a food free-for-all. But the point of intuitive eating is to eat what your body truly wants by figuring out what kinds of things make you feel best. It’s a subtle shift in thinking: It’s not that you can’t have burgers and fries. It’s just that if you’re really paying attention to how your food makes you feel, you won’t want to eat junk all the time.

Part of the reason some nutritionists are excited by intuitive eating is that it jibes with psychological research showing that if a food is forbidden, it only becomes more tempting. Chronic dieters who try to suppress their cravings actually tend to have more cravings, which can lead to binge-eating. And research has shown that when parents enforce very strict eating rules, their kids tend to be more drawn to off-limits snacks — and they eat more once they do get their little hands on them.

Proponents of intuitive eating argue that their method may be a healthier and more realistic way of managing food intake. “Usually when people have a history of chronic dieting, what that means is they’ve learned to shut off their body’s signals,” says Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor and researcher at City College of San Francisco and the University of California, Davis. “So they can’t even recognize hunger, because for so long they’ve thought that hunger is something you’re supposed to suppress — or ignore.”

Bacon sometimes takes her students through an experiment with a food they love, usually chocolate. “I tell them to take a little bite of it, and notice all the sensations in your mouth and how it tastes,” she said. “And then take another small bite. When you keep doing that, inevitably what people see is that the third or fourth bites don’t taste nearly as good as the first bite. You’re getting clues from your body, which is saying, ‘Slow down, don’t eat so much, I’ve got what I need.’”

But do you actually lose weight? It’s not yet clear — there isn’t a big, solid body of evidence, the studies that have been done are small, and there isn’t much science supporting the idea that we instinctively know what to eat. And the leaders of the intuitive eating movement insist that it is not, primarily, about weight loss — to the point that Resch and Tribole scrubbed every mention of the phrase from the cover and table of contents of their book’s latest edition. But a two-year study Bacon led comparing intuitive eaters to dieters offers hope: Both groups lost weight initially, but after one year, intuitive eaters — but not dieters — kept it off. And a recent analysis of the literature on mindful eating identified six studies showing that overweight or obese participants who learned to eat this way lost significant amounts of weight. Tribole, for her part, says she’s had clients who have lost 100 pounds.

Even if the jury is out on the science, there’s something reassuring about this idea and all of its anti-diet simplicity. It might be okay to ignore the latest eating trend and trust yourself instead. Your body’s got this.

The Non-Diet Diet: Eat Whatever You Want