How Rejecting “Diet Culture” and Embracing Intuitive Eating Helped Me Heal My Relationship With Food
“Intuitive eating is not just for people who are thin. It’s for everyone at every size, even the very largest sizes, because we all deserve to have a peaceful, nourishing, and liberated relationship with food.” Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, and author of the new book Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, has been eating intuitively for a total of 28 years. She explains that intuitive eating is the default mode, the way we’re born knowing how to eat, before “diet culture” and its attendant fatphobia and food-phobia come in and mess up our relationships with food and our bodies.
The main principles of intuitive eating include “rejecting the diet mentality, honoring our hunger rather than suppressing it, making peace with food and not having any foods we avoid for diet-culture reasons, and taking pleasure and satisfaction in food.” Christy talked to us about how intuitive eating changed her own life, and why she believes we need to dismantle diet culture’s oppressive belief system.
20 people, 20 stories of what healthy means for them in 2020.
My Healthy: Intuitive Eating
- Name: Christy Harrison
- Location & Occupation: Registered Dietitian, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and Journalist in the Northeast
- What is intuitive eating?: Here’s what you need to know.
- How Long: 28 years in total — from birth to age 20 (because I started out eating intuitively, like all babies, and I was lucky enough never to get put on a strict food plan or experience food insecurity growing up), and then again from age 30 until today.
What does “healthy” mean to you?
I don’t often use the term “healthy” because I’ve seen so many people use it as a stick to beat themselves with (and I did that to myself back in the day, too). But if I were to use it, I’d use it to mean at peace with oneself, liberated, and free from oppression and harm.
I can so relate to this, Christy. If you were to use the term “healthy” again, what would you say is a healthy relationship with food?
When it comes to food, I would say that a healthy relationship with food is one that’s peaceful and self-caring, as opposed to one that’s fearful, adversarial, and self-controlling. It’s eating intuitively and allowing your natural instincts, desires, and physical cues to guide your eating, rather than following external rules designed to shrink the body or reach an unattainable and oppressive version of health. A healthy relationship with food is one that takes into account your mental and emotional needs as well as your physical ones, and that doesn’t follow bogus diet-culture rules. And a healthy relationship with food is one that doesn’t include restriction, overexercise, or other disordered behaviors.
What lifestyle change helps you feel your healthiest?
I also don’t often use the term “lifestyle change” because it’s been so thoroughly co-opted by diet culture in the past few decades (as in, “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change!” or “if you want to lose weight, it can’t be a quick fix, it has to be a lifestyle change”). But if we’re taking it to mean simply a major change in regular practices or behaviors, I’d say that hands-down the most impactful change has been re-learning intuitive eating.
In broad strokes, intuitive eating is a way of relating to food and our bodies that relies on our innate instincts and wisdom about food, rather than on external diet-culture beliefs. I always say that intuitive eating is the default mode, the way we’re born knowing how to eat, before diet culture and its attendant fatphobia and food-phobia come in and mess up our relationships with food and our bodies. We sadly get so sidetracked from this innately peaceful way of viewing food and our bodies by diet culture and other forms of trauma (like food insecurity).
So is intuitive eating something you can learn (or relearn)?
Well, it often takes a lot of time, practice, and support to reconnect with our intuitive-eating skills. which is where the formal practice of intuitive eating comes in — the 10 principles of intuitive eating first outlined by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995 in their seminal book Intuitive Eating, which I and other certified intuitive eating counselors teach.
What were your goals when you made that change?
My goals in re-learning intuitive eating were to heal my relationship with food and stop the periodic bingeing and out-of-control feelings that I struggled with for about a decade. Through the process of intuitive eating, I learned that my restrictive eating and compulsive exercise were driving my bingeing, and that to feel at peace with food I needed to let go of my diet rules and get back to honoring my hunger, the way I’d always done when I was younger. It wasn’t easy to make that switch, as I had a lot of internalized diet-culture beliefs about needing to control my eating and my weight, but once I actually began to experience the peace and freedom that came from easing up on the restriction and exercise, it became a lot easier.
How did you start eating intuitively when you began again at age 30? What motivation pushed you on?
I first came across the concept of intuitive eating when I discovered the book Intuitive Eating, while I was doing research for a book I never ended up writing about emotional eating. I thought the idea sounded intriguing, and I read part of the book and talked about it with my therapist, which was the catalyst for our starting to address my disordered eating head-on. It took me about a year to finish the book and really embrace its principles, because like so many people in diet culture I was convinced that honoring my hunger was going to “ruin” my body and my health (I was definitely caught up in a fatphobic way of thinking at the time). But in short, I got back into intuitive eating through a combination of the book and weekly psychotherapy.
What are you most proud of?
That’s an interesting question, and I think often times when people are really proud of their eating and health choices it’s actually a symptom of diet culture, which conditions us to define ourselves by what we eat and how we move our bodies. But I guess I’d say I’m proud that I’ve bucked diet culture and re-learned intuitive eating, and that I don’t define myself by those things anymore. And I know that’s a lot easier for me, as someone who’s always lived in a smaller body, than it is for people in larger bodies who have diet culture and its fat-phobic and food-phobic beliefs foisted on them at every turn. So I definitely want to acknowledge the privilege in being able to make those choices — and I am also fighting for a world in which people of all body sizes, including the very largest sizes, are free from oppression and able to get back to the intuitive relationship with food that’s their (and everyone’s) birthright.
So what does keep you going? Lifestyle and habit changes are famously hard to make and keep. Do you have a secret?
Again, I think that often times when people talk about their “secrets” to making “lifestyle changes,” it’s actually a symptom of diet culture, which has trained us to think that such changes (aka shrinking our bodies) take both extreme willpower and special, secret knowledge. I definitely don’t have a “secret” in that sense, but I will say that what keeps me going with intuitive eating these days is twofold: one, the feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and freedom that I personally get from eating this way, which feels infinitely better than constantly depriving myself; and two, the knowledge that diet culture is an oppressive system of beliefs that I’m fighting to dismantle, and that I can’t take on that work (or work toward dismantling other, related oppressive systems like racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) the way I want to if I’m depriving myself of nourishment and pleasure. I need to be walking the walk if I’m going to do this work, not just to model intuitive eating for others, but also because I won’t have the mental or physical energy to sustain me in my efforts if I’m dieting.
What’s the one food you love the most?
It changes all the time, but right now I’m really into Frito pie! I just rediscovered it on a trip down South and am so in love with how the crunchiness and saltiness of the chips plays off the spiciness and smokiness of the chili.
If you were to recommend intuitive eating to someone else, what is the most important piece of advice you would give them?
When I recommend intuitive eating to others, I think my #1 piece of advice is to recognize that it’s NOT another diet or weight-loss method, as much as your diet-culture conditioning is going to want to turn it into one. The first principle of intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality, which means letting go of efforts to control your body size and shape, and stop listening to all the noise about nutrition that’s out there in diet culture. Unfortunately, I see too many uninformed people trying to sell intuitive eating as a weight-loss plan, which is antithetical to the very foundation of intuitive eating.
What Is Intuitive Eating? Start Here.
My Healthy 2020: 20 People, 20 Healthy Choices
Every January people make changes to improve their health. But which ones actually make a difference? We’re sharing the stories of 20 people who changed their lives for the better and stuck — thanks to choices that are individual, diverse, and sometimes wildly different from each other. Read their stories here throughout January. We hope they inspire your own journey to finding your own, unique, individual healthiest 2020.