Nourish and nurture yourself by practicing healthy eating habits this summer—all without dieting or losing control.
What does the idea of getting ready for summer mean to you? Maybe you are planning a vacation, working in between college semesters, or throwing yourself into a new project. Regardless of your personal intentions, you will certainly be bombarded with the message that you should start dieting. Books, advertisements, and social media influencers will lean into promoting the diet mentality. They will attempt to lure you in with stunning before-and-after photos and promises of massive body transformations through things like magical teas and waist trainers. Though prevalent, this diet culture is damaging, inundating you with false hope and moving you further away from knowing your own unique body.
“Dieting—the act of changing your eating and exercise habits in an effort to lose weight and ostensibly improve your health—is a lot more likely to end in a whole host of other things, including rebound overeating, food obsession, and weight regain. Actually, as many as two-thirds of people who embark on weight-loss efforts end up gaining more weight than they lost. Meanwhile, the diet industry is now worth more than $66 billion, a record high. In recent years, 68 percent of Americans have dieted for some length of time, mostly making up their own weight-loss plans or ‘lifestyle changes’ rather than following formal diets to the letter.”
So, how will you respond to the call to diet as summer gets underway? Here’s my suggestion: follow the principles of intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is a simple, natural, and powerful way to eat. It’s a way of integrating your innate instincts, emotions, and rational thinking process to nourish your body, without using the diet guidelines that usually lead to losing control later.
When you listen and respond to your body’s natural cues, you feel good. Not only that, you decrease feelings of shame and align with the notion that your health is not based on the number on a scale. That’s important because shame and guilt are closely linked with the symptoms of an eating disorder, and especially with binge eating.
Here are tips based on the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. Check them out to see how you can improve your healthy eating just in time for your shift into summer.
1. It may seem radical, but let go of dieting.
The diet mentality sets you up for failure, in part, because trying to avoid thinking about food actually increases your food thoughts. Avoidance may even increase eating disorder behaviors such as mentally obsessing and experiencing a lack of positive control with food. This is known as the dietary restraint theory. Recognize the danger in diet promotions. They’re not helpful, they’re hurtful. And the more you can reject their falsehoods, the more in tune with yourself you can become.
2. Notice your physical hunger signals.
“When we give up dieting, we take back something we were often too young to know we had given away: our own voice. Our ability to make decisions about what to eat and when. Our belief in ourselves. Our right to decide what goes into our mouths. Unlike the diets… your body is reliable. It doesn’t go away, get lost, stolen. If you will listen, it will speak.”
For your body to have the energy it requires to keep you healthy and active throughout the day, you need to incorporate a variety of foods into your meals. When you deprive your body of the food you need in response to its natural hunger cues, you set off a primal response that pressures you to obsess about food and eat beyond a comfortable level of fullness when food is available. When you allow your body to reach extreme hunger after skipping meals, you may experience the urge to binge eat.
Keep your mind and body connected by getting adequate sleep, not skipping meals, reducing overwhelm, eliminating harsh self-talk, taking time to relax, and reaching out for support when you need it. Respecting your body’s natural hunger cues is one of the most crucial steps for rebuilding the links between your body and food.
3. Stop treating food as a potential enemy.
“Food enjoyment is a vital component of a vibrant life.”
Recognize that food is not an enemy. Rather, it’s a source of nourishment, satisfaction, and energy. With intuitive eating, you’re encouraged to stop demonizing certain food types or ingredients. When you deprive your body of foods that you categorize as “bad,” you ironically create a strong pull toward indulging in them. This story is not new. We want the “forbidden fruit” and can become disconnected from our body’s cues when we place foods in an idealized position. This can lead to eating in the absence of stomach hunger or continuing beyond fullness.
While it’s true that all foods are not nutritionally equivalent, it is important that you begin to view them as emotionally equivalent. This summer, give yourself permission to eat what you please.
4. Get rid of judgmental, shaming messages when it comes to food.
You may have fallen victim to telling yourself that it’s okay to restrict your intake or categorize certain foods as “bad.” That voice may scream at you to limit your calories, shame you for enjoying your meals, and try to convince you to monitor every bit of food. But where is that judgment coming from? Those messages are coming from diet culture conditioning that has infiltrated your psyche.
When you take an active stance to counteract those thoughts, your relationship with food can transform into one that doesn’t include the opinions of third parties. You can start listening to your body and ignoring the shaming messages you’ve been bombarded with throughout your life. Your body is sacred and deserves your respect, love, and care.
5. Recognize that your body is not a bank account.
Part of your experience as a human being involves satisfaction and pleasure. Contrary to popular belief, food isn’t just a means of energy production. Your body is equipped with taste buds for a reason. Allow yourself to bask in the flavors of your favorite meals and snacks. Not only will the experience bring you pleasure, it will keep you at less risk of binge eating later.
“This pursuit of health turns eating into a somewhat mechanical experience. The social aspect of eating and enjoyment of eating is considered irrelevant to the sufferer, who will forgo social interactions and potentially meaningful and important aspects of life to pursue ‘healthy eating.’”
6. Notice your mind-body connection about feelings of fullness.
When you’re tuning into your body’s natural hunger cues, you are also opening your awareness to when your body signals fullness. Learn to check in with your body during meals. Your mind and body communicate well if you are listening. Pause halfway through your meal. Are you comfortably full? If the answer is no, continue your meal or increase your portion size until you feel satisfied. If the answer is yes, save the rest of your food for later. You may find that within just a few hours, your body is ready to finish that meal. The idea is to be nonjudgmental of your body’s needs and grateful for all those nutrients you’re taking in.
7. Actively choose when you cope with difficult emotions.
Food does not ease a low mood or depression and is not a cure for boredom, though it can be soothing or distracting at times. If you are feeling overwhelmed by distressing emotions, ask yourself what you need besides food, and find a range of ways to cope. That way, you can choose what’s best for you on any given day.
Sometimes that means speaking with a therapist, spending creative time with your favorite hobby, enjoying a baked good, or developing a meditative practice to help you gain a more flexible, effective shopping style. When you are not using food as a go-to means of coping with your natural spectrum of emotions, you defuse your emotions from your eating habits.
8. Connect with your own uniqueness.
We learn what we repeat. Thus, if you have a negative body image, check how you talk to yourself about your body. You may have to change your self-talk to be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate if your goal is to practice this intuitive eating principle of body acceptance.
“Inspire people to stop listening to what other people tell them about what to eat and start listening to what their own bodies are telling them.”
If you find this to be difficult, looking back at happy photos from your childhood can be helpful. Notice that there was a time when you played, ate, and slept without judging your body.
Unfortunately as you grow up and you’re bombarded with one-size-fits-all messages that don’t reflect what you see in the mirror, you can feel inadequate. You may think you’re not good enough. However, just as your height, shoe size, and skin color are innate parts of your existence as a human being, so is your body’s size and shape.
Learn to pause and appreciate your uniqueness; your body works incredibly hard daily to keep you alive and keep you healthy. It deserves your gratitude for all it does for you.
9. Be active as you participate in your life.
You don’t have to train for a marathon or start a new online fitness class to be living in an intuitive, healthy way. Simply stand up, stretch, move around, and experience the benefits of movement. Set aside expectations that tell you to work out for a specified amount of time, burn a certain number of calories, or practice a bootcamp routine at the same pace as everyone else.
Ask yourself, “When do I feel energized?”
Keep in mind, eating does not have to be earned. Yes, your body needs movement in the same way that it needs food, sleep, and water—but physical activity does not allow you to eat. They are related, but separate: you need nourishment and movement to have optimal health.
10. Instead of cutting things out, add in more of the foods that bring balance to your body.
Taking care of your body means providing it with all the delicious, nutritious foods you need—and it also means enjoying that ice cream cone on days when that’s what your body or mind asks of you. The goal is “gentle nutrition,” as explained here:
“You actually enjoy nutritious food because of its taste. You eat ‘play’ food when you crave it as long as it doesn’t make you physically uncomfortable afterward. Your motivation for your food choices comes from a combination of a desire to provide nutritious food for your physical well-being and to have the option of eating something just for its taste. You care about how you feel, as well as wanting to have a satisfying eating experience. You hold no judgment when you choose to eat the foods with the lesser nutritional value, and you’re also aware of how your body reacts to the amount of these foods that you eat.”
—Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
Redefine what it means to be your best. What matters most in your intuitive eating journey is consistency. Over time, you’ll notice that eating with freedom nourishes your mind, body, and spirit.
Giving up dieting and ending the cycle of disordered eating is worth the effort. It’s true that intuitive eating is not a quick or easy fix. It’s a process. But the benefits of healthy eating, learning to trust your built-in mind-body connection, and intuitive eating will be an investment in your long-term whole health. Intuitive eating is the epitome of good self-care.
Craven, M. P. & Fekete, E. M. (2019). Weight-related shame and guilt, intuitive eating, and binge eating in female college students. Eating Behavior, 33, 44-48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2019.03.002
Hazzard, V. M., Telke, S. E., Simone, M., Anderson, L. M., Larson, N. I., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2021). Intuitive eating longitudinally predicts better psychological health and lower use of disordered eating behaviors: Findings from EAT 2010–2018. Eating and Weight Disorders, 26(1), 287–294. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-020-00852-4
Tomiyama, A. J., Mann, T., Vinas, D., Hunger, J. M., Dejager, J., & Taylor, S. E. (2010). Low-calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 72(4), 357–64. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c
Tribole, Evelyn & Resch, Elyse. (2017). The Intuitive Eating Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Tribole, E. (2019). 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. Intuitive Eating. https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/