Why Isn’t Intuitive Eating Working?

why isn't intuitive eating working

Why isn’t intuitive eating working?

You’re done with dieting. 

You just cannot stand one more day of riding the emotional roller coaster that is trying, failing and starting over yet again. And you’ve been hearing good things about this whole ‘intuitive eating’ thing and decided to finally give it a shot. 

But now you feel like you’re not doing it right. Shouldn’t eating whatever you want and listening to your body be easier than this? What if your body is telling you to eat potato chips for breakfast? Is it possible to fail at this too? Ugh.

Why isn’t intuitive eating working for me? 

If you’re like the many chronic dieters we’ve worked with, you might have given intuitive eating a shot before. You might have sworn off dieting and vowed to just eat and live your life again. But then you started to panic.

You realized you feel out of control around food. You’re worried that if you kept eating this way you’ll blow up and get heart disease or diabetes or just gain a bunch of weight and feel worse than you did when you were dieting. 

This article is for you if you’ve dipped your toe into intuitive eating but are confused or panicked or just plain mystified and wondering: why isn’t intuitive eating working for me? 

We’ll be discussing why this is so common, the mistakes you’re likely making (we’ve seen them all) and what to actually do about it. Because intuitive eating will work for you, if you have the right mindset and fully understand what ‘working’ actually means (more on that in a minute).

But first, let’s define intuitive eating, shall we? 

Intuitive Eating, according to Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CERD-S, FIAEDP, FADA, FAND (who literally wrote the book on it) is: 

A weight-inclusive, evidence-based model and self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotional, and rational thought. (Wait, what?)

It is a personal and dynamic process, which includes 10 principles: 

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality
  2. Honor Your Hunger
  3. Make Peace with Food
  4. Challenge the Food Police
  5. Respect Your Fullness
  6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
  7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
  8. Respect Your Body
  9. Movement – Feel the Difference
  10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition

Click here to download a free copy of these 10 principles to keep with you every day!

The principles work in two key ways: 

  1. By helping you cultivate attunement to the physical sensations that arise from within your body to get both your biological and psychological needs met. 
  2. Removing obstacles and disruptors to attunement, which usually come from the mind in the form of rules, beliefs and thoughts. 

Now, that’s the definition if we’re talking about Intuitive Eating, the capitalized version. 

The term ‘intuitive eating’ also just means eating based on your body’s internal cues and how you feel rather than trying to stick to diet culture’s latest rules to lose weight. Eating based on your own intuition, if you will. The way we were all designed to eat (we’ll get to that in a minute too). 

Here’s the tricky part though. 

While the capitalized version of Intuitive Eating, a specific model and framework, was created in the early 90s by two dieticians to help their chronically dieting and disordered eating patients heal from a toxic and harmful relationship with food, it was absolutely NOT created as a weight loss tool or a diet. 

However, nowadays, the lowercase version of ‘intuitive eating’ has become a buzzword in the wellness/diet industry and lots of folks who are promoting weight loss have co-opted the term, making it very confusing and getting lots of people into trouble. Or rather, into the position you’re in right now, which is scratching your head wondering: why isn’t intuitive eating working?

Which leads me to our next topic. We have to first define what you mean by ‘working.’ 

How do you know if Intuitive Eating is working for you? 

The journey of becoming an Intuitive Eater is different for everyone. How long it will take you, what stuff is going to come up, what it’s going to look like, are all going to depend on how long you’ve been dieting, how deeply ingrained your diet mindset is, how long you’ve been using food and dieting to cope with your life and how willing you are to let go of weight loss and start to trust yourself again. 

To gauge how it’s going, we also have to take a look at the different stages of the process. Because ‘working’ will vary greatly depending on where you’re at. Stage Two feels radically different from Stage Five. 

I’ll also note here that there are going to naturally be moments of panic and confusion in this process and that’s why it’s crucial to find guidance and support through a coach or mentor or practitioner who has experience with Intuitive Eating. 

It’s going to be freaky. You’re going to have questions. You’re going to have moments of fear and panic and self-doubt. And having someone to guide you through is integral in not giving up. 

After a lifetime of dieting, everything about Intuitive Eating will be foreign and awkward. And it’s incredibly valuable to have someone keep you moving in the right direction. And talk you off the ledge when you’re crying and about to download MyFitnessPal for the eleven hundredth time. 

Alright, that being said, let’s get to those different stages and see where you’re currently at, shall we?

The 5 Stages of Becoming an Intuitive Eater

Stage One 

It’s where most begin. You’re at diet rock bottom. You’re exhausted with trying and failing. You’re sick of measuring your worth on the scale. You’re thinking about food way too much. You’ve lost touch with hunger and fullness cues. You feel out of control. You’re eating emotionally. Your body image is in the toilet. And you know deep down that if this was going to work, it would have worked by now. 

You’ll remain in this stage until you decide that you can’t do this anymore and have to find another way to live and relate to food. 

Stage Two

This is the most common stage for people to start asking “Why isn’t intuitive eating working?” Learning, exploring and hyperconsciousness make up this next stage. You’re diving in and it’s like learning to parallel park: awkward at first. Each step takes a lot of focus. You might even feel like now you’re just obsessing about becoming an Intuitive Eater instead of dieting. You’ll get reacquainted with your body’s signals, start to make peace with food, give up the dieting mentality, honor your hunger and start to eat some of the foods that freak you out. 

This can be the real scary phase because you kinda just have to eat and sometimes that means eating a lot of foods that you’re terrified are going to make you fat and that you haven’t let yourself eat in forever. And after restriction, may come the binging so, it will be difficult to respect your fullness just yet. But hold on, you’ll get there. 

Oh and since you’re going to start to respect your emotions and process them instead of eating, you might feel more of everything for a bit too. Sounds super fun, right? It might not be, but this stage won’t last forever and it’s crucial to move through before you can heal. Just because you feel like you’re eating everything in sight doesn’t mean it’s not working, in fact, it probably means the opposite. You have to let the pendulum swing before it can come back into balance. Self-compassion is going to be key here.

Stage Three

Here’s where it all starts to crystalize for you. The first drowsy awakening of the Intuitive Eater begins. Your thoughts of food are no longer obsessive. Your behavior starts to change. You won’t have to be so hyperconscious of each eating experience. Your eating decisions won’t require as much thought. It will start to feel more intuitive. You’ll start to trust yourself again. You’ll be honoring your hunger most of the time. You’ll continue to make peace with all foods. You’ll become adept at deciphering true hunger from emotional hunger. You’ll start to notice you don’t need quite as much of those previously forbidden foods to feel satisfied, even if you’re still choosing them most of the time. You might even start to realize you don’t enjoy some of them as much as you used to. You’ll reclaim a sense of hope and empowerment and well-being. You’ll truly begin to respect your body. 

Stage Four 

Now the Intuitive Eater is up and she’s had her coffee. All the work you’ve been putting in results in an easier, flowing relationship with food. You choose what you want to eat, what feels good and it’s easy to stop when you’ve had enough. You might even notice you’re craving more nutrient dense foods now, not because you think you should, but because you want to and they make you feel good. As we like to say around here “vegetables do work.” Most foods have the same emotional charge and moral neutrality. Deprivation backlash and overeating is a thing of the past. You have new coping skills. Your food and self-talk will be more positive. You’re valuing and respecting yourself in a whole new way. 

Stage Five 

You’ve reclaimed the Intuitive Eater inside of you. You trust your body’s intuitive abilities. It’s easy to honor your hunger, respect your fullness and take good care of yourself through gentle nutrition. Your relationship with food feels good and you take great pleasure in eating again without any guilt, or shame or drama. Your concerns about weight will diminish and eating will be one way you take care of your whole self. You’ll be free from diet culture and you’ll feel empowered and protected from outside influence around food and your body. 

It’s worth noting here that Intuitive Eating is a privilege not afforded to everyone. If you live in food scarcity, Intuitive Eating may not be as accessible to you, or accessible at all. The massive assumption made in all of this, is that you can afford and regularly have access to, enough food.

Intuitive Eating “Success” 

Your success in Intuitive Eating is not measured by the same outcomes that our linear, perfection-oriented diet mindset is used to measuring. Things like: weight on the scale, how ‘perfectly’ you’ve eaten, how few calories or carbs you’ve consumed or the size of your jeans. 

Intuitive Eating is a process of healing from diet culture and taking better care of yourself as a result. So instead of asking if you’re ‘naturally eating less’ or have ‘gotten control around food’ or even ‘slimmed down naturally without trying.’ You might ask ‘how much time and energy and mind space have I freed up in my daily life by no longer obsessing about food? Am I no longer anxious about food and restricting and binging? Do I feel free to eat whatever I want and no longer obsess over any forbidden foods? Are all of my ‘trigger foods’ not a thing anymore? Can I just sort of eat what I want, stop when I’m full and take good care of myself without thinking too much about it? Do I just feel normal and not crazy around food anymore? Am I feeling more free and more confident and more at ease about it all? 

If the answer is yes to those latter types of questions, then yes, Intuitive Eating is probably starting to work for you.

To use the term “success” at all when it comes to Intuitive Eating doesn’t quite fit though. It’s a process and a practice. What you’re doing is shifting into a life-long dynamic and respectful relationship with food and your body with no beginning or end. This requires a process vs. destination mindset. 


Common Mistakes of Intuitive Eating 

Now that we got all of that out of the way, let’s discuss the common mistakes of Intuitive Eating that you might be making.

1. You’re trying to use Intuitive Eating for weight loss.

“It’s so easy to read things and apply a version of ‘listening to your  body’ through a diet culture, weight loss, less is better lens and that’s exactly what I did. And it’s exactly what people do with the idea of the Hunger Scale. People assume well what’s the point of the Hunger Scale if it’s not to make sure that I’m always eating the smallest amount that I possibly can? Without understanding that that’s still a diet. That’s not feeding yourself enough. And you’re still going to feel addicted to food.” 

– Caroline Dooner, author The F*ck It Diet: Eating should be easy.

I won’t go too far into this one because we touched on it above but, Intuitive Eating is going to be impossible if you’re doing it to lose weight. Just the focus on intentional weight loss means that your decisions will forever be dictated by that desire and therefore you can never really, honestly, just listen to your body in a non judgmental way. You’ll always, as Caroline describes above, be trying to eat the least amount possible. Weight loss has to be put on the back burner if you’re going to truly be able to work the 10 principles into your life in a real way. Since dieting is any intentional attempt to control food to lose weight, you’ll just turn it into another diet. Which leads me into the next mistake.

2. You’re turning Intuitive Eating into another diet. 

Connected to the first mistake but slightly different, it’s incredibly easy, when coming off of dieting, to turn intuitive eating into what Isabel Foxen Duke calls ‘The Hunger/Fullness Diet.’ Which means you’re just replacing Noom’s rules or Keto’s rules with the rule of only eating when hungry and being sure to stop when you’re full. The goal of intuitive eating is to let go of all the rules. (Rules = diet.) And intuitive eating is way more than just eating only when hungry and stopping only when perfectly full. It’s also easy to turn intuitive eating into the “if I eat by listening to my body that means I will or should eat the least/perfect amount of food possible”. The goal is not to eat as little as possible naturally. The goal is to eat according to your own body and not think too much about it. Those are very different things. We all likely need to be eating far more than dieting ever led us to believe was okay.

3. You’re looking at Intuitive Eating as a pass fail. 

One of the most important aspects of intuitive eating is to shift into a process mindset. To put on an anthropologist’s hat and simply be gathering data and practicing nonjudgmental awareness. This is not a plan you either follow or don’t. There’s no wagon to climb onto. And there shouldn’t be. Because when it comes to food, if we climb up on a wagon, we are guaranteed to fall off.

4. You think Intuitive Eating is the end-all to heal all of your bullshit with food. 

Not the case. Intuitive eating is a framework to work through to help you shift out of the diet binge cycle, reconnect to the wisdom of your body, rebuild trust in yourself and start to relate in a healthier way to food, but there is so much bullshit tied up in our relationship to food that it can’t help with everything. Body image, for instance, is incredibly important to heal because it’s the underlying trigger for the majority of dieters. Our belief systems. Living in a patriarchal diet culture. Our lives as a whole. When you talk to women about food, it’s never really about the food. And so we have to look at the whole person inside the whole life to truly heal and rebuild our confidence after a lifetime of dieting. Intuitive Eating is a huge and powerful part of the process, but it’s not a cure-all for all your food and body woes.

5. You’re not getting support.

This is messy, messy business. And it runs deep in our veins. And healing from it, unfortunately, requires deep work and countercultural thinking. It takes time, patience, support, guidance and community. And you can’t get all that from Googling or reading a few books. If you want to heal your food and body bullshit for good, become an Intuitive Eater and rebuild your confidence, you have to get some support. Can’t stress that enough. So if intuitive eating isn’t working for you, have you gotten any coaching or support? 

So what do you think? Are you making any of those mistakes? One of them? Two of them? All of them? No worries, that’s common too. But it’s probably the reason you’re reading an article titled Why Isn’t Intuitive Eating Working?

I’d like to share a few tips to get you moving in the right direction. Because one of our goals here at Wellness Lately is to recruit an army of amazing women healing their relationships with food and their bodies so we can reclaim our voice and power and take over the world. 

Okay, I’ll reel it in now but, I mean, imagine if women stopped spending all their time and energy trying to lose weight? Imagine what we could do with the 60+ billion dollars we spend per year trying to shrink? 

But I’m going to calm down now and get back to those tips because I don’t want to freak you out. I mean, we just met. 

Tips to Make Intuitive Eating Work for You

  1. Read 2 books for me:
    1. Intuitive Eating: a revolutionary anti-diet approach, by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CERD-S, FIAEDP, FADA, FAND
    2. Health at Every Size: The surprising truth about your weight, by Lindo Bacon, PhD

Both are revolutionary and, if implemented fully, will change your life and health, dramatically for the better. 

2. Google fatphobia

And then unpack your own ingrained beliefs about why you’ve spent so much time and energy trying to be the smallest version of yourself possible. Why do you think you need to lose weight in the first place? What would that mean for you? What is it that’s on the other side of weight loss that you don’t feel you’re worthy of today? Or what doesn’t feel accessible to you right now in your current body? We need to talk about that as much as we need to talk about food. 

3. Learn about body neutrality.

It’s much more impactful than trying to be body positive out of the gate. We have a great podcast with author Anushcka Rees all about it, listen here.  

4. Get some support.

It doesn’t have to be us (though we do offer free Breakthrough Sessions to anyone who’s struggling). But coaching, guidance and community really is crucial to healing and getting your life back. 

Now I hope this has all helped answer the question “Why isn’t intuitive eating working?” and served as a gentle redirection for your journey. 

If you’ve been trying to quit dieting and you’re feeling challenged right now, let me say this: keep going. 

It’s so worth it to heal your relationship with food and your body, and Intuitive Eating, when done with the right mindset and intention, will help get you there. It takes work to turn around a lifetime of dieting and beating yourself up, but it is possible and I know you can get there. 

And deep down, I think you know it too. 

If you’d like to dive a bit deeper, you can set up a free Breakthrough Session today. Just grab a spot on our calendar here.  

If you’d like to learn more first, check out our free master class:
The 5 Simple Shifts to Break the Diet Binge Cycle

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