Intuitive Eating – Dieting as a Percursor to Eating Disorders

Dieting as a Precursor to Eating Disorders

Dieting may not be the cause of eating disorders, but it is often a precursor. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders. It is far too common that eating disorders start off as dieting. Dieting can be a way for individuals to exercise control, counting calories and fat grams, limiting types and amounts of food, and watching the numbers drop on the scale. Focusing on dieting and weight loss can be a “perfect” escape from true emotions and issues. Not only can the focus on dieting and weight loss be distracting, but also dieters tend to have slower reaction time and less ability to concentrate due to lack of adequate nutrition.

Dieting as a Cultural Norm

Dieting has become common and normalized in our society. So much so, that children ages nine to eleven are dieting at alarming rates. A study published in the Journal of American Dietetic Association in 1992 found that 46% of nine to eleven year olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and that 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets. It would not be surprising if the rates have increased over the years, especially since that has been the trend of the dieting industry. In 1980 the dieting industry was a $10 billion dollar industry. In 1991 it was reported to be a $50 billion dollar industry, and it just keeps growing. Fifty billion dollars is more than the Gross National Product (GNP) of over half of all the nations in the world.

This trend for dieting and being “thin” is a relatively new phenomenon in the course of history. Less than one hundred years ago Americans strived for “excess” body fat. They viewed fatness as a sign of success, health, and beauty. There were even articles in magazines like Harpers Bazar with advice on how to put on extra pounds. At this time physicians were even encouraging Americans to gain weight, and they believed that a “balanced personality” was obtained by having a large number of fat cells.

Diet Failure

Our culture has brainwashed us into thinking being ultra-thin is equated with beauty. To obtain this image, Americans put so much time, energy and money into diets, and in the end the diets don’t even work. The dieting failure rate helps to explain the industry’s rapid growth. When a diet fails, the search is on for a new one that “really works.” Ninety-five percent of dieters regain their lost weight. Plus, many of those who have “failed” put on additional weight within one to five years. The 5% of “successful dieters” are usually successful because they have actually adopted a new lifestyle, not because they have stuck to their diets.

Most people blame themselves and their lack of willpower for their diet failures. In reality, it has nothing to do with willpower. Diet failure can be attributed the body responding to hunger and the body’s state of semi-starvation or starvation. The body and mind react to a diet in the same way they would to starvation. In starvation, the body’s metabolism decreases, and cravings increase. This is the set up for diet failure. Metabolism naturally slowing down during starvation is the body’s attempt to conserve energy. A decrease in metabolism means the body is burning calories at a slower rate. Also while on a diet, the mind becomes preoccupied with thoughts of food and cravings intensify, especially for foods that will provide quick energy, like sweets. Eventually, it is too difficult to fight nature. People can’t remain on diets forever and when dieters terminate their diet efforts, it is common for overeating to ensue. Overeating and even “normal eating” with a suppressed metabolism will cause the weight that was lost to come back. The failure rate of dieting (95%) is so high, not because people aren’t good enough or strong enough but because our bodies were designed to fight weight loss.

The Cons of Meal Plans to Treat Eating Disorders

Many treatment facilities and dietitians use meal plans as a way to treat eating disorders. This approach has many cons, however. Meal plans are virtually the same as a diet. People following meal plans are allotted a certain amount of carbohydrate, protein, and fat servings, or they are allowed to choose from pre-planned food items. Just like a diet, there are rules and boundaries. Some individuals with eating disorders may really like this structure, but the new set of rules and boundaries that the meal plan provides are just replacing the old set of rules the eating disorder provided. Sometimes dietitians will even encourage their clients with eating disorders to weigh and measure their food to get the “correct” amount. The act of weighing and measuring food allows for no flexibility. And on top of that, it gives the message that food must controlled, regulated, and monitored, which is exactly how someone with an eating disorder already feels about food. In essence, meal plans feed into eating disorder behaviors and thoughts. If a mistake is made with a meal plan, as is inevitable, strong feelings of guilt and failure will most likely emerge. Meal planning gives an individual with an eating disorder the impression that they need these guidelines because they have proven themselves untrustworthy with food. They can become very dependent on this external method of controlling food intake, instead of looking inside themselves for the answers.

Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating teaches individuals how to look inside themselves and listen to internal cues. It also provides guidance on how to form a healthy relationship with food. It is an anti-diet approach to eating. There are no rules to break and no temptations to resist. Intuitive eating, unlike dieting and meal planning, is not a set up for failure.

To get back to a healthy and natural relationship with food, it is important to remember that infants and toddlers innately possess this ability. Infants easily know when they are hungry and full. Doctors guide new mothers to respect their infant’s inner wisdom. They instruct moms to never force-feed an infant. It is amazing that infants intuitively know that they need more food right before a growth spurt and will naturally crave increased feedings. Toddlers are the same. A study done by Leann Birch, Ph. D. showed that children ages two to five were eating, on average, the same amount of calories daily for a week, even though the calories from their individual meals varied greatly. This study shows that toddlers don’t need to count calories to get the appropriate amount of energy; they naturally know what they need.

The ability to use the internal cues (hunger and fullness sensations and cravings) to regulate food intake is present in everyone. This is true no matter how long the individual has been ignoring them. The challenge in becoming an intuitive eater is to reconnect with the already present internal cues and to learn to ignore the external ones.

Dieting is a purely external way to regulate food intake. Other things that control food intake, which are external, are only choosing “good” or “healthy” foods, automatically finishing everything on the plate, and taking the portion that is listed on the food label. Using external factors to determine what, how much and when to eat is a dangerous path because it disconnects us from our bodies and our intuition.

Fears Regarding Listening to Our Bodies

Most people initially believe that by using internal cues to guide food amounts and food choices, they will inevitably be “unhealthy,” make the wrong choices, and eat too much. This is a sign of a lack of self-trust, which is natural when external factors have been used for so long to make these choices for us. Regaining trust is a process. It takes time and practice, but it is well worth it. By using internal cues it is possible to never diet again!

When people start eliminating all the old, external rules and controls, it is normal to crave foods that were once restricted. For example, when individuals go on low-carbohydrate diets, usually that is the nutrient they start to think about and crave. After stopping the diet it is quite common to “over-indulge” in foods high in carbohydrates. This is because the body is craving them so intensely. It is the same with any food. The more and longer a food is restricted, the more intense the cravings will be. This can be especially scary for individuals with eating disorders. At first, it may make them feel out of control and like they cannot be trusted with food. But eventually the extreme cravings subside and return to “normal.” It is important for them to keep this in mind as they are going through the process of becoming an intuitive eater.

Just as the body and mind intensely crave foods that have been restricted, the reverse also holds true. An example of this is going on a road trip and only having limited options of fast food available. At first it may be fun, exciting and pleasurable to eat these foods, especially if they aren’t foods normally consumed. However, after a while, fast food will get old, boring and cravings for other foods will arise. This is because your body and mind get tired of the same thing over and over. We crave variety, and we can think of the old adage, “variety is the spice of life.”

Listening to the Body and Weight

By listening to hunger and fullness cues and to what the body is craving, our body will naturally find a weight where it feels comfortable. This is known as the body’s set-point weight. An easy way to understand this concept is with an analogy. A thermostat is set at 70 degrees. When the room drops below that temperature, heat will blow out of the vent and warm the room. If the temperature in the room goes above 70 degrees the air conditioner will blow cool air. Metabolism and hunger operate in a very similar way.

Hunger and fullness cues and metabolism play a role in the regulation of our body’s weight, just as the heating and cooling of the room helps control the temperature where the thermostat is set. When weight drops below our set-point, hunger will increase and metabolism will lower to conserve energy. When our weight goes above our set-point, hunger decreases and metabolism increases to burn energy more easily.

It is true that the regulatory mechanisms do work harder to keep the body from going below the set-point than above it. This is most likely due to the fact that during the majority of human history food sources have been scarce, and it has been vital fo the body to preserve energy as a means of survival. However, the more we are able to tune into the regulatory mechanisms, the more likely weight will remain stable.

A study was done to exhibit the phenomenon of set-point weight. Volunteers were made to either gain or lose weight. After the artificial control was removed from the experiment, their weight automatically returned to normal. Most likely, the individuals in this experiment were able to reconnect to their bodies by listening to their hunger and fullness cues, after the artificial, external controls were removed.

Being Mindful while Eating

In order to get back in touch with hunger/fullness cues and to figure out what the body is craving, it is important to be mindful while eating. Using our senses while eating is a great way to get back in touch with our bodies. In our modern-day lives, many of us are rushing around and eating food on the run. Eating in this manner, most individuals do not pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, let alone the taste, texture, sight, and smell of their food. Staying fully aware of these aspects of food will enhance the experience of eating, and more enjoyment and satisfaction will be derived.

Checking in during various times throughout the meal can also help us to be mindful while eating. Ask questions like:

Where is my hunger/fullness level?

Am I enjoying this food?

What would make my eating experience more pleasurable in this moment?

Would I rather be eating something else?

I am staying present while I am eating, or is my mind wandering around?

What external things influenced my food choices today?

How can I reconnect to the internal signals my body is giving me?

Asking questions, being curious and mindful during mealtimes will be beneficial to someone trying to become a more intuitive eater. Awareness is such an important component of change. Without this subtle awareness I we may find it impossible to become an intuitive eater and move out of the diet mentality.

Tips for Families

Don’t be the Food Police. Trying to control the food intake of a loved one with an eating disorder can only lead to trouble. It not only reemphasizes the already present thoughts, “I can’t be trusted with food,” but it also teaches your loved one that they need to rely on yet another external voice to determine what they “should” and “should not” eat. Stay away from phrases like, “maybe you want some more of this ‘healthy’ food,” or “you shouldn’t have dessert before dinner.” If you are concerned about your loved one’s eating habits the best time to confront them is when food is not present. It may be helpful to enlist the help of a dietitian. This way a professional, whose soul job relates to food and eating behaviors, can deal with food issues.

Get rid of scales. This doesn’t mean just hide them. Actually, throw them away. To someone with an eating disorder the number on the scale can become a way to determine how much to eat or how to feel (“good” or “bad” about themselves). Weighing can become an unhealthy obsession. The number on the scale is another way for individuals with eating disorders to look outside themselves (externally) for answers.

Don’t comment on appearances. This is true even if you think it’s a compliment. Something like, “you look healthy,” or even “you’re so thin,” can be twisted around and distorted in the mind of someone with an eating disorder. Try to avoid these comments at all times.

Keep a wide variety of foods around the house. Being intuitive eater means figuring out what is being craved during times of hunger. The more variety that is available, the better chance the craving can be identified and satisfied. Keep various grains like breads, pastas, rice, and cereals on hand. Also, try to keep fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables in the house. Meats, like deli cuts and ground beef and other protein sources like peanut butter and cheese are important for specific cravings. Snack foods are a necessity, as well. Try to keep chips, cookies, and nuts around. These are just some suggestions. It is important to consider taste preferences and meal options while shopping at the grocery store.

Don’t buy “diet foods.” These are very triggering and tempting to individuals with eating disorders. They feed into eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. Plus, they are generally unsatisfying.

Challenge traditional beliefs about food. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Food is food. It has no moral value. All foods have nutritional value because every food is made up of carbohydrates, protein, and/or fat. These are the main nutrients needed for bodies to function properly, a.k.a. macronutrients. By listening to and tuning into the body’s needs, these macronutrients will be consumed in an appropriate way.

Alice is a dietitian who specializes in nutrition counseling for individuals struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating.  She helps her clients to find a healthier relationship with food using intuitive and mindful eating techniques.  For more information call her at 406-581-5702 or e-mail her at . Alice works with clients through both phone and email sessions, this is especially helpful for clients who do not have a dietitian in their area specializing in eating disorders or intuitive eating.

References and Suggested Readings:

Facts and Figures on Body Image and Eating Disorders. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2005.

Know Dieting: Risks and Reasons to Stop. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2005.

Reiff DW, Reiff KKL. Eating Disorders: Nutrition therapy in the recovery process. Set-Point. 1998.

Robison, JI. Weight, Health, and Culture: Shifting the paradigm for alternative health care. Alternative Health Practitioner. Spring 1999; v 5; n 1.

Taylor, Mary. Tasting Mindfulness. Yoga Journal. Available at: Accessed August 10, 2005.

Tribole E, Resch E. Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary program that works. 2nd ed. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin; 2003.

Home Treatment Resources Professional Resources International Treatment About Us Contact Us Site by:

Legal Notice: The content of this and other sections of the Eating Disorder Hope web site is intended only for broad, general information, and should not replace one-on-one therapy with a trained professional. As with all health-related issues, please refer to your personal physician, dietician, counselor or therapist for a full evaluation and to determine the best course of treatment. Eating Disorder Hope specifically disclaims liability, loss, or risk, personal or otherwise, that may be incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, in the use or application of any contents of this web site.

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