Transitioning from Diets to Intuitive Eating

Most of my clients have been chronically dieting or engaged in disordered eating of some sort by the time we begin work together. In these instances, it’s pretty tough to transition cold-turkey into Intuitive Eating. So the journey to becoming an intuitive eater often involves some “in-betweener” steps, kind of like going from riding a tricycle to a bike, we first need some training wheels. In this case, the training wheels are the “in-betweener” steps needed to transition from dieting to intuitive eating. They are not the end-all-be-all, but they provide more freedom and a greater opportunity to listen to your body on your way to becoming an intuitive eater.

Diets to Intuitive Eating

So if you’ve been dieting like its your day job for years and you’re ready to stop but don’t know how, this post is for you. If you aren’t sure whether you’ve been dieting or not, let me be a little clearer. Any way of eating that’s primary purpose is to produce weight loss or body change is a diet. That means calorie restriction, fasting, “clean” eating, macro counting, “lifestyle changes”, even if you’re calling it intuitive eating — if the main motivator and primary goal is weight loss, it’s a diet.

If you are among the above and you are happy, by all means do what works for you! I don’t write this to shame you or persuade you. This is for those who have already made the decision that dieting isn’t working. If you’ve dieted a lot, don’t feel judged — In fact, I’m kind of assuming you have because it’s the norm.

If you have dieted more than one time, you likely relate to at least one of the following negative outcomes of dieting: Increased weight gain, decreased self-esteem and self-efficacy, increased fear and confusion around food, increased weight cycling, decreased metabolism, increased risk of eating disorders, and poor body image.

Maybe one or more of these negative outcomes is the reason you want to transition from dieting to IE (Intuitive eating), or maybe it’s that you don’t want your children to go down the same path as you —whatever the reason—if you want to stop the cycle and learn a new way, it’s going to take some trust, some persistence and allowing yourself a hefty dose of grace.

Transitioning to IE involves a lot of mental and emotional work. The dieting mentality has become an ingrained thought pattern for many of us. It makes us feel safe, and like we’re in control. But that control, that safety, is just an illusion. Dieting actually serves to make us feel more out of control around food. Further, when dieting fails to produce the results that it promises (like it always will), it makes us feel helpless and causes us to lose all confidence in our ability to meet a goal. Beyond that, diets put our body in an unhealthy and unsafe space physically and mentally—we know this.

Yet the thought patterns and beliefs we’ve formed are tough to break. They require persistent opposite actions and reactions to form new healthier patterns. This can create some turmoil. Turmoil that will have to be pushed through in order to be free.

So while you’re doing the very important work of discovering your inherent worth, offering yourself and others grace, learning to accept your body as it is and finding your identity in permanent things rather than the temporal, you can be taking action to reform those old rusty diet patterns.

Here are 6 actions you can take to transition from dieting to Intuitive Eating:

  1. Eat every 3-4 hours for the most part

    If you’ve been dieting or restricting calories or food groups, it can be hard to know when you’re hungry and when you’re full. The majority of people need food about every 3-4 hours throughout the day to maintain even blood sugar. If you’re hungry before three hours, by all means eat ! However, if you’re someone who skips meals this is a very big first step to getting in touch with and honoring your hunger! Eating in this way can also help you key in on how much and what combination of foods you need to feel satisfied and full for 3-4 hours.

  2. Think balance, instead of rigid macros, calories or servings sizes.

    If you’re coming off of a diet plan that tells you exactly how much of what food group or macronutrient type to eat at each meal and you are concerned about balance and nutritional adequacy, it can help to shift down to a much more realistic and flexible form of meal planning. So instead of counting or measuring out your meals and snacks think about incorporating some of each of the following: complex carbs, protein, fat, and fun foods. Complex carbs are things like whole grains, beans, starchy vegetables and fruit. Protein can come from animal protein or plant based protein like tofu or lentils. Fat can come in the form of oil, butter, cheese, nutbutter, full fat dairy or fatty meat, and finally, fun foods are anything that adds pleasure and enjoyment to what you eat. Maybe that’s a pastry or maybe it means adding extra honey to your meal. It could look like that enjoying ice cream or having a vanilla latte. Whatever it is for you, don’t skip this part. Prioritizing enjoyment of your meals is a HUGE part of being an intuitive eater. ***If you are in recover from an eating disorder, continue following your meal plan prescribed by your physician and/or dietitian until they recommend you are ready to move on to a more flexible plan.***

  3. Food journal what matters.

    Instead of food journaling calories and macronutrient content, journal about energy levels, satisfaction after a meal, hunger and fullness levels on a scale of 1 - 10 before and after meals. Journal about your emotions and lingering doubts when eating certain foods. Journal about life stressors and how they effect your eating or lack there of. This information should serve to empower you to keep going on this journey and also to inform you of what your body wants and needs. If you prefer an electronic journaling experience, I highly recommend the Peace with Food app which focuses on getting in touch with hunger and fullness and leaves room to journal your thoughts.

  4. Make peace with fun foods

    Do you love chocolate chip cookies, ice cream or cereal? Have they felt too “bad” to eat or have they been off limits because of some diets? It’s time to start making peace with those foods. Make a list of them and start trying them WITH meals. Eat as much as you want until you are full and satisfied. Have those foods often, until you feel like you no longer want them or you don’t feel guilty eating them. Notice how they taste, how they make you feel and whether you really enjoy them or not. Do this until you’ve made your way down the list or you no longer feel guilt for any food!

  5. Shut out diet talk

    Diet talk is all around us, and it can be easy to fall back into old patterns of thinking when they’re so pervasive. Before you know it, you’re listening to your friends blabber on about the next fad diet or superfood cleanse and nodding your head in agreement. To protect yourself and keep moving forward, you need to set some boundaries. Of course, you don’t have to be outright rude to people, but you can try a couple things, depending on your personality. One, you could change the subject, simple as that. Two, you could just walk away. Three, you could engage and share your opinions. Option three is a little harder and even being fully immersed in intuitive eating counseling, I still often choose option one or two. Besides in person conversation, you can set yourself up at home by getting rid of diety books and cookbooks, boycotting body shaming magazines and filling your social media feed and podcast cue with non-diet messaging. Read up on books like Intuitive Eating, Health at Every Size, Body Respect, and Fat and Faithful. OR just focus on things that have NOTHING to do with food or body image (crazy right?). Explore topics that interest you outside of food, exercise and health.

  6. Meal plan flexibly

    Plan out a few meals and snacks for the week that you actually like eating and grocery shop. Stalk your house with all foods including those you’re trying to make peace with. This will allow you to have access to food when you need to eat (see the first tip) and also remove the illusion that some foods are only available at certain times (food scarcity mindset). If you need help figuring out how to meal plan AND eat intuitively, check out this post to sign up for my online workshop.

These are just a few steps to take on your path to intuitive eating. Eventually, you will not need a clock to make sure you’re honoring your hunger, nor will you need a meal template to tell you what to eat all the time. However, these are tools to help you move towards honoring your body’s needs and becoming more aware of its signals.

If you are struggling to do these steps, I’d encourage you to seek out professional help from a non-diet dietitian and/or counselor. You do not need to be “sick enough” to get help—Just ready and willing to break free from food and body image bondage!