Intuitively, I’m Pretty Unwell: How Intuitive Eating Lied to Me About Achievable Normalcy

Content warning: This post contains discussions of dieting, diet culture, disordered eating, calories, weight, and general body talk.

The concept of intuitive eating is seemingly simple and natural. You should eat only when you’re hungry, eat when and what you want, divest emotions from food and eating, and above all, honor what your body wants. A life lived this way sounds fantastic. 

I will not now regale you with all the diets that allegedly fix your body chemistry, “reset” or “jumpstart” your metabolism, or “cleanse” your innards. You know what I’m talking about if you are a woman who has a body and an internet connection, or a coworker or family member who opines about all the food they’re missing out on for thirty days, three months, or for the rest of their lives. My own body troubles (restriction starting at age 16; yo-yo weight and calorie intake; intense hatred toward my body) render me particularly attuned to body talk. Recently, I was introduced to this holy grail of anti-dieting: intuitive eating. 

But what happens when you have been raised in a society in which 80% of 10 year old girls report having already dieted? What happens when, even before puberty, girls with developing brains train themselves to consider food “good” and “bad,” and restrict or alter their diets to achieve thinness? 

In short, can any of us eat intuitively in a society in which nothing about a woman’s natural body is respected, honored, or trusted? 

In a cursory glance through academic databases (which I can access as a community college instructor), intuitive eating is often described as a tool for weight loss. The majority of articles discuss how intuitive eating can help people lose weight and keep weight off; studies of such studies show consistent correlation with intuitive eating and weight loss, which pulls the mask off intuitive eating’s proposed lack of concern with weight. However, a notable 2017 study, “Can Patients with Eating Disorders Learn to Eat Intuitively? A 2-year Pilot Study,” found that patients diagnosed with various eating disorders benefit from intuitive eating in an in-patient treatment center. Here, intuitive eating appears entirely positive for people who use the process to create a healthier relationship with their bodies and food. 

Still, I find myself troubled at the burden of responsibility to rectify what was not my choice to begin with. 

I attempted intuitive eating. I tossed my scale, stopped counting calories, and allowed my body to call the shots. It turns out, I no longer have a connection with food, hunger, or satiety that I can recognize. I can’t remember a time that I did.

My body and mind have been almost irreparably broken by diet culture, a predilection to depression and anxiety, emotional and physical trauma, and constant bombardment of so-called “self-help” beauty culture. When I began to constrict my diet at the age of 16, I wanted to be thin and beautiful, yes, but I also needed to control just one thing while I was in an abusive relationship. When I gained 16 pounds in as many weeks one semester of college, I had not finally started to honor my body; I was drinking five wine and eating two containers of Nutella a week, horribly depressed and isolated. In all my weight and food anxiety, I cannot be trusted to feel what my body needs on a regular basis. When I stopped drinking nightly two years ago, I suddenly craved ice cream, and began to eat dessert regularly because my body was used to a steady stream of sugar. My new, expensive Ben & Jerry’s habit wasn’t a recognition of what my body wanted, but rather, a reaction to my mishandling of my diet for years before.

I have trained my body for over a decade to live on very little food some days, and much more food others. When yet another tech bro announces the magical discovery of a fasting high, I realize that while most women I know and I started starving ourselves, a lot of boys were just eating food, living within their bodies without worrying about too or the wrong kinds of food. 

I didn’t consciously squash my body’s regulatory ability. I didn’t choose my disordered eating patterns, trauma, or genetic makeup. I didn’t choose to live in a society in which women’s bodies are expected to appear effortlessly thin, “toned,” tanned, facial bones falsely contoured, hair never gray until decades after men’s. As girls, we were thrust into hypervigilance of our distracting knees and shoulders, flat chests pressed down to avoid any nipple outline long before breasts began to form. We then turn that hypervigilance inward and outward. The patriarchal control systems over women’s bodies require women to monitor ourselves and other women to gain favor. How many times were we taught to judge other women’s clothes, the shape of their bodies, or make judgment on their “health” in order to assert that we should all achieve, or at least strive for, unnatural, endless thinness? 

I can’t eat intuitively. My body and mind do not understand what intuition means. Some days, I nearly achieve such bliss. But always, in the back of my mind, a small calorie counter springs forth, whether I want it or not. I can calculate the calories in a drink or meal within one hundred calories, a horrible trick from my disordered eating. 

Instead of thinking that I may be able to live intuitively in this deeply patriarchal and unfair society, I have decided to eat more than I think I need. I have decided to consciously say, “I don’t want to eat dinner, but I am going to eat dinner.” I have decided to eat a second breakfast bar in the morning, not because I am hungry, but because I know that if I had a “normal” body, I would be hungry. 

I am eating unintuitively, and I am healthier than I have ever been.