The Future of the Intuitive Eating Movement
By Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed
As a recovering chronic dieter, binge-eater, therapist, educator and author, I’ve been part of the movement toward saner/intuitive/”normal” eating for over 30 years, and wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t stumbled upon Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue. Back in the late 70s when the non-diet movement began as a ripple, it’s easy to see how it could have passed people by. To this day, I have no idea how I lucked onto Orbach’s book, but I’m eternally grateful that I did!
Now, along with other professionals and former food abusers on a mission to teach the world to eat more sanely, I’m heartened that that 70’s ripple has become a steady stream of information and insight flowing out to the public. I’m also saddened that it’s not yet a wave, the kind that crashed through barriers to bring about major change for women, blacks, physically challenged, and GLBT folks. All too frequently, I’m taken aback that most people—most people—have no idea that there’s a way to find a comfortable weight without dieting and deprivation and are clueless that diets have an abysmally low success rate long-term. They remain ignorant of the fact that genetics, temperament, biochemistry and neuropsychology have as much to do with eating and weight as do proper nutrition and exercise.
What brings me hope is the new crop of authors and educators who are out there beating the drum for saner eating. This article is for those newcomers and for us old-timers to reflect on what could and should be done to channel our collective energies in order to constantly feed the wave needed by the intuitive eating movement to reshape society’s relationship with food. I hope my words spark creative thinking, re-energize flagging spirits, mobilize those of you who think you’re swimming alone against the tide, and add fuel to the fires already burning within your hearts to bring sanity to the dinner table. However, before launching my analysis, I have to face one of the movement’s major hurdles: what name it should go by. Rather than use different terms—intuitive, normal, regulated, healthy, or functional—I’ll stick with intuitive, with the understanding that this movement would embrace the varied nuances described in all of these words.
Obstacles Facing the Intuitive Eating Movement
The diet industry’s huge presence:
A major barrier to intuitive eating becoming mainstream is the diet industry which spends billions annually to hawk its wares, with some 17,000 diet methods and plans, diet clubs, and weight loss programs raking in about 8 billion annually, and “lite” products taking in some 14 billion each year. Many of us know these statistics by heart and are sickened by them. Big-name authors write diet books because they know they’re seducing a captive audience and large publishing houses push these books because, in this tight economy, quick-fixes, easy promises, and celebrity names may be the only avenues to turn a profit in the eating and weight arena.
Consumed not only by a quick-fix mentality, we are also entrenched in a can-do culture that is insistent about finding rapid-fire solutions for whatever ails us. Although this is not necessarily an ineffective approach to problem-solving when wedded to long-term remedies, “fix-it-now” thinking does not facilitate realistic treatment for complicated, multi-faceted issues such as eating and weight. A related mindset is all-or-nothing thinking (exactly what we’re trying to get disregulated eaters to discard), as in something is either broken or it’s fixed. American culture has little understanding of or respect for the change process and for concepts such as gradual, incremental, and progressive.
The profit-driven food industry:
The food industry makes big bucks marketing and selling processed, unhealthy, and fast foods, not to mention lite and diet consumables. Read THE END OF OVEREATING: TAKING CONTROL OF THE INSATIABLE AMERICAN APPETITE by David A. Kessler, MD, or other critiques of the industry, and your stomach will turn at just how determined they are to feed us junk in order to line their pockets. Add to the fact that they’ve gotten us hooked on sugar, salt and fat, and that the monkey on our backs is two quarter pounders with cheese, fries and a large Coke, and it’s clear what we’re up against.
Compared to today, when the non-diet movement began in the late 70s, Americans were eating relatively healthy, home-cooked, unprocessed meals. Now the prevailing mentality is that food should be fast and easy, while nutritious sits farther down on our value scale. Such insidious mindlessness about what we’re taking into our bodies has been spreading for decades and has only recently been seriously challenged. The problem is the need for a sharp one-eighty: stopping the proliferation of mindlessness and inciting a turn-around toward mindfulness around food—and in everything else we do.
The diet-oriented medical community:
Whereas doctors and others in the medical community should be our natural allies in mobilizing Americans to eat more intuitively (in order to help them eat more healthily long-term), most health care professionals seem caught up in the diet frenzy. By bombarding patients with nutritional information, lecturing about the importance of weight loss, and encouraging surgical procedures to reduce obesity, they don’t appear to recognize that this approach is failing. To be fair, trying to help people eat more sanely and get fit is probably not why most doctors go to medical school. Yet, unless researchers, mental health counselors, dieticians, and other professionals working in the field of eating disorders are on board with intuitive eating, they’re more foe than friend and a missing link in an intuitive eating movement.
The US profit motive:
My guess is that socialist and communist nations probably have as much difficulty teaching their citizens to eat appropriately as do capitalist societies. Yet, because our economic system is profit-driven, we have scant economic incentive to do what’s best for people as a whole. Our politics and policies are not oriented toward finding a solution, then seeing if it will make money. Rather, programs and products are developed to score profits, then marketed in such a way to convince us that they’ll help us. Simply put, profit and progress don’t necessarily play well together.
Difficulty of changing behavior:
Our culture, in fact, most cultures, are not adept at changing entrenched behaviors. Human nature being what it is—both rational and irrational—we can’t expect to address problems merely on a physical level, mandating the public to eat this and not that. My greatest lament is how little (if any!) psychology is used in educating people to take better care of themselves around food. Until we address the conflicting and, more often than not, contradictory emotions and motivations folks have about eating intuitively, getting healthy, and maintaining a comfortable weight for life, we are not going to see much change in mainstream thinking or behavior around food.
Lack of connection and a cohesive message:
I have no doubt that there are thousand upon thousands of us around the world promoting intuitive eating, including professionals as well as men and women who’ve seen the light and want to illuminate the way for others. Every time I meet someone who understands the concept of “normal” eating, my heart does a little leap. However, chipping away in our own dark corners does not generate enough energy to create a tipping point, which will move us out onto center stage. Like most evolving movements, we’re still developing and debating our language and goals and lack a cohesive ideology and firm sense of connection to one and other. We’re doing the best we can, but it’s not enough to sail us over the goalposts.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers to overcoming the obstacles cited above, but I do have some ideas. Moreover, I trust that those of you reading this article will have even more—and perhaps better—ideas and that by seriously analyzing and discussing what’s needed to press forward, we will move closer to empowering a broader, yet more focused movement.
Solutions to Obstacles Facing the Intuitive Eating Movement
The diet industry:
The best way to combat the force of the diet industry is to use people’s own failures with diets to prove to them that diets don’t work. Our movement will progress by taking every opportunity to write articles in newspapers and magazines and letters to editors challenging “uplifting” stories about overnight diet successes, to speak out in radio interviews, to give talks at local schools, libraries, mental health and community centers, religious institutions, and any venue we can find to spread the word. It also wouldn’t hurt if we had the capacity to access grant or foundation money for the likes of more research, advertising, and public relations. How about a “Diets are dumb” or “Diets are dangerous” campaign with buttons, bumper stickers, walkathons and lapel ribbons?
Fighting the quick-fix mentality means offering genuine solutions, backed not only by studies and statistics, but with viable, concrete alternatives. We have to make the argument that we have the long-term solution to disordered eating and articulate clearly what that is. This means popularizing success stories, including getting clients to publicly share their dismal experiences with diets as well as their enduring triumphs with intuitive eating. Getting the message out to the media that we’re not simply anti-diet but pro what really works is also part of the job. The rest is laying out the steps and stages of moving into and through the intuitive eating process through books, CDs, and DVDs.
The food industry:
When books and films critiquing and challenging the food industry come out, we need to get behind them and promote them. For example, because of the stature of its author, The End of Overeating has the chance to change many minds in a big way, and we can rally behind it even if we don’t agree with every word it says. Books and films abound that challenge the food industry, and fast food in particular, and it’s vital that we do all we can to help them make a splash. This may mean promoting them in our community and creating events to celebrate them. We can also tell politicians how we feel about issues that relate to food, such as school lunch programs, ingredient labeling, and meals for the elderly and the financially needy.
When I first heard the term “mindfulness,” it was in connection to Buddhism, but now it seems to have seeped into mainstream vernacular. We need to use the term often in everyday discourse, in articles, books and presentations so people inquire about its meaning and relationship to recovery from disregulated eating. The more people who hear the term and understand the concept, the more likely they are to embrace it and put it into practice not only with food but also in other areas of their lives.
The medical community:
Whenever I go to the doctor (or dentist), I bring my business cards and brochures to market myself as well as to use the opportunity to talk about intuitive eating. Although there’s not generally much time, most health care professionals are receptive to, or at least curious about, the ideas of this alternative approach to dieting. We can team up with medical personnel to do talks, panel discussions, and events. We can arm the ones we know are sympathetic to our cause with information about intuitive eating and ask them to share it with colleagues. We can push for our books to be used in hospital settings, and in wellness and human resource programs to give patients an alternative to diets.
US profit motive:
Short of starting a revolution, there’s not a huge amount we can do about the fact that our economic system is founded on capitalism. What we can do to advocate for sensible approaches to eating is to show evidence that in the long run, there is still money to be made. The health care industry, for example, will save money by teaching citizens to eat more healthily by eating more intuitively. By choosing how to spend our dollars, we can show big business that it can do good and make a profit, in part by marketing intuitive eating as a positive, successful way to connect to food. If companies can use their savvy to sell unhealthy food, they can apply it to a more rational way of eating and still make a buck.
Difficulty of changing behavior:
Those of us on the front lines know how hard it is to change behavior. Some of us had to do a complete turnaround ourselves to become “normal” eaters, while others have spent their entire professional lives guiding people to eat more normally. Much of our work is educational, teaching people about the change process itself: what works and what doesn’t, how to set realistic expectations and problem-solve, how to resolve mixed feelings, deal with relapse and self-sabotage, and how to march forward resolutely when sometimes it seems as if you’re out of step with the whole thin obsessed, fat phobic world. In order to transform behavior, we need to use psychology. At the least, we have to understand why we do what we do around food and in relation to the scale and learn to retrain our brains by first understanding and appreciating how they work. The message we need to convey is a multi-pronged approach to intuitive eating—biological, hereditary, behavioral, intellectual, social, and psychological.
Lack of connection and a cohesive message:
We who are working toward creating a society of intuitive eaters are far more connected than ever before. There are abundant conferences and forums on eating, a host of journals and books, and new websites and blogs sprouting up every day. We can never expect to be cookie-cutter copies of each other, nor would that benefit the movement. We each can and should reach out in our own way—as researchers, educators, therapists, dieticians, health care practitioners, advocates, food industry critics, and lay people—as long as we are offering a unified message.
And that is where we fall short—we lack cohesiveness which includes a shared vision and language, overarching goals, ways to chart movement progress, financial resources, and marketing and funding strategies that will weave together our work, pull us all forward, and trigger a tipping point on the eating front. We need a stronger bond between research and practice, the recovering and the recovered, professionals and the public they serve. We need to better harness our astounding knowledge and creative energies to serve our communal ends.
A movement is composed of the collective passion, will, and skill of its members. As our individual work has proven time and again, we have these qualities—as well as an enduring commitment to our clients and community. The crucial question that must be answered is how to create a unified movement that is greater than the sum of these parts so it empowers anyone and everyone to become an intuitive eater. The place to start is to share with each other our visions for how this can happen.