Does intuitive eating and dieting have to be all or nothing?

Nov 11, 2018

With seemingly a new fad diet coming out every week, a recent movement has turned to anti-dieting, focusing more on wellness rather than weight. The best approach, though, may be a middle ground individualized to what each person needs, according to a registered dietitian-nutritionist.

Samantha Cassetty is a contributing nutritionist for NBC News Better. In her article “Is the anti-diet movement leading us astray?”, she said there are a lot of good ideas to take away from the anti-diet movement, like the importance of feeling compassion and love toward oneself.

“The beauty of the anti-diet movement is that it’s weight inclusive and supports people being healthy and the idea that bodies do come in all different shapes and sizes,” Cassetty said. “And that opens up a whole new realm of wellness that I think has been overlooked.”

However, Cassetty said that she does not agree with a common assertion of the anti-diet movement that diets don’t work because, for some people, certain diets can be part of a healthy lifestyle. For those with eating disorders and in other similar situations, anti-diet ideas may work best, but that is not true for everyone.

“Weight loss can be a very productive form of self-care for people who are overweight and are feeling crummy about how they feel in their bodies,” Cassetty said.

"It's unrealistic for anybody to think that they're never going to reach for a doughnut when the mood strikes rather than when they're purely, physically hungry."

What is important is that people move, exercise and eat in ways that are enjoyable, not punitive. Applied to one’s diet, this is what Cassetty called “intuitive eating,” which is a sense of mindfulness about what one consumes and how often. The practice can help improve a person’s diet, but no one should go into it expecting to never have or give into cravings.

“It’s unrealistic for anybody to think that they’re never going to reach for a doughnut when the mood strikes rather than when they’re purely, physically hungry,” Cassetty said. “We do need to identify our physical hungers and what our body tells us.”

This means developing better listening skills to what one’s body is trying to say about when it is full, bloated or not feeling well. Doing so, Cassetty said, can help those who need it lose a little weight, leading to health benefits that still leave them feeling good about themselves.

“Losing weight can be very challenging for people, but I think that it also can be a very self-loving act and that eating well is an act of self-care,” Cassetty said.

"You're the boss of your own body, and so it's up to you to take that conversation where you want."

Cassetty used a football analogy to help explain these concepts, one where health care professionals are the cheerleaders and their patients are the quarterbacks. She explained this image as one where nutritionists, doctors and other physicians provide encouragement while the patients determine what they achieve.

“You’re the boss of your own body, and so it’s up to you to take that conversation where you want,” Cassetty said. “It’s up to me to cheer you on and support you with tips and ideas and help you along the lines of behavior changes.”

This may involve physicians moving the “goalpost” a little if the goals the patients create are unrealistic. In her practice, Cassetty said she tries to remove the goal of an ideal body weight and instead suggests moving in a healthy direction, like including more fruits and vegetables into one's diet.

“[The ideal weight] is where you feel like you can live and enjoy your life and your food environment in a way that’s not restrictive…but also that your blood pressure looks good, [for example],” Cassetty said.