Food

What Happened When I Started Intuitive Eating

kelsey miller intuitive eating

I turned to my husband in the kitchen this morning and said, “Huh, I think I’m going to have a piece of cake”…

It was 6 a.m. and we’d been up for five hours already, wildly jet lagged from our recent honeymoon. (The cake was a mini version of the one from our wedding, which he’d surprised me with the day we came home.) He nodded, then shuffled back toward the bedroom, utterly unfazed by my cake announcement. A few minutes later, as I forked through a slice of leftover passion-fruit cake, I had a thought, and smiled. I was utterly unfazed too. Five years ago, this moment would have been a crisis — another rock bottom from which I climbed up on the flimsy rope of the next diet plan, hoping like hell this one would hold until I made it to the top. Back then, I might have eaten three or four cake slices right out of the fridge, shoveling them in like a thief, keeping one eye out for witnesses and barely tasting a thing. And then I would have snuck back into bed, stuffed and panicked, and Googled “paleo” and “whole30 before and after” until the sun came up.

That was how I lived back then. I’d spent my whole life searching for the diet — or nutrition plan, or “lifestyle” — that would fix my body and therefore everything else in my life. The fact that none of them did was, I knew, my fault alone. I was the failure. I was the cake-hoarding maniac who didn’t know how to eat like a normal person (despite the decades of research I’d devoted to the subject). I wasn’t a person at all, really. I was just a “before” picture.

Then one morning in 2013, I was outside running through a punishing pre-breakfast workout when it suddenly occurred to me: Oh, diets are bullshit. I wasn’t the failure. I was playing a losing game. Dieting failed more than 80% of the time (I’d read the studies! I knew this!). I felt like someone raised in a cult, finally recognizing my leader as a fraud. But I didn’t know any other way. I needed some kind of diet deprogramming, but did that even exist? As it turned out, yes. It’s called intuitive eating.

That’s how I describe intuitive eating when someone asks me what it is. It’s not a new concept; the anti-diet has been around pretty much since the diet. Dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole were among the first to turn it into an actual program, which they laid out in their book, Intuitive Eating (first published in 1995, followed by two later editions). Intuitive eating was soon adopted by a number of nutrition professionals (and eating disorder treatment programs), but still, it’s the kind of mystical-sounding phrase that often raises eyebrows — which tend to shoot up even higher when I explain the fundamentals. In intuitive eating, you can (and should) eat whatever you want. There are no good or bad foods, no points, no goal weight — no focus on weight whatsoever. The point is to eradicate all those judgments and emotional hang-ups we’ve attached to eating, and learn to see food as just food again. Perhaps even crazier, you learn to trust yourself to make your own choices. Everything is on the table.

If that sounds bananas to you, rest assured, I felt the same. One of the first things I told my nutritional counselor, Theresa Kinsella (an RD trained in intuitive eating), was that I was unable to control myself around carbs. Her response? Eat them. She told me to listen closely to my cravings, as well as my hunger and fullness. The reason I felt so crazy around bread was that I’d spent so many years treating it like forbidden fruit. The only solution was to let myself off leash, eat all the bread my body asked for, and soon my brain would get the message that bread wasn’t going anywhere. Once it sunk in that this wasn’t another between-diets binge period, I wouldn’t feel the burning urge to fill up on starchy delights before the free-for-all was over and it was back to “being good.”

So, terrified as I was, I followed instructions. I ate bread, potatoes, pasta, all of it. I felt like the very hungry caterpillar, but with pizza. A couple weeks in, something happened. It felt like a fist slowly unclenching, in my mind. My intense carb cravings mellowed and suddenly I could hear my appetite beneath them. Can we get some more protein in here, please? And any chance a salad came with that pizza?

I reported The Great Carb miracle to Theresa. She simply reviewed the food journals I’d kept and said, “You know, you didn’t actually have all that many carbs, right?” I thought I’d been going hog wild, but Theresa pointed out that even at my high point, I wasn’t eating much more carbohydrate than that which my body and brain needed to function. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that my body and brain did need it to function. (FYI, we all have our own “forbidden fruit” foods, but this carb obsession is extremely common, particularly among dieters.) It had been a long time since I thought of carbohydrate as just a basic nutrient, rather than The Enemy. Theresa reminded me: “You need full permission to eat.”

Making peace with food and gaining permission to eat it is one of the ten principles of intuitive eating. These are not to be confused with food rules. Intuitive eating principles include honoring your hunger (if you’re hungry, eat!); prioritizing satisfaction (if your appetite wants chocolate, don’t try to trick it with a piece of gum); and respecting your body (because hating it won’t help). All of these pillars are crucial and life-changing, but permission to eat is, perhaps, the first and highest hurdle to leap — especially for a lifelong dieter and occasional disordered eater, like me. I was so accustomed to eating with guard rails and following plans that the idea of just asking myself, what do I want? and eating it — in public, even — felt like a radical act.

Frankly, this is all pretty radical in a diet-addled culture that insists all foods are either good or pure evil. In those early months, I felt less like an ex-cult member and more like a heretic. Friends asked things like, “But if you can eat whatever you want, won’t you just eat donuts all day?” or “What about health?” It always struck me as curious (and telling). Because if you take ten seconds to actually think about these questions, the answers are pretty clear. No, of course you won’t eat donuts all day. Has anyone ever eaten more than three donuts and not felt totally gross?

As I continued practicing intuitive eating, I noticed I didn’t actually like some of my so-called “favorite foods.” I used to lust after fried food like General Tso’s chicken — preferably the kind sitting under a heat lamp in a midtown salad bar. The first time I ate it after starting intuitive eating, I had to stop a few bites in. I could suddenly taste the reheated stale grease, and noticed how instantly queasy I felt. I was hungry, I realized — and this wasn’t going to fill me up. It was just going to make me feel lousy. I needed something with substance. I had similar revelations with frozen yogurt (Nope, my body said. If I want real ice cream, don’t try and fool me with this) and Diet Coke (yuck, that aspartame!). It’s not that I suddenly craved only organic, wild-caught, sustainable and ethically prepared fish. But I became a much more engaged and aware eater. I learned the specifics of my taste, the relationship between my appetite and energy level; I learned how to make myself feel satisfied and fueled.

I also learned it didn’t always work out perfectly. Sometimes I’d get held up at work, come home starving and stressed and scarf down a bag of chips. Other times, I didn’t have the cash to get the sushi I wanted, and made do with what I had at home. In this way, intuitive eating is like dieting: Neither of them will fix everything in your life.

And as for the health question, there is no conflict between healthy eating and intuitive eating. Quite the contrary, intuitive eating makes you a deeply mindful eater. It teaches you to listen to your hunger and fullness cues, and to pay attention while you eat (to your food and body, not your phone).

But will it “fix” your body? This is the third, sometimes unspoken, question that I get about intuitive eating. Will it make me thin, at last? No easy answers here, I’m afraid. Letting go of that question is one of the most important (and really tough) principles of intuitive eating. It’s what the authors call “body respect,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like: No more self-loathing. Your body is not some hateful thing, and food is not a weapon you use to punish it or whip it into some specific shape. That said, some people’s bodies do change when they do intuitive eating. Mine did. (Still is! Bodies change!).

Then again, my whole life changed. My eating and exercise habits changed, my relationships changed, my career changed big time. I went from living in constant pursuit of thinness to actually living. I stopped thinking about things I’d do when I was thin: the trips I wanted to take, the parties I wanted to host — even the wedding I’d never really let myself consider before. My life was suddenly full as I began to do everything I’d been holding off on, waiting until my body was acceptable. When I made the decision to embrace it as is, the whole world opened up. Anything that changed in my appearance was a side-effect — small potatoes, compared to the rest.

Body acceptance is not “giving up on yourself.” And eating without restriction is not mindless, wild bingeing. It’s the opposite. I thought of that this morning, standing in my quiet kitchen, eating cake before dawn. Had someone walked in and seen me, I suppose they might have thought I was “being bad.” But oh well, I knew better. I knew my sleep-deprived body was reaching for a quick hit of sugary energy. I’d given it some soft boiled eggs first, knowing that it needed protein, too. I knew as well that this was my favorite cake in the whole world, and that was as good a reason as any to have some.

Then I turned back to my plate. I wanted to enjoy every bite.

Kelsey Miller


Kelsey Miller is an author, speaker, freelance writer, and creator of The Anti-Diet Project. Her second book, I’ll Be There for You, came out this fall. Here’s her week of outfits, as well.

P.S. Seeing my body with new eyes, and wise words to remember.

(Illustration by Abbey Lossing. Portrait by Harry Tanielyan.)

  1. Great questions, Laura. Intuitive Eating is not a weight-loss program. It’s a weight-inclusive, anti-diet approach designed to help you cultivate a positive and peaceful relationship with food and your body. There are no rules, however, there are 10 principles to help guide you on your journey (e.g., Reject the Diet Mentality, Make Peace with Food, Challenge the Food Police, Honor Your Hunger, Respect Your Body, Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness, etc.)

    You could start by reading the Intuitive Eating book, which was just updated in June. Many people find it helpful to get support from a certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. There is a directory on the official Intuitive Eating website: https://www.intuitiveeating.org/certified-counselors/.

    I hope this information is helpful and wish you all the best!

    • Laura says...

      Thanks ever so much, Renee! I will heed your advice and look forward to a healthier lifestyle and eating without guilt and shame. Your info sounds encouraging and blessings to you and all the ladies on their journey of body acceptance and food freedom!

  2. Laura says...

    Hello everyone! How does one begin I.E.? I am a big lady that needs to lose weight because of health issues. Does I.E. help with weight loss? It’s just not clear to me how to actually begin this. Do you completely go by gut instinct or is their some rules to this? I am in my fifties and come from a generation where you were deemed a horrible human being if you left anything on your plate-I still battle with that mind set. I suffer from depression which adds to my food issues. Any advice would be appreciated! Thank-you so much!

  3. Millie says...

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I honestly never write comments online, I don’t even have social media but just needed to respond. I can relate so much to this, since I was 11 (I’m now 28) I’ve struggled with anorexia, bulimia and compulsive exercise. I have never had an overweight BMI but have always had a massive fear of putting on weight. I went through a really bad phase where the past couple of years it got so bad that I almost ruined all of my relationships, work and life basically because all I could think about was food, exercise and losing weight. There have been a few times where I’ve allowed myself to eat normally but I’ve just not been able to control myself, I’ve eaten everything I can see. I’ve hidden food from my boyfriend so that I can binge in private. Then felt so terrible that I’ve starved myself again or made myself be sick.

    But I’m starting to get better now and recently I have really found that intuitive eating has helped me understand what my body needs, rather than sticking to food plans where I’m only allowed to eat this specific amount of something at this specific time and I will take 30 minutes to eat it. I do have negative thoughts still that tell me I’m too big and I’m not allowed to eat something because I haven’t done enough exercise, but I’m trying to pay more attention to my body than my brain! I’ve also been trying to get it in my head that not everyone’s bodies are the same. If you have a size 6 foot, you won’t fit into a size 4 (not my quote but I heard it somewhere and it resonated with me.

    So now I’m just trying to accept that as long as I am healthy, it doesn’t matter how I look. I’d rather be happy and living my best life with bigger boobs and love handles than suicidal with a six pack.

    I don’t know about you but I’ve also realised that since I’ve stopped restricting foods I have so much more energy to put into other things! Like my hobbies, friends, family, my boyfriend of nearly 6 years who would have left me had he been anyone else.

    But anyway I just wanted to thank you so much, you are such a strong and inspiring person and have made me want to stick with this intuitive eat path!

  4. Sneha Bhole says...

    I loved reading this so much. I once abused my body by trying out different diets, over exercising until I realized I wasn’t feeding it the nutrition it needed. When I too unknowingly started listening to my gut instinct and made better choices, my life changed for the better. This article resonates with me. Thanks!

  5. Stephanie Griffith says...

    This is my second time reading this article. The first time, several years (or so) ago, I was mortified. For you, for me, for all the fat people who might never lose the weight, or god forbid, gain weight! I was positive I could NEVER have yummy sourdough bread, full fat full sugar delicious yogurt, jelly beans, rich cheeses, ice cream, or anything else amazing in my house- YOU may have been able to stop your self eventually, but that just wasn’t me. I was addicted. FOR REAL. Fast forward to the second time reading this article. I am about 2 months in to my glorious swan dive in to Intuitive Eating and all the foods that used to be bad, but now are being slowly un-labeled. And I’m started to feel control- I just ate a bowl of grapes despite there being all those yummy things available. I wanted fucking grapes! Anyway, thanks for this great perspective, even if I wasn’t ready for it the first time.