In 2016, Molly Bahr changed her whole life with a Google search. Bahr, a therapist, was at a professional training on eating disorders when a speaker mentioned in passing that participants might be interested in something called intuitive eating. Bahr looked up the term. “I went home that day and it was like a light switch,” she says. “I felt like I got hit by a truck.”
Bahr decided that she wanted to spread the word about intuitive eating, but there was one problem. Up to that moment, she had been dedicated to traditional ideas of dieting and health, encouraging followers of her growing fitness-focused Instagram account to weigh their food, watch their nutritional macros, and fret over their weight as a primary indicator of their health. Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is a theory that posits the opposite: Calorie counting, carb avoiding, and waistline measuring are not only making people emotionally miserable, but contributing to many of the health problems previously attributed to simple overeating.
Bahr says intuitive eating changed both how she treated her patients and how she looked at herself. She had been constantly weighing and photographing herself, trying to hit goals that she says were disconnected from how she actually felt. “It was really hard for me to realize that I had been so harsh to my own body, even though in my mind I was doing it for health,” she says. Changing the orientation of her public Instagram account was awkward, but she felt like she needed to be honest with people. “One day I had to come up with a post that was like, ‘Hey, sorry for everything I’ve ever said. It was actually all wrong,’” she says.
Now Bahr posts messages in a style that has become more common in the past year: plain text on a plain background, with reminders to pay attention to your own physical feelings of hunger or to cast away guilt over eating a favorite food. In doing that, she has become one of a growing number of therapists, dietitians, and nutritionists who have gained a loyal following on Instagram because of intuitive eating. These professionals encourage followers to work on their relationship with food without worrying about their weight, and to reject the notions of virtue and sin that have underpinned cultural ideas about eating since time immemorial.
As these accounts amass tens of thousands of followers and try to beat back some of the most harmful ideas of Instagram’s army of amateur wellness experts, they appear to have tapped into the growing frustrations that many people—and most women—have with dieting. Americans are sick of the shame and fear around food, and of failure in front of the near-insurmountable odds of long-term weight loss. Shouldn’t there be a better way?
Although intuitive eating’s online popularity is expanding, the concept has been around for a couple of decades. In 1995, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, a pair of dietitians in Southern California, published their first book on the topic after watching their own clients do what much of the available research says is almost inevitable: regain weight that had been lost while dieting. Tribole and Resch had been using the same approach that basically all dietitians followed back then, which held that body weight was of primary importance in evaluating and improving dietary health. “We were banging our heads against the wall because the way we were working wasn’t working,” Tribole says.
Many dietitians still rely on this approach because of obesity’s correlation with conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and the burgeoning popularity of intuitive eating has created something of a split in the field. But Tribole believes that deprioritizing weight in favor of other indicators of well-being can have a profoundly beneficial effect on people’s health all its own. Often, people who fail to lose weight and those who gain it back are assumed to be lazy or too uneducated to make good choices. Tribole says that couldn’t be further from the truth, in her experience. “Our patients are really smart and successful people, otherwise,” she says. And while the cycle of weight loss and gain is unhealthy on its own, according to Tribole, the emotional stigma attached to it inflicts another round of damage.
Tribole and Resch developed intuitive eating to address both of these problematic layers in dieting. They encourage people to do something that might sound chaotic or dangerous: Eat what you want, with no rules about what to eat, how much of it, or when. Intuitive eating has 10 tenets, but the most well-known one is that no foods are off limits, and that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” food.
That’s in stark opposition to another school of food thought that’s gained popularity on Instagram: clean eating. If you’re going to eat clean, you need to pay careful attention to any food’s place on a continuum of purity, and eat only the things that meet the strictest standards of unprocessed freshness. “Eating today has become this idea that the food on your fork can either kill you or cure you,” Tribole says. “It’s gotten to a point of almost religious fervor.”
By comparison, intuitive eating sounds like permission to sit on your couch and eat pizza until you pass out. But Tribole and Bahr don’t deny that different foods have different nutritional benefits, or aim to tear down public-health initiatives that tell kids to eat vegetables. Instead, they say they want to help people who have struggled with eating understand how food makes their body feel when the act is untangled from stress or shame. Both Tribole and Bahr find that in the first week or two, new adherents of intuitive eating do sometimes binge on the things they had always tried to skip. But the two researchers say the vast majority of their clients quickly habituate to burgers or donuts and then crave the variety and nutrition represented by the “healthy” foods they once used as punishment.
The theory is that if you can have pizza whenever you want, it feels less essential to eat it until you’re uncomfortable when the opportunity presents itself, or to seek out the opportunity at all. Telling yourself you can’t have something, meanwhile, gives it undue power and allure. “I didn’t understand that the binges were created from the restriction,” Bahr says. “I thought I was an animal.” In the past, research has indicated that American women internalize the importance of restricting food intake as young as age 5, making it almost impossible to test how people would act toward food if they weren’t shackled by a culture of dieting. Tribole calls the unnatural urge to eat a particular food that arises because of anticipated restriction the “last-supper effect.” “It’s the permission paradox,” she says. “When you have permission to eat, the food still tastes good, but you remove the urgency.”
That feeling of urgency is probably familiar to most people, even if they always thought of the need to adhere to some kind of food rules as totally normal and healthy. Although the number of people who might seek out the services of a dietitian is relatively small, the audience who could benefit from new ways of looking at food is much larger. According to a 2008 survey by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 75 percent of American women participate in some kind of disordered-eating behavior, even if their problems aren’t severe enough to constitute a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder.
Suggesting that a healthy relationship with food is possible without any rules or restrictions sounds risky to many people, especially when it’s misconstrued as a call to indulge destructive impulses rather than to understand and quiet them. Intuitive eating has a seductive sound of ease and change that is used to market many types of diets. That has likely helped it catch fire on social media, where similar messages of positivity and future happiness are used to hawk all kinds of restrictive-eating practices and appetite suppressants. Unlike how wellness trends usually play out on Instagram, though, the concept’s developers aren’t behind its public push, and they don’t have much to sell you. “I started Instagram like three months ago,” Tribole says. “I had no idea that my people are there. I thought it was a Kardashian thing, so I was really reluctant to even get on.”
In that way, intuitive eating is just about as grassroots as a food ideology can get. Tribole and Resch sell their books and do trainings for other health professionals, but otherwise the method has no marketable products or services. You can read all about it online for free, including all of the important principles that make it possible to practice on your own. There are no meal plans, no nutritional shakes, no branded food-storage systems, no frozen dinners in your grocery store. In the end, the goal is to stop paying the professionals who might have introduced you to the idea. “Once you get it, you get it,” Bahr says. “You don’t have to do therapy and meet with a dietitian for the rest of your life.”
That’s not to say that intuitive eating is a guaranteed way to lose weight or fix whatever you think is physically wrong with you. “If any health professional or coach or Instagram influencer says you can lose weight with intuitive eating, run away,” Tribole says. “No one can tell you what’s going to happen to your body, including me.” It all depends on where you already are relative to your body’s natural weight, which might or might not match up with traditional notions of what a “healthy” weight would be for your height.
Preliminary studies have found intuitive eating less effective for very short-term weight loss than traditionally restrictive diets. But research has also found that it can improve body image in young women, and that mindfulness practices such as meditation, which (like intuitive eating) are intended to better attune people to their bodies, are effective ways to mediate binge- and emotional-eating tendencies.
Like Bahr, a chance encounter with intuitive eating also set Sami Main’s life in a whole new direction, but hers was through the kind of Instagram proliferation that Bahr has helped set in motion. Main, a journalist, came across a list of Instagram dietitians worth following and got curious. “I started following some of those accounts, and they all seemed so positive in such a weird way that wellness Instagram doesn’t always hit,” she says. At the time, Main had been in recovery for an eating disorder for a few years, and the positivity spoke to her. “Losing weight doesn’t necessarily make you healthier, as a wide variety of eating disorders can tell you,” she says.
After learning more about intuitive eating and contrasting the approach with how doctors had handled her own eating disorder, Main decided to go back to school to become a dietitian. “Some of the trained medical doctors that I was seeing, including a nutritionist and a gastroenterologist, didn’t catch my eating disorder and weren’t at all prepared to give advice on it,” she says. Dieting and food restriction are such ingrained parts of American culture that even doctors can have a hard time delineating between healthy and harmful practices, which is where intuitive eating’s potential power lies, and why Main felt drawn to change her profession.
James Greenblatt, a psychiatrist who has worked with thousands of patients with eating disorders, encourages a cautious approach to intuitive eating for those struggling acutely with food. “My concern is that too many patients that I’ve seen who had serious eating disorders were being treated with a mindful or intuitive approach and it wasn’t successful,” he says. Some people can’t properly regulate their food intake on a biological level, and for those people, a new mind-set just delays effective treatment. “To me, [intuitive eating] is often the second step,” Greenblatt continues. “The first step is to get the biology under control, and sometimes that’s medicine.”
Despite his reservations, Greenblatt says that most of the principles behind intuitive eating are logical, and that they’re important in trying to combat the shame many people have around eating, which, in his experience, is stoked by Instagram in particular. “Social media has really been horrific, especially for our preteen girls, and it’s a roadblock to people seeking help or acknowledging that they might have a problem,” he says.
In that capacity, the proliferation of intuitive-eating accounts and memes can at least provide a counterpoint to the never-ending encouragement to go on a juice cleanse or seek visible abs. Bahr says that she’s also seen intuitive eating help her patients with anxiety and depression by encouraging them to enjoy things and be social. “You realize how small your life has become when you’re dieting,” she says. People on diets often fear or avoid social situations because those frequently involve calories, which can be isolating and push people over the line into eating disorders.
The American culture around food and eating might be reaching an inflection. Many dietitians still preach traditional weight-based models, but research is starting to pile up in ways that indicate those people might be missing the forest for the trees. For example, the up-and-down weight cycling that’s common among dieters might actually be more harmful to a person’s health than never losing the weight to begin with, and the stigma against fat people that dieting encourages might be responsible for some of the health harms previously linked to obesity itself. And although there’s still a professional split, Tribole says that, to date, she has trained professionals in 22 countries.
The lifelong pressure to diet wears people down. It’s unsurprising that some clinicians and dieters eventually look for a new way—though it might be more accurate to call intuitive eating an old way. “We were all born intuitive eaters,” Bahr says. “I love watching my nieces and nephews eat. They always know when they want to stop.”