Ditching the diet: How to heal our relationship with food for good

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At this time of year, talk of diets is impossible to avoid, despite most failing and the well-documented emotional and mental damage of diet culture

Most millennial women can recall the incessant, vitriolic shaming and policing of women’s bodies throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Many images are burned into our brains.

There was the moment in 1999 when British talkshow host Chris Evans interrogated Victoria Beckham about her weight loss two months after giving birth, before producing a scales and demanding she weigh herself on live television. There was the labelling of characters like Martine McCutcheon’s secretary in Love Actually and Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones as fat – the latter portrayal proving particularly egregious, as the film itself showed the character weighing under 10 stone, creating a terrifying metric against which women could measure themselves.

There was the photo of an inarguably slim Jessica Simpson sporting a pair of now on-trend high-waisted jeans at a concert in Texas in 2009 that led to headlines calling her “Jumbo Jessica”, and suggesting that she had “let herself go” despite being obviously thinner than the average woman. There was the endless onslaught of commentary about Lena Dunham’s body when her show Girls began in 2012, as if the act of showing a soft belly on television was an act of violence against viewers.

The fatphobic, body-shaming media landscape not only spawned immeasurable body image issues and eating disorders among young women, but also helped support the multibillion dollar diet industry. Diets, cleanses and weight-loss products were endlessly peddled by celebrities to vulnerable women, who were relentlessly informed there was no such thing as thin enough. The weight-loss industry is the business; diet culture is the sales pitch.


It may be easy to think times have changed. After all, there are body positivity movements now, and it’s less acceptable to publicly shame women’s bodies. But diet culture is resilient, and a master of the art of rebranding. Terms like “clean eating” and “strong is sexy” are now ubiquitous on social media as influencers claim they’re not pursuing weight loss or dieting – all while sharing the incredibly rigid rules they follow about food and calorie intake and intense workout regimens, and showing before and after pictures. These influencers are most often thin, white and conventionally attractive. They may not be using the word “diet”, but the message and ideals remain the same.

At this time of year, the siren call of diet culture is almost inescapable. Discussion of food intake over Christmas is riddled with levels of guilt and shame usually reserved for Catholic confessionals. Advertisements for gym memberships, workout clothes and weight-loss products are ubiquitous, as businesses rely on new year resolutions and extreme January dieting to boost their sales.

What if this year, we did something differently? What if 2024 was the year we stopped focusing on diets and restriction, and instead focused on acceptance and listening to our body’s needs?

“Intuitive eating” is a framework that has been around since the 1990s, when dietitian Evelyn Tribole and nutritional therapist Elyse Resch brought together their years of experience working with eating disorder patients. They created a framework of thinking about food that avoided the common rhetoric around shame, guilt and bypassing restrictive eating, focusing instead on mental and physical health. The movement is experiencing a resurgence, with intuitive eating’s core principles of honouring your eating, respecting your body and rejecting the diet mentality striking a chord with many people who want to heal their relationship with food, and end an often lifelong history of restrictive eating.

Intuitive Eating Ireland is run by nutritional therapist Sinéad Crowe. Her own dysfunctional relationship with diet culture led to cycles of binge eating, restricting and orthorexia, or an obsession with “clean eating”. After decades of feeling miserable and restricted by obsessive thoughts about weight and dieting, she and her sisters vowed to dismantle their attachment to diet culture and rewrite their relationship with food. Now they help others do the same.

“Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to your health and wellbeing,” Crowe explains. “So there is no focus on weight loss, there is no focus on having food rules. There’s no focus on calorie counting or restricting certain food groups. There’s no restrictive behaviours at all. It’s very different from any diet, because all diets that are promoting weight loss all advertise and promote restriction in some shape or form. Intuitive eating does not do that at all, regardless of our current body weight. It’s for everybody, all the sizes. The framework is a guide to [help] reconnect you to your body’s cues, your hunger, your fullness, what satisfies you. You also learn different skills, like being able to recognise the ‘food police’ – the unhelpful thoughts a lot of us have about food and shame that causes us pain and suffering.

“We learn how to make peace with our foods and not restrict them – we call it New Food Habitation – and release ideas of certain foods being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Over time, certain foods that we might have complex feelings about or might have binged or restricted become less exciting, less inviting, and become just another food, no big deal. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to eat it, but you probably won’t be enticed to binge on it or overeat because it is allowed at any time. It’s undoing the emotional shame.”

The restrict-binge cycle that diets are built on can create unhealthy dynamics around food that follow people throughout their lifetimes. Even if weight loss is your goal, this approach simply does not work. The research is in and has been in for decades: dieting is a losing game.

Ciara Flood describes herself as a non-diet dietitian. She believes in an individual’s autonomy to decide what to do with their body, and doesn’t want to judge or stigmatise anyone who chooses to diet, understanding the cultural pressure that can push people into cycles of dieting. However, she also emphasises how extreme dieting does not work, as people who do manage to lose weight in the short term are likely to put it back on.

“When we diet, because our body doesn’t know the difference between a diet, famine or starvation, it just knows that you’re not getting enough food. So a lot of biological mechanisms kick in to protect your body from starvation, and you’re trying to work against your body in that sense.

“While your body is trying to protect itself, you’re trying to lose weight, and doing the opposite of what your body wants you to do. The big lie we’ve been told is that it’s all about willpower, sticking to a plan, and that if you try hard enough, you’ll lose the weight and keep it off. But you’re fighting a losing battle, putting your body in an unsustainable state that it’s going to fight against. Up to 95 per cent of diets are not sustainable long-term. It’s nothing to do with willpower.”

That’s a real issue; the idea that if you’re not eating exactly the right way, then you’re doing it wrong

People who have struggled with dieting are not the problem, she says. “We always say diets fail; dieters don’t fail.”

Whenever diet culture is critiqued, there is often a backlash from people claiming that conversations about weight are just about health, rattling off concerns about heart disease, diabetes and BMI. But BMI has long been acknowledged by many medical professionals and dietitians as a deeply flawed metric, and weight and heath are not synonymous. The false correlation between thinness and health is pervasive and damaging. Many people with disordered eating, people who have experienced illness-related weight loss and slim people with poor eating habits, malnutrition or sedentary lifestyles have gone through the disconcerting experience of being complimented on their weight while being deeply unwell and unhealthy. The lack of acknowledgment around how unhealthy and unsafe repeated dieting can be also highlights how socially acceptable it is to sacrifice health in the pursuit of thinness.

“Weight cycling or that yo-yo dieting is actually really harmful to your health,” says Flood. “There are certain things you might associate with being in a bigger body, like the risk of heart disease, but heart issues are independently associated with weight cycling or yo-yo dieting or gaining or losing weight repeatedly. We really need to question the assumption that dieting is a path to health.”

There’s also the question of mental health and obsession. Crowe highlights how diet culture can become all-consuming in people’s minds, hijacking so much time and mental energy, and inducing a huge amount of stress, shame and obsession that is never addressed in conversations about health.

“Diet culture relies on this illusion of controlling your diet,” says Crowe. “It’s the idea that as long as you’re choosing certain foods you’re in control, but actually that often accompanies lots of guilt and shame, and stress and overwhelm. Nobody’s talking about the impact that stress and overwhelm and constant perfectionistic tendencies and hypervigilance around food has on the mind and body. Nobody’s talking about the relationship to the food; we’re only hearing about the food itself.”

Flood also believes an obsession with physical health has become warped. Optimisation culture fuelled by social media has created unrealistic ideals, and obsessive food and nutrient monitoring. The concepts of clean eating and optimising your diet can become socially acceptable covers for disordered eating. Young men in particular can be bombarded with messages around how to optimise workouts, protein intake, muscle gains and weight restrictions, creating a breeding ground for disordered eating.

“We used to look on health as the absence of disease; if you weren’t sick, you were happy. And now it’s a constant sense of striving for better and better and better to reach optimum health, which you of course never get to because there’s something else to try. That attitude is becoming pervasive, especially for men – the idea of having that muscular body and being strong and working out to an alarming degree.

“There’s also orthorexia, which is an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy foods. That’s a real issue; the idea that if you’re not eating exactly the right way, then you’re doing it wrong. It makes people think about food all the time, and creates a very unhealthy relationship with food. Orthorexia can often develop into other eating disorders, because it’s the core idea that we can control exactly what’s going to happen to our bodies through what we eat. It’s another kind of pressure that is promoting certain body types and certain behaviours – but it’s definitely not promoting health.”

Flood highlights how even the intuitive eating label has been hijacked and co-opted by some diet culture practitioners, and warns anyone interested in intuitive eating to be aware of how the term is being used.

“Intuitive eating isn’t a diet,” she emphasises. “Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach and it’s about building a healthy relationship with food and regaining trust with you and your body. The idea of what happens to your weight is not even considered. If somebody is promising you weight loss using intuitive eating, then that’s not the correct way of intuitive eating or learning. That’s a red flag.”

Flood’s work as a non-diet dietitian sees her engage with many clients who want to rewire their relationship with food. “One of the things people say to me is they know what it’s like to be on a diet and what it’s like to be off a diet, but they don’t know what normal eating is. We work on getting to a place where they can realise what normal eating is for them, and listen to their body’s internal signals rather than external set of rules, which is what they might have been doing for their whole life. It’s [about] learning to trust your body again, and to make decisions around foods rather than looking at an extra set of rules like a diet or a meal plan.”

If you binge on something or eat a particular food, what’s your self-talk like afterwards? Is it compassionate? Or is it you beating yourself up?

Intuitive Eating Ireland offers a range of services, and a variety of short and long-term courses to guide participants through the intuitive eating framework. Both Ciara Flood and Intuitive Eating Ireland offer free discovery calls for people looking to find out more before they commit.

For those who want to try to ditch diet culture, reshaping our ideas around new year’s resolutions could be the perfect place to start – by resisting the urge to embark on a new diet, and instead taking small steps to reconnect with your body. Crowe recommends focusing on small changes that aren’t about restriction, but habit creation, like simply focusing on hydration and water intake for eight weeks, or trying to incorporate some movement or mediation practice into your daily routine – ways of reconnecting with the body that are not about weight loss. Crowe also recommends examining the media you consume and how that could be affecting body image issues or perpetuating the dangers of diet culture, and curating your social media feeds so they feel more empowering.

Meanwhile, Flood encourages people to really evaluate their relationship with diet culture and to think of the ways it limits, restricts and even damages their lives – and become open to the possibility of living with more freedom and self-compassion.

“One thing I always say to people is to stop weighing themselves. That’s just a number on a scale, but can we think about what emotional impact it has on you when you see that number go up or down? Check your self-talk. If you binge on something or eat a particular food, what’s your self-talk like afterwards? Is it compassionate? Or is it you beating yourself up? Listen to the language you’re using. You might be surprised at how negative it is, it can be so automatic. And we do it to other people too with the language we use in talking about food, like saying “Oh God, I’ve been really bad.” No, you haven’t. It’s just food. Try to bring in some compassion and self-kindness.”

For more information, see intuitiveeatinghub.com and ciarafloodnutrition.com

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly column in the Magazine answering readers' queries about sex and relationships