Ditch diet culture and embrace intuitive eating for a healthier body and mind, says nutritionist Laura Thomas

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Nothing gives Laura Thomas more pleasure than watching her six-month-old son, Avery, eat his dinner. “Last night he was demolishing some sweet potato, a few bits of cauliflower and some tofu,” she says. “Then he started gnawing on my piece of toast. It gives me such joy.”

Registered nutritionist Thomas holds up Avery as an example of “intuitive eating”. “He eats with happiness and satisfaction. It’s a default for babies and children. But as we get older many of us lose this spontaneity. Food starts to have a moral value: this salad is “good”, and you have eaten “badly”, you have fallen off the wagon. My aim is to get rid of the wagon.”

Thomas’s new book, How To Just Eat It: A Step-By-Step Guide to Escaping Diets and Finding Food Freedom is a fascinating look at the principle of eating without guilt and shame. It’s also filled with quizzes, work-sheets and the thoughts of fellow nutritional academics.

“We are taught by doctors and the media that health is equivalent to weight,” she tells i. “We go to great lengths to stay a particular size. But it’s very difficult to lose weight and keep it off. Even if you manage that, it’s not a guarantee your health will get better. There are, however, things an individual can do to improve their health that don’t involve weight loss.”

Laura Thomas: ‘Diet culture destroys our relationship with our food and our bodies’ (Photo: Liz Riley)

The destruction of diet culture

Thomas was born in Aberdeen and studied for her PhD in Nutritional Science in Texas. “Like many people with a special interest in nutrition, I had my own struggles with food,” she says. “In my late teens and early 20s I used to restrict my eating, then have a ‘blow-out’. I oscillated to extremes. But this is typical of many people’s experiences.”

In Thomas’ clinic, the London Centre For Intuitive Eating, about a third of clients have fully fledged eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia. But rest suffer from have what she calls “disordered eating”.

“Eighty to 90 per cent of their headspace is filled with what they are going to eat (or not), and when they are going to exercise,” she says. “In my clinical experience, some women in their 50s and 60s have lived their whole lives in ‘diet culture.’ Diet culture destroys our relationship with our food and our bodies.

“We overthink every food choice, we have to ‘earn’ or ‘make up for’ everything that passes our lips, and treat food and exercise like a maths equation rather than something that enhances our lives.”

Three practical ways to food freedom, according to Laura Thomas

Practise “food neutrality”

Remove judgment from the way you refer to food. It’s not “good” or “bad”. Call it by its name: “snack”, “dessert” or “cheese”, “salad”.

Notice when you are judging yourself

What does your inner dialogue sound like? Reframe it compassionately. For example, instead of saying: “this biscuit is bad for me”, tell yourself: “I’m going to satisfy my craving so I can get on with my day”.

Have a funeral for your Fitbit

…and smash up the scales. Technology gives you external information based on an algorithm that knows nothing about your body. Instead, trust your eating intuition.

Laura Thomas: ‘Food can – and should – bring pleasure, joy, and comfort’ (Photo: Jennifer Balcombe)

Down with diets

Dieting is anathema to Thomas, who views it under the umbrella of ‘disordered eating’. “Diets don’t work for the vast majority of people,” she says. “Eighty per cent of dieters will regain their weight within two to five years, unless they adopt another disordered approach. We need an alternative.”

And so she has written How To Just Eat It, encompassing subjects such as “Breaking up with Diet Culture”, “Understanding Emotional Eating”, and “Letting Go of Food Rules”.

“The science is young on intuitive eating, though encouraging preliminary studies show it lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, reduces ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and improves blood pressure and blood glucose control,” says Thomas. “But health is multi-factorial: it’s not just physical health. We have to think about our body image, self-care, and higher positive self-regard.

“Food is food. When we imbue it with moral value, it dictates how we feel about ourselves. Food can – and should – bring pleasure, joy, and comfort, rather than food worry, and body hate.”

Thomas insists that he process of intuitive eating isn’t just a case of “eat whatever, it’s fine”. “There’s work to be done,” she says. “My mission is to help people rebuild trust in themselves to make choices about what, when, and how much they eat. No diet plans, no fads – just their own inner food GPS.”

How To Just Eat It: A Step-By-Step Guide to Escaping Diets and Finding Food Freedom (Bluebird, £14.99) is published on 7 January

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