Can Intuitive Eating be Friends with Food Photos?

I started reading blogs when the “healthy living” genre was at its WordPress peak. These were the days before Instagram and Pinterest scrolling shrunk our attention spans to 0.0002 seconds. The days before we held onto smartphones, searching for notifications, like our lives depended on it. The days when some people still had and used desktop computers at home. I promise these days actually existed, once upon an early 2000s time. The concepts of intuitive eating also existed (est.1995), but I didn’t know that.

I consider myself lucky; these healthy living blogs sky rocketed to popularity right around the time that I was slowly recovering from disordered eating. I was still interested in food, sure. But I was more interested in running miles and planning bottomless mimosa brunches in DC than I was in counting calories. Many of these bloggers posted three times per day—they made it easy to be interested. It was easy to check in and see what they were up to. They talked about how “healthy” everything was, attempting to portray balance with indulgences, alongside the nutrition knowledge they had come by thanks to the internet. I don’t recall ever reading or hearing anything about intuitive eating at the time. Then: Every meal was an entire blog post—”here’s what I ate for breakfast, and the snack I had two hours later!” Some even included nutrition information. Now: Most of us can barely pause long enough to read an Instagram caption. It was a different era! 

Yet, we’re still really interested in food posts.

Fellow dietitian Alexis Joseph, aka Hummusapien, wrote about how these so-called “healthy living blogs” may have exasperated what we now consider Orthorexia. (Orthorexia is an eating disorder, not yet diagnosable, but still recognized by the National Eating Disorder Association. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has defined it as “an unhealthy fixation on eating healthy foods.”) On the flip side, I think we need to have a discussion about health professionals trying to spread intuitive eating and anti-diet philosophies.

Is posting food photos and sharing what we eat helpful or harmful in promoting these messages?

My eating disorder recovery trajectory is the inverse to my interest in these blogs.

I couldn’t stare at what someone else ate ALL DAY. I couldn’t be bothered to check in on their website after breakfast, lunch, and dinner to see what they might have consumed. I didn’t care. More important: I didn’t want to care. It wasn’t helpful to me at the time. It was simply an invitation to compare. I learned to turn it down. (For what it’s worth, I avoided joining platforms like Strava and Daily Mile for the same reasons.)

Enter: Instagram

Just when you thought you could pass on staring at other people’s food all day, Instagram was like, DON’T YOU GO ANYWHERE. It’s not what the founders originally (or ever?) had in mind, but it’s clear that food-focused Instagram accounts do really well. Maybe we’re innately food voyeurs. Maybe we tend to scroll Instagram during meal times, when we have a break from other life responsibilities, and the food just looks so good. Maybe there’s a lingering eating disorder that just won’t let you look away. Whatever the case, there is no denying that #foodporn is one of the pillars of success for platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and still many nutrition blogs. Intuitive eating is now part of the messaging you see, which I love, although it could be mixed in with and hard to differentiate from #IIFYM and #EatClean and #Whole30approved, among other things that make me sad.

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If a dietitian posts food photos to promote the anti-diet or intuitive eating message, is it helpful in spreading those philosophies?

After talking to one of my nutrition clients about social media, intuitive eating, and working on ED recovery, I really wondered if those of us posting food photos made the (universal) issue better or worse. Is it good to at least be in the mix, trying to spread an evidence-based message and help people stop obsessing over their food? Or is seeing food, regardless of the message, breeding this obsession anyway? 

I think learning intuitive eating requires learning to tune out some of the food noise that constantly surrounds us. It requires tuning into what YOU like, what’s satisfying to you, what nourishes you. Is that entirely possible when you see what other people are eating all day? When the tendency to compare is so present and tempting?

Intuitive Eating Survey: What do you think?

I posted the question to my RDRealTalk Instagram story, and in a post, to gather feedback. As with almost every nutrition question, there isn’t one right answer for everyone. But here are a few highlights (IMO) from this informal poll:

From dietitians:

  • When I post, I keep comments about the food to a minimum and just share what I enjoyed about it. (@EmilyFonnesbeck_RD)
  • I think it can only help to have more dietitians posting a variety of foods to get the right message out. If we’re not posting salads, omelets, cookies and ice cream, people are left with extremes on their {Instagram} feed. (@KellyJonesRD)
  • I don’t think we always need to be calling it out (i.e. “Look I am a dietitian and I allow myself to eat a burger!”). (@LeanneRayRDN)
  • I think people end up ultimately comparing their food choices to what they see others eating, so {posting food photos to Instragram is} probably not very helpful. But I think it helps people learn to be OK with all types of food if they can get “cheers” from a supportive community for trying new things and not feel threatened by food itself. (@abalancedpaceRD)
  • If you’re going to be intuitively eating nothing but celery or donuts then probably not {helpful to post photos}. (anonymous)
  • I enjoy seeing what other RDs eat. I think it liberates people to make their own choices, despite what the media and our culture says. (@annamcrouch)

Input from the RD2Be and consumer communities:

  • I think following IE accounts can be extremely helpful if the accounts are truthful in their depiction of IE. I think the gray area exists when social media accounts that boast “IE” are actually accounts that still promote disordered/dysfunctional eating patterns in regards to emphasizing “healthy” choices over intuition. (@Miley_93)
  • At this stage in my disordered eating recovery, it’s very helpful but it wasn’t always that way. I used to constantly compare what I was eating to others and then I would look at their body looked. I’d think, “Ok if I eat what they eat I can look like them.” (anonymous)
  • For me, following IE RDs and seeing the food that they ate had a HUGE positive impact on my eating disorder recovery. I’m not an RD2Be thanks to the inspiration of IE RDs {on Instagram} like yourself 🙂 (@molly_pen)
  • I feel as though the caption or the poster’s attitude toward the food is what could be helpful or harmful. If someone mentions that the food was a “reward” or associates any guilt, that could be harmful. Mentioning satisfaction could remind others why we eat food. (@Miranda_Knutson)

The Verdict: I’m still torn.

I’m still posting food photos to my @RDRealTalk account, even (or especially) after this little experiment, because it seems to generate a mostly positive response. (You rarely, if ever, see them on my personal account.) When I started doing so, it was because I wanted to bring an unfiltered view to intuitive eating. I don’t use a DSLR camera lens, I don’t style my food, I don’t have a homemade pinterest-friendly light box in my house. (I don’t even have a house right now.)

Intuitive eating and instagram food photos

I don’t post every meal of every day. I don’t try to just post the burgers and ice cream. I post whatever I happened to snap a picture of that week. (It’s hard to remember to do that!) Maybe it was my apple-walnut snack, maybe it was the leftover Duck Donut from our trip to the Outer Banks, or maybe it was a sandwich from Zingerman’s deli. I literally have no strategy. I do want people to see that intuitive eating includes all foods. I want them to see some (RD) real-talk about meals. I don’t know if it’s helpful to you, specifically. But I hope at the very least, it’s not harmful.

Keep it real and let me know in this anonymous 10-question survey. 

— — — — —

The general consensus from that Instagram poll is that yes, we should be posting food photos. That there is always the potential to trigger disordered eating or comparison, even if that’s the opposite of the poster’s goal. Yet, there’s seems to be more potential to help someone out. We don’t need to show EVERY meal every day. (As one responder pointed out, “aside from gramming All. The. Time You can never paint a full picture.” @thedesignerdietitian) Even with every meal, you don’t get the full picture. We are all unique humans with unique needs.  

What do you think?

As Kelly said, at the very least, posting food photos with an IE or anti-diet message dilutes the mix of extreme “clean smoothies” and IIFYM nonsense. As Emily said, it gives us an opportunity to show food but not have to TALK ALL ABOUT FOOD. As many other people said, it may help at least one person work on their food fears.

Your story is unique. Your experiences are your own. Let me know what you think.

As I told my client, you get to decide what works for you.

Unfollow. Swipe away. Don’t double tap if it doesn’t bring up something good for you. If you’re a curious consumer, or in need of some #foodporn recovery, work with a dietitian that promotes intuitive eating and uses an anti-diet approach. If you’re a curious dietitian or RD2Be and want to expand your anti-diet or intuitive eating knowledge, take a seat. Join the conversation.

New to the anti-diet approach and Intuitive Eating? Save your seat at the RD Real Talk Round Table Event to learn from fellow dietitians and incorporate it into your nutrition practice. 

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