Intuitive eating is a gentle approach to health and life that prioritizes feeling good in your body. It helps you cultivate a much more relaxed relationship with food, but the process isn’t always easy. It takes time and patience, and a lot of work to unlearn and reframe diet culture messaging we’ve learned over the years.
Weight-inclusive health coach Tomesha Campbell joins me to talk about how you can work through some common roadblocks that people typically come across when trying to adopt an intuitive eating lifestyle.
Tomesha Campbell is an experienced health coach, speaker, and blogger. She is driven by the desire to support women to break up with the scale and develop a positive body image through a weight-inclusive approach to health. Tomesha’s journey with weight and body image has been a long one, but it’s taught her that health is about so much more than weight. Tomesha has been featured on Autoimmune Wellness, the SPI Blog, and Boston While Black. She currently resides in Watertown, MA with her dog, Penny Deena.
Referenced in this episode:
- Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
- The Intuitive Eating Workbook by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
- Robin Mallery’s chocolate mindfulness exercise
- The Enneagram of Eating by Ann Gadd
- Podcast: Eating and the Enneagram with Health Coach Tomesha Campbell
- 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
- Tomesha’s website
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The written version of this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kristen Ciccolini: Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and who you work with?
Tomesha Campbell: I really love working with women to break up with the scale and develop a positive body image. That’s something that I actually struggled with for many years during my time in the military and even after, so being able to get people to a point where we can see health beyond the scale and see that health can happen at every size is something that I’m really passionate about.
KC: For those who don’t know, what is Health At Every Size and how can embracing it influence people’s health?
TC: Health At Every Size is a weight-inclusive approach. I know this is a newer term for some people, but really what the Health At Every Size movement started around was fat acceptance and helping people understand that their body, shape, and size doesn’t necessarily dictate health. [It’s] about ensuring that people get that respectful care when it comes to dealing with doctors and nurses and health coaches and all of the people in the health field.
What it really has come to be in some instances is more of a body acceptance movement as well, where people are starting to realize that health often gets tied to beauty and success and our body shape and our size. So being able to get people to a point where we can start seeing health can happen at every size—that doesn’t mean you’re “healthy” at every size. Sometimes that gets mixed up and misconstrued.
KC: Right. It’s more about focusing on weight stigma and making sure that people have access to the right care. I feel like that can be an area of resistance for people when they don’t understand it fully. But since we are touching on these ideas of resistance—I know that you have been open about your history with exercise addiction and body image, so I’m wondering how you found intuitive eating and, coming from such a powerful diet culture mentality, what was it that made it click for you?
TC: I actually found intuitive eating accidentally. It happened at the end of my time in the Marine Corps where I actually needed to maintain a certain weight standard. I was engaging in some very disordered activities to be able to do that. I got to the point where one of my good friends who was a Marine asked me one day when I was ranting about how little I was eating and how much I was exercising. He just asked me, “Are you okay?” And that question triggered something in me to realize like, I actually am not.
This is a time for me to not be so focused on the amount of calories I’m consuming, the macros I’m consuming, and trying to understand and discover a different way of eating.
Eventually, I discovered intuitive eating, which has really helped me start trusting again in the way that I eat and trusting in my food choices and not being necessarily led by specific rules.
KC: Was there any area in your [intuitive eating] journey that was difficult for you to accept?
TC: There’s 10 principles of intuitive eating and number one was the hardest one, which is rejecting diet mentality. Because for so long, I really did believe that a lot of my worth and my value came into the way that my body looked.
So it was very difficult to think about eating and exercising in a different way and doing it from a standpoint of, I’m not doing this to transform how I look on the outside. I’m doing this because I genuinely enjoy this food. I’m eating this food, not because it’s “healthy,” I’m eating it because it’s nourishing, I actually like it. I’m exercising, not because I’m trying to lose weight, I’m exercising because I actually enjoy this form of movement.
Being able to start thinking about health in a different way was one of the hardest steps.
KC: Definitely. Once you get over that hurdle, it makes everything a little bit easier. How long did it take you to get over that hurdle?
TC: I like to say my journey started around 2015, but it wasn’t until probably 2018. This was after I got my nutrition certification where the intuitive eating principles started clicking. I was still engaging in different challenges and [clients] really focused on losing weight, so therefore being a coach, I felt like I also need to lose weight and maintain a certain body type. Even though I was like moving in that [IE] direction, it probably took a good couple of years before I fully started trusting that this was a pathway that I can go into.
Especially if you are a coach, you may also think this is not going to be profitable because no one’s going to want to work with someone who is in a larger body, which I know now is not true at all, but I just didn’t believe that.
KC: I had a very similar trajectory. It does take time, it also took me a couple of years to figure it out and make it click. Some of the things that we’ll talk about today are things where hopefully, if you hear Tomesha’s insight on it, maybe it’ll start to click for you, too.
The first roadblock for eating intuitively is the fear of letting food go to waste. A lot of us grew up being told, “You can’t leave the table until you clean your plate.” In adulthood, there’s still that urge to eat beyond your hunger signals until it’s all gone so nothing goes to waste. How would you address that?
TC: This is one I really resonate with, especially as I started working with people from different cultures and I realized food insecurity is a real thing. Understanding that for some people it’s also a very cultural thing too leave food on their plate, or they may feel like they’re disrespecting a family member if you don’t eat everything.
But you get to make the choices about what you consume and what you don’t consume. Sometimes that means having a little bit of a difficult conversation with family and friends about things that you don’t enjoy and that you do enjoy, and it’s perfectly fine.
Especially for women, it’s often cultural that we’re all supposed to be nice and polite, but also understanding it’s also polite to my body to respect and honor my hunger and honor the fact that I just don’t want to consume this food. It’s actually fine not to clean your plate. But also, it’s perfectly fine to do that. If you love everything, want it, and you just want to eat it and enjoy that and do it without guilt or shame.
KC: Is food insecurity something that you see with clients often?
TC: I don’t see it too often in clients, but I see it often in my community. And I say that because a lot of the people who are very food insecure unfortunately would not have the finances to work with me.
But they’re often the people that will send me direct messages and say, “Thank you, you’ve helped me stretch my dollar.” So being able to help them see that there are ways they could eat intuitively on a budget—which often comes up because people think I’m just buying junk food, then there’s the other people that think I’m always shopping at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
So helping them see that middle ground. Even if you are food insecure, you can still find ways to nourish yourself. Things like baked beans, beans of any type, canned things, frozen things are not bad sources of food.
KC: What about navigating restrictions in your diet? Like certain allergies or if you wanted to adopt a vegan diet. Intuitive eating says to allow yourself permission to eat all foods, so how do we work around this?
TC: I always look at it like this. I allow myself to eat all foods, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I have to eat all foods.
Yes, I’m allowed to eat corn and grains and donuts if I want to. But that doesn’t mean I will consume those things.
I know for some people, that can lead them to consume these things in secret and feel like “I need to only consume them at certain times” versus you could technically consume whenever you want to, but you get to choose that. Maybe you never consume it.[Re:] the second point about being vegan—I follow, for the most part, the autoimmune protocol. Some people would see that as not intuitive eating, but I argue it is, because going through that protocol helped me figure out that I may enjoy nightshades, but nightshades don’t work for me.
So intuitively I know, “I’ll consume them, but I probably don’t want to consume them if I’m about to do something that’s really important. I probably don’t want to feel like poopoo the day before or the day of. That’s something I might consume more on the weekend.”
You get to choose to say, “I follow this because it feels good for me.”
KC: Meal planning can be a way to support yourself throughout the week because you have food available to meet your needs when you’re hungry. When I polled my audience, someone mentioned that they intuitively crave variety, but they don’t have the time for it. So how can we both support ourselves in our time constraints with meal prep, but also keep it exciting for a week?
TC: Something I started doing [is meal delivery services]. I like to order a couple different varieties of meals and then mix that in with the meals I’m prepping during the week.
For instance, I might order five or six meals from a meal delivery service, then I’ll also prepare for the week so that if I decide I don’t really want to consume the food that I cooked all week, I want to have something different, [I can].
Planning gives you that variety, understanding that you also can plan in days that you’re going to be eating out with friends and family, days that you might want to order delivery.
I try to get a lot of freezer-friendly meals so that if I find near the end of the week, I didn’t need a lot of the stuff I cooked, I’ll just freeze it for later.
KC: Another really common topic—people have trouble separating their fitness activities from the pursuit of weight loss. I know that was one of my biggest hurdles too—in the mentality of earning your food with exercise or having to work off food that they ate with exercise. How do you start to break that association?
TC: What I often recommend for clients is to find forms of movement that you enjoy. That might mean actually taking a pause. Sometimes the fear of gaining weight is the thing that we need to overcome. That’s the thing that’s holding people back. Sometimes you just need to let that happen and then realize, is this the worst-case scenario?
It probably isn’t. It’s probably going to be okay. Now I can start finding different forms of movement that I enjoy. Your form of movement [doesn’t need] to look like anyone else’s form of movement.
KC: Can you talk a little bit more about the fear of weight gain?
When I allowed myself to gain weight, I was like, “I’m not going to step on this scale. I’m going to become comfortable with the fact that these clothes aren’t fitting and I’m going to start looking for new clothes.” I know there’s sometimes this desire to keep the clothes hoping to get back to that old weight.
When I let go of the fact that I used to be in the one sizes and now I’m in the double sizes and it’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. Being able to understand that as you gain weight, you also gain this opportunity to start seeing health in a different way and understanding it isn’t really the weight gain that is preventing me from doing the things that I wanted to do, because I’ve gained weight over the years, but I still run probably faster than I used to.
I still lift more weight than I used to. So it’s like I started realizing that I was associating this gaining weight to all of these negative attributes. I started realizing that none of these things are true [for me].
I think for a lot of us, we are worried about the worst-case scenario when the worst-case scenario isn’t necessarily true for us. You should still work with your medical professional as you’re going through that process, but really overcoming that fear that weight is going to be the worst thing that could ever happen was hard, but it was something that really helped me start making different choices when it came to my health and start understanding that I could still engage in healthy activity regardless of what my weight is. That doesn’t stop me from doing those things.
KC: How can you eat intuitively when you have to maintain a certain weight or body type for your job?
TC: I actually struggled a lot to maintain such a low body weight [in the military] because of all the disordered and restricted things I was doing.
I always try to caveat this by saying you need to obviously stay employed, so it’s going to be important to think about things like, how are you going to nourish your body? What types of proteins, carbs, and fats you’re going to consume because that could impact things.
You probably are going to be a little bit mindful around times where you need to weigh in if that’s part of your career. Water weight is a thing. That said, it’s also important for people to consider long-term, is this something that you can sustain? That was my big reason for leaving the Marine Corps. I was becoming so restricted that for me, personally, mentally and physically, it was no longer healthy.
KC: Another job that came up pretty regularly when people were responding to me is teaching. When you’re a teacher, you don’t have time for anything, right? Barely even a bathroom break. I want to read a message from one of those teachers and she said, “I eat before I leave the house, even if I’m not hungry. And I have a snack and lunch during my scheduled times at school, rather than basing hunger off of my body’s cues. These routines follow me into the weekends and I’ll eat out of habit of time rather than real hunger.”
TC: I’m actually happy you brought up this specific scenario because this one’s probably the most relatable for a lot of people and they talk a little bit about it in the Intuitive Eating book.
Realistically, if you literally can’t eat until like 3:00 PM, and it makes more sense for you to eat at 11 even though you’re not even hungry, then I would eat at 11, because if I don’t eat at 11, I’m going to have to wait till after these kids are out of this classroom, then I’m probably going to be extremely fatigued, cranky. You’re not going to be feeling well. So it actually makes sense to follow that time period during the week.
On the weekends, I would actually schedule specific times to consume food, to drink water.
Not everybody is actually that attuned to their hunger in the beginning. So sometimes you have to put yourself on a schedule so you could eventually get to a point where you don’t need to be on a schedule.
KC: This is like, “front-loading.” If you can’t eat for hours, it’s like honoring your future hunger, really. I’m a big fan of scheduling things, especially if you don’t know what your hunger and fullness signals are.
The last question I had was, “How can I balance eating to feel good with not depriving myself of sweets?”
TC: I love that. That’s why the principle of “discover your satisfaction factor” is one of my favorite ones, and “making peace with food.” I actually make sure that I make room for sweets inside my meal planning for the week, just because I generally enjoy them.
I’m not anti-sugar. It’s figuring out what types of foods work. Even though you might be used to eating Twinkies and cakes and stuff, maybe that may not make you feel so great.
So find that sweet that you do enjoy, that makes you feel great, and also pair it with that nourishing meal that you know is going to keep you satiated.
It’s also helpful to understand you don’t have to finish it all. You can take a bite and just let it sit in your mouth. You don’t [typically] give yourself time to get satisfied. You just eat so fast.
KC: Those are all of the common areas of resistance that people shared, and I tried to distill it down into like most popular things, so hopefully everyone got their questions answered.
One final thing I wanted to touch on is that a few episodes ago, I did a series on mindfulness and mental health, and talked about different modes of self-exploration like astrology and human design, and the Enneagram. I shared them as tools for self-understanding and to help encourage more self-compassion because when you understand that you are likely wired a certain way, then you can start to navigate around those predispositions and make things work for you rather than trying to push through them.
You were on a podcast where you discussed the different eating styles for each Enneagram, which I thought was so interesting. Would you be able to explain a little bit about what that is and how people can apply it to intuitive eating?
TC: I’m so happy you could hear that episode because really what it was, we read this book [The Enneagram of Eating] and it really opened us up to this opportunity to understand how the Enneagram could be used for more mindful eaters or intuitive eaters.
It really helped me understand why some of my clients responded the way they do. And why some people can actually do well on very restrictive diets and why some personality types will do awful on those.
An example would be type 1s and type 3s. Those are people who tend to desire some form of control, which is not a bad thing. But because of that, they really would love more flexibility when it comes to their eating. That might be the personality type that would want to have a meal plan that has a lot of variety or who might enjoy eating out at different types of restaurants.
They also could be the person that wants to cook because they want to be able to have different choices on different days.
I’m a type 2, and type 2s and 4s, we are pretty self-aware, but at the same time, we’re also people who don’t really like being told what to do. Following something that is super restricted, we can do it for a short period of time, but then after a while, we’ve got to be that person that might rebel. Those are the people that are probably not going to do very well with like “follow this rule.”
Being able to look at the Enneagram and figure out how that corresponds to the way that you eat in the way that you operate in the world will help people understand why you might eat a certain way, and why that’s not a good or a bad thing, and understanding how you can fit that around the food choices you make.
KC: I love this tool as another layer of understanding for how you function. Like, maybe I’m not a person that can follow a super restrictive thing and it’s not necessarily because I’m lazy or I just can’t do it, it’s because that’s how I’m wired.
I’m a type 4 with a 5 wing. What does that tell you about me?
TC: I feel like you’d probably be the person who tends to be more aware of what your needs are, and at the same time, you may tend to be a snacker. I would say being a little bit more mindful in the choices that you make could really help you follow more intuitive eating.
We need to be a little bit more conscientious of your stress. That could also probably be the reason why you might be prone to snacking at sometimes versus other times.
KC: What are some ways that people can start to practice intuitive eating and body positivity in their daily life?
TC: I always recommend people read the book. They [also] have an Intuitive Eating Workbook that I think is very helpful for people because it walks you step-by-step through the practices and how to implement them into your life.
Just take it slow. Read the principles on their website to get an understanding. Pick one that you might struggle with a little bit more than others. Conquer the harder thing first and then it will make all the rest of the dominos so much easier to go through.
So for me, it was rejecting the diet mentality. When my friends and family members are making comments about my weight, that’s a great time to set some boundaries and say, “I don’t feel comfortable with this type of conversation.” When I’m talking to my doctors and they’re making different comments about my food choices, that’s a great time to have a conversation with them about “these are my boundaries and these are my beliefs.”
Sometimes it starts with a lot of conversations, but taking some time to work through each of the principles, starting with one and then just letting it slowly evolve into the others.