Photographed by Danny Kim.
We don't do diets. But we still love to eat — and we want to eat well. In her new column, How To Eat, Refinery29's favorite intuitive eating coach Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, will help you do just that by answering the food and nutrition questions that really matter. Send yours to heythere@refinery29.com.

I recently quit dieting. I'm trying to take a more intuitive approach to what I eat, but I feel like all my body wants is carbs right now, and I just know that can't be right. What can I do to balance things out?

First of all, congratulations on giving up dieting! That’s a huge step, and you’re absolutely doing the right thing for your health — both mental and physical — by taking a more intuitive approach.

Now, to answer your question: I want to say first that there’s nothing wrong with carbohydrates. On the contrary, carbs are extremely important to the body, as they’re the exclusive fuel source for the brain and nervous system, and the preferred form of energy for all other physiological functions. There are no “good” or “bad” foods, but when it comes to fueling your body and your brain, carbs are aces.

Still, you are right that your body ultimately does need a balance of nutrients, and it is possible that you’re experiencing a bit of an imbalance right now. This is something that a lot of people encounter when they first let go of the dieting mentality and begin to eat intuitively. The good news is that not only is this totally normal, it is also totally temporary.

To get through it, you’ve got to learn to trust your body, and understanding why it’s happening is key. Here’s what’s going on.

The primary driver behind these cravings is a glitch in your body’s hunger signals, likely caused by extended periods of unhealthy dieting and deprivation. When you’re hungry, your brain releases a neurotransmitter called Neuropeptide Y (NPY), which stimulates food intake — particularly carbohydrate intake, since carbs are so important to the body. NPY is released in response to any period of food deprivation, from the severe forms seen in anorexia nervosa to the normal “fasting” period between going to bed and eating breakfast.

For “normal” eaters, NPY levels go down once they eat. But longer-term deprivation, like the kind involved in disordered eating as well as on-and-off dieting, can cause chronically elevated NPY levels that don’t change after a meal the way they should.

So if you’ve spent a period of time restricting calories, carbs, or all of the above, your body is producing larger amounts of NPY, which in turn is driving you to select more high-carbohydrate foods right now.

This physical drive to eat carbs is compounded by the fact that psychologically, you’ve trained yourself to expect a period of restriction after any period of letting go.

Think about all the times you’ve gone on and off diets: When you weren’t dieting, there was probably always part of your brain that thought, Better eat all I can of this now, because the next diet starts tomorrow (or whenever). You’ve developed the mental habit of viewing non-restrictive eating as a brief interlude between periods of restriction. This sets you up to prefer the “off-limits” foods when you stop dieting, because at some level your mind still thinks you're going to be deprived of these foods — or food in general — again.

When you look at it that way, it makes perfect sense why you want ALL THE CARBS right now. I sometimes call this the honeymoon phase, because it makes you feel so madly in love with these foods that you don’t want to eat anything else.

But here’s the radical difference with intuitive eating: You’re NOT going to eventually deprive yourself of these foods by going on another diet. With intuitive eating, you have permission to eat these foods as often as you like, forever.

If you can just keep reminding yourself to trust that permission, eventually your brain and body will trust it, too. Then the physical drive toward carbs will diminish, along with the psychological power of these foods. You’ll start to see pasta, baked goods, and sweet treats for what they are — a potential option whenever you want them, but not something you’re compelled to eat all day, every day.

Each time you’re hungry, just keep asking yourself (in a non-judgmental way) what you want. Eventually you’ll find that you genuinely want something different — maybe fruit, or nuts, or a balanced meal that includes refreshing veggies and satisfying protein along with your carbs.

Don’t rush to get to this point, though, because you need to be in the honeymoon phase long enough for your body to truly trust that you will honor its desires. Just know that when you’re ready, you’ll eventually reach a point at which those desires lead you into balance — and that’s so much more sustainable than following outside rules that tell you what you “should” eat.

Christy is an NYC-based registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in intuitive eating, eating disorder recovery, and Health at Every Size. She writes about food and nutrition for various publications and hosts Food Psych, a podcast dedicated to improving your relationship with food.
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