Losing weight isn’t easy and we know that fad diets and an obsessive focus on counting calories isn’t healthy, practical, or sustainable. In fact, these practices often do more harm than good. For people prone to eating disorders, scrutinizing every calorie is a mental stressor that can trigger anxiety and depression. Even people who lose weight using these approaches often gain it back and sometimes more.
Intuitive eating takes a unique approach. Think of it as the “anti-diet.” It’s a way of looking at food from an instinctual standpoint without counting calories or even scrutinizing nutrients. Intuitive eating doesn’t constrain food choices in the way many diets do. This style of eating emphasizes trusting your body to guide you to what to eat at a given time. Doing this reduces external pressures and the need to conform to a certain eating style. This less restrictive approach reduces stress, a factor that contributes to weight gain and eating disorders alike.
Why might this approach work? When we label food as good or bad, it gives that food power over us. When we eat a food labeled as bad, we chastise ourselves and feel like a failure. That’s self-defeating. Instead, intuitive eating encourages people to develop a new relationship with food, a less judgmental one. It also encourages people to be less hard on themselves when indulging in items, like cookies, that conventional nutritional dogma, labels as bad. According to instinctual eating, no food is inherently good or bad. Those labels create undue stress that makes it harder to lose weight.
Intuitive eating is about acceptance too. It’s self-defeating to fight a war with your body and do unhealthy things to get it to conform to some ideal. How many people go on starvation diets to get down to an unrealistic clothing size? Some develop eating disorders and an unhealthy relationship with food.
Distinguishing Between Physiological Hunger and Emotional Hunger
To give your body the appropriate nutrition and energy, we have to understand what it needs at a particular time. A basic aspect of intuitive eating is distinguishing between physical and emotional hunger. Physical hunger is a physiological need for energy and nutrients while emotional hunger is eating to fulfill a deeper need like the desire to be loved or to fight boredom.
In some ways, intuitive eating is like mindfulness. Too often we make food choices and consume our chosen meals and snacks without engaging with them. How many times have you grabbed a handful of chips of a brownie and nibbled on it without really tasting it? It’s not surprising that mindless eating leads to more mindless nibbling as those mindless bites aren’t satisfying, as we don’t really taste them.
In contrast, if you focus in on the texture, aroma, and taste of each bite and monitor how your body is responding, you gain more enjoyment and become satisfied with less. Like mindfulness, with intuitive eating, you let your body tell you when you’re full. The key is to tune in to those signals and become better at interpreting them over time.
Does Science Support Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss?
An analysis of 26 studies on intuitive eating and weight control found that participants who adopted intuitive eating practices enjoyed better mental health and had a lower body mass index. So, there is something to gain (or lose) from the intuitive style of eating. Studies suggest that people who eat intuitively are leaner. However, there’s insufficient evidence to say that intuitive eating leads to weight loss.
Whether eating intuitively causes weight loss may depend on the individual. For some, eating intuitively could be a license to eat whatever they want when they want, but that’s an abuse of the intuitive eating style. Once you start listening to your body, you realize that you feel better after eating something healthy and your choices shift to more healthful options and away from the junk that doesn’t make you feel good. It takes time and practice to gain that degree of awareness.
Another benefit of intuitive eating is it’s more sustainable than dieting. People can stick to a restrictive diet for brief periods of time, but they often feel so deprived that they swing back the other way, overeat, and regain the weight they lost.
Possibly, the biggest benefit of intuitive eating is for mental health though. Intuitive eating reduces anxiety and pressure to eat a certain way. Therefore, it’s a good approach for people who suffer from eating disorders.
The Bottom Line
Intuitive eating has its pros and cons. The upside is the fact that this approach teaches you not to obsess over food and it helps you break the habit of counting calories. It also promotes a healthier relationship with food and breaks the cycle of dieting. That’s important when eating disorders are at an all-time high. Intuitive eating also encourages mindfulness, savoring, and celebrating the tastes and textures of food. It can help you enjoy eating and living more.
The downside of intuitive eating is that there’s no proof that it leads to sustained weight loss. However, based on limited research, folks who eat in this manner tend to be leaner. For some, this approach is too unstructured. Some people need guidelines and parameters to follow to make healthy and sustainable changes. If they don’t get them, they might not take action. Also, if you haven’t trained your taste buds to appreciate healthier foods, eating intuitively might mean eating junk food. Intuitive eating doesn’t teach you how to make healthier food choices. It assumes that your body will naturally choose what’s best for it, and that’s not always the case.
Also, exercise is vital for long-term weight control and for improving body composition. Make sure it’s part of your plan too!
- Public Health Nutr. 2014 Aug;17(8):1757-66. doi: 10.1017/S1368980013002139. Epub 2013 Aug 21.
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Volume 114, Issue 5, May 2014, Pages 734-760.
- Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016;24(5):1154-1161.
- Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 22, No. 4, P. 12. April 2020.
- Kylie Sandstrom. Intuitive Eating: A food lifestyle that respects your body and your emotions” June 5, 2019.
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