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Intuitive Eating: The Anti-Dieting Approach to Losing Weight

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Intuitive eating - Dr. Axe

Most people are starting to accept the idea that “diets” — the kind you go on and then off of — don’t work in the long run. In fact, reports now show that about 90 to 95 percent of all diets fail! One of the ironies behind failed diets and yo-yo dieting is that, ultimately, some diets even make you fat.

Meanwhile, people tend to blame themselves, feeling like a lack of willpower, no self-control and bad genetics are the reasons they can’t lose weight and keep it off. Sometimes they blame themselves so much that they stop eating and enter into a dangerous starvation mode, rather than adopting a more healthful approach, like mindful eating.

Along the lines of more healthful approaches to eating comes “intuitive eating” (or IE): an emerging approach to sustainable healthy eating and body acceptance. Intuitive eaters believe the blame shouldn’t be put on “dieters” themselves, but instead on the flawed process of dieting. Is intuitive eating evidence-based? Yes, according to dozens of studies, this approach seems promising and a “realistic alternative to address overweight and obesity than conventional weight-loss treatments.”

What Is Intuitive Eating?

What is the definition of intuitive eating? There isn’t just one definition of intuitive eating, as different people approach this style of eating in unique ways. The term “intuitive eating” was first coined in the 1990s by the authors of the Intuitive Eating book, Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyze Resch. They described IE as “a new way of eating that is ultimately struggle-free and healthy for your mind and body. It is a process that unleashes the shackles of dieting (which can only lead to deprivation, rebellion and rebound weight gain). It means getting back to your roots — trusting your body and its signals.”

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the definition of intuitive eating is: “Trusting your inner body wisdom to make choices around food that feel good in your body, without judgment and without influence from diet culture.”

Rates of obesity and being overweight continue to climb, yet more and more people report being on “diets” than ever. It’s finally clicked with some of the public that we need another way to approach healthier eating. Many studies have found positive implications for IE, including protecting against obesity, lowering body mass indexes, leading to a healthier mindset about food, lowering cortisol levels and improving body image.

The Basics of IE:

Evelyn Tribole and Elyze Resch call their approach a “180-degree departure from dieting.” Instead of a strong focus on weight loss, deprivation, cutting or counting calories and writing off certain foods, their goal is to teach people how to eat in a way that supports a healthier relationship with food. In essence, the goal of IE is to practice health on every level — both physically and mentally.

How do you learn to be intuitive when it comes to making food choices? One way is to follow the 10 principles of intuitive eating (see below). Dietitians and therapists involved in intuitive eating research have also put together several different general guidelines for IE, which include:

  1. Mostly intrinsic eating (mostly eating based on your inner cues for fullness and hunger)
  2. Sometimes extrinsic eating (at times eating based on your mood, social situation, time of day or food availability without feelings of guilt)
  3. Anti-dieting (eating that’s not determined by any specific diet, like counting calories or following a risky low-fat diet plan, or purely just for weight loss)
  4. Self-care and body acceptance (regardless of current size)

10 Core Principles of Intuitive Eating

What are the principles of intuitive eating? According to IntuitiveEating.org, the 10 intuitive eating principles are as follows:

1. Reject the Diet Mentality

“If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover intuitive eating.”

2. Honor Your Hunger

“Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat.”

3. Make Peace with Food

“Call a truce, stop the food fight! Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing.”

4. Challenge the Food Police

“Scream a loud ‘NO’ to thoughts in your head that declare you’re ‘good’ for eating minimal calories or ‘bad’ because you ate a piece of chocolate cake.”

5. Respect Your Fullness

“Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full.”

6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

“When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content.”

7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food

“Find ways to comfort, nurture, distract and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings.”

8. Respect Your Body

“Accept your genetic blueprint … It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.”

9. Exercise — Feel the Difference

“Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie-burning effect of exercise.”

10. Honor Your Health

“Make food choices that honor your health and tastebuds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy.”

4 Benefits of Intuitive Eating

1. Lowers Stress and Anxiety Regarding Food Choices

Of course, nutrition and exercise are important pieces of the puzzle when it comes to living a healthy life, but first and foremost the priority in terms of IE is to “reject the diet mentality” that causes many people to feel guilty, chronically stressed and out of touch with their own bodies.

According to a 2019 article published in Health Psychology Open, eating intuitively may result in improved well being, lower stress levels and lower cortisol output, the primary “stress hormone” that is tied to weight gain, mood disturbances and trouble sleeping. People who focus on health before weight tend to experience more pleasant emotional states in general, according to studies. Intuitive eaters report feeling upbeat, happy, appreciative, more socially integrated, effective and resilient. They’re even more likely to be physically active on a regular basis, perhaps because they value their bodies more and have more energy.

2. Encourages Flexibility and Eating A Wide Variety of Foods

Just the opposite of most quick-fix diet plans, IE proposes a way of eating that allows for any and all food choices. Essentially nothing is off limits, and there is no cap on how many calories, fat grams or carbohydrates can be eaten in a day.

While “anti-dieting” alone doesn’t necessarily help someone lower health risks and make smart dietary decisions, IE  hopes to encourage healthy eating in a radically new way: reconciling forbidden food issues, unleashing the common shackles of dieting (deprivation, rebellion and rebound weight gain) and helping people to get back to trusting their body’s own natural signs and preferences. This is why a 2019 study found evidence that IR can help adults eat for physical reasons rather than emotional reasons and to better rely on hunger and satiety cues.

3. Can Help Improve Health Even Without Weight Loss

Wondering about how “healthy” this way of eating can really be when it comes to nutrition and weight? One study published in Public Health Nutrition found that higher intuitive eating scores were tied to healthier weight management and healthier BMIs and improved physical health indicators other than BMI (like blood pressure and cholesterol levels). This suggests that listening to your body’s signals for determining what, when and how much to eat is one of the best ways to prevent weight gain long-term.

How does intuitive eating work for improving health markers like blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.?

Ohio State University published a large study on over 1,300 women that focused on several key features of intuitive eating, including:

  1. Unconditional permission to eat when hungry and the types of foods that are desired
  2. Eating for physical rather than emotional reasons
  3. Reliance on internal hunger and satiety cues to determine when and how much to eat

The women first completed the Intuitive Eating Scale (IES) to measure if they self-identified as intuitive eaters. Compared to women scoring low on this scale, intuitive eaters were found to have higher self-esteem, body acceptance and satisfaction; lower stress levels about being thin and fitting cultural ideals; more satisfaction with life and positive feelings, including optimism and proactive coping with emotions; better awareness of physical sensations originating from the body (hunger, fullness, fast heartbeat, heavy breathing, etc.) and overall healthier body mass indexes. To sum things up, those practicing IE seem to benefit from less stress, inclusion of a variety of foods and self-care.

4. Builds Self-Trust and Confidence

Since it removes stress, deprivation and mistrust from the weight loss equation, IE relies on a better mind-body connection. This helps most people to make good food choices more often than not, to get better in touch with their body’s signals of hunger versus fullness and to respect and appreciate their unique body at any size.

The American Psychological Association identified an additional benefit of intuitive eating: better self-trust and reliance on the body’s innate hunger and satiety cues. Intuitive eaters primarily rely on their bodies to tell them when and how much to eat, instead of what food is in front of them, the time of day, portion sizes being served in restaurants or what others are eating.

Studies also show that better trust in one’s own body leads to more self-appreciation (despite size and perceived imperfections), being more attentive to the body’s basic needs and having a lower risk for eating disorder symptoms (like bulimia, binge eating disorder or anorexia) or negative body image.

Does Intuitive Eating Work for Weight Loss?

If you’re hoping to find intuitive eating before and after photos showing drastic weight loss results, you’re probably going to be disappointed. The connection between intuitive eating and weight loss is controversial, but many IE experts state that weight loss is not a primary goal of IE. Most IE proponents believe that the goal of weight loss shouldn’t take center stage, but rather it should be “put on the back burner” in order to focus on general health and feeling well. Some studies have also found that IE doesn’t lead to weight loss in many cases, especially compared to strict control of calorie intake.

Here’s the good news: some studies have found that people who eat intuitively are less likely to yo-yo diet (or lose and gain weight over and over again, which can damage the metabolism), because they engage in fewer behaviors that lead to emotional eating or weight gain. Intuitive eaters may be less likely to eat in the absence of hunger, eat to soothe stress, eat due to situational or social factors like peer pressure, to restrict certain food groups and to binge due to deprivation.

Intuitive eaters feel that a lack of knowledge about general nutrition isn’t one of the main reasons many adults can’t lose weight — rather it’s the emotional reasons behind eating that are hardest to overcome. Initially, some people are highly skeptical about how any eating plan that allows for all foods and zero calorie-counting can really help bring about weight management and better mental health. But numerous studies show that downright rejecting most “diets” results in better body acceptance, healthy weight control, less yo-yo dieting, mostly well-rounded and nutritious food choices and even lower incidences of eating disorder symptoms. (3)

Intuitive Eating vs. Mindful Eating

Mindful eating describes the process of being aware while eating. It involves paying attention (on purpose) to your actual eating experience, without judgment. Mindful eating is considered by some to be an important part of intuitive eating, as IE is all about attunement of mind, body and food; however, IE is a broader philosophy that also touches upon physical activity and rejecting societal norms.

Can you combine principles of both? If so, what is “mindful intuitive eating”? Yes, you can. You do this by listening to your inner body signals that tell you that you are starting to get hungry, and when you’ve had enough, to feel satisfied. Get to know what it feels like to be “comfortably full” without being overly stuffed. Also, try to eat before you feel “ravenous,” which can easily lead to overeating before reaching satiety. Many people find it helpful to slow down when eating, chew food well, eat undistracted (not emailing, watching TV, driving, etc.) and to pause in the middle of a meal or snack to take note of how full they feel

Practice mindful eating and ask yourself if what you’re having is actually satisfying you, or if you’re simply eating it because it’s there. One principle that many intuitive eaters love to follow is: “If you don’t love it, don’t eat it, and if you love it, savor it.”

6 Steps to Become an Intuitive Eater

Ready to learn how to start intuitive eating? Begin by following these helpful intuitive eating tips:

1. Acknowledge That Quick-Fix Or Fad Diets Don’t Work

It’s tempting to believe there’s a way to lose weight quickly, easily and permanently by taking drastic measures, eliminating entire food groups, radically cutting calories or going on a low-carb diet. But in reality, most people can’t override their body’s natural biology and cravings for extended periods of time. Instead of trying diet after diet only to feel like a failure every time you “fall off the wagon,” stop dieting all together.

Give up the idea that there’s new and better diets lurking around the corner and return to what has worked for people for centuries: eating real foods, practicing moderation and moving your body! Aim for a nutrient-dense diet that supports a healthy body, stable mind and steady energy levels, all without trying to be “perfect.”

Make food choices that honor your health and satisfy your taste buds, while also making you feel good. If you’re not exactly sure which foods work best for you, and which may not, consider using an intuitive eating workbook to track your reactions to different foods, or perhaps work with a trained intuitive eating coach.

2. Fuel Yourself with Enough Calories

The motivation of simply wanting to lose weight to look better, especially for a specific event, can be temporary and fleeting — but even more importantly, it causes many people to deprive themselves of enough calories and rest, which has damaging effects on the metabolism. Recognize that it’s important to give your body the calories it needs, otherwise you’re likely to deal with feelings of chronic fatigue, deprivation and resentment, plus you have the urge to overeat or binge eat due to biological changes.

3. Avoid “Good/Bad” or “Black/White” Thinking About Certain Foods

It’s true that some foods are more nutrient-dense than others, but vowing to 100 percent eliminate certain foods or food groups from your diet forever can just increase stress and feelings of preoccupation with “forbidden foods.” Intuitive eaters aim to “make peace with food, call a truce and stop the food fight.” Of course, you want to prioritize eating all types of healthy foods over highly processed foods, but don’t expect perfection and assume you’ll never have your favorite comfort foods again.

If you tell yourself you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food ever again, it can lead to intense feelings of shame along with uncontrollable cravings. Experts believe that all-or-nothing thinking about foods can increase the likelihood for bingeing, because when someone finally “gives in” to their forbidden food, they are then tempted to eat very large amounts, to feel like it’s their “last chance” and then to feel overwhelming guilt.

Remember that it’s what you eat consistently over time that matters and that “progress, not perfection” is the goal. Try your best not to view certain foods (or entire food groups like carbohydrates, fats or animal proteins, for example) as “bad.” Instead, just aim to have them less often and focus your attention on adding in more of the things that support your health and make you feel good.

4. Learn to Eat When You’re Hungry, and Stop When Full

“Feeling your fullness” and “honoring your hunger” are two key principles of intuitive eating. Many people find that when they don’t categorize any foods as totally off-limits or deprive themselves of enough calories, they can finally start to eat in line with what their body really needs.

5. Find Ways to Handle Stress and Emotions without the Use Of Food

For many people, IE opens the doors to finding new ways to destress, comfort, nurture or distract themselves, and resolve emotional issues, without overeating or turning to comfort food. We all feel tough emotions from time to time like frustration, anxiety, loneliness or boredom, but it’s important to realize that food can’t actually fix any of these feelings or solve problems in your life.

Emotional eating might feel good in the moment, but it actually usually winds up making the initial problem even worse, because then you have to deal with feelings of shame or discomfort, too. Wondering how to be happier everyday and to find appropriate outlets for uncomfortable emotions and stress? Try exercising in a fun way, meditation or healing prayer, writing a journal, massage therapy, acupuncture or spending time with people you love.

When it comes to learning how to cope with stress in a healthy manner, many people can also benefit from keeping an intuitive eating journal or using an intuitive eating app for support, such as YouAte. These are helpful for becoming more aware of unhealthy habits, of what you’re eating and why and of how you feel before and after you eat. For example, you may choose to write down what you ate, how you felt, how hungry you were, how full you were after and your feelings regarding different eating experiences. According to a 2019 pilot study that is investigating the use of smartphone apps for learning IE, engaging in these types of practices is believed to help “bridge the gap between intentions to perform a particular behavior and the actual behavioral change.”

6. Practice Body Acceptance and Be Realistic About Your Goals

We all have unique genetic blueprints, and for many people, reaching their “ideal weight” is unrealistic, unsustainable and possibly even unhealthy. Just because you’re carrying around a little extra weight than you’d like to doesn’t necessarily mean you’re unhealthy and that you need to force yourself to be smaller.

Ask yourself if your goals are realistic. Are you setting the bar too high? Is your current diet or exercise routine causing more stress and harm than it’s worth? Are you accepting of your natural body or constantly fighting your genetics and beating yourself up? Respect your body, drop the guilt as much as you can, and start feeling better about who you are so you can take better care of yourself long-term.

How Do You Raise an Intuitive Eater?

Principles of intuitive eating can benefit children and parents alike, as eating intuitively builds autonomy and self-trust. A highly-regarded specialist in children’s eating named Ellyn Satter even created the Feeding Dynamics Model (or “division of responsibility in feeding“) in the early 1980s to help parents raise intuitive eaters. In this model, the parent or caregiver provides structure by choosing what food to serve at regular meal and snack times, while the child decides how much of the foods offered to eat. The goal is to allow children to remain sensitive to internal hunger and satiety cues and to avoid disrupting the child’s ability to self-regulate energy intake and the amount of food eaten.

According to an article published by Today’s Dietician Magazine, “Allowing kids to eat intuitively gives children a greater sense of self-esteem, understanding of boundaries [and] connection to family and caregivers during meals, and typically they will enjoy a wider variety of foods … while strategies such as encouraging, bribing or tricking may be well-intentioned, they end up increasing picky eating and escalating power struggles at the table.”

According to dietitians trained in IE for children, the best thing parents can do when feeding their children is to not say anything once the food is in front of the child, but rather to focus on offering nutritionally-complete snacks and meals that provide at least two of the three macronutrients. This is said to “help promote stable moods and blood sugar, helping kids and parents hone in on true hunger and fullness. Many experts also recommend eating as a family at the table, without devices or other distractions.

Precautions/Side Effects

How do you start intuitive eating if you have a history of disordered eating or a complicated relationship with food? The best thing to do in this situation is seek out help from an intuitive eating counselor, who may be a registered dietician, therapist or health coach who has received an intuitive eating certification.

This is especially important if you’ve struggled with an eating disorder in the past, as IE tends to bring up a lot of difficult feelings and can be hard to navigate on your own during different stages of recovery from eating disorders. One reason that IE can be tough during recovery is because hunger/fullness cues tend to be unreliable for a period of time as the body adjusts. During early stages of recovery, meal plans are often necessary to help with weight restoration, re-nourishing the body and establishing normalized eating patterns, but after some time, IE can become more of a focus.

It’s recommended that those who struggle with eating-related issues first read the official Intuitive Eating book and/or buy the official Intuitive Eating Workbook to help themselves learn more. It’s also recommended they find a therapist or dietitian who truly understands this work and how it should be implemented during recovery.

Final Thoughts

  • What is intuitive eating? One definition of intuitive eating (IE) is, “trusting your inner body wisdom to make choices around food that feel good in your body, without judgment and without influence from diet culture.”
  • Here’s how to practice intuitive eating: follow the 10 principles of intuitive eating as described by authors of the Intuitive Eating book, some of which include: reject the diet mentality, honor your hunger, make peace with food, challenge the food police, discover the satisfaction factor and honor your feelings without using food.
  • Keep in mind that weight loss is not necessarily how you should judge your intuitive eating results. While weight loss may occur, it isn’t the primary benefit or goal. The real benefits of IE include lowered stress, more flexibility, eating a wide variety of foods, better self-trust, increased confidence and improved overall health.

Read Next: Dangers of Fad Diets

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