I’ve explained, at length, why you can’t use intuitive eating for weight loss. But what I don’t talk about often is intuitive eating weight gain. While the set point theory means that intuitive eating can help you find a comfortable weight, it’s true that some people gain weight with intuitive eating. And while that’s absolutely OK — the ultimate goal is body acceptance and neutral feelings about that weight gain — it’s understandable that some people might feel uneasy about that weight gain, given our extremely fatphobic culture and our societal belief that thinness is best.
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It’s true that when you start intuitive eating, you might gain weight.
Years ago, I interviewed intuitive eating co-creator Evelyn Tribole for a story. I asked her what she says when people ask her whether they’ll gain weight when they start intuitive eating. I’ll never forget her response. “I can’t tell you what your body is going to do,” she said. That’s the truth.
Intuitive eating looks different for everyone. It’s all about listening to your unique body and meeting its unique needs. And, everyone has a different history with food. Some people come to intuitive eating after years of extreme restriction. Others come to it after being stuck in the binge-restrict cycle. If your body has been in a state of restriction, maybe even malnourishment, for a long time, it makes sense that you might gain weight when you start eating enough food.
That “enough” piece is so important — it’s never a bad thing to feed your body enough. Meeting your needs is a good thing. Food sustains you. Getting adequate nutrients keeps you healthy. Eating what you want ends food obsession and lets you think about other things. If you gain weight when you start intuitive eating, that might mean you weren’t eating enough before.
Plus, gaining weight isn’t inherently unhealthy, just like losing weight isn’t inherently healthy. Fat bodies aren’t inherently unhealthy, and thin bodies aren’t inherently healthy. There’s nothing bad about gaining weight.
Working towards body neutrality isn’t always easy
All this said, it’s understandable that you might panic over weight gain. Our culture is so incredibly fatphobic and obsessed with thinness. Stepping outside these lines might feel wrong. And indeed, fat people are often treated worse than thin people, so your fear of being judged is valid. Plus, things like not fitting into your clothes or feeling your thighs chafe might make you physically uncomfortable. If you’re trying to accept your weight gain but can’t shake negative feelings, that’s nothing to feel bad about. Again, it’s hard-wired into us to panic when our bodies get bigger.
But, working towards body acceptance or body neutrality is hugely important in intuitive eating, whether you gain weight, lose weight, or maintain your weight. It’s only when you stop trying to control your weight (and stop tying your value as a person to what your body looks like) that you can truly heal your relationship with food.
This piece, Body Acceptance Begin With Grieving the Thin Ideal by Meredith Noble, is required reading for anyone struggling to accept their body and their weight.
Body acceptance isn’t easy, and it’s a process. But it’s possible. Here’s more on what body acceptance is, why it’s important, and how to take steps towards it.
You might gain some weight at first, then settle into a weight that your body can maintain.
Like Tribole told me years ago, I can’t tell you what will happen to your body when you start intuitive eating. And, if you continue to steadily gain weight while you eat intuitively and honor your health? So be it — fat bodies are not unhealthy bodies, and a good relationship with food does so much for your physical, mental, emotional and social health.
Often, though, people who gain weight when they start intuitive eating find that their weight stabilizes pretty soon after. It makes sense, particularly if you held strict food rules before you started eating intuitively. When you first gave yourself unconditional permission to eat, you probably gravitated towards all the foods that were previously “forbidden.” You likely ate them often, and in large quantities. It may have felt difficult to stop eating them, because you were still healing from restriction and the fear that those foods might be off-limits again at any moment.
It takes time for your body to learn that no foods are off limits, and that you’ll always have access to these foods. Once you start to habituate to all of your once-forbidden foods — that is, feel more comfortable and normal around them because you realize they’ll always be there — you’ll likely stop gravitating towards them so often. And, you’ll probably eat less of them, since you won’t feel the need to binge. When this habituation finally happens, you might find that your weight gain stops.
For many people, intuitive eating leads to weight stability.
If you have a history of dieting or disordered eating, you’ve probably dealt with big weight fluctuations. You know how stressful it can be when your body size is always changing. For some people, this is the result of chronic disease and can’t be avoided. But for others, eating intuitively and quitting diets ends that extreme weight fluctuation.
If you’re worried about gaining weight with intuitive eating, think about how great it would be to stop worrying about whether you’ll fit into your pants next month. Sure, you might need to buy bigger pants at first, but how freeing would it be to know that those new, bigger pants will probably fit every time you put them on. (Again, this isn’t a given. There’s nothing wrong with small fluctuations in weight, and sometimes you might even experience big fluctuations.) With intuitive eating, you’re so much likely to find a weight that’s sustainable for you. And stay there.
Ultimately, a peaceful relationship with food is so much more important than your weight.
Here’s the bottom line: Intuitive eating will improve your life in so many ways. It can heal your relationship with food, ending food obsession and the binge-restrict cycle. It can improve your body image, because it focuses on body acceptance instead of weight loss. And, when you’re not always thinking about diets, your brain is free to think about so many better, more important things.
Yes, intuitive eating might lead to weight gain for some people, particularly those who have a history of strict dieting. But from a health standpoint, that weight gain is nothing to worry about. And while it might be hard to accept your bigger body in our fatphobic, thin-obsessed culture, it’s absolutely possible.
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If you’re struggling with eating disorder recovery, disordered eating, or chronic dieting, nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian can help. Learn more about my in-person nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC and virtually in 24 states.