Is it just me, or is intuitive eating suddenly everywhere!? It’s all over Instagram, where dietitians are telling you to listen to your body and stop demonizing foods. It’s making headlines in outlets that typically talk only about weight loss and dieting. And of course, it’s one of the most searched nutrition topics on Google. Still, there are so many questions about the approach that typically go unanswered.
The question I hear the most from clients, readers, and friends is: Can you use intuitive eating for weight loss?
Before we get into the nuances of this question and its answer, let’s get something straight.
No, you can’t use intuitive eating for weight loss.
Why? Because the whole point of intuitive eating is to stop using food as a way to change your body. To separate food from weight (more on that later.) Intuitive eating means making food choices based on your own physical cues and cravings. That’s not really possible when you’re trying to lose weight. Why? Because a voice in the back of your head will always be subtly encouraging you to eat less, choose the lower-calorie option, or forgo certain foods.
Weight loss isn’t a realistic goal, anyway.
Learning that you can’t use intuitive eating for weight loss might be a turnoff for you, and that’s OK. But first, let me explain why alternatives like calorie counting and restrictive diets aren’t really good for weight loss, either.
When you restrict food and calories, you typically lose weight in the first several months. But studies show you’ll almost certainly gain that weight back within a couple years. (Yes, even if you stay on the diet.)
A 2011 review analyzed several existing weight loss studies. The authors found that almost no participants were able to sustain weight loss for more than five years. Plus, many of the participants developed poor self esteem, disordered eating habits, and a preoccupation with food and their bodies.
Worse, a 2013 review of weight loss research found that between one-third and two-thirds of dieters actually regain more weight than they lose on a diet.
A 2020 meta-analysis analyzed data from 121 clinical trials examined various diets. The result? Any weight loss or health benefits that happened after a person started any diet disappeared within a year.
All of this to say: Weight loss isn’t sustainable for the vast majority of people. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Weight loss gets promoted constantly by diet companies, media, influencers, and even public health officials. But accepting this fact can be liberating, too.
Intuitive eating can improve your health without changing your weight.
There’s plenty of good news about intuitive eating. In addition to improving your relationship with food, it can improve your overall health.
Need proof? Researchers behind a 2017 cross-sectional analysis analyzed data from over 41,000 French adults. The result? People who ate according to their own hunger cues and cravings had “healthier” diets than people who ate according to food or diet rules. (“Healthier,” means that the diets were more in line with official nutrition recommendations.) So, intuitive eating can actually lead to a more nutritious diet, even though it’s all about not following nutrition “rules.”
A 2017 randomized controlled trial published in Clinical Nutrition came to a similar conclusion. Women who participated in a Health at Every Size (HAES)/intuitive eating program ate healthier diets than women who did not.
Not to mention, intuitive eating can greatly improve your mental health. A 2017 study of 532 German adults found that intuitive eating behaviors were associated with better mental health. And, people who ate according to physical cues and cravings were less likely experience eating disorders or binge eating.
To be a true intuitive eater, you must also work towards body acceptance.
Maybe you read all of the evidence above and thought, “Great, I’ll just eat intuitively while I try to lose weight.” If that’s the case, you missed the fine print. One of the criteria researchers often use to identify intuitive eaters is that they’re explicitly not eating for weight loss. Instead, they’re eating based on their own physical cues (like hunger and fullness) and cravings. And if you’re trying to control your body size, it’s impossible to really listen to those cues.
Can you lose weight with intuitive eating? Maybe! Some people gain weight with intuitive eating. Others lose weight. Others stay pretty much the same. Intuitive eating doesn’t demonize weight loss, just as it doesn’t demonize weight gain. The truth is that our weight naturally fluctuates over time
But actively pursuing weight loss is the opposite of intuitive eating. If you’re trying to lose weight, there will always be a voice in your head pushing you towards the lower-calorie choice. Or, you might try and turn intuitive eating into the hunger-fullness diet, which isn’t the answer. It’s not just about eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, or beating yourself for so-called “emotional eating.” That’s not self-care, it’s the food police.
Healing your relationship with food and body is tough. It helps to find your “why.”
There’s no way that you’ll go from dieting to intuitive eating overnight. It takes time and practice to tune out diet culture and get in touch with your body. The desire to lose weight is pushed on all of us from a young age, and it’s tough to let it go.
In order to make peace with food, you need to be clear on why you’re doing it. Answering these questions (on a piece of paper or on your computer) will help you start.
When you think about accepting your body size and not trying to lose weight, how do you feel? Are you afraid? List your fears.
What feelings come up when you think about giving yourself unconditional permission to eat? Are you afraid? List your fears.
If you’re a chronic dieter, what has a lifetime of dieting cost you?
What would you spend your time doing and thinking about if you accepted your body?
That’s OK! Actually, that’s normal. It’s a big mindset shift, and most people need to let it sink in for a while before they actually start doing the work.
Yes, it’s possible to honor your health without pursuing weight loss!
As a registered dietitian, I help people make peace with food, feel good in their bodies, and end years of yo-yo dieting. I also help people improve their health without changing their weight or body size.
Several studies have shown that you’re more likely to adopt long-term healthy behaviors if you’re not trying to lose weight. And, there’s lots of research proving that you don’t need to be at a certain weight in order to be healthy. For a deeper dive into this evidence, read this story about why diets don’t work and why intuitive eating is a better approach.