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 friends and readers 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 turn-off 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. Worse, 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 examining 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 stop trying to lose weight.
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. By definition, intuitive eating for weight loss just isn’t possible!
If giving up on weight loss seems challenging, intuitive eating coaching can help.
Despite all that evidence, it can be hard to give up on weight loss. That’s not your fault. Weight loss promotions are everywhere.
And, I get it — all of this evidence can seem impersonal and unhelpful for everyday life. If you want personalized advice and hands-on guidance, intuitive eating coaching is the answer. By working with a qualified dietitian or therapist, you can figure out what intuitive eating looks like for you. Plus, you’ll have a compassionate expert there to help you through any doubts or challenges that might come up.