“Can’t I just eat ‘intuitively’ and lose weight?”
I have been asked this too many times to count… and it’s is a very loaded question, because the actual principle of Intuitive Eating and what you think eating ‘intuitively’ means are likely very different.
Most people think ‘eating intuitively’ simply means eating what they want to eat and becoming a bit more in tune with the signals their body sends them. And while that is not entirely wrong, the actual term of Intuitive Eating and the principle for which it stands for, embodies is a concept you may not expect and may be contradictory to your desire to lose weight.
In this blog I will briefly go into the history of Intuitive Eating, and then outline the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating, look at some research, answer the most commonly asked questions around Intuitive Eating and offer some suggestions on when which style of eating – Intuitive Eating vs. Counting Macros might be more appropriate or how you can successfully transition from one to the other.
When it started
Early pioneers of the topic include Susie Orbach, who published “Fat is a Feminist Issue” in 1978, and Geneen Roth, who has written about emotional eating since 1982.
Before that, Thelma Wayler founded a weight management program in 1973 called Green Mountain at Fox Run, based in Vermont. The program was built on the principle that most ‘diets don’t work’, because of their long term failure rate and that lifestyle changes and personal care are more important for long-term health (1).
Then in 1995 Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch simply put a term and actual principles behind the whole idea, wrote a book with the title “Intuitive Eating” and coined the term (2).
The idea behind Intuitive Eating
The thought is that we are all born natural intuitive eaters. Babies cry, they eat, and then stop eating until they’re hungry again. Kids innately balance out their food intake from week to week, eating when they’re hungry and stopping once they feel full. Some days they may eat a ton of food, and other days they may eat barely anything. As we grow older and rules and restrictions are set around food, we lose our inner intuitive eater. We learn to finish everything on our plate. We learn that dessert is a reward, or can be taken away if we misbehave. We are told that certain foods are good for us and others are bad – causing us to feel good about ourselves when we eat certain foods and guilty when we eat others.
Intuitive eating is supposed to be an eating style that promotes a healthy attitude toward food and body image.
The idea is that you should eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. For most of us this is not as easy as it sounds, because of highly palatable foods, emotional connections with food, believes and thoughts around food that have been ingrained in us through our upbringing and society and personal experiences with food…
That means to eat intuitively, you most people need to relearn to trust their body. And that is exactly what the principles of Intuitive Eating are based on.
The 10 main principles of Intuitive Eating
*These exact principles can be found on the main website of the Organisation of Intuitive Eating (3).
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. 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.”
This first principle should actually show you that Intuitive Eating was not designed with the goal of weight loss in mind. It was created to free you mentally from feeling like you HAVE TO lose weight… Just to bring it back to our initial question of whether Intuitive Eating and Weight loss are compatible.
2. Honor Your Hunger
Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food.”
Again, you can see that Intuitive Eating does not intend for you to be in a calorie deficit (requirement for weight loss), which would likely entail you being hungry at times.
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. When you finally “give-in” to your forbidden food, eating will be experienced with such intensity, it usually results in Last Supper overeating, and overwhelming guilt.”
This is a principle that is actually shared by the philosophy of Flexible Dieting, with the exception that in Flexible Dieting quantity is controlled. The sentiment of not restricting particular foods or food groups, as it can lead to binging and excessive cravings later, is the same though.
Once more though, an ‘unconditional permission to eat’ is likely not going to lead to weight loss…
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. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created. The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loud speaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in returning to Intuitive Eating.”
Similar to the point above, this is a principle shared by Flexible Dieting, seeking to eliminate a black – or – white thinking and the guilty conscious associated with some food choices and food groups.
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. Pause in the middle of a meal or food and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what is your current fullness level?”
Great concept and in my opinion, a useful tool for anyone, whether practising intuitive eating or not.
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
The Japanese have the wisdom to promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy living. In our fury to be thin and healthy, we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence–the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. 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. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes much less food to decide you’ve had “enough”.
This is where things go downhill for many people. Because, unfortunately, our modern environment is designed for us to overeat high calorie foods and eat them more frequently, which can lead to weight gain. If we always just eat according to “pleasure” many of us may not know when to stop or what to eat… certainly not setting yourself up for weight loss and possibly not even for weight maintenance.
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. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.”
Probably my favorite principle and again another point useful for anyone, as emotional eating is a struggle for many of us, Intuitive Eater or not…
8. Respect Your Body
Accept your genetic blueprint. Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size. But mostly, respect your body, so you can feel better about who you are. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.”
Again, basically spelled out for you – “feel better for who you are”… that means Intuitive Eating is not designed to lead to a change in your physical appearance (such as weight loss)…
9. Exercise—Feel the Difference
Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm. If when you wake up, your only goal is to lose weight, it’s usually not a motivating factor in that moment of time.”
Great mental approach to training. This can also help keep you motivated in other settings (such as Flexible Dieting) when your goal is maintenance or building muscle or recomposition…
10. Honor Your Health
Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts.”
So essentially Intuitive Eating is a philosophy of eating that makes you the expert of your body and its hunger signals. It is meant to be the opposite of a traditional diet. It doesn’t impose guidelines about what to avoid and what or when to eat. It also doesn’t impose any restrictions in terms of quantities though and it is very rare that people lose weight or change body composition when there is no restriction of any kind to their diet. That means Intuitive Eating is primarily an approach to eating with a psychological goal in mind rather than a physical.
There is some research around Intuitive eating, largely focused on women, but most studies simply focus on the psychological attitudes, weight maintenance and BMI, but not on weight loss.
For example, this literature review looked at “seventeen cross-sectional survey studies and nine clinical studies, eight of which were randomized controlled trials. The cross-sectional surveys indicate that intuitive eating is negatively associated with BMI, positively associated with various psychological health indicators, and possibly positively associated with improved dietary intake and/or eating behaviors, but not associated with higher levels of physical activity. From the clinical studies, we conclude that the implementation of intuitive eating results in weight maintenance but perhaps not weight loss, improved psychological health, possibly improved physical health indicators other than BMI (e.g. blood pressure; cholesterol levels) and dietary intake and/or eating behaviours, but probably not higher levels of physical activity.” (4).
That means the main benefit of intuitive eating seems to be psychological health. Overall, another review in the ‘Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ shows that participants in Intuitive Eating studies improved their self-esteem, body image, and overall quality of life while experiencing less depression and anxiety. Intuitive eating interventions also have good retention rates, meaning people are more likely to stick with the program and keep practicing the behavioral changes than they would be on a regular “diet” (5).
A third systematic review has looked at women’s eating behaviors and attitudes and found that those who show more signs of intuitive eating are less likely to display disordered eating behaviors, but has not found any effect on body composition or physical health (6).
Frequently Asked Questions
So what’s the Difference Between Intuitive Eating and Mindful Eating?
Mindful Eating and Intuitive Eating are often used interchangeably. While this isn’t totally incorrect, it’s important to note the differences.
The Center for Mindful Eating defines mindful eating as “allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom” and “using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body and becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.” (7)
You can tell right there that Intuitive Eating encompasses the principles of mindful eating. However it goes a step further, also addressing the importance of rejecting the dieting mentality, respecting your body (regardless of your weight or shape), coping with emotional eating, and gentle movement and nutrition without judgment. Both, mindful eating and Intuitive Eating, can be useful tools to help you reach a place of psychologically “healthy” eating.
Is intuitive eating a diet?
That is a hard ‘No’. “Intuitive Eating is a response to diets and diet culture, and is not meant to tie adherents to any specific set of eating rules”, says Heather Caplan, a registered dietitian with a private practice in Washington, D.C (8). Even the list of principles isn’t meant to be taken step-by-step, necessarily — it’s more about recognizing the food rules we already apply to our eating habits, and working to undo them. “We’ve probably had some of these food rules since we were kids,” she says. “A lot of the work initially is unlearning those rules and challenging them.” She says “diets create food rules. Intuitive eating is the anti-diet.”
Can I do Intuitive Eating wrong?
If you’re acting like you’re on a diet, you’re probably not eating intuitively. If there’s something called a cheat day, that’s not intuitive eating. If someone’s promising weight loss, that’s not intuitive eating. If you are avoiding certain foods because they are high in calories, you are not eating intuitively. Diets are typically marked by success in the form of weight loss, or failure in weight gain. Intuitive eating operates outside a pass–fail framework. “It’s all discovery,” says says Evelyn Tribole, co-author of Intuitive Eating. “If you see guilt coming up, it’s an opportunity to ask, ooh, what rule do I have that needs to get dismantled?”
Does intuitive eating work?
It depends what we mean by “work.” It is hardly ever actually related to physical health improvements. It will probably not result in weight loss (and may, especially for those who’ve been calorie restricting, result in weight gain), but it can make you healthier and happier all around by giving you more mental freedom.
Is it possible to practice intuitive eating and have a healthier relationship with food, while also wanting to lose weight?
I guess that is the overarching question here.
So in short: Not really, to be honest. Now let me explain how I got there. Dieting is against your instincts, depends how much you have to lose too. Here’s the thing: One of the core principles of intuitive eating is to respect your body or, at the very least, learn to be more neutral about it. Proponents of Intuitive Eating would probably say that intentional weight loss is contradictory to body respect, because if you unconditionally respect your body, you wouldn’t go to so much trouble to make it smaller.
The main reason that pursuing both – intentional weight loss and Intuitive Eating is tricky is this: When people start to focus on losing weight, at some point they have to make a food or fitness decision that overrides their body’s natural cues. In other words, the very act of pursuing weight loss means that there will likely be a restriction of some kind. This contradicts multiple core principles of intuitive eating, including “reject the diet mentality” and “make peace with food.” When we are trying to lose weight, we often have to micromanage our food intake, which is essentially the opposite of intuitive eating.
Intuitive Eating should not be something one would do in order to pursue a specific body-related goal. In fact, the only goals it’s meant to serve are having a less fraught relationship with food and improved mental health.
Who is Intuitive Eating for and Who is it not for?
Intuitive Eating should likely not be your first port of call if you
→ Are looking for weight loss.
→ Currently tend to under-eat (!!!).
→ Currently tend to over-eat.
→ Have high physical performance goals which could suffer if you don’t eat enough or too much or of the wrong thing.
Intuitive Eating could be for you, if you are
→ Tired of jumping from one diet to another and you can feel that your problem is mostly mental and not a lack of knowledge or eating too much/too little
→ Simply wanting to maintain weight and you don’t have any specific aesthetic or performance goals.
→ You are ready to accept your body exactly for what it is now.
Counting Macros can help set you up for successful Intuitive Eating
Counting Macros can be a great way to learn how much protein/carbs and fats your body needs to stay/lose or gain weight. It can help you “unlearn” some of the food rules that have been ingrained in you (like the urge to finish your plate, even if it is more than what your portion should actually be) or help show you how you feel with certain macro distributions in your meals (education is a big key inside our coaching program).
Transitioning from Counting Macros to Intuitive Eating
You can start with:
→ An untracked meal per week. Meaning you still eat something similar to what you normally would, possibly even weighed out beforehand, but you are simply not entering it in your tracker. To some, after years of track, this alone sounds scary.
→ A meal, which you don’t weigh out. Simply practicing eye balling a portion.
→ A meal out or cooked by someone else where you first try to guesstimate and log, but then eventually cease to do that as well.
→ Then transitioning into an untracked day or a day of just estimating portions rather than weighing. If your weekly average weight still stays the same you are likely estimating your portions correctly and you can increase that to two or three untracked days…
Mental practices helpful for anyone:
1. Learn to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger (9):
→ Physical hunger: This biological urge tells you to replenish nutrients. It builds gradually and has different signals, for example a growling stomach, fatigue, or irritability. It’s satisfied when you eat any food. You could practise rating your physical hunger on a scale when it first sets in and learn not to give into it immediately, but also not to let it get to a “intense” state where you might tend to over – eat later on.
→ Emotional hunger: driven by emotional need like sadness, loneliness, and boredom are some of the feelings that can create cravings for foods, often comfort foods. This kind of eating often leads to guilt and self-hate. Find other ways to work through your emotions – talking to a friend, taking a relaxing bath, going for a walk, taking it out during training…
2. Incorporate foods you are craving, even or especially if you think they are “bad”
Plan ahead for 1-2 treat foods per week at least, in order to avoid extreme cravings and extreme cravings or over eating later on. The beauty of macros is that you are “allowed” to do so and by the time you decide you want to stop tracking macros you know how to build these foods in and how to balance out your day accordingly.
3. Practice even more mindfulness with highly palatable foods
Observe how you feel after you have foods that are not very nutrient dense. More cravings and less satiated than after your usual meals? Sugar rush? Headachy? Worse sleep? Accept and anticipate emotions and physical feelings/urges that come with you choosing these foods. Nothing good or bad about it. Just an observation that can help you handle your “food freedom” better once you do choose to just “eat intuitively”.
→ Observe your fullness level, eat slowly and pause throughout your meal. You want to learn to stop when you are feeling satisfied and not full, unless you are aiming for weight gain or you have been under- eating for extended periods of time.
→ Refrain from forcefully restricting your food if you have eaten more than you planned. Just carry on with your normal macros or eating according to your hunger and just get back on track instead of “punishing” yourself.
If you are looking for more reasons to practice flexible dieting before you transition to intuitive eating, check out our other blog that outlines the benefits of tracking macros (10) and frequently asked questions around tracking.
If you feel like a coach could be the missing link for you to either achieve your physical goal or to find a healthy relationship with food again, apply for my coaching here.