Does Intuitive Eating Promote Weight Loss? (Scrap Fad Diets)

Written by Nathan | Updated on 20 November 2021

Intuitive eating combined with weight loss sounds like a very appealing way to lose those extra pounds you’ve been dreading. Yet because intuitive eating is a very different way to manage what you eat, it can be difficult to know if it would actually work as a tool to lose belly fat.

Intuitive eating is a way of eating that encourages you to make peace with all types of food. When you follow this mindset, there are no “healthy” or “unhealthy” foods; food morality is taken completely out of the equation. There are also no rules about when you eat, what you eat, or how much you eat. [1] Sounds too good to be true, right?

Without rules to follow, is this way of eating even beneficial, don’t most people already “eat intuitively”, and is it possible for intuitive eating to promote weight loss?

Weight Loss is Not the Goal of Intuitive Eating

Many have proposed intuitive eating as a means to promote weight loss, but in reality, the goal of intuitive eating is to promote good health and body acceptance through principles of mindful eating. Though weight loss is not the goal, it can often be a byproduct of this eating style. 

Instead of your mind dictating to your body what it needs, you listen to the needs and cravings of your body. This also means that you pay attention to signs that your body is satisfied or nourished. Zero rules are obeyed so you simply follow the cues and signals your body sends. However, being in tune with your body is necessary and making healthy choices is subtly encouraged. An easy way to think about it is that it’s essentially the complete opposite of a diet. [2]

Intuitive Eating Prioritizes Health Over Weight Loss

The main premise of intuitive eating is to erase any preconceived notions of what food is good or bad and also what you should or shouldn’t eat. It’s about getting back to a place where you trust your body and the signals it sends to you to get adequate nourishment. By doing this, your body should start feeling better as it gets the nutrients it needs. [1]

Good health, whether physical, mental, or emotional, and a healthy relationship with food are goals of intuitive eating. Dieting and prioritizing weight loss may leave our bodies feeling malnourished, which is the complete opposite of good health. It can also result in having strong or negative emotions tied to food, which could be a unhealthy coping mechanisms or eating disorders. 

Though it might not be directly involved in weight loss, intuitive eating can help with weight maintenance and improves psychological health and dietary intake. [3] Also, because this style of eating prioritizes health over weight loss, weight is a dependent variable. That means that you could gain, lose, or maintain your current weight. That is why the term intuitive eating for weight loss is fairly uncommon. 

There are times when you might be eating more than your body actually needs. Your mind could be telling you that you need to eat a certain amount of food each day, or you just eat out of habit. In this type of situation, intuitive eating is a great way to facilitate weight loss. By slowing down and really paying attention to your body’s needs, you’ll start to notice that you’re satisfied after eating less food, or feel better when your body gets the various nutrients it needs. 

How Do I Know it’s Working?

Intuitive eating is a very individualized style of eating and one of the few signs of it working is how you feel. Your body is unique; there is nobody else who has the same body as you. Even if someone else has a similar body type as you, your bodies could have completely different needs at the same time. 

Unlike a diet, which has one type of plan for everyone to follow, intuitive eating can have a lot of variety. While one person’s body is signaling that it needs to fill up on pasta and carbohydrates, another person might realize that they’re not hungry at that moment and might just drink water.

Because of this variety and inconsistency, it can be difficult to know if first, you’re doing it right, and second, if it’s actually working.

There is ultimately no “right” way to implement intuitive eating because it can’t be formulated and written down. You’ll know if you’re doing it right if both your mental and physical health improve and you feel better, which brings us to our next point.

Because the goal of intuitive eating is good health, you will know it’s working for you when you notice your health improving. First, your physical health will get better as you nourish your body with the nutrients it needs, stop eating when you feel satisfied, and consume the right amount of food that your body needs at any given time. 

Your brain and mental health should also improve when you begin to eat more nourishing foods. A healthy diet increases neurotransmitters (the connections in your brain), improves gut health, and improves mood. [4]

Physical, mental, and emotional health are all interrelated. Therefore, after you improve your physical health, your emotional and mental well being should see a change too. 

How to Facilitate Weight Loss With Intuitive Eating

Though weight loss is not the goal of intuitive eating, it is possible to use it to facilitate weight loss if you make tiny and conscious adjustments. 

A 2019 study compared intuitive eating, conventional diet programs, and nonintervention controls. Researchers found that there was a weight loss effect on both the intuitive eating groups as well as conventional diet groups, which shows that intuitive eating can be an effective and practical means to control weight. [5]

If both conventional diets and eating intuitively can result in weight loss, it would make logical sense to choose the method that results in better health. Intuitive eating aims to nourish your body and get it into a healthy state by improving your relationship with food and effectively nourishing your body. These are exactly the tools you need to lose weight in a sustainable way.

Sustainable means that when you lose the weight, you are able to keep it off. You might quickly lose weight with other diet programs like keto, but eventually, the weight will return unless you stick to the diet. These diets often go to extremes as well by over-restricting calories or even cutting out whole food groups. With intuitive eating, you do not go to drastic measures to attempt weight loss but instead adopt a new method of eating and lifestyle. Though weight loss is not the goal, intuitive eating weight loss is a desirable way to shed extra weight.

Keep in mind as well that you do not need to necessarily overhaul your current lifestyle. Small, daily changes to your current habits will help you get closer to your health goals. Doing this will also be far less overwhelming, and you’ll be a lot less likely to quit intuitive eating due to burnout.

Oh, and if you want to try intuitive eating with lifestyle diets like veganism or a Mediterranean diet, then it’s surely possible to listen to your intuition while eating the types of foods certain diets allow. If you decide to try intuitive eating on top of a diet, it’s important to pick a lifestyle diet or a diet that’s shown benefits with long term use. Or in other words, don’t try intuitive eating on top of a short term diet like the Special K diet.

Yes, this is somewhat putting rules on the intuitive eating but this is simply an option, not a requirement.

Do Not Turn it Into a Weight Loss Diet

Intuitive eating was never meant to be a weight loss diet, so you mustn’t start to turn this style of eating into just another diet attempt. Most diets tend to go to extremes to get the results and intuitive eating aims to completely avoid any type of extremes. 

On the other hand, intuitive eating shouldn’t be used as an excuse to exclusively eat honey buns and potatoes chips all day, every day. It’s essential to be mindful and not take this eating style too far in any direction. 

Intuitive Eating Opposes Dieting – Changing Mindset

Intuitive eating seeks to change the typical way of thinking, “I have to consume exactly 1800 calories, can’t consume sugar, must get just the right amount of fiber, and avoid carbs between 2:00 PM – 11:59 PM. While there’s benefits to other diets, some people take it to extremes while others fail because a diet was so strict. All-in-all, mindful eating allows individuals to be more aware of their cravings and more conscious of what’s consumed. 

Mindful eating is being completely aware and immersed in your experience with food, noticing how you feel and what the food feels and tastes like. You do not restrict or control what or how much you eat, but rather focus on appreciating your moments in the eating experience. It has also been found that weight loss is very likely for those who embrace mindful eating in their day-to-day lives. [6]

There are many mindset shifts that you’ll make with eating intuitively. One is to enjoy eating again for the taste and how it makes you feel, instead of obsessing over calories or whether it has too much of a certain macronutrient. Another mindset shift with intuitive eating is that you’ll have to learn how to trust your body again. It’s incredible how capable our bodies are at getting what they need, and if you let your body take control again, you will find out just how advanced our bodies are. These shifts help to make weight loss possible while eating intuitively. 

Instead of having rules to follow, there are principles of intuitive eating that you can work to implement in your life. [7] You won’t need to purchase a meal plan or pay for any special food items, and you’ll be able to make intuitive eating uniquely your own. Here are just a few ideas that encompass those principles…

Improves Your Relationship with Food

This way of eating will significantly improve the relationship you have with foods, whether you currently consider them “good” or “bad”. In fact, it will take those words completely out of your vocabulary when it comes to describing food. You will learn to accept food for what it truly is; a way to nourish and give your body what it needs, as well as an opportunity to enjoy the eating experience.

Research has shown that it’s slightly easier for some to adopt hunger and satiety signals than to let go of the judgment that there is good or bad food. [8] You will have to actively work to adopt this mindset and embrace nonjudgmental eating. 

Intuitive eating also helps you to increase the enjoyment and pleasure you feel while eating. [9] As you begin to have a better relationship with the food you consume, eating will become less of a chore and something you have to do and more like something you get to enjoy.

Stop Policing What You Eat

As an anti-diet approach, there are no rules to follow or restrictions to be put in place. Though it seems like having rules would help you to eat better and live healthier, the opposite effect tends to happen. Diet culture has caused our society to believe that you need rules around what you consume.

Without these rules to control exactly what you eat at a given time, you’ll be able to enjoy food freedom. Food freedom is the unconditional permission to eat what you want, when you want it. The body knows what it wants and needs, and there will be signs and cues that your body sends if you will just pay attention to them.

Addresses Emotional Eating

It is common for some people to eat when they feel sad, angry, depressed, or have other challenging emotions. Unfortunately, eating is used to cope, but it won’t address the root of the problem. 

Intuitive eating attempts to help each individual find better ways to cope with hard feelings without using food as a distraction or coping mechanism. When you attend to what your body actually wants and needs instead of succumbing to the pressure to numb or distract yourself from the emotions, you will be able to reach optimal physical and emotional health.

Eating to Honor, Respect, and Treat Your Body

Eating is how you fuel your body each day. Your body allows you to run around, play and listen to music, talk with family and friends, and the list goes on. Since your body serves you in so many ways, the best way to serve your body is by adequately nourishing it.

One sure way to dishonor, disrespect, and mistreat your body is by punishing it to lose a few pounds or make it look a certain way. At the end of the day, you’ll feel malnourished and exhausted from trying to fight against your body’s biological signals, and punishing your body just makes you miserable. 

Mealtime should be a positive experience, and it is an opportunity to give your body the nutrients it needs while also pleasing your taste buds. Think of a meal as an opportunity to reward your body and mind for helping you to accomplish what is important to you each and every day.

Embrace Gentle Nutrition

Gentle nutrition is a common term used when speaking about mindful and intuitive eating. It is also the 10th and final principle in the Intuitive Eating book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

Gentle nutrition is the idea that to be healthy, you don’t need to eat perfectly every single time. [7] Trust that your body knows what it’s doing and is in control. One sugary snack or overeating at mealtime is not suddenly going to make you unhealthy. Your body has certain biological mechanisms in place and will adapt. 

Go easy and be kind to yourself. Improving your health takes time and it is not a perfect process. It is not about every individual food experience that you have, but rather about your progress toward better health that really matters. 

Should I Give Up On Losing Weight?

Just because diets don’t always work long-term and intuitive eating is not a weight loss diet doesn’t mean that you should just give up your goal of losing weight.

One possible solution to feeling hopeless about weight loss is to simply shift your focus from losing weight to obtaining good health. When you make this shift, you might assume that you’ll immediately gain weight because you’re no longer vigilantly trying to lose extra pounds from your body. However, you’ll most likely notice how much better and healthier you feel. 

Since intuitive eating has been shown to have weight loss benefits, it would be a good method to implement in your own life. Though one may posses self control and awareness for intuition to be beneficial. Many people eat intuitively, but they lack these qualities and that can allow intuitive eating to worsen their health. 

For many people, the goal of losing weight is ultimately tied to their desire to have good health and a better lifestyle. What better way to obtain those things than a small shift in mindset and a few lifestyle changes? Intuitive eating may not be for everyone, but if you like the idea of no rules and being more in tune with your body then it might be a great fit for you. 

Remember to keep an eye out on how you feel and let that guide you to determine if it’s working.

References

[1] Sreenivas, S. (2021, March 5). What Is Intuitive Eating? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/diet/what-is-intuitive-eating#1

[2] Jennings, M. K. S. (2019, June 25). A Quick Guide to Intuitive Eating. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/quick-guide-intuitive-eating

[3] Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. J. (2014). Review article relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review. Public health nutrition17(8), 1757-1766.

[4] Rosen, A. (2021, August 23). The Connection Between Diet And Mental Health. The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders. https://centerforanxietydisorders.com/diet-and-mental-health/

[5] Fuentes Artiles, R., Staub, K., Aldakak, L., Eppenberger, P., Rühli, F., & Bender, N. (2019). Mindful eating and common diet programs lower body weight similarly: Systematic review and meta‐analysis. Obesity Reviews20(11), 1619–1627. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12918

[6] Nelson J. B. (2017). Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes spectrum : a publication of the American Diabetes Association30(3), 171–174. https://doi.org/10.2337/ds17-0015

[7] The Original Intuitive Eating Pros. (2019, December 20). 10 Principles of. Intuitive Eating. https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/

[8] Barraclough, E. L., Hay-Smith, E., Boucher, S. E., Tylka, T. L., & Horwath, C. C. (2019). Learning to eat intuitively: A qualitative exploration of the experience of mid-age women. Health psychology open6(1), 2055102918824064. https://doi.org/10.1177/2055102918824064

[9] Smith, T., & Hawks, S. R. (2006). Intuitive Eating, Diet Composition, and The Meaning of Food in Healthy Weight Promotion. American Journal of Health Education37(3), 130–136. https://doi.org/10.1080/19325037.2006.10598892

About the Author

Nathan

Nathan has been a fitness enthusiast for the past 12 years and jumps between several types of training such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, cycling, gymnastics, and backcountry hiking. Due to the varying caloric needs of numerous sports, he has cycled between all types of diets and currently eats a whole food diet. In addition, Nathan lives with several injuries such as hip impingement, spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, so he underwent self-rehabilitation and no longer lives with debilitating pain.