Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss: The New Go-To Diet?
Weight loss is such a struggle for so many people, and a lot of the difficulty comes down to our relationships with food.
Our DNA from hundreds of thousands of years of evolution tells us to eat fat and sugar; we get a neurochemical reward from eating these calorie-dense foods; and many of us have learned to use food to cope with difficult emotions.
Dieting helps some people, but most of us find it an unreliable and uncomfortable way to lose or maintain weight.
What may help as an alternative is to re-adjust our relationship and attitude toward food, to learn how to eat more mindfully. This is why intuitive weight loss is becoming a buzzword phrase in health and nutrition.
Learn what it’s all about so you can help your clients make better choices about eating, dieting, and losing weight.
Why Dieting Fails
There is growing interest in intuitive eating for a very good reason: diets rarely work. While it seems simple that reducing calorie intake and increasing activity and calorie output should lead to weight loss, it’s rarely that simple for an individual to make changes that lead to success.
You likely have clients who have become frustrated with dieting and with attempts to lose weight. Help them understand why diets rarely work for anyone so they get a better, healthier perspective on their own efforts and limitations:
- Dieting is naturally restrictive, which makes you feel unsatisfied. This leads to frustration, quitting, and binges.
- Dieting actually increases the brain’s sensitivity to stress. When you’re more sensitive to stress you are more susceptible to eating calorie-dense and high-fat foods.
- Genetics limit how effective diets are. Our unique genes set a weight range for us and trying to live outside that range is nearly impossible to sustain. Also, our genes hardwire us to crave food from a survival perspective.
- Willpower is really, really difficult to master. You truly cannot rely on it to lose weight.
These and other reasons are why many people are turning to intuitive eating, which is essentially the antithesis of a restrictive diet.
Explore these other roadblocks to losing weight, so you can figure out which are stalling your clients efforts. Help them jump those hurdles.
What is Intuitive, or Mindful Eating?
Being mindful or intuitive means being more aware of your body and its needs in the moment. You can broadly interpret to include awareness of your moods, sensations, hunger, thirst, and emotions. In terms of eating, being intuitive is all about letting your body tell you what you need to eat to be satisfied and healthy.
Being Mindful about Hunger
People who promote intuitive eating believe the body has a natural ability to regulate food intake, to communicate to you what you need to eat and what you don’t. The difficulty is tapping into that natural instinct.
And part of listening to your body also means ignoring or not responding to all the messages that tell you to eat more than you need: stress or a bad day at work, a commercial for a Reese’s peanut butter cup, or just your current daily habits, which are tough to break.
Developing Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss
Simply deciding to be more mindful is a little abstract. To practice intuitive eating requires more than just eating whatever your body tells you to. There are some important skills that have to be developed, and this takes time:
- Becoming more sensitive to hunger signals
- Understanding when an urge to eat is because of hunger or a nutritional need and when it is an emotional response
- Being aware of fullness clues and reacting to them
- Fine tuning a sense of how eating certain foods and in varying amounts makes you feel, physically and emotionally
What Intuitive Eating Actually Looks Like
Someone who is eating based on intuition is practicing specific skills: eating more slowly, taking smaller bites, and chewing more fully, for instance.
To be mindful when eating you also have to avoid distractions, which means eating without watching TV or using devices. You’ll be paying attention to all your senses while you eat, and as you practice being more mindful, spending a lot of time reflecting on what you eat, how much you eat, and how it makes you feel.
Does Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss Actually Work?
This is the most important question of all. If you or your clients have struggled with diets, the idea of eating mindfully and losing weight is appealing. But what you really need to know is if it’s just another hyped up diet.
A recent review of several studies of mindful eating and intuitive eating uncovered some interesting findings (1):
- Mindfulness-based eating strategies proved to be most useful in managing emotional eating, binge eating, and eating in response to external triggers, in particular.
- Intuitive eating may or may not help with weight maintenance and avoiding weight gain.
- In populations of people who were overweight or obese, mindful eating helped them eat less.
- The evidence for mindful eating to lose weight is still limited.
Other studies have found that intuitive eating is effective for specific populations, including women trying to lose postpartum weight. They found intuitive plans were easier and better fit their busy lives than dieting (2). Studies also indicate intuitive eating helps women adjust and lose weight after undergoing bariatric surgery (3).
So, there is a lot of evidence that it can work, but it’s not all perfectly clear, nor does it all point to intuitive eating as the best way to lose weight. One study, for instance, separated a group of obese participants into those using calorie restriction and those using intuitive eating to lose weight. The results showed that calorie restriction was more effective (4).
Tips for Intuitive Eating
In spite of the results being a little mixed, there really is no harm in trying intuitive eating. This is especially true for someone who is trying to get healthier but feels stalled by dieting. Here are some concrete tips your clients can use to start practicing more mindful eating:
Stop Thinking about Weight Loss
This is tough to do, especially for someone who has dieted a lot. But in order to be more mindful about eating and to practice intuitive eating it is essential to change your mindset. You have to stop thinking about eating and food as negatives, as calories that add up to extra pounds.
Encourage your clients to completely disregard weight loss goals. Instead, help them craft more productive goals, like stopping eating when full or eating meals without distractions.
Take Judgment out of Food
Mindfulness includes minding your thoughts. It’s easy to get caught up in terms like “bad foods” and “clean eating.” The problem with these popular terms is that they pass judgment, not just on the food but on you for eating them or managing to resist the temptation. Ditch these judgmental terms and stop your judge-y thoughts in their tracks. You’re not bad or dirty because you ate a cookie.
Pay Attention When Eating
Eating without distractions is hard to do in our modern world, but it’s necessary in order to actually pay attention to hunger, fullness, emotions, and other clues related to eating and food. With every snack, meal, and bite of food, practice paying attention to everything you’re sensing and feeling:
- How does the food smell and look?
- How does it taste?
- How did you feel before you started eating? Were you hungry? Stressed? Bored?
- Did you eat and chew slowly, savoring every bite?
- Did you stop when you were full or did you feel compelled to eat more?
- How did you feel when you finished eating?
Write it All Down
A good way to stay on track with being mindful and aware of how you eat and feel is to journal it. Write down everything you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, and how you feel before and after. This will help you get in touch with the choices you make with food and how those choices affect you.
Head to the ISSA blog for a more detailed look into how food logging works and how it can help you become more aware of what you eat and how it makes you feel.
Find Healthy Substitutes for Emotional Eating
As you practice intuitive eating, you will probably discover that a lot of eating is related to emotions. You reach for sugar when you feel overwhelmed or a salty snack when stress is high. Depression may lead to a food binge.
Once you’ve realized just how much you use food to cope with emotions, you can make some practical changes. Replace emotional eating with other activities and develop new habits. For example, if you reach for sweets when stressed, instead, go for a walk or have a hot cup of black coffee or herbal tea. Changing habits takes time, but the more mindfulness you bring to it the easier it will be.
Intuitive eating can work for weight loss and management, but it requires practice, changing old habits, patience, and time. If you have clients interested in trying this kind of eating, encourage them and also provide some insights and practical tips for sticking with it.
Do you love everything nutrition? Want to be better able to provide clients with expert advice or even provide nutrition coaching? If so, check out the ISSA’s nutrition course!
- Warren, J.M., Smith, N., and Ashwell, M. (2017). A Structured Literature Review on the Role of Mindfulness, Mindful Eating Intuitive Eating in Changing Eating Behaviours: Effectiveness and Associated Potential Mechanisms. Nutr. Res. Rev. 30(2), 272-83. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28718396
- Leahy, K., Berlin, K.S., Banks, G.G. and Bachman, J. (2017). The Relationship Between Intuitive Eating and Postpartum Weight Loss. Maternal and Child Health Journal. 21(8), 1591-97. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10995-017-2281-4
- Nogue, M., Nogue, E., Molinari, N., Macioce, V., Avignon, A., and Sultan, A. (2019). Intuitive Eating is Associated with Weight Loss after Bariatric Surgery in Women. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 110(1), 10-15. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/110/1/10/5510580
- Anglin, J.C. (2012). Assessing the Effectiveness of Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss – Pilot Study. Nutrition and Health. 21(2), 107-15. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0260106012459994