Do Intuitive Eating And Weight Loss Go Together?
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When I first decided that I wanted to lose weight for the first time as a teenager, what came to mind was this: “I need to start exercising and go on a diet.”
So that just what I did.
I ate less, started stair climbing, got myself a copy of Cindy Crawford’s Next Challenge Workout and bought my first pair of dumbbells.
At first, restricting my food intake and exercising seemed to work.
My clothes got looser, my arms began to look ‘toned’ (at least this is what they called muscle tone back then), and I grew more confident in my own skin.
But as I got older and life changes — most notably, work — began to unfold (as they always do), my relationship with the food in my life grew rockier.
I fell back into old emotional eating patterns to deal with life, leading me to regain all the weight I’d lost, prompting me to then use exercise to compensate for my constant overeating.
After all, the more I exercised, the more calories I’d burn and the more weight I’d lose, right?
Despite exercising 2-3 hours a day on most days, I was gaining weight because I was overeating at just about every meal.
When I eventually tweaked how I worked out and ate, there was one thing I wasn’t willing to do to lose weight: Starve myself.
THE DIET MYTH
When it comes to losing weight and keeping it off, the conclusion from researchers is this: That dieting alone simply isn’t enough.
While eating less and exercising more can help you slim down in the short term, you’ll end up burning fewer calories and get hungrier as the pounds come off, making it more difficult to keep the weight-loss momentum going.
And no, it’s not about having more willpower or motivation, and you’re not lazy — your body’s just programmed to make weight gain easier, and weight loss, harder, so that your chances of survival are higher in case of famine.
So apart from changing what you eat and how much of it you eat, there are plenty of other factors at play that determine how successful you are at getting to your desired weight and staying at it over the long term.
Things like your…
Mindset around food
Don’t like veggies? Not a fan of runny egg yolks? Can’t stand the thought of leaving even a morsel of uneaten food on your plate?
All of us have unique beliefs, quirks, phobias and preferences around food that affect how we approach it.
Financial resources and social standing
Having the mental energy to think about eating healthily and then being able to actually do it are privileges, not the norm in many parts of the world.
For the majority of folks, fast, cheap and processed foods (which also happen to be very addictive) rule because they’re the most accessible.
Is work-life balance a part of your daily routine or do you regularly pull all-nighters at the office and can barely get enough sleep, let alone get in at least one nutritious, balanced meal a day?
Most of us spend around 70% of our days at work, and if the food you’re consuming (or not) while on the clock doesn’t support your weight loss, your journey will likely be a difficult, uphill battle.
Certain medical conditions — like polycystic ovary syndrome, hypothyroidism, syndrome X and depression — can make it harder, not easier, for you to lose weight.
While not the best way to lose weight when relied on exclusively for that purpose, exercise (and daily physical movement in general) can help speed up the process and build your confidence.
This means that spending most of your days sitting in a chair won’t help much.
Reason for wanting to lose weight
Before taking your first steps, it’s probably worthwhile to get more clarity on why you want to lose weight.
What’s really driving your desire to be thinner?
Is it because you truly want to be healthier, fitter and have more energy? Or is it because you secretly believe that you’ll be valuable as a person only if you were a size 2?
Having deeply personal motivations that are aligned with your values will do a much better job of keeping you going than superficial ones like following your doctor’s orders or trying to meet society’s obsession with skinny bodies as the gold standard of beauty.
You probably know someone who eats enough for two in addition to cake, cookies and ice-cream almost daily but never seems to gain any weight.
And then there’s that other friend who always appears to gain weight no matter how little they eat.
So what gives?
You can chalk these differences up to each person’s unique genetic makeup — there are currently hundreds of genes that can increase a person’s chances of being overweight, and some people have faulty genes that predispose them to obesity from childhood.
Do you live in a home where fast food or healthy, mindful eating rules? Are your friends more likely to want to hang out at the bar or head to the gym? Is your pantry filled with bags of potato chips or fruit?
Although being surrounded by fast food lovers, chips and other sources of diet derailment is by no means a guarantee that you’ll fail at losing weight, it can have a hand in it.
Social support system
No one else can lose the weight for you, but having a circle of supportive, like-minded friends, family or even an online community rallying around you can make it a whole lot easier to reach your weight-loss goals by keeping you feeling supported and just as importantly, accountable.
Eating out and takeaway may be the most convenient ways to have your meals taken care of, but cooking your own food may just be the best way to do the same for your waistline.
In fact, research indicates that whipping up your own meals can help you lose significantly more weight — a good enough reason to get that recipe book out of storage and into your kitchen.
Mindset around failure and setbacks
The path to achieving any goal is peppered with hurdles, and losing weight is no different.
What happens if you find yourself having to put in more hours at work and subsequently, have fewer hours to look after yourself?
What would you do if you find yourself falling back into unhealthy emotional eating patterns that are stalling your progress?
What happens if your closest friends end up resenting the new path you’ve chosen for yourself?
How you respond to failure and setbacks — especially unexpected ones — can determine whether you’re able to problem-solve, get back on your feet and try again, or end up walking into a brick wall.
Ability to manage stress
When you’re stressed, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which encourages the storage of sugar, heightens your cravings for it and slows down your metabolism all in the name of survival.
These hormonal changes, as you might guess, can make it harder, not easier, to lose weight.
Couple those with unhealthy, stress-induced habits that emotional eating, skipping the exercise, sleeping less and drinking more alcohol, and you’ve got yourself the perfect recipe for weight gain, not loss.
As you can see, weight-loss is a complex process, and is as much a mental and emotional game as it is a food-related one, which is where intuitive eating comes in.
WHY I DON’T BELIEVE IN DIETS
As someone who struggled with her weight for almost two decades, the problem I’ve always had with restrictive diets — whether it’s subsisting on ‘detox’ teas, cabbage soup or celery juice — is this: After I’ve gotten to my goal weight, then what?
Will I regain the weight I’ve lost once I start eating normally again?
How do I eat ‘normally anyway, and what does normal eating even mean or look like?
I knew that to lose the weight in a sane and sustainable way, I had to:
- Learn how to stop turning to food for emotional comfort — a habit that often led me to over-eat until I felt green in the face.
- Heal from the fear, self-loathing and guilt I felt around food because of my lack of self-control around it whenever I ate.
- Develop a new (and healthier) mindset around food and food habits that would help me get to a weight that I felt good at, and maintain it for the rest of my life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I began to practice my own version of intuitive eating because it was the only thing I could think of that made sense.
WHAT IS INTUITIVE EATING?
Intuitive eating is an anti-diet, judgment-free approach to eating that’s meant to:
- Encourage you to eat in response to your body’s hunger and fullness cues;
- Help you let go of damaging and disordered ways of eating (like emotional eating and restrictive dieting) by learning to tune out external factors that stop you from listening to your body.
- Nurture body acceptance; and
- Make everyday behavior choices that improve your health and enjoyment of food.
It’s based on the following 10 principles:
1. Reject the diet mentality
Is diet culture influencing how you feel about your body and the decisions you make around food and exercise?
If you feel guilty whenever you eat pizza or shame that you don’t look like the crop-top wearing model on the treadmill next to you at the gym, your wanting to eat better or work out likely isn’t primarily motivated by a desire to be healthy.
It’s probably you listening to diet culture telling you that if you want to fit in, you have to look a certain way.
2. Honor your hunger
What does your body feel like when you feel hungry? What does it feel like when you’re no longer hungry? What emotions come to mind when that sensation of hunger comes around?
Recognizing, acknowledging and accepting the physical sensations, feelings and urges that come up when hunger does can help change the way you eat for the better.
3. Make peace with food
Do you consider some foods good and others bad, and treat them differently based on these perceptions?
You may want to consider doing away with these labels and start making your food choices based on which foods you enjoy rather than the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’.
4. Challenge the food police
It’s not difficult to tell when the food police are around.
There’s that voice telling you not to eat that plate of pasta because all carbs are bad for you, or that you were good today because you ate vegetables instead of fried chicken.
That voice could be someone else’s, but it could also be your own, so the goal of intuitive eating is to be mindful of how much energy you devote to listening to this voice so that it doesn’t take over your life.
5. Respect your fullness
Once you start paying attention to your hunger cues, it’s then time to figure out what being full feels like.
This exercise can be tricky if you’re not used to listening to your body this way, so getting used to it will take time, but know this: There’s no right or wrong way to do it.
6. Discover the satisfaction factor
Ask yourself this question: “What does a meal that hits the spot look and taste like?”.
Start thinking about what ingredients would make a satisfying meal that you’ll look forward to eating, where you’d like to be eating it (this could be multiple, ideal places like your home, a particular restaurant or even your neighbourhood park) and how you want to feel when you finish eating it.
7. Honor your feelings
The next time you feel like eating, ask yourself: “What emotions am I feeling right now?”.
Is what you’re feeling positive or negative? Is it possible that you’re being driven to eat (or not) by boredom, sadness or anxiety? What if what you really needed was a conversation with a friend, a walk or a yoga session, instead of food?
Tapping into your intuition is meant to help you find new ways to cope with difficult feelings that you’d normally deal with by turning to food.
8. Respect your body
Living in a diet culture can turn your mind into the biggest bully on the playground by planting the seeds of non-acceptance of yourself and others without you even realizing it.
Taking on an intuitive mindset means noticing when you’re being judgmental about your body or someone else’s and embracing natural body diversity, which no one has any control over.
9. Movement: Learn to feel the difference
What does your body feel like when you’re laying on your sofa, reading a book? What about when you’re taking a walk or struggling through the last repetition in a challenging strength-training workout?
Being intuitive also means letting go of your habit of associating any kind of movement with calories burnt, and enjoying what movement feels like in the moment.
10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition
Diet culture is all about following hard-and-fast, cookie-cutter rules that rarely work for everyone.
It categorizes foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’; teaches us that ‘healthy’ foods have to be tasteless or just plain awful; and food into sources of fear, trauma and guilt.
Having a ‘gentle’ approach to eating means respecting and satisfying your tastebuds while making your diet work for, not against you.
CAN INTUITIVE EATING HELP YOU LOSE WEIGHT?
Yes … and no.
Let me explain: The body of research around the field of intuitive eating is still growing, but the general consensus is that no, intuitive eating may not lead to weight loss, at least not when it’s practiced on its own.
However, it has been shown to be helpful with weight loss and its maintenance in the long-term (which is defined as approximately 2 years or more) when used as part of a holistic, health-centered approach to eating.
This is because intuitive eating isn’t a diet or meal plan that’s designed for weight loss — it’s a way of eating that’s meant to help you develop a healthy relationship with food by untangling the unhealthy mindset and habits around food that diet culture teaches you.
Eating this way has been linked with weighing less, which suggests that having a sharpened awareness of your physiological signals and relying on them to decide what, when and how much to eat can help lower your overall calorie intake (in terms of the amount, rather than the type of food you’ve eaten) — an outcome that tends to result in weight loss.
SHOULD YOU USE INTUITIVE EATING TO LOSE WEIGHT?
As far as effective and long-lasting weight loss methods go, researchers are finding that restrictive dieting is not the answer.
Despite its popularity, studies show that the success rate of deliberately restricting your food intake is short-lived, while chronic yo-yo dieting can send you down a rabbit hole of disordered eating, low self-esteem, and other extreme weight-control behaviors like over-exercising and obsessive calorie-counting.
And even though intuitive eating hasn’t been found to be as effective for weight loss as restrictive dieting in the short-term, experts recommend it as a more ethical and effective alternative to dieting as a means to improve eating behaviors that can subsequently set you up for weight loss.
So should you use intuitive eating to lose weight?
If you’re thinking of relying only on intuitive eating to do it, my answer is no. But you can and should include intuitive eating in a weight-loss strategy that also prioritizes your health and well-being.
In other words:
- If your goal is to lose a lot of weight fast, the answer is no.
- If your goal is to heal your relationship with your body and the food in your life by following a more holistic way of eating in addition to building other healthy habits (like exercising regularly and eating less processed foods) that will support both and as a result, help you lose weight, the answer is yes.
Personally, taking the latter route is what helped me put the breaks on my constant overeating and the resulting weight gain that I’d been struggling with for so long.
However, losing weight wasn’t the only good thing that came out of my journey with intuitive eating — I was finally able to get through mealtimes without the fear and guilt that I’d always felt around food.
CAN YOU STILL BE HEALTHY WITH INTUITIVE EATING?
One of the key principles of intuitive eating is to give yourself permission to eat whatever you want, whenever you’re hungry.
Sounds easy enough in theory, and it works great when you have a finely-tuned awareness of your body’s hunger and fullness cues plus the ability to honor them with a varied and balanced diet.
But…what happens if you’re an emotional eater who has a lot of trouble not inhaling the entire tub of ice cream when it’s right in front of you?
What if all you ever feel like eating when you’re hungry is pizza or fried chicken?
While these are very real concerns to have, the evidence shows that intuitive eaters tend to be more capable of sensing their body’s nutritional needs than non-intuitive eaters.
And since foods aren’t considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and there’s no restriction on eating, they tend to consider a wider variety of foods too.
If the idea of eating this way is new to you (and it will be if you’ve been relying on dieting to lose weight), this is where marrying your intuitive eating practice with an awareness of your overeating triggers and which kinds of foods your body needs and thrives on (in addition to a willingness to widen your culinary horizons) will come into play.
HOW WILL YOU KNOW IF INTUITIVE EATING IS WORKING FOR YOU?
Intuitive eating isn’t meant to be followed to a T like a set of rigid rules, say Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch — the dietitians who developed the intuitive eating principles and framework — in their book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach.
This is why eating intuitively and the benefits it brings should feel different for everyone.
After practicing it for over a decade now, having intuitive eating ‘working’ for me looks like this:
1. I stopped overeating compulsively
I started out obssessed with food.
It was all I thought about every single day: What I was going to eat next, how good it’d taste, how I’d get lost in it and how I wish the meal wouldn’t end.
Results didn’t come overnight — it was only after a couple of years of practicing intuitive eating that I was able to break free from my habit of using food to cope with life.
2. I started thinking about food differently
Instead of seeing food primarily as a source of emotional comfort, I began to look at it from a functional perspective: As nourishment for my body.
As time went by, I was able to make meal decisions based on my past experience with how different foods tasted, and how they made me feel emotionally, mentally and physically.
3. Feeling good in my own skin became my priority
I stopped buying beauty and fashion magazines, which were only feeding my insecurities with diet and skinny supermodel culture.
Instead of following everyone else’s rules and expectations, I shifted my attention to how I wanted to feel in my body and how I wanted to show up in the world.
4. I learned how to listen to my body
For years, I ignored the pain, disconnection and discomfort my body felt as a result of my constant overeating.
It was only after I learned how to sync my eating habits with my body’s feelings of hunger and fullness that eating felt ‘right’.
5. I exercised to get strong, not thin
I first started exercising as a means to compensate for my destructive eating habits: The more I ate, the more I exercised.
It worked at first, but eventually backfired. The more I ate, the more weight I gained no matter how much exercising I did, period.
I’ve since given up working out to burn calories (which to be honest, was extremely exhausting) in favor of working out to gain the strength, mobility and the stamina I need to live the way I want, and just as importantly, because moving feels good.
HOW TO BECOME AN INTUITIVE EATER
Unlike diets and meal plans that tell you exactly what to do, there’s no straight or fixed path to becoming an intuitive eater.
Your journey will be different from everyone else’s, just as the benefits of intuitive eating are, because the truth is, there’s no one and only ‘right’ way to do it.
If it works for you and feels good physically, mentally and emotionally — even if it means taking just parts of it and leaving the rest behind (as I have) — you’re doing it right.
Here are some steps to consider taking to become an intuitive eater if you’re just getting started:
Unfollow social accounts that push diet culture
Our bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and if a social account is glorifying a certain body type or only one way of eating, following it will likely do you more harm than good.
Put the scale away
While it’s perfectly fine to measure your weight loss progress periodically, know this: Respecting your body means not attaching your self-worth to the number on a scale.
Read books about intuitive eating
The more you know about eating intuitively, the more confident you’ll feel about taking your first steps and making it a part of your life.
My recommendation for beginners: Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach and the accompanying The Intuitive Workbook, which the authors designed to help you put the principles of intuitive eating into action.
Being able to read your body’s hunger and fullness signals will require one thing of you: Slowing down.
By building your moment-to-moment awareness, you’ll get better at tuning out the noise and into your body’s needs.
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EAT INTUITIVELY TO LOSE WEIGHT
Want to eat intuitively to help you lose weight and keep it off? My FREE Intuitive Eating For Weight Loss: A Guide For Beginners PDF shows you how you can do both. This subscriber-only guide fills you in how you can use intuitive eating to heal your relationship with food and lose weight in a sane and sustainable way, plus the first, practical steps you can start taking to get there. Get your copy here.
I’ve worn multiple hats over the years: Emotional eating survivor, microbiologist, writer, Deputy Editor at SHAPE Malaysia, American Council On Exercise-certified personal trainer, Levels 1 and 2 Precision Nutrition-certified sports nutrition coach, and now, self-care advocate. As you might guess, I’m fascinated with food, movement and learning how to take better care of myself as I make my way through this crazy, chaotic world, and my mission is to help you do the same.
*Feature photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash