If you've ever fed a newborn or watched one eat, you've witnessed responsive eating in its purest form. Babies eat when they're hungry and they stop when they're full. All humans are born with the ability to regulate their eating, but, starting in childhood, external cues such as having to finish dinner to get dessert or eating lunch even though you're not hungry but it's your designated lunchtime, begin to override that innate capacity. We live in a culture that virtually bombards us with messages to eat at all hours of the day, yet places a premium on thinness regardless of body type and genetics. It's no wonder than all of this leads to restrictive dieting and little satisfaction with your weight. Enter intuitive eating (IE).
Intuitive eating is an idea introduced in 1995 by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch that aims to restore the connection to food that we once had. IE encourages trusting your inner wisdom to eat in response to hunger and fullness, and not because of emotional cues, such as stress, sadness, and anxiety, or external prompts, like the aroma of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies that make your mouth water even though you don't have room for one more bite.
Unlike restrictive eating plans, IE doesn't limit what or how much you eat. On IE, no food is "good" or "bad." The approach also aims to disentangle food from feelings of guilt and shame. For frequent dieters looking for a break from years of counting every calorie, IE sounds like a kinder, gentler, approach to losing weight and keeping it off for good.
However, that's not necessarily the case.
"Intuitive eating should never be used for weight loss," says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, and IE practitioner. "A lot of people don't understand what intuitive eating is and what it is not."
Proponents say that IE is a life-long endeavor that, at its core, focuses on healthful behavior changes without cutting calories or exercising to excess. Experts contend that using IE to shed pounds misses the point because any attempt to restrict calories to produce weight loss undermines the connection to your intuitive cues. The goal is a better relationship with food in the long run, not a change on the scale in the short-term.
IE practitioners also argue that using the approach for weight loss runs counter to body respect, another core principle. They maintain that if you respect your body no matter its size, you wouldn't try so hard to make it thinner. In one study, greater use of IE was associated with a more positive body image, although it's important to note that the link was strongest for those in the healthy weight category, as determined by Body Mass Index.
So, can you lose weight with intuitive eating?
"No health professional can rightly say you will lose weight with intuitive eating, including me," says Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD on her website. There's no promise of weight loss with IE, but is it actually possible to shed pounds? The answer is yes, no, and maybe.
It may be hard to believe weight loss is possible when IE says it's OK to eat whatever you want whenever you want and in any amount (much like newborns do). The only "rule" is that you must obey your hunger and stop eating when satisfied. Based on your past experience, eating with abandon may strike you as a recipe for weight gain, but research shows that trusting your physical hunger and fullness cues is actually associated with eating fewer calories, which may result in weight loss.
As you learn to respect your need for food, you may eat less, but that doesn't always go as expected. It often takes practice to change your relationship with food. That's because repeated restrictive diets can impair the ability to recognize hunger and fullness and the capacity to effectively regulate eating.
"In theory, IE says that even if you start by eating as much of the foods you had typically avoided, you'll eventually crave nourishing foods," says Abby Langer, RD. But "some people take 'honor your cravings' too far," and overeat low nutrient foods, such as candy, chips, and cookies, which could result in weight gain or weight maintenance.
The trick is to find balance using IE principles. Making your favorite foods off-limits or telling yourself you can only eat a certain amount typically increases your desire for them, which could set in motion a restrict-binge cycle. Avoiding what you really want to eat doesn't always quash the craving, and it may set you up to go overboard later and feel shame about eating too much. And, restricting food to the point of under-eating will surely cause you to obsess about eating until your body gets the calories it needs.
Harbstreet says that it can be uncomfortable, and perhaps frightening, to consider what may happen to your health if you were allowed to eat unlimited amounts of any food you desire. However, she notes that it's possible to scale back the chaotic nature of "unconditional permission to eat" by keeping in mind the other principles of IE, including using satisfaction to learn your true taste preferences and learning to cope with emotional eating triggers with something other than food.
What can you learn from intuitive eaters?
Food is a basic human need, but it's also part of our social fabric and, unlike newborns, older children and adults don't eat just because of hunger. Most of us have deep emotional ties to food.
Attempting to restore your innate ability to regulate eating based on internal hunger and fullness cues is a worthy endeavor. IE encourages an all-in mentality that rejects the pursuit of weight loss, but what if you want to shed some pounds to help prevent chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and several forms of cancer?
"IE may not be right for you and that's because not every technique for healthy eating works for everyone," says Hillary Wright, M.Ed. R.D., director of nutrition at The Domar Center for Complementary Medicine. "That said, it's important to continue to challenge restrictive thinking about eating and nix the self-judgment about food choices to get past the dieting mentality."
Taking cues from mindful eating, which shares some similarities with IE, is helpful. Mindful eating does not encourage unconditional permission to eat, and it has been shown to produce weight loss, improve eating behaviors, and reduce psychological distress about eating in overweight people.
Here are some tips for reconnecting with your inner eating cues.
- Eat on a regular basis. Eating nourishing meals and snacks throughout the day helps you to better obey your hunger, which, if ignored, can result in overeating. Providing your brain with the nutrients it needs—including calories, iron, and B-vitamins—means you have more emotional energy to monitor your feelings about food, and it may also help to curb cravings.
- Check in. Pause to assess your fullness level throughout a meal or snack. It's OK to eat more if you really want it, but consider that it takes 20 minutes for your belly to tell your brain that you are satisfied.
- Savor the flavors. Take the time to eat. Put your phone away and sit at a table when eating to help you better connect with how food tastes. When you gulp a meal at your desk, in the car, or standing at the counter, you may not feel satisfied, which means you may be looking for more food soon.
- Be choosy. In honoring your hunger, you may find that your desire to eat foods that taste just so-so decreases and you naturally eat less. Eat the foods you love the most.
- Don't fix-it with food. If you're in the habit of using food to soothe your nerves, find another way. Food is comforting in the short run, but eating a pint of ice cream on the couch won't fix issues with anxiety, depression, or rejection, and it may make you feel worse in the long run.
- Move more often. You may have a bad relationship with exercise because it's been a punishing means to weight loss, but physical activity is a great stress reducer and it can help you sleep better and feel more energized. The key is finding an activity you love.
- Recognize that you cannot "blow it." Being more mindful about your eating is an ongoing process. Yes, you will face barriers to eating and stopping when full, especially when you don't have the time to pay attention to your inner cues. But, keep at it. It's always worth the effort.