One of the most harmful pieces of misinformation out there in the non-diet, body positive world is the idea that intuitive eating can help you lose weight. I want to clarify things once and for all. (Not sure what intuitive eating is? Read What is Intuitive Eating?)
Intuitive eating should never be used as a way to lose weight. Losing weight should never be a goal for anyone, ever, because there is no known permanent way to intentionally lose weight.
Despite this, the myth persists that intuitive eating can help you lose weight. There are a lot of reasons for this.
Reason 1: Some people do lose weight when they begin eating intuitively.
It’s true, some people do lose weight when they start an intuitive eating practice. It’s easy to want to generalize this to everyone. But the truth is that other people gain weight, and still others stay roughly the same weight as when they started.
What’s the reason for this? It’s because eating based on intuition does one key thing: return you to your “set point weight”.
Simply put, your set point weight is the weight at which your body is happiest. It’s actually better described as a set point weight range, because your body is happy to fluctuate within about 15-20 pounds. Your set point is controlled by a part of your brain called the hypothalamus, which controls your metabolism, your food intake, and your movement to keep you within its preferred weight range.
Every single person has a different set point weight. We have little control over it: it’s determined by a multitude of factors, many of them genetic.
What can increase our set point weight? Diets.
Yes, it’s true — unfortunately, there is evidence that one very easy way to increase our set point weight is to diet.
After losing weight on a diet, many of us put the weight back on plus a little more. That “little more” is our set point weight being pushed a little higher.
I recognize this can be a difficult fact to learn, and as such it’s something I try to spend time working through with clients. It can bring up a lot of self-blame, but I want to reassure you that none of us are to blame for what dieting culture taught us or what it did to our bodies.
Intuitive eating returns us to somewhere within our set point weight range. If you are above your set point when you start eating intuitively (say, because you’ve been stressed lately), you may lose weight. If you’ve been below your set point because you’ve been restricting food or over-exercising, you may gain weight when you start feeding or resting your body appropriately. Or, you may already be in your natural weight range and roughly stay put when you start practicing intuitive eating.
I want to emphasize that we can never really predict what direction someone is going to go in. Part of the process is giving up the idea that any of it can be controlled. If we work together, I am here to support you as you take this leap into the unknown.
Bottom line, because some people do lose weight as they start this process, people sometimes misinterpret their outcome as being generalizable to anyone who eats intuitively. This is not true.
This is why, while we work on intuitive eating and allowance of all foods, we simultaneously work on helping you feel comfortable with whatever body size and shape you end up in. Any size you end up at is equally lovable and worthy as any other size. It may be hard to believe that now, but I am here to hold that belief for you while you work on believing it yourself.
Reason 2: Taken the wrong way, intuitive eating can feel like a diet, and diets are for losing weight.
Newcomers to intuitive eating sometimes treat it like just the newest diet they’re on. They see it as a list of rules, and think they need to “master” it and do it “perfectly”. This means that, for instance, they feel guilty if they eat when they’re not hungry, or if they eat when they experience difficult emotions.
It’s really easy to understand why this happens; for many of us our relationship with food has only ever existed in two ways, (1) dieting and (2) saying “fuck it, I’m eating whatever the hell I want!”. It’s only natural that we would look at intuitive eating as a diet, because we literally don’t know anything else. The tricky bit is that because it can feel like a diet, we extrapolate to think it can lead to weight loss as well.
Unlike dieting, intuitive eating is not about perfection. We do not aim for A-pluses in any of the intuitive eating tenets! Try to think of intuitive eating as simply an approach to food and eating — a philosophy, if you will. There are no “rules”. We should never grade ourselves on it.
As far as I’m concerned, there is no food behavior that anyone should ever feel guilty about when eating intuitively. Your body wanted a certain food in a certain way, and that’s all there is to it. I eat even when I’m not hungry a lot. There are times I choose not to stop the moment I get full. It’s called being human! The key is that I trust my body to sort it out for me.
Furthermore, it’s important to realize that intuitive eating is a practice. Feeling comfortable around food can take some time, particularly for those of us who have struggled with disordered eating for a long period of time.
We need to have deep compassion for ourselves as we start to tune into what our body is saying. Tuning in takes real practice, because diets teach us to completely disconnect from our bodies.
Reason 3: A lot of people confuse intuitive eating with mindful eating.
There is a similar myth out there that being mindful when eating will help us lose weight, and because intuitive eating and mindful eating are often mistaken for each other, their myths become shared as well!
The idea of mindful eating leading to weight loss is based on the concept that we’re eating “too much food” because we’re not paying attention. Many believe that the moment we start tuning into our meals when we eat, we will naturally eat less.
I am not 100% convinced that someone who is already eating intuitively and has a healthy relationship with food will eat less when they eat mindfully. I also don’t think that eating less is the goal; our body wants what it wants, and its sole goal is to get to its set point weight. So even if a person naturally eats less when eating mindfully, it doesn’t mean that they will necessarily lose weight.
Also, while I think paying attention to what we eat can help us slow down and, by extension, increase our enjoyment of food, I am very hesitant about recommending it to those I work with because it can be another practice to judge oneself on.
For instance, in the past, my internal voice went something like this: “Did I eat mindfully at all my meals today? No. Shit, I failed again!”
These kinds of thoughts are so extremely counterproductive but I find those of us who struggle with disordered eating like to turn everything into a checklist of tasks to be completed and achievements collected.
Reason 4: Past editions of the book Intuitive Eating actually did discuss it in the context of weight loss.
The authors of Intuitive Eating, Tribole and Resch, have changed their own minds about the relationship between weight loss and intuitive eating as they’ve learned more about Health At Every Size and the most recent science. Some people have been slow to adopt their new thinking. (If you buy the book, please be sure to buy the 3rd edition!)
Boom, myth debunked.
There we go! There are many reasons this myth persists, but I hope I’ve convinced you that intuitive eating should never be used as a tool to pursue weight loss. It may happen naturally if you happen to be above your set point weight, but weight loss is never an intuitive eating goal. Let me know if you have questions below!