Intuitive eating: a non-diet approach to wellness

By Daniela Pimentel

Do we fail diets or do diets fail us?

Sustained weight loss is unattainable for many people. In most long-term studies investigating weight loss, most people completely gain the weight back within 3-5 years, and many also end up gaining back more weight than they lost in the first place. The vicious cycle of weight loss efforts, weight regain, guilt, and continued dieting is commonly referred to as ‘yo-yo dieting’, or weight cycling. Weight cycling has been associated with increased stress, increased heart and metabolic disease risk, and, in the end, weight regain.

The $58.6 billion US diet industry has not yet consistently documented effective, long-term results from any single diet. Most commercial weight loss programs are unsustainable for many people because they are too difficult to follow. Additionally, most weight loss studies do not have long-term follow-up, meaning they do not check back with participants 5 or 10 years later. As stated above, the ones that do check back often see full weight regain in the majority of participants.

There may be extreme and special circumstances where weight loss is medically necessary. However, in the general population, research shows that consciously restricting food increases cravings, decreases satiety, and increases cortisol, a stress hormone that increases hunger, making one more likely to overeat. The increase in chronic stress and cortisol caused by dieting increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Weight loss can bring about other unintended consequences, such as bone density loss, and the emergence of disordered eating behaviors.

Another issue with many diets is that weight loss is the main goal, while a focus on sustainable increased health and healthy behaviors is often ignored. Since weight is often regained, a more sustainable way to improve health is to cultivate healthy behaviors and consume a balanced diet without resorting to food restriction and dieting. What if we could aim to increase these behaviors without all of the focus on weight?

Intuitive Eating

Intuitive Eating is an eating and lifestyle book written by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch that aims to reconnect us to our bodies, help us find satisfaction and joy in eating, and honor hunger and fullness. Instead of focusing on ‘giving up’ foods, the principles of intuitive eating are to identify foods and behaviors that make you feel good and to challenge the restrictive mindset imposed by the culture of dieting.

The principles of intuitive eating are:

  •      Reject the diet mentality
  •      Honor your hunger
  •      Make peace with food
  •      Challenge the food police
  •      Respect your fullness
  •      Discover the satisfaction factor
  •      Honor your feelings without using food
  •      Respect your body
  •      Exercise – feel the difference
  •      Honor your health

You might be thinking, “if I gave myself unconditional permission to eat whatever I want and exercise only for enjoyment, instead of to burn calories, I would only eat tasty ‘unhealthy’ foods and I would never exercise again, and I don’t see how anyone else could feel any different!” That could seem satisfying in the short term, but you would probably start feeling pretty bad after a few days, and would start listening to your body’s needs more intuitively in the absence of those nagging, restrictive feelings.

And in fact, research shows that this is true. In a literature review about intuitive eating and health behaviors, intuitive eating behaviors were consistently related to lower BMI and increased psychological health. As we know, weight isn’t necessarily related to health, but these findings show that unconditional permission does not automatically lead to sustained unhealthy behaviors. Many of the studies in the review also found a correlation between intuitive eating and positive health indicators (such as lower blood pressure and cholesterol) as well as improved dietary intake. Another study found that intuitive eaters are more likely to engage in exercise for pleasure than non-intuitive eaters. A 78-person randomized clinical trial that compared a weight-neutral, intuitive eating program with a traditional diet program found that the intuitive eating group was much more likely to complete the whole program. The intuitive eating group also had higher rates of long-term behavior change, health outcome measures such as metabolic fitness and eating behaviors, and self-esteem at 2 year follow up than the traditional diet group.

Weight loss efforts can be damaging, and don’t necessarily support health. On the flip side, intuitive eating teaches you not only to trust and respect your body, but it also fosters sustainable healthy behaviors. If you want to read more about these principles and intuitive eating, this link will take you to the authors’ website. As a future dietitian and as a scientist, I strongly believe that a weight-neutral approach to health has the greatest potential for sustained health and reduced disease risk. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Peer-reviewed by Khristopher Nicholas

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