Answering the most commonly asked question I get in regards to intuitive eating, can you lose weight with an intuitive eating approach?
Google intuitive eating and a common suggestion that follows it in the search engine box is “and weight loss.” Unfortunately, and also not surprisingly, some influencers and providers have co-opted intuitive eating into a weight loss plan and are providing misinformation that goes completely against the principles and purpose of this radical paradigm. So in an effort to combat some of that unhelpful, misguided noise out there in the interwebs, I’m writing as a certified intuitive eating counselor to answer this common question, “Can you lose weight with intuitive eating?”
Can you lose weight with intuitive eating?
Short answer, yes. Longer answer: Yes, and you can also stay the same weight or you can gain weight. And if anyone promises you they can predict the outcome, run far, far away.
Intuitive eating is a scientifically-studied paradigm intended to help you heal your relationship with food. Research shows that intuitive eaters have less food preoccupation, lower rates of disordered and emotional eating, reduced stress, higher levels of self-esteem and contentment, and better body image. Studies have also shown intuitive eaters have improved cholesterol levels and improved metabolism. So not only does intuitive eating help you heal your relationship with food, it also can help improve your mental and physical health.
Intuitive eating is NOT a weight loss diet, nor was it ever intended to be. Which is why there are three possible weight outcomes with intuitive eating. By not focusing on weight loss, intuitive eating allows you to focus on the things you can control, like behavior change. Behaviors influence health, not a number on the scale.
Can I practice intuitive eating if I still want to lose weight?
Of course. The question to unpack is will that desire to lose weight undermine your efforts to become an intuitive eater? Listen, 99% of the clients who walk through my door interested in practicing intuitive eating and healing their relationship to food also hold a desire to lose weight. It’s completely normal and understandable to want to lose weight in a culture that praises thinness and marginalizes fatness. It makes sense to have a desire for weight loss when every media outlet and doctor’s office is telling you to try a new diet or lose some weight.
But if you’re seeking out intuitive eating, chances are you’ve already tried countless diets and attempts to shrink your body size, and have probably learned that it doesn’t work for you (spoiler alert: it doesn’t work for 95% of the population). So while a part of you desires weight loss, another part of you desires a peaceful relationship with food, one that feels joyful and balanced and doesn’t leave you feeling guilty and shameful all the time.
If you are someone that holds a desire to lose weight and wants to practice intuitive eating, find a safe space with a intuitive eating therapist and/or dietitian to talk openly about that desire to lose weight so you can start to do some deeper work to unpack what’s underneath that desire. What will be most important in this work for you is to make sure that your desire to lose weight doesn’t overpower your desire to heal your relationship with food because you may find yourself turning intuitive eating into the hunger fullness diet.
If I’m not focusing on weight loss, how will I know if intuitive eating is working for me?
Set other markers of success outside of weight loss. Rather than focusing on how you want to look, think about how you want to feel. Maybe you want to feel less guilt around food. Maybe you want to free up some brain space to think about other things that matter more to you. Maybe you want to have more energy during the day. Maybe you want feel less reactive or compulsive around food. Maybe you want to be able to go out to dinner with friends without worrying about what to order. Maybe you want to take back some of the power that food holds over you. These are all examples of indicators you can observe to measure progress with intuitive eating. I use the word progress intentionally because remember we’re not aiming for perfection here. No one is a “perfect intuitive eater.” Perfection is wrapped up in dieting (along with guilt and shame and feelings of failure and self-loathing) and we’re moving away from that black-and-white mentality with intuitive eating.
How will I know if I’m turning intuitive eating into a diet?
Read my blog post titled Are You on the Hunger Fullness Diet?
How can I work on letting go of my desire to lose weight?
Come back to your core values. Or do work to discover what your core values are. What are those guiding principles that are most meaningful to you to live your life by? It’s these values that you will keep coming back to when diet culture thoughts sneak up on you. It’s unrealistic to think that your thoughts around losing weight and judgments around food will go away overnight. It takes time to unlearn years of messaging engrained in your head. But you can choose to take action from your thoughts OR from a place of values. If you keep coming back to your values, you will keep aligning with your core self, and slowly that diet mentality will dwindle.
Tell me, what have you heard about intuitive eating and weight loss?
I really wish I could get on board with this, but I’m afraid I’m way too stuck on losing weight. I was very overweight, then wnt low-carb, then keto, and lost almost all of the extra kilos I had put on. But then I got stuck on hormone treatments for undergoing IVF due to the darn pandemic, which made me gain quite a bit again, and then the actual pregnancy made me gain just a tad bit more… and now that I’m trying to get into IE I’m gaining more due to having restricted myself for so many years before this.
The thought of being stuck like this for the rest of my life terrifies me. And yes, that is “wrong” of me, because diet culture has programmed me into thinking I’m ugly this way… But I can’t help it.
And I just realized that nobody can. It’s either staying like this or staying in my personal prison of restriction. Nothing will make me happy. I’m stuck.
Your experiences and feelings are so valid, Jessica. It’s extremely hard to break out of diet culture and restriction, especially without support! It might be super helpful to work with a HAES-informed intuitive eating dietitian if that’s of interest to you!
wow kara thank you so much for this article.
i agree that it is going to be up to me and my work of how i begin approaching this. i’ve already started this morning writing about heavily diluting my black or white thinking…i say diluting bc it will be super hard to eliminate it…. this Constant tossing like the sea in ALL … or ZERO has got to be smashed. like you say here – the underlying issueS.
i’m 62 and have felt 28 almost my whole adult life … until the last 2-3 years. i am a sole-caregiver for my best friend and husband and the layers of issues with food are not only totally exposed, but get even stronger if i try to force them back under the rug.
i will be starting w a nutritionist that practices this and also have a therapist who has been trying to shed light on me in this area. some may think i share too openly, but there are a LOT of us out here and living in shame or even denial. if my story and struggles can help one person it is all worth every word.
i will be checking out the rest of your articles and am so looking forward to it!
thank you again!!!
Hi Annie – thank you for sharing some of your story! I am so glad this post felt helpful and I hope you will find others that are as valuable. I’m cheering you on from afar!
Really enjoyed reading this, thanks. I torture myself it seems multiple times a day with thoughts that I must do IF or paleo or OMAD or keto or blah blah blah. It really is a nightmare and such a waste of time and mental energy. I already know if left to my own devices that I prefer real food and not too much of it and consuming it when hungry and stopping when full. So why does the preoccupation with the 15 or so pounds I’d like to lose so much stronger? I really do feel more and more that getting off the hamster wheel is far more important. Thanks.
You are absolutely not alone in those feelings. It’s hard to escape the hamster wheel, especially when diet culture and fat-phobia is everywhere, telling us that weight loss is the only way. It sounds like you’re doing great work towards listening to your body. You will get there!
Really glad I stumbled across this, thank you
Oh good – I hope it was helpful, Lynae.