What is intuitive eating — and can it help you lose weight?

What is intuitive eating — and can it help you lose weight?

According to the Endocrine Society, about 80% of people who lose weight will ultimately gain it back again. Regaining those pounds, particularly in a yo-yo dieting mode, not only interferes with your ability to maintain a healthy weight, it can take a toll on your physical and emotional health. One way to avoid these pitfalls is to ease up on traditional dieting and take a different tack. Intuitive eating is an option to consider.

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach designed to help dieters move beyond “dieting,” and enjoy better health. It’s guided by 10 basic principles that encourage honoring hunger, respecting the body and making peace with food, along with offering other advice on paying attention to nutrition, fullness and your emotions around food. But what if you want to enjoy this healthy and flexible relationship with food and your body — and lose weight? Can intuitive eating help?

Dieting versus weight loss

The first rule of intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality. Diet culture promotes an ideal weight and thinness. Proponents of intuitive eating believe that the very idea of dieting traps you into a pattern of all-or-nothing thinking — you’re either on a diet or off, ate well or ate poorly, were good for going to the gym or bad for skipping it. These thought patterns are pervasive, and according to Willow Jarosh, a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor, we all live with diet culture in our atmosphere. “We’re told we need to look a certain way to be valuable in society,” she said. “There’s a whole lot of pressure put on us on a daily basis.”

To be clear, intuitive eating strongly discourages efforts to lose weight. It’s more about respecting the body you have and trying to feel good about it as it is. “Rejecting diet mentality is an ongoing lifetime habit, and any eating plan or diet that is focused on weight loss is at odds with that,” said Jarosh.

But if you believe that healthy weight management is different from dieting, as I do, intuitive eating principles may be helpful. Healthy weight management is about finding a sane and sustainable weight (not thinness), and it’s about establishing a healthy relationship with food and your body. This involves learning a set of skills to help guide decisions around your eating and lifestyle habits.

1. Developing skills for weight loss

Every day, we make about 200 food-related decisions, which is taxing on the brain. Intuitive eating principles offer you decision-making skills that, when combined with other tools (like portion awareness and tips to balance your plate), can help you reach a healthier weight without undue stress. Since we’re constantly navigating a complex food environment, learning how and when to use all of these skills can help you pursue weight loss while also managing social and emotional situations.

2. Dealing with emotional eating

It’s natural to turn to food when you’ve had a rough day or feel burnt out, but it’s important to examine the reasons why you may be doing this. If left unchecked, this type of emotional eating can keep you from reaching a healthier weight. It’s also important to recognize that eating because you’re bored, depressed, anxious or stressed won’t help you fix the things that are actually causing those feelings.

To identify the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger, it can be helpful to pause and ask yourself questions like “Am I hungry?” or “What am I asking food to do for me?” Once you understand the motivation driving you to eat, you can find ways to address the real problem. Calling a friend, listening to music or going for a walk may end up being better solutions.

3. Tuning into your hunger

When you’re paying attention to your body, you can decide if you’re hungry for a meal or snack, how big or small a plate of food you need and when you’ve eaten a sufficient amount. Though we’re all born knowing when we’re hungry and full, external cues urging you to “eat another bite” or “clean your plate” can get in the way. As adults, we sometimes have to re-learn how to rely on our internal cues and practice more mindful eating.

Your level of hunger will change at various points, depending on your activity level, hormones and other factors. Over time, a day of heavier eating is offset by days when you have a lighter appetite. Discovering these nuances and combining them with nutrition practices can help you better manage hunger — and your weight.

4. Finding your satisfaction zone

Have you ever asked yourself what you’re in the mood for when you’re preparing a meal or snack? For example, do you think about whether you’d prefer something hot or cold? Savory or sweet? Smooth or crunchy? It’s not always about seeking out the healthiest option. By tuning in to these cues, you can make food choices that align with both your physical and mental desires.

Here’s how that may help with weight loss: It can prevent the type of overeating that happens when you’re craving one food (say, ice cream) but think you can’t have it, so you eat an alternative (say, anything but ice cream) and you feel so unsatisfied that you continue eating past contentment — or until you eventually end up eating the ice cream you wanted in the first place.

5. Being a good friend to yourself

People who’ve been on a weight loss journey tend to beat themselves up when things don’t go as planned, but learning how to speak to yourself lovingly can help keep you from throwing in the towel. Body kindness is important. Be kind to yourself and see ‘off-plan’ moments for what they really are — part of having a healthy relationship with food and living an enjoyable life.

6. Redefining what weight loss means

Whether or not you can use intuitive eating principles to lose weight really boils down to what impact it would have on your emotional health. “If your goal is totally related to your weight,” said Jarosh, “then it can prevent you from exploring sustainable ways to be healthier.” If weight loss feels stressful or punitive, or prevents you from practicing healthier behaviors (even when they don’t produce weight loss), or if you find yourself engaging in any form of disordered behavior around food or exercise, then it may be a good idea to go with the traditional intuitive eating mindset and reject the notion of weight loss entirely. A certified intuitive eating counselor can help you explore that.

Additionally, if you can get with the notion that healthy weight management isn’t about producing eye-popping results, then the skills you gain from intuitive eating may be able to help you reach a healthier weight — whatever that may be for your individual body. Instead of being either on or off of a diet, managing your weight means taking care of yourself with numerous healthy habits, including eating well, but also enjoying certain foods just because you like them.

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