Intuitive Eating: The Best Weight-Loss Strategy You Haven’t Tried
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Free yourself from dieting with an approach you probably haven't tried—intuitive eating. The goal of this "self-care eating framework" is to honor your body and mind, not lose weight.
Weight loss is one of the most popular health New Year’s resolutions and yet, according to The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America 2019 report, the nation’s obesity rate is almost 40 percent—a struggle that’s partly due to the diets we launch each January.
“Stop dieting should be the resolution. Diets make you obsessed with food and they end up backfiring,” says Sheenagh Bodkin, MD, director of the Healthy Weight Program at Lifespan health system in Rhode Island and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University. As an obesity medicine physician, Dr. Bodkin doesn’t put patients on restrictive diets. Instead, she teaches them intuitive eating.
“Intuitive eating helps you become more neutral about food and you may end up eating a lot less—but weight loss is not the goal, it’s the discovery,” Dr. Bodkin says.
Intuitive eating has been associated with a lower body mass index and better psychological health, and a 2016 review in the journal Appetite found that women who eat intuitively are less likely to have disordered eating patterns and have a more positive body image and emotional functioning.
What is intuitive eating?
The phrase intuitive eating was coined by nutritionists Evelyn Tribole, RDN, and Elyse Resch, RDN, in the 1990s and their strategy has re-emerged in popularity as more research shows the harm of diets and the potential benefits of eating more intuitively. “I teach people how to enjoy eating and appreciate their bodies. It’s a self-care eating framework,” says Tribole, coauthor of Intuitive Eating and the Intuitive Eating Workbook.
In intuitive eating there are no rules or restrictions. “You can eat whatever you want, but you become very skilled at listening to your body’s cues so that you’re only eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re comfortably full,” says Dr. Bodkin.
Intuitive eating helps you tap into your interoceptive awareness, or your body’s ability to perceive physical sensations. “You’re aiming for satisfaction, and ultimately it’s not satisfying to under or overeat. It’s about finding the sweet spot,” Tribole says. The idea is that by letting go of dieting and no longer labeling foods as good or bad, you can have more joy at meals and find a lifestyle that actually makes you feel good.
How to become an intuitive eater
Intuitive eating has 10 principles to help guide you. It doesn’t matter where you start so long as you spend at least one week focusing on each principle to get started. Consider checking out the workbook or meeting with a nutritionist who is certified in intuitive eating. “The principles are not rigid things that you pass or fail,” Tribole says. “They’re a journey of self-connection and discovery.”
Dr. Bodkin says that it takes most people about three months to pull all the concepts together and another two or three years to master them. She says this doesn’t mean people don’t see progress quickly, it’s just that mastering it means intuitive eating become more natural—it’s fully intuitive. Here, the 10 principles:
Reject the diet mentality
Dieting can set off a cascade of responses in your body, including lowering your basal metabolic rate and messing with your hunger and fullness hormones. Preliminary research from Columbia University Irving Medical Center even suggests that yo-yo dieting—losing and regaining at least 10 pounds within a year—may raise your risk of heart disease. “The diet industry doesn’t want you to know that you will have short-term weight loss but then regain the weight—and likely end up heavier than when you started,” Dr. Bodkin says. “People often blame themselves, but it’s actually the body’s reaction to the diet itself.”
A 2016 study published journal Obesity that followed contestants of The Biggest Loser found that six years after the show, most people had regained the weight they initially lost. In addition, their metabolisms were still suppressed—meaning they had to eat even less to maintain their weight than when they started the show. Interestingly, a 2015 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that short-term weight loss actually predicted long-term weight gain. Researchers followed 171 non-obese women for two years and found that those who experienced more fluctuations in their weight in the initial six months of the study were more likely to have put on weight two years later compared with those with more steady weights at the start.
Tribole recommends letting go of the tools of diet culture, including scales, counting apps, and portion measuring—but it’s OK to do so slowly. If you’re currently weighing yourself every day, reduce it to every other day or once a week, she says. Each time you get on the scale, really pay attention to your mood and how you feel about your body. Ask yourself how it impacts your day. Over time you might not want to go down that gauntlet anymore, she says.
Honor your hunger
Eat meals when you’re hungry and get back in tune with your body’s unique hunger cues. Hunger can be in your stomach, but it can also be a shift in mood or in focus or concentration. Pay attention and repeatedly check in to see if any potential hunger cues are emerging. You want to start to identify early hunger, pleasant hunger (a cue that signals it’s time to eat and you have about a window of an hour to do so) and unpleasant hunger (you’re ravenous and have to eat right now). You want to wait to eat until you’re in pleasant hunger but not so long that you transition into unpleasant hunger, which tends to mess with fullness hormones and lead you to eat a much larger amount, Dr. Bodkin says.
Make peace with food
Dieting’s psychological effects can keep you craving “forbidden” foods, which results in later binges. Intuitive eating asks that you give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want whenever you want. “It’s the paradox of permission,” says Tribole. “Suddenly you’re tasting food and really asking ‘Do I really want this now? Do I like how I feel?”
When patients tell Dr. Bodkin they cannot be trusted with chips, she tells them to buy a bunch of family-size bags, fill a large bowl with chips, and leave them on the table to eat whenever they want. If it’s ice cream, she tells them to fill the freezer with a variety of flavors. “By the end of a weekend, they’re completely neutral about chips or ice cream. These foods are no longer on a pedestal,” Dr. Bodkin says. This takes you out of the habit loop of trying to avoid certain foods and then eventually devouring them as a reward. The food may even lose its appeal. Dr. Bodkin says that when she first started intuitive eating it took her about three weeks to make peace with food. “When I came to the other side of it, I could have chocolate, chips, and cookies in the house and be incredibly calm around them.”
Challenge the food police
Try to interrupt your inner dialogue as it starts the chatter of rules and guilt about eating. Stop labeling foods as good or bad, or clean or junk. Also, really pay attention to comments you make to others about food, especially if you’re a parent. “Stop the legacy of dieting,” Tribole says. “You can shift the conversation in your home so that your kids won’t think that their only worth in the world is the way their body looks.”
Respect your fullness
Just as you pay more attention to hunger cues, start to be mindful of fullness cues. That’s really hard to notice if you’re multitasking, so try to eat at least one meal a day without distraction, Tribole says. At the start of a meal, take three bites and really check in with your hunger. Notice what the food looks like and what it tastes like. Do this again in the middle of the meal and see if hunger is starting to go away and fullness is emerging. At the end of the meal, check in again and see you how feel, she says.
Discover the satisfaction factor
“We need to return to the joy of eating and move away from the cultural neurosis and unnecessary suffering,” Tribole says. This means eating a donut or a cupcake if you feel like it. “Every time you don’t allow yourself to have something it makes you a little bit more needy and looking for something and foraging around,” Dr. Bodkin says. “You’re better off going for the donut if you really want it.” At the same time, pay attention to how you feel afterward. If you feel bloated and yucky, you’re diminishing your satisfaction.
Honor your feelings without using food
Check in with yourself before turning to food. If you’re clearly not hungry, try other forms of self-care or do something stimulating if it’s just boredom. At the same time, be self-compassionate about your choices. “If you decide to eat, stay present with the eating experience. Pay attention to how the food is tasting and the emerging fullness rather than checking out,” Tribole says.
Respect your body
Trust your choices and accept that we each have our own genetic blueprint and weight set point—the range where your body is content and not fighting to encourage weight gain.
Once you get a sense of trust back in your body, you may notice other positive changes. “When your mind isn’t [constantly] worrying about what you’re eating and you let go of the chatter of guilt, you can be more present in your relationships and that’s when your quality of life improves,” Tribole says.
Movement—feel the difference
Do physical activities you enjoy and just for the fun of it. Don’t punish yourself each time you do (or don’t) exercise. Experiment with different types of movement to see what makes you feel the best. Focus on your energy levels afterward instead of calories burned.
Honor your health with gentle nutrition
Don’t bring out the “nutrition informant” who sees a cheesecake and thinks about how it’s 400 calories and high in fat and sugar. Instead, reflect back on what you’ve eaten the past couple of days, Dr. Bodkin says. Did you have a variety of foods and get a reasonable amount of fiber? Look at trends in your eating that may inform future choices without setting rules for yourself.
- Trust for America’s Health: The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America 2019
- Sheenagh Bodkin, MD, director of the Healthy Weight Program at Lifespan health system in Rhode Island and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University
- Evelyn Tribole, RDN, co-author of Intuitive Eating and the Intuitive Eating Workbook
- Appetite: “A systematic review of the psychosocial correlates of intuitive eating among adult women”
- "Yo-yo dieting may increase women's heart disease risk" American Heart Association Meeting Report
- Obesity: "Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after 'The Biggest Loser' competition"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:"Short-term variability in body weight predicts long-term weight gain"