What Is Intuitive Eating? A Nutritionist Explains
Mar 08, 2021 Rosanna Turner
In the U.S., dieting and trying to lose weight are so commonplace that we often don't question it.
Recent data shows that nearly half of adults in the U.S. attempt to lose weight every year. Another survey found that 48% of Americans believe that the primary cause of obesity is poor diet and exercise, rather than the result of genetic, environmental and social factors.
However, some dietitians are questioning the assumption that losing weight intentionally is good for your body, as well as challenging the idea that if you are overweight or obese, then you should be trying to lose weight.
"Most people have this desire to lose weight because it's weaved into our culture to the point where if you're not trying to lose weight, that's seen as abnormal," says Rhonda Krick, a registered dietitian at Cedars-Sinai.
In her practice, Rhonda takes a on a non-dieting approach to eating and wellness, which emphasizes listening to internal cues instead of external diet rules.
"Weight gain can be one of the side effects of dieting. Dieting can affect your metabolism, your ability to detect hunger and fullness, and make you feel anxious, guilty or shameful about eating."
What is intuitive eating?
A non-dieting approach to changing your eating habits is also known as "intuitive eating."
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, intuitive eating is about trusting your body to make food choices that feel good for you, without judging yourself or the influence of diet culture.
"We're all born with the ability to know when to eat and when to stop eating, and also know what is pleasurable and satisfying," Rhonda says.
"However, most of us start to become more disconnected and less trusting of our own internal wisdom with the influence of family, friends, media and diet culture."
Intuitive eating is on the rise, particularly among young adults. A recent consumer survey by the International Food Information Council found that 49% of people in the U.S. between the ages of 18 to 34 are familiar with the concept, while 60% of all those surveyed were interested in learning more about mindful or intuitive eating.
Rhonda says that intuitive eating is based on 10 basic principles, which include rejecting a "diet mentality," honoring your hunger and fullness, eating for satisfaction, respecting your body and honoring your health.
When you practice intuitive eating, you let go of the rigidity around food and give yourself permission to eat in a way that feels good for your body, Rhonda says.
Why dieting might not result in weight loss long-term
One of the main reasons why some nutritionists encourage an intuitive eating approach is because studies have shown that many people who are obese regain weight after an initial weight loss. Additionally, most people in this category become "cyclers" who experience inconsistent weight loss and weight gains.
Rhonda says that most people, regardless of body size, who lose weight from dieting will regain the weight. Other studies support this.
"The research is not promising for sustainable weight loss," Rhonda says. "We don't have a method of weight loss that's really sustainable for longer than two to five years. People might lose weight on diets initially, but then within no more than five years they gain back their weight—and some go on to gain more weight."
The scientific reasons behind this are complex. One study found that one year after dieting, the hormonal mechanisms that stimulate appetite were still raised. Limiting calorie intake can result in weight loss in the short term, but may not help a person lose weight long term.
"Weight gain can be one of the side effects of dieting," Rhonda says. "Dieting can affect your metabolism, your ability to detect hunger and fullness, and make you feel anxious, guilty or shameful about eating."
Combating stigmas about weight and body size
Some health professionals working in the nutrition and medical fields are now advocating for a Health at Every Size (HAES) approach, which promotes balanced eating, life-enhancing physical activity and respect for a diversity of body shapes and sizes. It is also a movement that is working to end weight discrimination.
Rhonda says it's important not to pathologize the size of someone's body or make the assumption that having a larger-size body is a health problem in and of itself.
Focus on your health goals instead of dieting
Rather than fixating on losing weight, Rhonda uses a "weight-neutral" model to help people change their lifestyle behaviors and their relationship with food.
Rhonda says that a lot of people come to her and ask for help with weight loss, but instead she helps them to look at why they want to lose weight: what their past experiences with dieting has shown them, and other ways they could achieve their goals without focusing on changing the size of their body.
"If someone wants to lose weight to be healthier, I would try to understand what that means to them—possibly to lower their blood sugar or blood pressure, or have more energy—and then we would look at what behaviors that they could work on, like changing their eating habits, moving their body more or reducing stress," Rhonda says.
"We want to focus on tracking and shifting behavior instead of the number of the scale."