Intuitive Eating: What is it and can it help you lose weight?

Intuitive Eating: What is it and can it help you lose weight?

Have you ever stopped yourself from eating something because "it's bad for you" or the latest fad diet told you not to eat it, only to uncontrollably binge on it later on? Have you ever regained all the weight you lost on a diet not just once, but multiple times? Have you felt guilty after eating junk food even if in small quantities? If you’ve experienced of any of these behaviors and you're ready to ditch yo yo dieting and the diet mentality you could probably benefit from a practice known as intuitive eating.

This novel, no-diet approach appears to benefit several aspects of both physical and mental health. While weight loss is not a goal of intuitive eating, some people do happen to lose weight with it.

What is Intuitive Eating?

For many of us, eating has become a mindless activity—something we do on autopilot. For others, it has become a social activity, a staple in celebrations and holidays, and even a stress-reliever. But when no thought goes into what you eat, or when you eat for the wrong reasons, you can end up overeating and feeling guilty afterward. Do this enough, and it can easily lead to cycles of weight gain and dieting, of restricting and binging, and eventually disordered eating. With intuitive eating you ditch the diet mentality of restrictions and truly heal your relationship with food. Like the name implies, intuitive eating is a multi-faceted approach to health and food that helps you become more aware of your internal hunger and satiety cues so that you can fully enjoy eating without guilt or shame. It is NOT a diet. In fact, it's about rejecting diet culture and the idea of "good" and "bad" foods. There's no counting calories or macros and no food is off limits (unless of course you have an allergy or intolerance). With intuitive eating you learn to eat for purely physical, rather than emotional reasons. It's a type of mindful eating, but more involved. You start to pay attention to not only what you’re eating, but when and why. Intuitive eating is also about ending the war with your body and respecting it regardless of how you feel about its genetically-determined shape. It's about rejecting the 'ideal thinness'. It's about engaging in physical activity for the sake of feeling good (rather than as a punishment or motivation for eating). There are 10 principles to intuitive eating, but in short it is a form of "attunement of mind, body and food."

Benefits of Intuitive and Mindful Eating

Over 100 studies have looked at the impact of intuitive eating. When you practice intuitive or mindful eating, great things start to happen. Some of the benefits of intuitive eating include:

It helps curb emotional eating.

There’s no doubt about it, eating is an emotional thing for many of us. It can bring positive emotions, like happiness on a “cheat day” after a long week of dieting or a favorite treat, but it can also bring negative emotions, like regret after overindulging or guilt for having had a piece of cheesecake (albeit small) when you were supposed to be “dieting.”. But eating as a reward or a way to cope with emotions like boredom, stress, or heartache can lead to weight gain and fuel even more negative emotions. Overeating or gaining weight often leads to feelings of shame or lack of control. If you have a tendency to eat your feelings, intuitive eating can help you identify the real reason you’re eating. You become more aware of triggers that make you want to eat or that lead to mindless eating, allowing you to explore alternate, healthier coping skills. 

It may help prevent and control disordered eating.

Intuitive or mindful eating can also be used as part of a treatment plan for patients with binge- or other eating disorders. One study from Jean Kristeller, PhD, studied the effects of mindful eating on binge eating treatment. Participants who practiced mindful eating in conjunction with a standard therapy-based treatment program reported enjoying their food and experiencing less struggle with control as a result. In another study intuitive eating uniquely and consistently predicted lower levels of disordered eating in both men and women. And in a meta analysis of 24 studies, intuitive eating was associated with less disordered eating and better psychological health. For those who struggle with eating disorders, these results are promising. 

It helps you make peace with food.

When you are finally able to detach emotions, restrictions and judgement from food, then you can finally make peace with food. With intuitive eating you give yourself "unconditional permission" to eat whatever you want...albeit mindfully. There is no longer that continuous cycle of restriction, binging, and guilt.

It can help you choose healthier foods (most of the time).

When you practice intuitive eating, you become more aware of the ingredients in each food. As you think about these ingredients, where they came from, and the effect they have on your body, you’ll likely be more inclined to choose healthier options. For example, picture yourself eating a salad full of vegetables. You imagine the vegetables growing in a garden or field, and a farmer harvesting them. As you eat your salad, you know it’s full of the nutrients needed to support your health and allow you to do the things you enjoy like playing with your kids for example. Now picture yourself eating a few cookies. It may certainly taste good, but then you think of the way you’ll feel after a sugar crash. Which food is more appetizing? As you get into this habit, you’ll be more likely to reach for healthier meals and snacks most of the time. After all, being healthy doesn't mean eating eating perfectly all the time. Remember that intuitive eating allows for unconditional permission to eat whatever you want, so it's perfectly ok to enjoy some non-nutritious foods once in a while too.

It can help you have higher self esteem and better body image.

Intuitive eating has been shown in multiple studies to reduce body image concerns. The truth is that neither weight nor body shape determine your health. If you are too judgmental of your body and don't accept it as it is then rejecting the diet mentality becomes very difficult as well. With intuitive eating you learn to respect and appreciate your body for what it does every day. This ultimately leads to higher self esteem and a more positive body image.

It may help you lose weight; it might not.

It is important to note that weight loss is NOT a goal of mindful or intuitive eating. In fact, some people may gain or not lose weight at all. However, some studies have shown weight loss as a "side effect" of these non-diet approaches. One study found that after just 10 sessions of the Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) program, participants lost 7 pounds. Another study found that after a 6-month mindful eating seminar, participants lost an average of 26 pounds and didn’t regain any in the 3-month follow up. With intuitive eating, there appears to a link to lower BMI (Body Mass Index). There are several theories to the weight loss connection, one of which may be attributed to honoring internal cues. It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register satiety, the feeling that you’re full. Intuitive eating helps you slow down, so you recognize fullness as it occurs, rather than after you've overeaten. It also teaches you to honor your hunger cues and feed your body when you need to so that you're not dealing with cravings and binges later on. Another reason you may lose weight is because you allow yourself the freedom to eat what you really want (rather than what a particular diet suggests). Granted this doesn't mean eating with reckless abandon. But rather giving yourself permission to choose any food, and eating it mindfully which allows you to be satisfied, often with less food. Yet another reason is the exercise component. Finding an exercise or physical activity you truly enjoy means that it no longer feels like a chore and you will do it consistently.

It may improve your health

Specifically, intuitive eating has shown a link to improved cholesterol and blood pressure and lower BMI. This could be the result of better eating habits developed with intuitive eating. Even though you give yourself freedom to eat anything, you learn to eat mindfully and as a result make better food choices.

How to Start Eating Intuitively

Practicing mindful eating can be the first step toward intuitive eating. The following tips can help you get started. Because intuitive eating is a more comprehensive approach, it may require the help of a certified counselor or nutrition expert such as a Registered Dietitian.

Start small.

It’s hard to change your eating habits overnight. Start small and commit to practicing mindful eating for one meal a day.

Cook at home more often.

Making your own meals rather than resorting to takeout or frozen pizzas is an excellent way to increase mindful eating. You’ll become more aware of the ingredients in your foods and make healthier choices about what you eat.

STOP when you have cravings.

Before you reach for food, practice this meditation by Jamie Zimmerman, M.D., that uses the acronym STOP:
  • Stop. Wait before you put anything in your mouth.
  • Take three deep breaths. Breathe deeply and focus on your feelings at the moment.
  • Observe. What are you feeling? Will acting on this craving help you or solve your issues at hand?
  • Proceed. Once you know what you truly need, whether it’s food or something else, you can proceed.

Eliminate distractions when you eat.

For one meal each day (or week), eat alone and in silence. Focus on your food. Observe its tastes, smells, and ingredients. Think about where it came from. Take time to appreciate how it will nourish your body.

Close your eyes with the first bite.

Before you take your first bite of food, close your eyes and focus on the taste, the sound, the texture, and your own feelings. Think of what this food is accomplishing for you (Is it curbing hunger? Or is it an attempt to handle stress?). It may sound weird, but try it—it really works!

Slow down.

Set a timer for 20 minutes before you sit down to eat and try not to finish your meal before that time. Chew slowly and completely. Put your fork down between each bite. You can even eat with your non-dominant hand if it helps you slow down

Use a plate.

Make it a point to eat every snack or meal from a plate. You can’t be mindful about what you’re eating and how much when you’re eating it directly from a bulk bag. For bonus points, sit at a table whenever you eat.

Keep a food journal.

Jotting down how you feel when you eat, as well as the food you are eating, can help you understand your eating habits and become aware of any emotional triggers. Intuitive and mindful eating can change your entire relationship with food. You no longer have to be a slave to diet culture and exercise. As you start to practice mindful eating, remember that it will take some time to master. In the meantime, take a deep breath, slow down, and learn to listen to your body!

Written By: Jill Overmyer

Reviewed and Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian

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