Can You Practice Intuitive Eating and Want to Lose Weight?

The honest answer is no. A dietitian explains why.

February 25, 2021
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Photo by: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Oscar Wong/Getty Images

This is Part 4 of a series on intuitive eating. Check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Intuitive eating is an evidenced-based approach that helps people trust their own body and instincts when it comes to food choices, versus being guided by external food rules. There’s an overwhelming amount of nutrition information out there, and figuring out what to eat can be confusing to say the least. Intuitive eating helps you tune into what your body needs at the moment, with the goal of cultivating a more peaceful and joyful relationship to food.

One of the principles of intuitive eating is respecting your body exactly where it is now, which brings up questions for people about whether or not it’s possible to pursue weight loss while eating intuitively. You may find that some of the principles are useful, like honoring your hunger or engaging in joyful movement. But can you incorporate these principles while also trying to lose weight? It’s complicated, but ultimately the answer is no.

As I mentioned earlier, a big part of intuitive eating is unconditional body respect. Trying to lose weight suggests that for whatever reason, you are not accepting the current body you’re in. Furthermore, pursuing weight loss usually informs someone’s fitness routine and/or food intake. If you’ve tried to lose weight before, you’re probably familiar with doing a certain workout or eating a certain way to meet your weight goals. Part of intuitive eating is tapping into your own body cues to decide what foods are best for you. Restricting foods or altering the way you eat to lose weight takes away from our ability to eat intuitively because food choices are being guided by external food rules. Similarly, exercising to alter your body doesn’t align with engaging in joyful movement just because it feels good — no weight loss expectations attached.

One question I ask clients trying to lose weight is, if you knew that your weight would not change, would you still continue eating this way or doing these workouts? The answer is usually no. Intuitive eating removes the stigma attached to eating certain foods, and creates space for all foods to be enjoyed without moralizing them as “good” or “bad”. It’s common to reduce or restrict certain foods in an effort to lose weight, and intuitive eating is about actively working towards letting go of these behaviors.

I want to acknowledge that letting go of dieting and weight loss is incredibly hard. Fatphobia and weight discrimination have real consequences, and people in closer proximity to the accepted beauty ideal are treated better in our society. We’re also constantly being told that thinness is synonymous with good health. If this is a concern for you, keep in mind that lifestyle changes that you do consistently, independent of weight loss, are a much better predictor of good health.

Intuitive eating is a powerful tool for developing a healthy relationship to food and your body. Ultimately, it’s not an approach I would recommend if you’re interested in changing the current body you’re in. It’s important to note that with intuitive eating, your weight may stay the same, and it might also increase or decrease. If you’ve spent years restricting and/or bingeing, your body weight may shift to its natural set point weight once you are more attuned with your nutritional needs, and that change can go either way on the scale. With intuitive eating, this is all seen as neutral and not judged as a good or bad thing. Now, if you want to intentionally lose weight and also want to incorporate intuitive eating principles, I’m not suggesting that they’re completely off-limits to you. However, it’s necessary to distinguish that many of the behaviors associated with trying to lose weight are outside of the intuitive eating framework.

As a registered dietitian/nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator, Wendy Lopez, MS, RDN, CDCES is passionate about accessible and culturally relevant nutrition education. She is the co-host of the Food Heaven Podcast, and the co-founder of Food Heaven, an online platform that provides resources on cooking, intuitive eating, wellness and inclusion. When not working on creative projects, Wendy also provides nutritional counseling and medication management to patients with diabetes.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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