Intuitive eating is a hot topic right now. I’m guessing that someone in your circle sent or shared with you the popular New York Times op-ed titled, Smash the Wellness Industry. (If not, READ. IT. NOW.) The author talks about how she was sick of seeing powerful, smart, feminist-identifying women—including herself—fall for pseudoscientific “wellness” claims that are, ultimately, the author argues, really just about weight loss. She talks about her own journey with dieting and wellness culture while deconstructing the problematic diet industry and ultimately concluding by talking about her discovery of intuitive eating, which she credits with changing her life for the better.
For those not familiar with this concept, intuitive eating is an evidenced-based approach to eating that was originally designed to help chronic dieters get back in tune with their bodies’ unique needs, rather than rely on external food rules to determine what, when, and how much they eat. If you’ve ever dieted, you probably know that getting some of those rules out of your head is tough, even when you’re no longer actively trying to lose weight.
If we are using an intuitive eating framework, then the ultimate goal is to use your internal wisdom to decide what, when, and how much to eat, not external rules like no eating after 8 P.M. or refined carbs aren’t allowed. When you first learn about intuitive eating, it can sound like it’s solely about eating when you’re hungry and not eating when you are not, but it’s a lot more nuanced than that. For example, maybe it’s 11 A.M. and you aren’t hungry for lunch yet, but you know that this is your only opportunity to eat a meal before 5 P.M. Should you listen to your lack of hunger and skip that opportunity to eat? The intuitive eating argument would likely be no. Similarly, maybe it’s 9 P.M. and, even though you’ve had more than your “estimated calorie needs” for the day, you’re still hungry. Do you just go to bed and ignore your body’s hunger signals? I would say no, as would the intuitive eating approach.
In other words, intuitive eating is definitely about listening to body’s hunger and fullness cues, but it’s not only about that. It’s also about the practicality of eating when you’re not hungry because you might not have a chance to eat for several more hours. And it’s also about satisfaction—that is, having a thing you really want to eat simply because it will satisfy you to do so. For example, society tells you that chips are unhealthy, but for you they are a good satisfying snack, and you may feel deprived if you don’t get to have them. With intuitive eating, you can choose to have the chips and not feel guilty about it, even though diet culture says that we should. The idea here is that by paying attention to what your body and mind are asking you for, you will feel satisfied, not deprived, hungry, hangry, or craving foods that you aren’t “allowed” to eat because of a diet you’re following.
If you’re like so many people, including clients I work with daily, you’re thinking this sounds great; I’d give anything to have a less fraught relationship with food. But I also want to control my weight, and for that I do have to follow rules about what I eat. It’s a dilemma I hear a lot: Is it possible to practice intuitive eating and have a healthier relationship with food, while also wanting to lose or maintain your weight?
The short answer: Not really, to be honest. Now, let me explain how I got there.
When I first heard about intuitive eating I was working as a registered dietitian in an outpatient community clinic, focusing on chronic disease management. Yes, I still took an individualized, patient-centered approach to care, but my primary intervention for my clients in larger bodies was weight loss. So, when I first learned about intuitive eating, I was resistant.
Part of this was due to what I learned in school: “the more weight you lose, the more you can manage your symptoms.” Another part of my resistance had to do with many doctors’ orders: almost every patient referred to me had an “overweight” or “obese” diagnosis that the medical provider wanted me to address via diet. Another part had to do with the patient themselves. Because we live in a diet-focused culture, patients, like so many of us, often hold the belief that thinner equals better and healthier.
So, sure, intuitive eating sounded great, but how could I square its principles and goals with my work in the clinic?
It was my social worker colleague who gave me my first copy of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works, written by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. After reading the book, doing more research, and taking Ebelyn’s Tribole’s intuitive eating course for health professionals, everything clicked. I realized exactly what intuitive eating was, what it wasn’t, and why body respect was paramount when adopting this philosophy around food.
Still, whenever I take on a new client, I do a consultation call with them to make sure that my weight-inclusive approach is a good fit for what they need and want. Almost inevitably, clients say they want to take an intuitive eating approach to their wellbeing, but are also not 100 percent happy with their bodies, and they hope that working with me will help them address that.
Here’s the thing: One of the core principles of intuitive eating is to respect your body, or at the very least, learn to be more neutral about it. Proponents of intuitive eating would argue that intentional weight loss is contradictory to body respect, because if you unconditionally respect your body, you wouldn’t go to so much trouble to make it smaller. I’ve heard Evelyn Tribole give the example of shoe size when explaining this concept. We wouldn’t try to squeeze a size 10 foot into a size 6 shoe, right? For the most part, we accept our shoe size as something neutral and move on. Why, then, do we expect anything different of our bodies? We are sold that idea that a size 6 is somehow better than a size 10. A size 10 is better than a size 12. A size 12 is better than a size 24…and so on. Diet culture also sells us the idea that smaller isn’t just better, it’s healthier. The reality is that, even when it comes to health, a size 10 person isn’t inherently healthier than a size 12 person. Weight is one marker of health, but it is far from the only one.
The main reason that the dual pursuit of intentional weight loss and intuitive eating is tricky is because of this: When my clients start to focus on losing weight, at some point, they have to make a food or fitness decision that overrides their bodies’ natural cues. In other words, the very act of pursuing weight loss means that there will likely be a restriction of some kind. This contradicts multiple core principles of intuitive eating, including “reject the diet mentality” and “make peace with food.” According to the intuitive eating website, making peace with food involves giving “yourself unconditional permission to eat. [Because] If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing.” I’ve seen this happen time and time again with clients. When we are trying to lose weight, we often have to micromanage our food intake, which is essentially the opposite of intuitive eating.
So, my answer to the question is: no, intuitive eating and weight loss aren’t really compatible. This is because intuitive eating and weight loss are not answers to the same question. They are, in and of themselves, their own distinct goals. Can you work towards two different goals at the same? Often, yes. But when one goal requires behavior changes that the other goal requires you to forgo, the answer is no.
The truth is, intuitive eating is its own journey, and it takes a lot of work to get to a place where you can really let go of the diet mentality. But before getting there, you have to make a huge emotional leap along with a massive behavioral change, which is to let go of the desire to control your weight. Most of my clients find it helpful to just talk about these concepts and explore their eating and dieting history. Some questions I may ask include: Has the pursuit of weight loss worked long-term? What did you have to give up in order to get to a lower body weight? Did it take an emotional toll? Did you feel good physically? There’s no one-size-fits-all approach here, but digging deeper and helping clients connect some of the dots for themselves is usually a good place to start. If a client is really struggling, I always recommend working with a licensed therapist who is well versed in the concepts of health at every size, intuitive eating, and body respect (I’ve worked with a lot of amazing psychologists who have helped my patients tremendously).
Of course, making the argument for forging a neutral and respectful relationship with our bodies is easy for someone living with thin privilege, as many dietitian-proponents of intuitive eating are. I consider myself curvy but I still have an incredible amount of thin privilege. Because of weight discrimination (which I assure you is real) I’m treated better in this society than someone in a larger body would be. This means that I don’t have to worry about being harassed by ignorant people on planes or scolded about my weight by my doctor during a pap smear. So even though research supports the idea that we can pursue health at every size and that most weight loss diets fail, we still live in a reality where people with thin bodies are privileged over those who don’t.
Not to mention, it’s hard to scroll through Instagram and be bombarded with thin women in bikinis getting all the love. Or to witness women being publicly shamed for gaining too much weight during pregnancy only to be praised for their “snap back” when they lose it quickly. Going against that grain can be exhausting. Which is why, If you have done your research, and decided that the pursuit of intentional weight loss makes sense for you, then that’s your prerogative. At the end of the day, your body is your business. I’m a big advocate of bodily autonomy, which means that you have the right to decide what is best for your own body.
My point is to say that intuitive eating is not something one would do in order to pursue a specific body-related goal. In fact, the only goals it’s meant to serve are a) having a less fraught relationship with food (which some studies suggest may lead to improvements in health) and b) improved mental health.
If you are someone who is looking for expert-led, evidence-based advice for losing weight for a health-related reason, I would say that intuitive eating may not be the best approach for you at this time, though there are parts of it that you might still adopt.
If you, like many of my clients, feel like weight loss will solve all of your problems, my challenge to you is this: consider shifting your perspective from wanting to change your body, to changing how you feel about your body. It takes time, but it’s worth it.
Jessica Jones, R.D.N., C.D.E., is a registered dietitian nutritionist who helps people improve their health while healing their relationship with food. She’s also the cofounder of Food Heaven, an online resource for delicious and nutritious living. To sign up for virtual nutrition coaching with Jessica, visit Jessica Jones Nutrition.