Can you lose weight with intuitive eating?
This is probably one of the most common questions I get: if I want to lose weight, can I still practice intuitive eating? It’s completely understandable if there is still a part of you hoping for weight loss and you can still use intuitive eating even if there’s a part of you that wants to lose weight. And – and – the intuitive eating framework is not meant to be an intentional weight-loss method, for several important reasons. Read on to learn more.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to health and wellness that helps you tune into your body signals, break free from the diet cycle, and heal your relationship with food. The Intuitive Eating framework was created in 1995 by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
Tribole and Resch’s intuitive eating framework is a non-diet, self-care approach to nutrition, health, and well-being that helps you make decisions on what to eat based upon your body’s inner wisdom – instead of external rules or restrictions.
Rather than using outside sources – such as counting calories or points, measuring portions, or following certain eating or food rules – to determine what, when, and how much to eat, you turn inward and listen to, and trust, your body’s cues to guide you.
Over time, this allows you to build back trust with your body so that you can get out of the restrict-binge cycle, eat what you want, in a way that feels good in and for your body, and do so without obsessing or feeling guilt or shame. Learn more about intuitive eating
Can You Use Intuitive Eating For Weight Loss?
First off, let me say that it’s completely understandable if there is still a part of you hoping for weight loss or feeling like you need to lose weight. You can still use intuitive eating even if there’s a part of you that wants to lose weight (more on this below).
That said, the intuitive eating framework is not meant to be an intentional weight-loss method. While earlier editions of the Intuitive Eating book contained some weight-centric language, the authors have shared their evolution and have since made it clear that intuitive eating is a weight-inclusive approach. Intuitive eating is fully aligned with the Health at Every Size® paradigm, meaning it does not use weight or BMI as a metric of health or as a metric of success.
Unfortunately, as intuitive eating becomes more mainstream, diet culture has begun to co-opt it. Many dieting programs, tracking apps, fitness and wellness influencers, and nutrition professionals claim to “heal your relationship with food” and encourage you to “stop dieting,” even though really what they’re promoting is, in fact, dieting.
Why Intuitive Eating Should Never Focus on Weight Loss
The problem in trying to use intuitive eating to lose weight is that it keeps you focused on an external number, which inherently keeps you disconnected from your body.
Weight, rather than your inner body signals, continues to be the measurement of how you are “doing.” This external weight focus can (and will) impede your ability to listen to and trust your body cues. It sends conflicting messages that can be confusing and undermine the intuitive eating process.
The thing is, whenever you try to control your weight – even to “get to” your set point – your body will interpret this as restriction which sets off the deprivation-binge pendulum and the dieting cycle.
A client of mine discovered this firsthand when she decided to weigh herself after several weeks of practicing intuitive eating. Before stepping on the scale, she was feeling great. She was noticing her body signals, eating foods that felt satisfying and feeling much less guilty about what she was eating. Then she got on the scale, saw a higher number than she hoped to see, and immediately started second-guessing her body and intuitive eating.
Stepping on the Scale Causes Disconnection From Your Body
For so many people, the number on the scale – despite being just a number – is anything but neutral. It’s an emotional trigger and can set the tone for the day. Seeing a “good” number can make you feel great while seeing a “bad” number can trigger feelings of shame and anxiety, affecting your whole day.
We judge ourselves by that number and that judgment can affect everything, from the way we eat, to the way we dress, to the way we interact with others. The number on the scale – whether it’s a “good” one or “bad” one – can trigger overeating and binging. A “good” weigh-in can be cause for celebratory eating (“I’ve been so good this week, I should get myself an ice cream!”) while weight gain – or no weight loss – can set off a binge (“Screw it, I tried so hard this week and didn’t lose any weight, so what’s the point?”).
Can You Lose Weight with Intuitive Eating?
Yes, some people do lose weight over time the more they practice intuitive eating. But many do not; some people stay the same weight, and some people end up at a higher weight. Many people notice that their weight goes up and down for a while before settling at a stable place.
All of this is normal. And this has nothing to do with doing intuitive eating “right” – this is your body, doing what it is supposed to do.
After dieting or restricting, it is normal to feel an insatiable hunger once you begin eating enough. Your body is healing from restriction, and it requires a lot of energy to shift out of starvation mode. You will likely feel really hungry.
Evelyn Tribole, one of the co-founders of intuitive eating, likens it to what you feel after you’ve held your breath. “If you hold your breath for a long time and finally take your first panicked inhale, no one calls it ‘loss of control breathing’ or ‘binge breathing,’” she said in an Instagram post. “It’s a natural compensatory response to air deprivation. We need that perspective for eating.”
So if you’re gaining weight when you start practicing intuitive eating, know that this is really normal. It’s impossible for me or for you or for anyone to know what is going to happen to your weight when you stop dieting and start practicing intuitive eating.
I know that this doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but it’s really important to find ways to sit with the discomfort that a changing body brings up (this is one of the ways a weight-inclusive dietitian can be very helpful).
Instead, just know that when you eat based on internal cues and stop trying to interfere by dieting, your body will eventually settle within your set point weight range. (Note: the “range” is important because it’s totally normal for our weight to fluctuate naturally and change over time.)
But What If You Still Want to Lose Weight?
Now, understandably, there may be part of you that still wants to lose weight. In doing so, we are promised acceptance, belonging, health and happiness. For many of the clients I work with, the idea of giving up the idea of losing weight can bring about the (legitimate) fear of being judged, disrespected, cast aside, or worse.
This is why I do not shame anyone who attempts to lose weight and conform to our society’s body ideals. Very real oppression exists for people who hold marginalized identities, including women, BIPOC people, and fat folks, so it’s understandable that someone would want to protect themselves from this injustice by losing weight.
If there’s still part of you that is unsure about not focusing on weight loss, that’s OK.
At some point in your life, dieting and the pursuit of weight loss may have been something that served you. Perhaps it made you feel safe, accepted, or in control.
I can’t and won’t ever tell someone what to do with their body. However, I can encourage you to unpack and dismantle the false beliefs about food and body size that society has programmed into all of us.
While losing weight may make you feel better in the short term (it can be an excellent coping strategy to feel more in control or to deal with uncomfortable situations or experiences), my guess is that you’re looking into intuitive eating because at least part of you is starting to realizing that dieting doesn’t work.
Actively pursuing weight loss can keep you in the dieting cycle or bouncing back and forth on the deprivation-binge pendulum. You will likely continue to obsess about or feel out of control with food. It will continue to take up so much brain space and time.
I am a full believer in body autonomy, and you have to do what feels best for you. But if pursuing weight loss is holding you back from growth in other areas of your life, you have to ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”
Anxieties about weight and body size may pop up as you go through the intuitive eating process, and that’s very normal.
Struggling to accept your body is not your fault. In a culture that oppresses marginalized bodies, you’ve been conditioned to feel body shame.
Some people find it helpful to put weight on the back burner during the early stages of intuitive eating as they work to reconnect to their body cues. For others, actively challenging beliefs about weight and body size go hand in hand with learning to listen to and trust their body signals. It can be helpful, and often necessary, to revisit your “why” daily to remind yourself of the reasons you are doing this work.
Reflection Prompt: Discovery Your ‘Why’
Use the prompts below to spend some time fleshing out your why. That is, your motivation for healing your relationship to food and with your body.
1. Describe your “F-this” moment: what made you realize that you didn’t want to spend the rest of your life dieting and fighting with your body?
2. Why is it important to you to heal your relationship to food and your body? Write down all the things that come to mind.
3. Go back through your list from #2 and, one item at a time, put it through the “if/then” test to get to the root of your “why.” For example, if one of the whys you wrote down was, “So I’ll have more confidence,” you’d then ask, “If I had more self-confidence then what?” Do the if/then exercise at least four times for each of your original “whys” to distill your main reason(s) for doing this work.
4. Has dieting or focusing on your weight and appearance helped you live a truer, more meaningful life? Or has it led you further away from yourself?
Edited excerpt from Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform Your Life
You Don’t Need to Lose Weight for Health
Despite what you may have been taught or told, weight is not a good indicator of health. There is zero research that proves that higher amounts of weight or body fat cause diseases like heart disease, cancer, or diabetes.
While some of these health conditions are more common in people with higher weights, and there may be a correlation between weight and health, this is not the same thing as causation. Weight isn’t the underlying cause for poor health; it may simply be an effect of other variables that are the actual causes of disease, such as genetics, social and environmental factors, weight stigma and behaviors like diet and exercise. Yet in our weight-centric society, “weight loss” is often prescribed as the way to achieve health and well-being.
This belief is perpetuated despite extensive research that shows that in terms of modifiable health risks, our behaviors and socioeconomic factors – not weight – impact our health most.
When a person has access to safe housing, good healthcare, doesn’t experience discrimination, eats a variety of nutritious foods, and is physically active, markers like blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure decrease. This improvement occurs even when a person doesn’t lose any weight, showing us that it is the behaviors that matter – not weight.
How Do I Let Go of My Desire for Weight Loss?
We’ve all been conditioned to believe that “thinner is better” and it can take a lot of time to unlearn this conditioning. So it’s ok if you are working on intuitive eating, and there is still part of you that is hoping for or wanting weight loss. That desire doesn’t go away overnight.
What you can do is start to unpack your desire for weight loss and your experience with dieting.
Some questions to reflect on:
- 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?
- What are your beliefs about weight and body size?
- Where did you learn those things? Who gave you those ideas? Where did you hear those messages? What did you see? What did you experience? What were you taught (explicitly or implicitly)?
- Who is benefiting from you believing you need to lose weight to be happy, healthy, respected, loved, etc? Who makes money from you feeling inadequate? Who is profiting from you believing you need to change your body?
- If your weight was to stay the same but your relationship to food and eating and your body were to improve, and you were to feel settled and confident and calm in your body, what would that mean to you?
Digging into these questions can feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. But discomfort is there to teach us something and when you can lean into that discomfort, and find tools to help you to sit with the uncomfortable feelings, this is where the learning and growth and change come.
Eventually, the uncomfortableness is replaced with a strong connection to your body and your intuition.
Practicing intuitive eating doesn’t necessarily mean weight loss, body love, or an end to all body discomfort. The goal of this work is not to feel 100% positive about your body all the time; for most people, that wouldn’t be realistic or necessary.
Instead, the goal can be not to let how your body looks, what size it is, or even how you feel about it hold you back from living out your values. Can you learn to be present in your body, take care of it, and show up for yourself every day—no matter how you feel about your body?
And remember: your weight is not an indicator of your worth, your value, or your progress.
Rather than focusing on your weight, pursue health behaviors for their own sake. Start taking care of yourself in all aspects of life. Measure progress like trusting yourself around food, letting go of the food police, and recognizing your inner body signals of hunger and fullness.
Still unsure about tossing the scale? Try taking a break from it for one month and see what happens. Notice how you feel and how you behave. I know, it’s scary. It will feel like giving up control. And you are – by getting rid of the scale and not weighing yourself, you’re putting your trust back in your body (rather than an external tool) to guide you and tell you what it needs. It will be scary, but so worth it.
For More Intuitive Eating Support:
Check out my Unapologetic Eating 101 Course, an online, self-paced program to liberate yourself from dieting and make peace with food and your body.
If you’re looking for more personalized support, my team and I also offer one-on-one nutrition therapy and body image counseling via telehealth. Learn more about our nutrition coaching packages.