I get it. You want to have a better relationship with food, and/but also lose weight. You want to stop binging, and/but also looking a certain way. You want to reduce cravings, and/but also lose weight. So is it possible to have both? Let’s see…
What is intuitive eating?
I won’t go into too much detail as it’s been discussed here, but is defined as a “self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought and was created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. Intuitive Eating is a weight-inclusive, evidence-based model with a validated assessment scale and over 100 studies to date”. In essence, it includes 10 principles to improve your relationship with your food and your body through listening and trusting your body, whether it’s recognizing your hunger and fullness levels, making peace with food, or enjoying joyful movement.
The 10 principles are as follows:
- Reject the Diet Mentality
- Honor Your Hunger
- Make Peace with Food
- Challenge the Food Police
- Respect Your Fullness
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor
- Honor Your Feelings without Using Food
- Respect Your Body
- Exercise—Feel the Difference
- Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Ouf, where do I start with this one? My short answer is we don’t have ONE study showing sustained, long-term weight loss (more than 5 years), but I don’t think you’ll like that answer. Weight loss is a tricky subject just because there are so many factors that have an impact on weight like your genetics, your access to food like the amount and type of grocery stores in your neighborhood, you environment including the amount of sidewalks in your area, your mental health, and the amount of antibiotics you took as a child (you can see more here). So you can see it’s wayyy more complicated than calories in minus calories out and way more than creating a caloric deficit and has nothing to do with willpower (and can we please stop using willpower as an excuse? Cool, thanks).
The body also has many mechanisms to stop weight loss because our bodies like to keep things as is – it doesn’t like change and will even see weight loss as a stressful process. To keep things as is, the body will reduce the amount of leptin it secretes. Leptin is a hormone produced by body fat that signals your brain to stop eating once it had enough. So less leptin = more hunger. And this is what happens during weight loss. When people are losing weight, leptin goes down, which is why a lot of dieters feel more hungry (there’s a lot more to leptin, so feel free to ask me!).
But that’s not all… cortisol, which most people know as the stress hormone often increases during dieting, because well…dieting is stressful. Secreted by adrenal glands, cortisol levels increase in the morning and decrease in the evening in normal situations. It helps us regulate blood pressure and helps us get the energy we need from fat and carbs. However, during dieting and other stressful events, cortisol stays elevated and signals our body to increase appetite (and cravings for sweets) and retain body fat, while leading to loss of muscle mass. Studies show that those on low-calorie diets and/or those who are pre-occupied by their weight will have higher cortisol levels when compared to their pre-diet cortisol levels.
And this is only part of the complicated pathways that become dysregulated during a calorie deficit, which is part of what we call the set-point theory – meaning the body is designed to be at a certain weight based on your genes, epigenetics (heritable traits that do not involve changes in DNA), and the environment. So you can start to see why weight loss is so difficult and why most people regain the weight. Does this mean we can’t lose weight? No, but we have no idea how. Sure you might know a couple of people who managed to keep it off, but I would like to bet you know even more people who regained it all, or even more.
Will intuitive eating lead to weight loss?
Seeing as intuitive eating reduces stress through improving our relationship with food and or body and that we are more in tune with our hunger and fullness signals, you would think that it could leave to weight loss. BUT, as discussed above, no one can tell you what your set-point, or your goal weight will be. Some people do see changes in their body weight or shape, especially if they have been dieting before. But these changes can be also be weight gain* because they’ve been undereating in an effort to lose weight for so long.
So does intuitive eating lead to weight loss? Maybe. Maybe not. But this SHOULD NOT be the end goal as it makes it difficult to apply some of the intuitive eating principles. IT will be very difficult, if not impossible to find peace with food if your sole purpose is losing weight. Sometimes we have to make peace with the fact that this is what our body is to truly improve our relationship with food (fatphobia and diet culture will de discussed here soon!). However, this doesn’t mean you can’t try intuitive eating while wanting to lose weight, it just means that these weight concerns will have to be addressed with your health professional and tweaked so we get get away from that and find something that works. And no matter happens to your body, you will find happiness, empowerment, and freedom from allowing your body doing what it’s supposed to do. You’re not letting yourself go, you’re letting yourself be!
*If you have a fear of weight gain, whether it’s because of health or appearance reasons, this is a question of body image and will require some work. Dietitians, along with other health professionals, can help with this as well!*