Why didn’t intuitive eating work for me?
Understanding the limits of this approach for weight loss.
Intuitive eating has some good ideas but overlooks important realities crucial to your longterm success.
It’s likely in your search for a healthy weight without going on another diet you ran across intuitive eating. Maybe you even tried it.
Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to eating that emphasizes internal cues over external diet rules.
The idea of living well and making peace with your body through mindfulness is immediately appealing. What if the answer to disordered eating and painful diets is as simple as listening to yourself?
Learning to honor what you need is an important part of healthy living, but that can’t on its own create sustainable weight loss because modern life is designed for weight gain. Seeing how that’s true is important to living with clarity.
This is where intuitive eating falls short, your external environment and internal cues are really two sides of the same coin. You have to address both to make sustained progress.
Before I go on, it’s important to note this isn’t a takedown of intuitive eating. The concept has some excellent touchstones. This piece is specifically addressing why the approach is unlikely to result in weight loss.
It doesn’t take into account the mountain of processed foods now moonlighting as food.
It’s a worthy goal to simply respond to your own cues to eat. It’s also not possible to deeply listen when consuming processed food that’s engineered to override your body’s hunger signals.
In fact, people who eat highly processed foods (which is now nearly everything sold in a package) consume 500 calories more per day.
Listening to hunger cues is effective when your hunger is allowed to work naturally. The more processed food you consume, the less you’re able to do that.
Most people aren’t even aware of how much processing they regularly consume or why it matters. This is why it’s crucially important to have a full understanding of what real food is and isn’t–the kind that works hand and glove with your body.
We were all born intuitive eaters. Think of babies, who cry when they need food, stop when they’re full, then cry when they need to eat again.
Yes, babies are intuitive eaters but this is a poor analogy for the actual life of an adult. Babies’ choices are limited to milk, formula, and baby food. All real rood that allows babies to self-regulate.
Things look very different the moment they become children. Eating the modern/western diet changes the outcome significantly. Children’s rising obesity shows us they’re just as vulnerable to sugar and ultra-processing as adults. They can no more self-regulate than the parents who feed them.
Making peace means giving yourself permission to eat all the foods you enjoy, including those that may have been off-limits.
Equalizing all food so that nothing feels off-limits is an idea that works in the abstract. You can’t heal your relationship with manipulated food because it’s designed to work against you.
Peace with food is found by allowing yourself to eat as much real food as you need, not by pretending you can keep yourself from eating all the Oreos through a change in your thinking.
Intuitive eating sidesteps the issue of your environment (but that’s where progress is possible).
Intuitive eating says you should listen to your internal hunger cues, but it’s silent on the ways in which your social or physical environment influences that hunger.
You don’t exist in a vacuum. For example, did the photo above make your stomach do a little flip at the idea of eating a juicy burger?
Your internal cues are influenced by a noisy environment (the inverse is also true). It’s one of the key reasons people gain or regain weight, they underestimate the effect of other’s people’s influence, what’s kept in the house, or even what a photo can do and therefore have little defense.
“I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.”
In order to make changes that result in a healthy weight last, you have to face how your environment is shaping you. Some examples include:
- Keeping the house free of overly tempting treats and asking your partner to do the same.
Setting aside time in your day for movement (which can mean declining requests and asking for household support) at times you’re likely to do it.
Having friends who are willing to socialize around activities that aren’t eating or drinking.
The conclusion of obesity research lays out quite clearly that your constructed environment is the silent driver of your health (not your intentions).
There is a strong influence of many environmental factors on the rate of weight gain, with or without a genetic susceptibility. Weight gain and adiposity in infancy and early childhood are greatly correlated with several environmental factors. More recently it was shown that the spread of obesity occurs through social ties.(35) Social contacts were more important than genes. Obesity risk was increased over 57% if the friends were obese, and was over 40% if there was an obese partner. The epidemiology suggested a contagious spread.
Listening to and respecting your hunger is part of a healthy weight journey, and it’s what I teach in my own work. What solidifies that success is an environment that doesn’t derail you at every turn. That requires seeing your life in a new way before over-relying on your internal cues.
Maintaining a healthy weight is an intentional act.
Really, acts, but you get the point.
Weight is an outcome of your daily decisions or actions (and not your faulty body or eating dairy/gluten/grains as marketing often suggests). If you want to achieve and keep a healthy weight you have to address the actions and decisions causing weight gain.
That requires a calm focus on your life and learning how to make the necessary changes.
Weight loss is often presented as deprivation. That’s only true if you go on a diet. Sustainable weight loss is the process of changing with intention–knowing why and what you in particular need to keep it going.
The way I describe it to my members is that deprivation simply puts pressure on your body to consume less. Intention goes about figuring out how your life and thinking are leading you to gain excess weight and making the adjustments as you discover them.
There are some great aspects to intuitive eating.
Adherents are encouraged to separate exercise from weight loss (thinking of movement as a way to burn calories is diet culture thinking), find joy in eating, and build their knowledge of good nutrition. There’s no denying these are terrific foundations for a healthy life.
If your focus right now is on healing yourself and creating well-being without the disorder of dieting, intuitive eating is a great starting point.
For the reasons I laid out, it’s unlikely to help you lose weight so let yourself off the hook if the approach didn’t work as you intended.
Thorny problems like weight aren’t simple to solve, so take what’s good in this approach and keep working towards a system suited to you.
We built a free course to help you understand why you haven't been able to lose weight for good.
"What a terrific presentation! I wish it had been available to me years ago." - Kathleen