Updated: Aug 3
This post was adapted from episode 15: "What if I Want to Lose Weight with Intuitive Eating?"
of the Nourished & Free podcast.
Huge credit to Sandy Wyers for helping me with articulating this, and for making me feel validated.
Can Intuitive Eating Cause Weight Loss?
When my clients start working with me, I ask them to put pursuing weight loss on hold. This is for a variety reasons that have to do with both intuitive eating and weight loss. I want to explain that more in today's discussion about if intuitive eating can cause weight loss, and what to do if after starting intuitive eating you still really want to lose weight.
Is Intentional Weight Loss Always Harmful?
Some will say that you shouldn't start intuitive eating with the idea that it will help you lose weight. While I generally agree, this can be really confusing for my clients who know that their bodies are not at a healthy (for them) weight because their relationship with food and exercise has been unhealthy for a while, thereby causing the excess adipose tissue.
That path will produce weight loss only if it's right for the body. We are all genetically coded with our own definition of a healthy weight range and frankly, I don’t have the right to say if intuitive eating will work for weight loss or not because I’m not capable of reading that person’s genetics.
But here's the bottom line: if you know your habits/behaviors are unhealthy and you have an excess amount of adipose tissue that you know is unhealthy for you (remember that some fat on the body is normal and needed, but I'm also not going to to ignore the facts here - increasing waist circumference IS linked to heart disease risk), then adopting a healthier lifestyle often does result in natural weight loss. Intuitive eating is often the path to a healthier lifestyle for many people, so it likely will produce weight loss in the long run.
With that being said, it's still most helpful for women to let go of pursuing weight loss when they begin intuitive eating. The reason for this is that you cannot be an intuitive eater if you are still obsessing over weight loss. This will produce the diet mentality and restrictive behaviors, which is not intuitive eating. Therefore, it could theoretically inhibit fat loss because restrictive behaviors are pretty strongly linked to weight gain.
Are Intuitive Eaters Healthy
Regardless of if you can lose weight with intuitive eating, let's remember that IE is shown to be a healthy way of living according to a meta-analysis reviewing 26 articles. This report showed that intuitive eaters have lower BMI's, better mental health, improved dietary intake, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
Other reports say dietary quality and overall energy intake does not improve with intuitive eating. Due to mixed results, we still aren't sure if dietary quality definitely improves with intuitive eating. I do think this varies case to case, and is highly influenced by the teacher, intuitive eating coach, or intuitive eating dietitian leading the shift into intuitive eating.
When it comes to mental health, a meta analysis reviewing 97 studies showed that intuitive eating reduced eating pathology, body image disturbances, and psychopathology. Intuitive eating was positively associated with numerous positive psychological constructs, such as positive body image, self-esteem, and wellbeing.
When Trying to Lose Weight Doesn’t Help
For some people, it’s absolutely impossible for them to have a healthy relationship with food unless they completely give up the pursuit of fat/weight loss. If this is the case, we need to squash the idea of using intuitive eating to lose weight.
For example, I have a client who has been fighting so hard to heal her relationship with food and has even seen some victory. However, the moment she has thoughts of losing weight again all of her progress goes to hell. For her, we need to approach her relationship with food with a lens of body neutrality and abandon the hope of weight loss. Not because she's not allowed to want that, but because it's literally sabotaging her ability to adopt healthier behaviors.
That’s something dietitians need to be prepared to help their clients through because it can be one of the most scary parts of helping a client heal their relationships with food.
I work with women who have a difficult relationship with food because they have been trying to lose weight, so I personally ask all of my clients to not start working with me with the expectation that it will produce weight loss. I find that's actually the most fruitful thing for them in adopting sustainable, healthy behaviors.
Other reasons why intentionally losing weight won't help you:
If you are trying to lose fat because you’re focused on fitting into a pair of jeans that you wore in high school? Not a good move.
If it’s because you’re sick of getting fatphobic comments? That won’t fix your trauma.
If you’re doing it just because your doctor or mom said to? Try again.
If we have to adopt disordered eating behaviors or unrealistic nutrition & exercise regimens in order to lose fat, then immediately no.
And at the end of the day, if you have to adopt disordered eating or extreme exercise regimens in order to lose fat – fat loss is not right for you.
Behaviors to Focus On with Intuitive Eating and Weight Loss
So how does one have a healthy relationship with food and their body and lose weight (if it’s right for their body)?
We have to shift our focus to the right things.
And honestly, this is the focus/approach I take with anyone... it doesn't matter what they weigh. After we adopt all of these behaviors and shift our focus appropriately, the body's composition will shift to where it needs to be.
Let's dive in to the focus we need to have if we ever hope for intuitive eating and weight loss to coincide.
Get to the root.
Take the focus off the weight and the numbers on the scale and instead focus on getting to the root behaviors and habits (and thoughts and feelings) which are causing binge eating, overeating, lack of exercise, stress, and anything else that is negatively impacting your health.
Use the right tools.
I teach my clients lots of tools to help heal their relationships with food and that includes addressing potential weight stigma they may have experienced.
I use intuitive eating and mindful eating strategies / techniques, but also nutrition education and what different macros do in the body at different ratios and how that can affect their energy, how they feel, and their biology.
Remove the hierarchy of foods.
All foods fit. Learn how not be afraid of food and enjoy fun foods (even holiday foods!) without guilt or without overeating. It’s important to learn that it’s not about being perfect as we’re not robots, nor is nutrition all-or-nothing. Nutrition is cumulative, and it’s impossible to be perfect.
Find the why.
Increase the awareness around WHY you’re eating the way you eat while not vilifying eating out of emotions occasionally. Using food as the main way to cope is not healthy in both body and mind and that tends to be a common issue that needs to be worked on gently.
Our bodies are fluid and we are NEVER at one number on the scale all the time. Mindset work is so important when it comes to expectations and health, and helping to decrease perfectionist tendencies when it comes to our bodies and habit change. Additionally, disordered eating is very common. The food psychology and mindset work are very important.
Look at eating patterns and eating routines. I encourage clients to eat regularly and strategically. This requires learning meal planning in a way that’s not overwhelming or rigid, and it doesn’t mean cooking extravagant homemade meals all the time.
Find a physical activity that produces joy while also challenging your comfort zone (this is often missed in conversations around intuitive eating and is a big part of how to lose weight in a healthy way with exercise). Prioritize strength training and weight bearing exercise - the benefits are ridiculous.
Practice stress management skills and self-care. Work on increasing quality sleep as that helps balance various types of hormones. Restful sleep, stress management and self-care help us to feel better both in mind and body.
There are a whole slew of endocrine disorders that can affect your weight: Thryoid conditions, PCOS, insulin resistance, diabetes, etc. Sometimes all of the stress management and healthy foods in the world still don’t do enough to correct hormone imbalances and you need medications or supplements (it's okay if you do - I take meds and supplements for the various disorders of my body 😇).
A disruption in gut flora can cause an imbalance in the overall homeostasis of your body, which in turn can impact mechanisms that impact our weight. Gut flora can easily be managed by having a well-balanced diet and doesn't take all the bells and whistles that social media makes us think it does. In some cases, gut health disorders need to be address by a gastroenterologist (GI) and GI dietitian.
After doing all of these things, you might find that your weight doesn’t change. That’s okay. There’s no reason to throw a fit about it, that simply means you are already at your optimal state of health. Stay there, don’t screw things up by changing everything just for the sake of losing a couple lbs.
All these things affect weight and health. No need for restrictive meal plans/diets, food rules, depriving food groups, crazy exercise plans, and hyper focusing on the number on the scale.
I Learned Intuitive Eating, but I Want to Lose Weight Still.
If after adopting intuitive eating, you still want to lose weight... be patient. Sometimes, your body will let go of weight eventually. Sometimes, it won't. If that is the case, it's important to work with an intuitive eating dietitian who can also help with healing your body image.
The Bottom Line About Intuitive Eating and Weight Loss
If you know your habits are unhealthy and you have an excess amount of adipose tissue that is unhealthy for you, then adopting a healthier lifestyle, such as intuitive eating, often does result in natural weight loss.
If you have to adopt disordered eating behaviors or unrealistic nutrition & exercise regimens in order to lose fat, then weight loss is not for you. It's time to work on body acceptance with a trained professional.
Weight is an outward manifestation of the culmination of lived experiences, health behaviors, habits, genetics, epigenetics, environment, and the thoughts and feelings we have about food and weight which may or may not be helpful or accurate.
It's highly, highly nuanced. This conversation should always be individualized with a registered dietitian without doing harm and feeding into disordered eating patterns and behaviors.
How to Lose Weight the Right Way
When I think about how to lose weight the right way paired with the conversation of intuitive eating and weight loss, it comes down to taking the focus off of weight and shifting it onto overall wellbeing.
It can turn into a cop out to think that weight loss is always unsustainable and damaging. Rather, we need to look at the root issues leading to the problems with one’s health. It’s usually multiple things. If we deal with those root issues, the body starts to change and heal as the mind heals + the new healthier behaviors and routines take root.
The focus is typically on the wrong thing when we’re talking about weight management. We focus on being the skinniest person in the room, starving ourselves, having a sexy before/after picture, gaining the praise of others, avoiding our problems, etc. This is going about it completely in the wrong way.
Weight management does not, or should not, mean chasing a number on the scale by using unnatural restrictive and stressful tactics that severs a healthy relationship with food and one’s body. That misses the entire point and that’s why “traditional” weight loss tactics don’t work over the long term and can harm. But fat loss in and of itself is not bad or harmful – the focus behind the fat loss is what can be bad or harmful.
I think we need to find a middle ground to health and wellness. Fat isn’t good or bad, just as food isn’t good or bad. The focus behind our behaviors is what needs to be addressed. The end.
If you'd like to work with me on getting to the root issues behind your health and adopting health-promoting behaviors in a sustainable way, apply to work with me.