Feeling battered by years of dieting? You've seemingly tried everything to lose weight: low-calorie, low-sugar, low-fat, low-carb — and frankly, low-satisfaction — regimens that left you worse off and worn out.
If the description fits, you may be drawn to an entirely different approach. Called intuitive eating, the decades-old concept is designed to help people stuck in the cycle of dieting build a better relationship with food. Fundamental is the notion that our bodies intrinsically know what, when, and how much to eat to stay nourished. But a lifetime of relentless messaging — from orders to "clean your plate" to parades of stick-thin models — have stopped many of us from listening to that inner voice.
Intuitive eating rejects the rules and restrictions baked into a diet mentality, which often backfires, leading to yo-yo weight loss and gain. Indeed, evidence suggests about 80% of people who lose significant amounts of weight will regain some or all of it within a year. Instead, intuitive eating encourages us to simply eat when hungry and stop when full. It also takes into account your satisfaction — enjoying the foods you eat — which, ironically, may lead to weight loss.
"Gaining and losing weight for years and years can be counterproductive and is a hard way to live," says Emily Blake, a dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Intuitive eating is a framework that integrates mind and body and encourages you to trust in your own ability to feed yourself."
Another key principle of intuitive eating is rejecting the idea that foods are inherently "good" or "bad." No longer are pizza, pasta, and burgers on the naughty list. Likewise, salads and fruit aren't "better."
"What people find over time is they end up craving a balance of foods," Blake says. "You'll start trusting yourself much more with the ability to eat what feels good to you physically without any emotional distress or guilt. Once you take the morality out of food, you start noticing that while you do crave less-nutritious foods at times, you also often crave fruits and vegetables."
On the flip side, some people misconstrue intuitive eating as a food free-for-all, says dietitian Nancy Oliveira, manager of the Nutrition and Wellness Service at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
"When people have food freedom, some may choose more ultra-processed, 'craveable' foods," Oliveira says. "It's a little tricky. It does help you have a better relationship with food over all, but you have to pair that with common sense and solid nutritional information. You have to know that eating potato chips all day long will not help you feel better in the long run."
Hungry vs. full
For many trying to adopt intuitive eating, a weighty challenge is reacquainting themselves with natural cues that signal hunger or fullness — and responding accordingly. "Most people recognize hunger pangs, but a lot of people struggle with fullness," Blake says. "It's not really the American way to recognize being full."
Maybe it's easy to pinpoint that your rumbling stomach or lightheadedness means you need to eat, pronto. But feeling full isn't the same as realizing you're bursting and queasy from overeating.
"Sometimes we use the term 'comfortably un-hungry,'" Oliveira says. "You feel mentally satisfied because you chose exactly what you wanted to eat, and you feel better afterward, with more energy."
To gauge your fullness, Blake suggests choosing a check-in point during your meal — for example, when you're halfway through — and taking a moment to assess your hunger/fullness level. If you think you might be full, put your plate in the refrigerator. "If you're still hungry 20 minutes later, you can have more—it's not a big deal," she says. "This helps you become more comfortable with those cues. It's like building a muscle, but you're building a skill—it's going to take a while to get there."
Intuitive eating might result in weight loss, especially if listening to hunger and fullness cues leads you to eat less. A 2019 research review in the journal Obesity Reviews incorporated 10 studies that tracked the eating habits of nearly 1,500 people. Participants who followed an intuitive eating plan lost about the same amount as those on conventional weight-loss diets, and lost more weight than those who didn't change their eating habits.
But Blake and Oliveira emphasize that weight loss isn't the goal of intuitive eating. Instead, learning to respect your body's "set point" — where your weight naturally falls when you're feeding it adequately and allowing for flexibility with food and movement — may be more realistic. A 2021 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders suggests intuitive eating is linked with better self-esteem and body image.
"If people have a tough relationship with food stemming from a long history of dieting, they can feel better emotionally," Blake says. "This also makes it easier to accept where their body is in terms of weight."
4 nutrition myths that can derail healthy eating
Despite an explosion of science-backed nutrition information in recent years, certain dietary myths just won't quit. But these misconceptions can stop us from incorporating necessary nutrients into our meals, derailing a healthy diet, says Nancy Oliveira, a dietitian at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Social media is largely to blame, she says. Before the deluge of nutritional "advice" on Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms, people turned more readily to government guidelines and other trusted sources of health information. "Now all these voices are saying, 'You can't eat certain things.' It totally confuses people," Oliveira says. "It misleads and distracts them from what really matters."
Oliveira dishes on which myths seem most pervasive and why they're wrong:
Myth: Plant-based milks are healthier than dairy. Soy, oat, almond, and other plant milks are a great option if you're lactose-intolerant or don't like cow's milk. But a cup of the latter contains about 10 grams of protein and 25% of our recommended daily calcium, while plant milks tend to have far less protein. Oliveira recommends examining labels, since milk of any kind may be fortified with protein, calcium, and vitamin D. "If those nutrients are important to you, be sure to double-check, as amounts can vary among brands," she says.
Myth: Avoid all carbs. Carbohydrates are an important component of a healthy diet, but the type of carbs matters. Eat fewer refined carbs — such as those in cakes, cookies, chips, and white breads — which lead to blood sugar spikes. Complex carbs from whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits keep us fuller longer and deliver a steadier fuel supply. "There are good carbs, and our bodies need them," Oliveira says.
Myth: Fresh fruits and vegetables are healthier than frozen. Produce starts losing nutrients at the moment it's harvested. But freezer versions are typically flash-frozen, preserving vitamin levels and preventing quick spoilage.
Myth: Fat is bad. Decades after a low-fat craze began in the '90s, some people still believe all types of fat are verboten. But saturated fat — which comes from animal products such as red meat—is the less-healthy, artery-clogging choice. Replacing saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fats from foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish helps protect heart health by raising levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol. Your body's cholesterol levels rise from eating a lot of fat, particularly saturated fat, but eating cholesterol itself doesn't have nearly the same impact. Beware of labels that say "no cholesterol" — this could be a plant-based food that actually has a lot of saturated fat.
Tips for success
Intrigued? Oliveira and Blake offer these tips to incorporate intuitive eating into your lifestyle.
Be mindful during meals. This means chewing slowly, pausing between bites, and avoiding distractions such as screens.
Stop feeling guilty. "I don't care if you eat pepperoni pizza for every meal for an entire week," Blake says. "Don't beat yourself up for any of your choices."
Keep a food journal, but skip the calorie counting. Track when you feel hungry and full, when and what you eat, and how you feel. "You're shifting focus from nutrient and calorie content to why and what you're eating, and that's useful self-reflection," Oliveira says.
Check your emotions. If you feel like eating shortly after your last meal, ask yourself if you're truly hungry, or if you're bored or stressed. This can stem from emotional eating. "Maybe you need a nice cup of tea, a warm bath, or a walk instead," Oliveira says.
Don't focus on weight loss. "If you're focused on the scale, you're not going to listen to your body," Oliveira says. "At least for a month, just focus on your body's signals."
Stay fueled. You're more likely to binge on cookies, for example, if you don't eat enough during the day and then come home to a waiting box of them. "Part of intuitive eating is making sure you're eating enough over all so you're not trying to practice these principles while starving," Blake says.
Seek support. Work with a registered dietitian or health coach for added insight.
Be patient. Learning to trust your body's signals again takes time. "There's going to be a lot of trial and error where you feel intuitive eating isn't working," Oliveira says.
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