Intuitive eating and mindful eating are becoming more popular as a new alternative to develop long-term healthy eating behaviors. But does intuitive eating actually work?
In general, intuitive eating does work because it increases awareness of internal, rather than external, cues to eat. It is associated with lower BMI, better psychological health, and addressing binge eating, emotional eating, and eating in response to stress.
But there is so much more to answer this question. In this article, I will show you who can benefit from intuitive eating and why sometimes people may find it difficult.
Can Intuitive Eating Really Work?
Generally, intuitive eating can really work because it tunes into the body signals like hunger and fullness and uses them as a guide. Relying on internal cues is associated with a positive attitude towards food, the body, and physical activity.
There are hundreds of scientific publications proving that intuitive eating actually work:
- Lowers BMI and improves psychological health (Van Dyke, 2014)
- More promising and realistic alternative for obesity than the traditional weight-loss programs (Cadena-Schlam, 2014).
- Suitable for pregnant women and can lower gestational weight gain (Paterson, Helen et al. 2019)
- Helps with glycemic control in type 2 diabetes (Soares, et al. 2021).
- Address problematic eating behaviors like binge eating and emotional eating (Warren, Janet M et al. 2017)
In the picture below you can see the graph taken from the Pubmed library that indicates how many science-based papers were recently published.
First time I’ve heard about intuitive eating I didn’t really understand what exactly this means. I thought it was some type of cult or marketing campaign to promote another fad diet. However, after I’ve dived into the research and understand the concept of intuitive eating, it becomes clear that it is not just a fad.
Is intuitive eating healthy? Intuitive eating is healthy because it helps to improve self-awareness, positive body appreciation, and regulate emotions without the food. It also helps to improve interoceptive sensitivity, which is the ability to perceive and process body signals.
The body signals like hunger, thirst, appetite, satiety, or fullness are the main drivers behind intuitive eating. Strong interoceptive sensitivity means being able to clearly sense and differentiate between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
Does intuitive eating help with emotional eating? Intuitive eating does help with emotional eating because it conditions the body to only eat when physically hungry, not to satisfy emotional reasons. People use food to regulate their emotions, and intuitive eating helps to use food only to satisfy true hunger.
How Does Intuitive Eating Work?
In general, intuitive eating works by eating according to your body signals. This means eating only when physically hungry, choosing food based on your preferences and not on calorie numbers, and stopping eating when no longer hungry.
#1: Eating when physically hungry
Eating when physically hungry means you only use food to satisfy your real physical hunger, not emotional hunger. It also means you don’t snack or eat mindlessly every time when stressed, bored or worried. You only eat food when its time to eat.
Physical hunger is different than psychological hunger or appetite. Many people eat for a variety of reasons. Some automatically reach out for food in response to uncomfortable feelings or situations. They use food to feel better.
If you’re using food for comfort or an escape route from distress or loneliness, intuitive eating will be good practice for you.
I cannot tell you how many of my clients who started working with me were flabbergasted by this habit. They didn’t believe it works. They thought it too simple. Until they’ve tried it. And were amazed at how powerful simplicity is.
#2: Choosing food based on your preferences
Choosing food based on your preferences means you give yourself a permission to eat whatever food you desire, without being judgmental. It means you don’t look at food as “good” or “bad” based on the calories, carbs or fat content.
I know that after years of dieting, some people may have this habit of measuring and counting every bit of food that enters their mouth. But the reality is that this will lead to more stress than it’s necessary.
If you’re doing intuitive eating, there is no need to count calories or restrict from foods that you like. Choosing foods that can satisfy your needs lowers stress and enhances positive psychological outcomes.
Counting calories, measuring portions, and counting grams, all lead to more stress, not less. You will feel so much better when you just give up on all the detailed and numerically oriented fitness apps that tell you how much food you should or should not have.
I’m not saying those apps are waste of time. They do provide some important data. But just because you feel like you can do it for 3 weeks or 3 months, wait until you get 3 years or 6 years along the way.
#3: Stop eating when no longer hungry
Stop eating when no longer hungry means to terminate your eating at the point of reaching satisfaction, not complete fullness. Eating till you feel no longer hungry allows controlling food intake, without relying on external cues like portion sizes.
This is one of the most difficult parts for people who have weak interoception sensitivity. People who have a lot of stress going on and experience negative emotions can struggle to differentiate when they are satisfied versus when they are full.
In the Western world, we are used to rely on many extrenal cues that tells us when to stop eating.
For instance, the study done by Brian Wansink Ph.D. from the University of Illinois showed that Americans usually stop eating their meals when they finished all the food that’s been on the plate, or when the TV shows were over, or when there was nothing left to eat anymore, or when they’ve run out of beverage (source).
On the other hand, Europeans used their internal cues more. They stopped eating when they felt that they’re no longer hungry.
You can train yourself to do so by intuitive eating. One of the most effective methods I use with my clients is a food journal. You can see one example below.
Typically, food journals work by logging the food intake. However, you can use that together with reminding yourself to finish your eating just before you’re full. This simple practice over time can deliver excellent results and develop a habit.
Keep that in mind that it may take a week or so to really get into grips with recognizing when you’re full, and when you’re no longer hungry. Some people may initially struggle with their interoception.
A fascinating study done by Dr. André Schulz from Université du Luxembourg shows that chronic stress induces malfunction and dysregulation of interoception processes. He points out that stress elicits a fight-or-flight response, which interferes with processing neural signals coming from the central nervous system.
In his own words:
As a consequence, interoceptive signal processing may be altered, resulting in physical symptoms contributing to the development and/or maintenance of body-related mental disorders, which are associated with stress.Schulz, André, 2015 (source)
This means that chronic stress can permanently dysregulate and alter the perception of bodily sensations. That’s why people who have chronic, early, or major life stressors struggle to really sense what exactly is they feeling.
Does Intuitive Eating Work For Everyone?
In general, intuitive eating does work for everyone, as long as its been explained and introduced correctly. It doesn’t require any dietary or calorie restriction so it works well for adults, kids, teenagers, seniors as well as people with health conditions like diabetes.
On the other hand, calorie restriction and counting calories are designed to deliver fast results, without the emphasis on long-term compliance. In the short term, restrictive diets often lead to better body composition. But not in the long term.
In fact, studies have shown that the majority of people gain the weight back after dietary restrain (MacLean, P S et al. 2015).
Does intuitive eating works for athletes? Intuitive eating does works for athletes because it doesn’t restrain from any macronutrient. Studies have shown that intuitive eating helps to develop a healthier and more adaptive approach to eating around the athlete’s community.
Does intuitive eating work for kids? In general, intuitive eating does works for kids because it helps to establish a healthy eating relationship, improve self-awareness and develop strong interception sensitivity right from the start. It also helps to prevent any unwanted eating behaviors in the future.
Is Intuitive Eating Right For Me?
In general, intuitive eating is right for you because it helps to control your food inatke, without calculating calories or measuring food portions. It helps to develop a lifelong skill that can be applied with any type of food and for any situation.
I use intuitive eating with all of my clients. Some people who prefer counting calories can choose to do so. But many don’t. Big majority of people I work with don’t like choosing their food based on the amount of calories it has.
This is a game-changer because when you apply intuitive eating you can easily reduce body weight and eat all the foods that you enjoy and that satisfies you.
Intuitive eating is still young interdisciplinary concept. Today, it is used to help people get rid of their unwated eating behaviors and offers an alternative for traditional weight loss methods.
Over the long term, it develops the skills that can be used by all people, regardless of their age, gender, culture, nutrition demands, or food preferences.