Intuitive Eating And Weight Gain (Explained)


Intuitive eating is getting more popular as an effective alternative to weight loss and weight management. However, many people who try this approach experience sub-optimal results. Does intuitive eating make you gain weight?

In general, intuitive eating doesn’t make you gain weight because it reduces your food intake. It works by eating when physically hungry and stop eating when no longer hungry. However, this concept isn’t clear for some people, so they may struggle with overeating.

Luckily, in this article, I will explain everything there is to know about gaining weight on intuitive eating and what you can do about it.

Intuitive Eating and Gaining Weight

Intuitive eating is a novel approach that facilitates healthy eating habits by recognizing the sensory properties of foods and internal signals of hunger, satiety, and fullness. At the same time, people who cannot tap into their internal indicators may experience weight gain.

Can you gain weight with intuitive eating? In general, you can gain weight with intuitive eating when you don’t follow the methodology. Intuitive eating works by sensing into the body signals like physical hunger, or fullness. People who gain weight may not sense when they are hungry versus when they feel emotional.

What is physical hunger? Physical hunger is the sensory signal send from the brain caused by a lack of food. Physical hunger builds up slowly, usually several hours after the last meal. It can be satisfied only with the food and is terminated after the next meal.

What is emotional hunger? Emotional hunger is the indicator that psychological needs aren’t sufficiently met. Emotional hunger comes and goes suddenly and is not related to time. Emotional hunger cannot be satisfied by food. So regardless of how much you eat, you will get hungry soon.

Physical hunger versus emotional hunger

People who do intuitive eating and gain weight typically cannot tell the difference between the two. This happens because of several reasons. One of the most profound is poor self-awareness and poor interoception.

Interoception is the process of transmitting neural signals from visceral organs to the brain by the central nervous system. In other words, it is the ability to sense all the inner signals like thirst, pain, cold, hunger, fullness, muscle tension, or heart rate.

Why interoception is important with intuitive eating?

Interoception is important with intuitive eating because it allows differentiating between physical hunger and emotional hunger. People who use food as a way to regulate their emotions and who have a lot of stress may have poor interoception sensitivity.

One of the factors that influence poor interoception sensitivity is chronic stress, elevated allostatic load, and poor mechanisms to down-regulate stress.

What is allostatic load?

Allostatic load is the accumulation of repeated physical and psychological challenges that stressors that individual experiences as stressful. High allostatic load and chronic stress is associated with dysregulation of physiological signaling and altered body sensations.

This means high levels of stress and poor stress reduction practice lead to reaching a certain threshold when the allostatic load has more stress input than the ability to recover from it. Over time this increases sympathetic response, cortisol levels and starts to affect interception signaling (Schulz, A. 2015).

To help you understand this concept better I will use the analogy of a GPS that runs on battery power. Think about your GPS in your car as your interoception. GPS can navigate and show you exactly where you’re and where you’re heading to.

It can easily read the map, tell you where the traffic is, and point out the quickest way to reach your destination. However, when your GPS runs out of battery, it quickly starts to malfunction. All of a sudden, it starts to show totally different route and may even freeze in the times when you need it.

The same goes for your intuitive eating and interoception. The more challenges and stress there is in life (health, caregiving, financial, work, school) and not enough pleasant moments (social interactions, time in nature, happiness, and mindfulness) the battery of the inner compass “GPS” wears off.

With high and chronic stress people have poor interoception ability so they cannot really differentiate between the inner signals that they getting:

  • Muscle pain vs joint pain
  • Physical hunger vs emotional hunger
  • Fullness vs satisfaction
  • Hunger vs thirst

One of the key concepts in intuitive eating is to eat when you’re physically hungry. People who gain weight on intuitive eating may have a hard time actually understand and feel the concept because for them there is no clear distinction between physical hunger and psychological hunger.

Intuitive Eating Is Making Me Fat

Another factor that plays a role in gaining weight while doing intuitive eating is poor hunger tolerance.

Can you get fat from Intuitive Eating? In general, you can get fat from intuitive eating if you don’t follow the guidelines properly. People who have poor hunger tolerance and feel uncomfortable while being hungry not only can struggle with weight loss but also can get fat.

What is hunger tolerance? Hunger tolerance is the maximum level of hunger that people can tolerate. The hunger threshold is the moment when hunger begins to be sensed. High hunger tolerance means the ability to stay without food for an extended period of time.

People who have poor hunger tolerance may feel really uncomfortable at the point where hunger reaches its threshold when it can be sensed. At the slightest whiff of emotional discomfort, they numb out or let loose with overeating.

Or they double down with control, compensation, or restriction. Either way, the goal is to get away from the discomfort moment. Fast.

Why hunger tolerance is important in intuitive eating?

Hunger tolerance is important in intuitive eating because it allows to reduce food intake by extending the time between meals. Higher hunger tolerance means less frequency of meals, snacks, and caloric beverages that can lead to weight gain.

Higher hunger tolerance means eating less food and feeling full for longer. People who cannot cope, panic, and drop all the balls when they feel hunger threshold can struggle to effectively apply the intuitive eating concept into their lifestyle.

The good news is that hunger tolerance is a skill. The better news is that it can be taught and reinforced into a habit with regular practice.

Is it normal to eat a lot when you start Intuitive Eating? It is normal to eat a lot when you start intuitive eating, especially if you don’t follow any guidance. People new to intuitive eating learn how to listen and rely on their internal body signals. The time to master intuitive eating vary and is different for everyone.

How long does it take to get used to intuitive eating?

Generally, it can take 2-4 weeks to get used to intuitive eating. People who have strong interception sensitivity can adapt fast within the first couple of days. People who have weak interception sensitivity may need extra time and additional guidance.

People who have been growing up in families where their parents “force” them to eat may need extra time to get used to intuitive eating. Commands like “clear” the plate or eating at certain times, regardless if we’re really hungry or not can dilute the hunger signals (Sheen, et al. 2016).

This creates confusion and uncertainty about how exactly hunger feels. That’s why some people may see they eat more at the beginning when they start intuitive eating.

Why Do I Gain Weight When I Eat Intuitively?

One of the reasons why people gain weight while doing intuitive eating is because they can’t recognize when they feel full vs satisfied. Fullness is when the food volume reached it maximum threshold. Satisfaction means being no longer hungry.

Should you eat until you’re full or until you’re not hungry? You should eat until you’re no longer hungry. Eating until you’re full can lead to overeating and weight gain. Eating until you’re no longer hungry leads to lowering food intake, maintaining the current weight, or even weight loss.

In other words, people who usually eat until they finish everything from their plate and they feel like their belly is stuffed can find it difficult to stop eating before that. There is a big difference between eating till you’re full and eating till you’re no longer hungry.

How do I stop eating when I am not hungry? To stop eating until you’re no longer hungry you need to eat slowly and mindfully without distractions. Eating slowly helps you to increase self-awareness and satiety signals. Eating mindfully helps to stay present at the moment and not get distracted.

What does eating slowly do? Eating slowly helps to increase mindfulness and self-awareness. It also kicks starts digestion to release gastric acid and digestion enzymes. Slow eating also helps to upregulate satiety signaling so you feel fuller sooner with less food amount.

Why slow eating is important in intuitive eating? Slow eating is important in intuitive eating because it’s the foundation of increasing interoception sensitivity. It stimulates the nasal chemosensory and olfactory system, which is the key component of satiety. It helps you to know when you feel no longer hungry.

In other words, eating slowly not only helps you to navigate when exactly you should stop eating. It also makes you feel full for longer with less amount food (Hawton, et al. 2018).

Does eating slower make you fuller? Eating slower does make you feel fuller because you extend your mealtime and allow for the satiety signals to reach the gastrointestinal tract. It takes around 15-20 minutes for satiety to start, so spreading your meal to reach that time will ensure you eat less.

On the other hand, people who eat fast don’t allow enough time to facilitate satiety. This leads to eating more and getting hungry sooner.

How To Start Intuitive Eating Without Gaining Weight

The most effective way to start intuitive eating without gaining weight is by a combination of reducing allostatic load and stress levels, improving hunger tolerance, eating slowly and without distractions. This will allow you not only to lose weight but also to develop life-changing skills.

#1: Reduce allostatic load

Reducing allostatic load means assessing your current stress level and reduce it. It also means applying down-regulating practices to help you recover better from that stress. The easiest ways to reduce your stress level include doing things like:

  • Physical exercise
  • Yoga and meditation
  • Spending time in nature
  • Doing fulfilling and fun activities
  • Intimate relationship
  • Regular sleep
  • Work-life balance
  • Ongoing learning (you’re doing it right now!)

Those methods increase your parasympathetic activity, reduce cortisol levels and helps to reduce urgency to overeat. Finding the root cause of stress is sometimes the easiest way to prevent from negative effects.

#2: Improve hunger tolerance

Better hunger tolerance will allow you to be more comfortable with extending your meal times, eating when physically hungry, and ultimately, reduce food intake.

Eating when you’re physically hungry means you need to pass the hunger threshold. This will improve your hunger tolerance and let you eat less amount of food. The easiest way to assess when you feel physically hungry is to use a scale of 1 to 10 method.

A scale of 1 – 10 helps you with tracking things that are more subjective in nature and doesn’t come with detailed metrics, like hunger or energy levels. It works by taking your current hunger levels into perspective and place it on the spectrum from 1 (no hungry at all) to 10 (the hungriest you’ve ever been).

On a scale of 1 – 10, when one is no hungry at all and ten being the hungriest you’ve ever been, how hungry you feel right now?

scale 1 - 10

The scale of 1 to 10 helps to take a step back, create comparison and look at the big picture. What is seen as initially unbearable, now seems to be a minor problem once you put it into the perspective.

I always you this method when I work with my clients to help them increase their own self-awareness. After few weeks, it becomes a habit. Use it every time when you find yourself thinking about food.

#3: Eat mindfully without distractions

Studies show that distractions lead to overeating. In fact, in the famous research done by Brian Wansink Ph.D. where he compared Americans and Europeans eating habits (source).

It turns out that Americans used more external cues as a guide to know when to stop eating. For instance, the Americans stopped eating when they run out of beverages, when the TV show was over, or when there was nothing left on their plate.

On the other hand, Europeans used more internal cues. They stopped eating when they were no longer hungry.

70 – 80% of people watch TV while having a meal.
30% are on the phone.
35% have their phone with them.

Watching TV while eating is a very common practice and can lead to overeating. This is true for adults as well as for kids. In fact, kids who watch more TV are more likely to be overweight or obese (source).

Also, dashboard breakfast and desktop lunches are examples of distractions. When you are driving, listening to the radio, and eating at the same time, it gets easy to overeat.

The easiest way to control that is to be mindful about how and when you eat your meal. Mindfulness means being present in the moment. So stay away from any distractions. Have a zero-tolerance policy for mobile devices, TV, and laptops.

#4: Eat slowly

Eating slowly will allow you to stop eating when no longer hungry. This is an easy way to differentiate between satisfaction and fullness.

Stop eating when no longer hungry also allow you to not overeat and control your food intake without counting calories or measuring food portions. Slow eating is the foundation.

This practice is simple, yet critical to get into grips with your body signals. Here are the basic rules you can apply to slow eating:

  • Put your fork down between bites
  • Focus on smell, texture and flavors of food
  • Set a timer for 20 minutes
  • Chew a bit longer than usual

You can also combine this practice with using a food journal. Creating the food log where you write down what you eat, together with checking the daily practice helps to stay focused.

Here is the example:

You can use a simple checklist, and embed everything that you want to remember. This practice should take you around 1-2 weeks before it gets into the habit.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why intuitive eating doesn’t work?

A: Intuitive eating doesn’t work for people who are not able to differentiate between real hunger and emotional hunger. Also, people who have poor hunger tolerance may not follow the guidelines of eating when hungry because they feel uncomfortable.

I won’t be covering here how exactly intuitive eating works. I’ve already covered that in “does intuitive eating actually work“, which I recommend you read.

Q: What happens if you eat intuitively and gain weight?

A: Generally, if you eat intuitively and you gain weight it means you haven’t followed the guidance of intuitive eating. Intuitive eating reduces food intake by sensing body signals only when you know and understand how to sense those signals.

Conclusion

Intuitive eating reduces food intake by sensing body signals. However, people who don’t develop the skill to eat when physically hungry and stop eating when satisfied may gain weight. The strategies presented above work for everyone and are all science-based.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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