Is Intuitive Eating Science-Based?


Intuitive eating has been getting more attention because of its holistic approach and weight loss results. However, some people question its validity and wonder is intuitive eating science-based?

In general, intuitive eating is science-based. Today there are over 100s scientific papers documenting intuitive eating and describe biological mechanisms to regulate food intake as valid. It is been shown to have a positive attitude towards food.

However, this approach is still novel and not known by many people. In this article, I wanna show you the timeframe of when intuitive eating comes up to the scientist’s radar.

Is Intuitive Eating Evidence-Based?

Generally, intuitive eating is evidence-based. Currently, there are dozens of scientific papers looking at its efficacy as a realistic alternative to address overweight and obesity, comparing to already existing dietary interventions like calorie counting.

A study done by Dr. Leslie Cadena-Schlam from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona reviewed the concept of intuitive eating and the existing evidence that supports this approach (source).

In this review we can see Dr. Cadena-Schlam pointed out that:

Weight loss interventions based on restrictive eating may lead to adverse health and well-being reactions.

She also added that current weight loss models are questionable because 90-95% of people who lost weight, gain it back within 2-4 years. That happens because the calorie restriction that is based on food deprivation isn’t sustainable in the long term.

And once people gain the weight back, it starts to affect their psychological well-being. Regular diets don’t create many practical skills or habits that allow maintaining results.

She said:

“In addition to improving health outcomes such as cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity, have not been associated with any adverse effects.”

She points out four main components of intuitive eating, as the core foundation to improve interoception and self-awareness.

  1. Unconditional permission to eat when hungry and whatever food you desire. This helps to look at food from a healthy perspective, without categorizing it as “good” or “bad” based on the number of calories.
  2. Eating for physical rather than emotional hunger. This helps to only use food as a way to satisfy physical “gut” hunger, rather than ways to mask the emotions.
  3. Relying on internal cues, rather than external signals. External signals like food scales, calorie calculators, or food portions often disconnect people from their hunger and satiety signals.
  4. Body-food choice congruence. This helps to combine both healthy choices together with personal likes and preferences.

What is interoception? In general, interoception is the ability to feel and sense the internal environment inside of the body. It includes things like tension, hunger, thirst, pain, heart rate, or fullness of the stomach. Interoception awareness means being able to feel those senses and differentiate one from another.

On the other side, a lack of interoception awareness means people have a hard time fully understand and interpret what is happening in their bodies. They may even confuse hunger with thirst, or muscle pain with joint pain.

Intuitive Eating Studies

Today studies shows that intuitive eating method helps to lower cognitive restrain and dieting. It is widely used to help people with overeating and compulsive eating problems. People with low interoceptive awareness may have choose to eat when they feel like it, not when they are hungry.

In 2019 alone, there were over 50 scientific papers written and reviewed about intuitive eating and its benefits.

The number of scientific research around intuitive eating

But it wasn’t always like that. Intuitive eating, as a topic of research has emerged within the last 15-20 years. So it is still novel approach that needs to be studied more in-depth.

The first scientific papers documented on intuitive eating comes from Julie Gast and Steven Hawks publication “Weight loss education: the challenge of a new paradigm” from 1998 (source).

In this study, researchers conclude that:

Health educators and others typically rely on three weight-loss strategies to combat obesity. These include medical intervention, caloric restriction, and fat gram restriction. The empirical evidence for these approaches in producing long-term weight loss is weak. 

They also added that:

Intuitive eating paradigm currently has no empirical evidence.

What we can understand from this statement is that in 1998 there was not much science-based evidence about the efficacy of this novel method.

The very first mention of intuitive eating and its efficacy comes from the 2004 study done by the same researcher (Hawks, Steven R et al. 2004). This time with a more up to date conclusion:

Intuitive eating appears to be a valid, measurable concept that is correlated with economic development and levels of western influence in Asian countries.

Since that time, many researchers started to look up closely on this topic.

The very first long-term randomized clinical trial comparing intuitive eating with regular calorie restrain comes from the (Bacon et al. 2005). She documented the effects of intuitive eating versus regular diet programs after 6 months time. In the conclusion, researcher wrote:

The health at every size approach (intuitive eating method) enabled participants to maintain long-term behavior change; the diet approach did not. 

That was the first long-term study assessing the effects of size acceptance, improved self-awareness, and listening to internal body signals.

Conclusion

Today there are more than ever scientific papers coming out about the efficacy of intuitive eating. However, because this concept is fairly new, and people without strong interoception awareness may find it hard to understand how to listen to the body cues.

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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