Does Intuitive Eating cause weight gain? This question is likely on your mind if you’re contemplating Intuitive Eating.
The fear of weight gain is one of the biggest barriers to practicing Intuitive Eating, and understandably so, given the fatphobia, weight stigma, and intense pressure to conform to societal body standards.
Pursuing weight-control behaviors can provide a sense of control, belonging, acceptance, comfort, and/or excitement. Letting go of the pursuit of weight control can bring on a fear of being judged, shamed, and oppressed.
That is not easy to give up, so It’s completely understandable if the potential for weight gain while practicing Intuitive Eating concerns you.
However, my guess is that since you’re actively seeking information on Intuitive Eating, dieting hasn’t worked out for you, or you’re looking for a way to improve your relationship with food and body image.
If you’ve been wanting to try Intuitive Eating but fear of weight gain is holding you back, this post is for you.
I will be answering all of your questions on Intuitive Eating and weight gain, from ‘Does intuitive eating cause weight gain?’ to ‘How do I cope with the fear of weight gain so it doesn’t hold me back?’ and everything in between.
This post is going to be a long one, so let’s get started!
Table of Contents
This post is going to contain a lot of information on a sensitive topic.
This post is not to convince you to do Intuitive Eating, nor is it telling you you should just be happy and accept your weight. We live in an extremely weight-centric and fatphobic society. It’s understandable for body acceptance to be so hard or even impossible, especially for people with bodies that are marginalized by society.
So often, we hear an incomplete or sometimes even false narrative about weight loss and diets. However, I believe in body sovereignty and informed consent, so this post is only meant to inform you to help you see the whole picture and provide you with the knowledge to make the best choice for yourself.
Everyone has the right to choose weight loss or weight control behaviors. Only you know your body, your history, your experiences, and what it’s like to move around this world in your body.
Content Warning: Some cited research may contain fatphobic language that perpetuates weight stigma.
What is Intuitive Eating
First, since there is a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about Intuitive Eating, here is a quick definition:
Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based, weight-neutral approach to eating that works to heal your relationship with food and body image.
Instead of a goal of weight loss, like most diets, Intuitive Eating is about health gain.
Weight loss diets use restrictions and rules to change your body into something “better” and are typically driven by self-loathing and shame.
In contrast, Intuitive Eating is about tuning into your body’s internal wisdom to honor, nourish, and respect your body and is driven by self-compassion and values.
Does Intuitive Eating Cause Weight Gain? Will Intuitive Eating Make Me Fat?
Now, the number 1 question I get: ‘Will intuitive eating make me gain weight?’
I know this isn’t the answer you want to hear, but I can’t tell you what your weight is going to do when you start Intuitive Eating. Everyone has a different starting point, genetics, history with food, metabolism, lifestyle, etc., which will influence what happens to your weight.
You might gain weight when you start Intuitive Eating. Before you quit reading, let me explain.
If you’re starting Intuitive Eating after years of food restriction and you’re currently underfueling, you might gain weight as your body adjusts to adequate energy and nourishment.
That is not a bad thing.
Getting adequate nutrients to sustain your body is never a bad thing. Eating enough gives you energy, makes you feel your best, and keeps you healthy. (More on the intricacy of weight and health in a bit).
You may also gain weight initially as you heal from restriction but then begin to lose weight as your metabolism recovers.
However, it’s a misconception that you will absolutely gain weight if you do Intuitive Eating and that if you do gain weight, it’s always unhealthy, and therefore, Intuitive Eating isn’t a good fit for you.
Note: you can be malnourished at any body size, not just at a body weight that’s considered “underweight.” Your body may still need weight gain, no matter what your starting weight is, and that is perfectly okay.
What Will Happen To My Weight When I Start Eating Intuitively?
Again, there’s no way to tell what will happen to your weight when you start Intuitive Eating.
Someone who is binge eating, emotional eating, or eating for other non-hunger triggers may lose weight as they become an Intuitive Eater.
Some people may see no changes in weight, but they are able to improve their physical health and mental well-being, heal their relationship with food, and no longer engage in dieting behaviors.
There’s no way to predict, and all of these are appropriate outcomes depending on what you need.
Your weight is likely to fluctuate at first as you explore your appetite and different eating patterns, but it will likely stabilize as you settle in as an intuitive eater.
However, it’s also important to note that while weight stabilization does happen with intuitive eating, weight changes throughout different stages of your life may still happen and are completely normal and healthy. This is different from the weight cycling that happens with chronic dieting.
It’s perfectly normal to be concerned or uncomfortable with any weight changes as they occur.
Practicing Intuitive Eating and addressing weight and body image concerns can help you prepare for these changes.
I recommend having a solid support system or working with an Intuitive Eating dietitian or therapist to help you process any body changes.
Won’t Permission to Eat All Foods Make Me Gain Weight?
While it might feel like giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods will lead to weight gain, and this concern is valid and understandable, intuitive eating is actually linked to weight stability, while restriction and food rules are associated with greater weight fluctuations (1).
It’s true that initially, when you give yourself permission to eat all foods, you may have a period where previously off-limits foods take center stage in your diet because it’s exciting and freeing. This is called the honeymoon phase of Intuitive Eating, and you may experience some weight fluctuations during this period.
However, ultimately, giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods will result in a balanced eating pattern.
The Paradox of Restriction and Weight
Foods that are “off-limits” or forbidden tend to be the foods that you crave more. This is because, just like physical food restriction, mental food restriction can lead to increased cravings and drive to eat.
Restriction (mental or physical) increases the reward pathways for food. This means that it makes food more enticing. When certain foods are off-limits or deemed “bad,” it leads to stronger cravings, loss of control around food, or feelings of guilt and shame around eating.
When you’re deep in restriction, it can feel like you can’t trust yourself around these foods, and if you allow yourself to have them, you won’t be able to stop. It can feel like the only solution is more restriction.
However, if more restriction and willpower worked, it would’ve already worked.
Instead, you have to give yourself unconditional permission to eat and heal from restrictive eating.
Embracing Balance With Intuitive Eating
Incorporating your favorite foods on a regular basis leads to less obsession and drive towards food. This is called habituation. Habituation explains that the more you expose yourself to a food, the less you notice or respond to it.
Over time, you may even find that some foods you thought you couldn’t trust yourself around lose their appeal completely. This happens when the novelty of eating certain foods fades (2).
Of course, you’ll still enjoy certain foods and still want to eat them, but there’s not that intense control and obsession over them.
Contrary to popular belief, Intuitive Eating isn’t just about eating whatever you want, whenever you want. Gentle nutrition is a principle of Intuitive Eating. Once the restriction is healed, eating becomes a more neutral experience, empowering you to regain control and giving you the ability to make food choices that truly reflect your own wants and needs.
Isn’t Weight Gain Unhealthy?
Weight gain is not inherently unhealthy, just as weight loss is not inherently healthy; health is not determined solely by body size.
Weight is not a direct indicator of health, and both thin and large bodies can be healthy or unhealthy.
Weight and health are often conflated – meaning that what we’re taught is the more you weigh, the more unhealthy you are, and all weight loss will improve health.
However, that is incredibly simplistic and inaccurate. The truth is that health is WAY more complex than weight alone. Weight does not equal health.
Understanding the Complex Relationship Between Weight and Health
What we know:
Yes, there is a strong correlation between weight and health, and weight loss can lead to improvements in health in larger-bodied people.
What we also know but is often left out of the conversation:
- The association between weight and health is largely correlational, with inconsistent findings (3).
- The majority of research on obesity doesn’t consider weight stigma, oppression, weight cycling from years of dieting, trauma, or adverse events in childhood as confounding variables to health. These are all factors often experienced by people in larger bodies at higher rates and can have a significant impact on health outcomes.
- Hyperinsulinemia and inflammation confound the association between mortality and BMI (3).
- Weight loss likely isn’t sustainable long-term for most people, so there’s a need for an alternative approach that is accessible to everyone.
- Obesity could be the outcome of a disease process, not the cause.
- Simply the loss of fat through liposuction doesn’t improve markers of health (4, 5, 6). This suggests that the health benefits often associated with weight loss may be due to an alternative variable rather than the weight loss itself (i.e., many people incorporate exercise or eat more nutrient-dense foods when they start a weight loss diet). Which leads to my next point:
- Health behaviors (eating vegetables, engaging in movement, attending to mental health, etc.) lead to improved health regardless of weight or size. Health can be pursued by people of all sizes, regardless of any weight changes 7, 8.
- Access to equitable and non-stigmatizing healthcare, inclusive environments, and safe communities improve health outcomes for people of all sizes.
- Weight cycling from years of dieting leads to poorer health outcomes (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14).
- Weight stigma and weight discrimination increase the risk of mortality even when BMI is controlled for (15, 16).
- Having an unmarginalized status and access to wealth and privilege are more strongly associated with better health outcomes than any individual choice (17, 18).
- Shame and guilt lead to a decrease in health behaviors, while compassion, support, and acceptance lead to increased health behaviors (19, 20).
- Health isn’t always a priority for people (of any size), and that’s okay. Life circumstances, like being a new parent or working multiple jobs, can understandably shift one’s focus away from health. Additionally, people in larger bodies often face unwarranted scrutiny for their health choices, with comments masquerading as a concern but rooted in bias, while those in smaller bodies might engage in unhealthy behaviors yet escape similar judgment. Judging anyone’s health choices isn’t just ineffective; it’s often misguided. We don’t know anyone else’s life circumstances or motivations, and judgment doesn’t lead to change or better health.
- There is a large genetic component to health. Good health is not controllable for anyone.
- Permanent health isn’t attainable for anyone. Eventually, all of us will inevitably encounter illness, injuries, disabilities, or disease, and death. While prevention and delay of challenges are important, it’s equally important to emphasize the need for compassionate and equitable care for everyone, regardless of their health journey.
When the conversation is centered solely around weight, our understanding of health misses the larger picture. By zeroing in on weight, we sidestep the full spectrum of health and well-being. Additionally, we must consider not just the individual but also societal determinants of health, environments, and the overarching framework of health justice, which will ultimately have a bigger impact.
What if I have a Weight-Related Health Problem?
As mentioned above, weight and health are extremely complex (go back and read the previous section). If you’ve been told you have a weight-related health condition and the only way to improve your health is to lose weight, first, I want to acknowledge how incredibly sorry I am that you’ve faced that kind of stigma. Second, that is lazy medicine.
While obesity is a risk factor for certain diseases, people of all sizes can have cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, etc.
When a person in a smaller body is diagnosed with such a disease, they aren’t prescribed weight loss, they are prescribed lifestyle modifications (and, of course, any type of medical management they need). A person in a larger body should be treated with the same respect since weight loss is often unsustainable for the large majority of people. There are things you can do to improve health outcomes that don’t involve weight control.
One of the most important things you can do for your health is to receive regular care and health screenings from a non-stigmatizing provider. I know that is way easier said than done, especially if you live in the U.S., where it seems like just receiving affordable healthcare is a rare privilege.
If you currently have a provider that does not treat you respectfully, you can search for a weight-inclusive provider using ASDAH’s healthcare provider directory or Bare Health’s Search Tool. If you can’t find a provider near you, here is a resource for navigating weight bias in healthcare.
Next, you can set goals around health behaviors that address your specific concern. For example, if you have been diagnosed with hypertension, you may want to work on reducing sodium intake and increasing your intake of foods with potassium. Your doctor or dietitian can work with you to develop goals related to your specific concerns, goals, lifestyle, health history, etc.
Additionally, the HAES Health Sheet Library has many tools and recommendations for improving health related to various conditions.
I also want to note it’s OK if, after learning all of this, you still want weight loss. The choice to pursue dieting is a personal one. I have no judgment towards your choices. You can also choose weight loss AND still do body liberation work. The work you do is still meaningful and important regardless of the choice you make.
You know what’s best for you, and it’s often not straightforward. These decisions are incredibly complex and multifaceted.
What’s my Healthiest Weight? How do I know my Healthiest Weight?
First, I want to point out that while weight does tend to stabilize in intuitive eaters, body weight changes throughout different stages of life are completely normal. Weight fluctuations can be influenced by various factors, including age, lifestyle, and medical conditions. For instance, weight gain in the elderly is not only expected but also protective.
With that being said, focusing on reaching a “healthy weight” can keep you preoccupied with weight, leading to continued restrictive behaviors and diet mentality. Rather than fixating on a specific weight, shift your focus to how your body feels.
Ironically, your healthiest weight will emerge when you’re no longer focused on your weight and instead living a life aligned with your values. So how do you know when you’re there? Here are some signs that indicate you’ve reached a place of balance:
- You no longer obsessively think about food
- You have more energy and better focus
- You eat in a way that makes you feel your best
- You crave foods that are nutrient-dense as an act of self-care
- You are able to enjoy all food without guilt
- You can attend food events with ease rather than isolating out of fear
- You no longer have constant thoughts about food
- You are able to stop eating when comfortably full
- You no longer feel out of control around food
- You have ways to cope with emotions beyond food
- You stop exercising to “burn calories” and instead find movement you enjoy
This can feel so uncertain and scary, and that’s completely understandable. Dieting offers a false sense of control and certainty, while intuitive eating can feel unpredictable. This uncertainty can lead to the belief that sticking with dieting is the safer option.
However, rather than giving up on Intuitive Eating, I encourage you to explore this fear more. Is another diet the solution? Intuitive Eating offers a chance to reclaim what dieting has taken away – your time, energy, and money – and allows you to live an authentic life aligned with your values.
Can I Eat Intuitively Without Gaining Weight?
If you’re trying to practice Intuitive Eating while simultaneously trying not to gain weight, you’re going to have a hard time. Focusing on weight impedes your ability to become an intuitive eater.
When weight loss is a goal, there will automatically be a level of restriction and control, a heightened focus on the body, and a mistrust in your body’s internal knowledge.
These all impede your ability to heal your relationship with food and body to become an Intuitive Eater. I’ll explain:
- Diet rigidity is one of the maintaining mechanisms of disordered eating. Diet rigidity is defined as inflexible and strict diet rules developed to control weight. Dieting rigidity perpetuates disordered eating for a couple of reasons.
First, maintaining diet rules requires a lot of cognitive control, which is not sustainable. So when something inevitably happens, like a missed meal or stressful occurrence, it can lead to a feeling of loss of control when eating or binge eating.
Second, physical restriction leads to increased hunger. Physiological hunger will almost always override any “control” you have over your food rules.
- Tuning out physiological cues like hunger and fullness can cause them to be muted over time. This can lead to even more mistrust in the body and a reliance on external cues like counting calories or macros.
Over time, this makes it difficult to tune into and trust your body’s internal wisdom, a foundational principle of Intuitive Eating. The good news is that hunger and fullness cues can return with practice.
- When the focus is on weight loss, it keeps the focus on rejecting the current body for something “better” rather than addressing body insecurities and finding worth and value outside of appearance. This perpetuates the overvaluation of weight and shape, which is another driving factor for disordered eating.
Intuitive Eating is about respecting, caring for, and nourishing your body regardless of appearance. Once you find self-worth beyond appearance and let go of the need for control over food and body, you begin to heal your relationship with food.
Note: That doesn’t mean that if you desire weight loss or want to avoid weight gain, you can’t practice Intuitive Eating. That wouldn’t be realistic, especially in our weight-centric society. Working with an Intuitive Eating dietitian or therapist can help with weight concerns while practicing Intuitive Eating.
Where Does The Fear of Weight Gain Come From When Practicing Intuitive Eating?
It’s completely understandable that you have a fear of gaining weight, especially given how prevalent weight bias is in our culture. The fear of weight gain is complex, often rooted in a mix of past experiences, societal influences, and individual perceptions:
- Past experiences: This encompasses your direct experiences with friends, family, peers, and strangers and also the societal and cultural messages you were exposed to in the past. Our brains are wired to remember and react to negative experiences. When you have experienced criticism or shaming for your body’s appearance (or other bodies around you), your brain becomes programmed to avoid similar situations in the future. This leads to the development of fear and avoidance behaviors as a protection mechanism against perceived dangers or discomforts. However, those protective behaviors can have a negative effect (i.e., disordered eating, avoiding events with food, etc).
- Societal influences: Cultural and societal messages that you are exposed to (i.e., weight bias) on a daily basis impact how you feel about yourself.
- Relationships: This includes the dynamics between you and your family, friends, and peers.
- Core Beliefs: These are strongly held and often inflexible beliefs you have that shape your perception of yourself and the world. They are shaped by the factors listed above. Core beliefs direct your daily thoughts and feelings.
- Physical changes: Things like not fitting into your clothing or feeling your thighs chafe may cause physical discomfort, which in turn can cause a fear of gaining weight.
- Perception: This is how you perceive (interpret) your body to be. For example, you may “feel fat” or feel bigger when you are full after eating even though physically your body size hasn’t actually changed.
- Personality traits: Certain personality traits can affect how you feel (i.e., perfectionism).
- Emotions: Emotions such as fear, stress, joy, or sadness can influence your perceptions of your body and intensify the fear of weight gain.
Why is it Important to Overcome the Fear of Weight Gain?
Picture this: your friend decides to have her bachelorette party at a beach. You want to go and celebrate with your friends, but you decide to skip it because that feels easier than putting on a bathing suit in front of other people.
How about this: you get the opportunity to go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a new country with your family. Your kids and significant other are savoring the new flavors and experiences, but you decide to opt out of some of the food experiences because it feels safer than the potential of gaining a few pounds.
Fear of weight gain can control our lives in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways that limit our experiences and disconnect us from joy and connection.
Fear of weight gain can lead to weight control behaviors, such as strict food rules, which often fuel binge eating (21). Fear of weight gain can also lead to avoidance behaviors such as avoiding a party or wearing bathing suits.
These behaviors reinforce the fear of weight gain and make the fear stronger, which fuels the behaviors more and creates a perpetual cycle.
When fear dictates your actions, it fuels disordered eating or other harmful behaviors and causes you to miss out on rich life experiences.
Facing your fear of weight gain doesn’t mean ignoring it, but rather accepting it and realizing that you still deserve joy and satisfaction. Life inherently involves discomfort, and joy can coexist with the challenges.
That doesn’t mean you have to like the weight gain or even be OK with it, but rather accept the temporary discomfort it brings and still choose to live the life you want – to live your life according to your values, not your fears.
How to Deal with Fear of Weight Gain in Intuitive Eating
Note: This is not a comprehensive list. These are just some ideas to get started. Becoming an intuitive eater is different for everyone. Some of these tools and ideas may not resonate with you, and that’s okay. Take what is helpful and leave the rest.
1. Live in Alignment With Your Values
Values work is an integral part of improving your relationship with food and body image. Diet culture typically revolves around rules or external factors that dictate how you should live your life, and these may or may not align with your values.
For example, you may have learned a diet rule that “eating pasta will make me gain weight, and gaining weight is bad.” Because of this rule, you have been avoiding pasta.
Following a “no pasta rule” might work well at first but can create unforeseen challenges as different occasions arise.
For example, your friend decides to arrange a group dinner at a new Italian restaurant. You want to see your friends, but there aren’t options you want to eat, and you find the temptation too intense, so you avoid the event. Or you decide to go and order a salad and spend the night wishing you could eat pasta, which distracts you from the conversation. You have a value of friendship and connection, but the food rule is now making it harder to live in alignment with that.
Now, imagine your town is hosting a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for a local nature preserve. You value community and sustainability, but your food rule is again making it hard to live in alignment with that.
Additionally, while diet culture typically pushes external goals, like reaching a certain weight, living in alignment with your values offers a more meaningful and satisfying way to connect to your actions and choices.
For example, when you have a goal to reach a certain weight or look a certain way, you typically don’t feel satisfied or good about yourself until that goal is achieved. Then, once the goal is met, a new goal is set, and the goalpost is moved. It can become a neverending chase.
In contrast, living in alignment with your values allows you to find satisfaction and meaning in the process. With values-aligned living, there isn’t an end-point. You can always choose to live in alignment with your values.
Additionally, your actions are fueled by values, not fear (i.e., fear of weight gain), so there isn’t the discrepancy between how you’re living and the life you want to live.
That’s not to say you won’t experience challenging times or difficult emotions, but those challenges don’t have to have control over your life. Even during difficult or challenging times, you’re still able to experience satisfaction, meaning, or enjoyment.
So, how do you live in alignment with your values?
Embracing Your Values
Step 1: Food and weight may be currently taking up a lot of your brain space, time, money, and/or energy, but they’re not the only things you care about!
Identify and list out all your values.
What did you value before dieting and fear of weight gain became a priority? Have you been missing out on anything? What feels important to you now?
Step 2: Refine your list. Narrow your list down to 3 – 5 values that hold the most meaning to you (you can always revisit this).
Step 3: Live your life in alignment with your values. When a challenging situation comes up, and you’re deciding how to handle it, ask yourself, “Does this action move me towards my values or away from values?”
2. Evaluate Your Self-Worth
Fear of weight gain is often fueled by tying your self-worth to your appearance.
Think about your own self-worth. Where do you get your sense of self-worth, and where does appearance/weight fit into it? Now, think about your friends, family, and people you care about. What things are important to you about them, and where does appearance fit in, if anywhere?
Is there a discrepancy in these two lists? Is appearance/weight high on your own list, but personality traits and characteristics such as empathic, adventurous, humorous, caring, etc. high on the other list?
Societal messages condition us to think our own appearance is so important to our worth. Multi-billion dollar companies make money when we’re insecure. They spend big bucks on advertising to keep us unhappy with our appearance, so we buy their diet, supplement, makeup, workout program, etc etc etc. If we were content with our appearance, we wouldn’t buy their product. It’s a business. But unfortunately, it’s affected so many people.
So what can you do?
It’s okay to care about your appearance, and it’d be unrealistic to say you shouldn’t care at all, but the more value you place on weight and appearance, the more it takes away from other areas of your life. We have a finite amount of energy, time, and resources, so the more you put towards one thing, the more it interferes with another.
Go back to the list you made previously about your current self-worth. Give each item a relative percentage of importance to you so that when each item is added up, it will equal 100%. How much of your time, energy, and brain space is taken up by each item?
Put these items in a pie chart so you can visualize it.
Look at your pie chart. How much does concern over weight and appearance take up? Is it interfering with other aspects of your life?
How would you prefer your pie chart to look? Make another chart for where you want to be.
What’s one thing you can do more of to move you toward where you want to be?
What’s one thing you can do less of to move you toward where you want to be?
3. Practice Body Respect
Typically, when people think about a positive body image or improving their own body image, the media campaigns that center around “loving the skin you’re in” or promoting “all bodies are beautiful” come to mind.
And while this is a step in the right direction from the plastic Kardashian look, loving your body in a culture where physical appearance is so highly valued and ubiquitous can feel unattainable.
Body positivity, as it’s commonly portrayed today, has limitations. So, that’s where Body Respect comes in. Instead of going from hating your body to loving your body, the goal is shifted to respecting your body.
Can you show your body respect, even if you don’t accept how it looks?
How you feel about your body affects the way you treat yourself, but the opposite is true too – when you treat your body with respect, you begin to feel better and appreciate your body more.
When you diet, restrict, overexercise, hide your body, skip events, and give into the fear of weight gain, you’re reinforcing the idea that your appearance dictates your self-worth.
Conversely, practicing intuitive eating, engaging in empowering movement, eating enough, resting when tired, and other self-care practices fuel your self-worth. It reinforces the idea that you have inherent self-worth and your body is deserving of care no matter your appearance.
Reflect on ways you can show your body respect. What do you need more of or less of in your life?
The next time you’re having a tough body image day, choose one item on your list to show your body respect.
4. Reframe Your Thoughts
Fear of weight gain is driven by black-and-white thinking, which is a way of thinking in absolutes (i.e., I’m going to gain weight if I eat this; gaining weight is so bad).
People tend to fall into this pattern of thinking because it provides a sense of security or certainty, which can help reduce anxiety – it’s the brain’s natural tendency to fall into this pattern of thinking as a coping mechanism.
However, thinking in absolutes prevents you from seeing things the way they actually are with all the intricacies and nuance. Things in life are seldom black and white – there’s always a grey area.
While thoughts are often automated and may feel beyond your control, there is a silver lining: You DO have control over whether you choose to engage with the thought. With practice, over time, you can begin to change your neural pathways, and this will start to get easier.
So how do you do this?
When you notice a black-and-white thought, ask yourself these questions:
- What’s the evidence that this thought is true or untrue? Are there other ways of looking at it?
- Is this thought helpful?
- Is this thought unhelpful and/or harmful?
Then, write down three alternatives that are more flexible, neutral, and helpful.
Note: the reframe should still be something realistic and meaningful to you. You’re reframing an unhelpful thought into something more nuanced and helpful (or at least neutral) – you’re not trying to convince yourself to believe something you don’t or gaslight yourself.
For example, “Weight gain is bad, and I will be unhealthy if I gain weight.”
- Is there another way to view this that’s less absolute?
Not all weight gain is bad, and health is a lot more complex than weight alone
- Is it helpful?
No, this thought does not lead to any helpful actions or behaviors.
- Is it harmful?
Yes, it’s causing stress and anxiety. It’s keeping me from living in alignment with my values and leading me to restrict and binge.
Three alternative thoughts:
- Restriction and underfueling can have poor health outcomes and have not served me well in the past. I’m trying something new.
- I can incorporate health-promoting behaviors, no matter what size I am.
- Things are never all good or all bad, weight gain may be needed to help me recover my relationship with food and body.
Noticing and reframing negative thoughts takes practice. It can be easy to feel disheartened if you’re struggling in the beginning, but it does get easier with time. It can help to have a support system.
5. Be Mindful of the Media You Consume
One of the biggest predictors of a negative body image is internalization of society’s beauty ideal, which is ever-evolving and often unrealistic and unattainable for the majority of the population.
We live in a society that places high value on appearance and unfortunately, the appearance standard is very narrow and only fits a very small minority of the population.
When so much emphasis and value are placed on how we look, and the standards of beauty are so unrealistic, it makes sense that we’d feel poorly about our weight or our appearance.
Internalization of society’s beauty ideal (adopting society’s standards of attractiveness as your own) can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and an increased risk of eating disorders.
Take note of what you see and how you feel when you scroll through social media and watch TV or movies.
Are you bombarded with unrealistic pictures or watch shows that have little body diversity and sexualize or objectify the characters? Do you feel better about yourself or worse after consuming this media? If the answer is the latter, it may be time to clean up your feed and/or limit what you watch.
Unfollow the accounts of unrealistic and photoshopped bodies and follow pages with more varied and realistic bodies. Instead, follow accounts that promote body neutrality, limit screen time, and learn media literacy.
….and remember, much of what you see in the media and on social media is fake anyway. Influencers are notorious for using filters, editing pics, knowing the right poses, etc. Even the influencers and models don’t actually look like their pictures!
How to Deal with Gaining Weight While Practicing Intuitive Eating
Again, this is not a comprehensive list. These are just some ideas to get started. Becoming an intuitive eater is different for everyone. Some of these tools and ideas may not resonate with you, and that’s okay. Take what is helpful and leave the rest.
I also want to acknowledge the unique challenges faced by individuals in larger bodies. The reality is that experiencing weight gain to a point that society no longer deems ‘acceptable’ can be extremely difficult. This isn’t to diminish the struggles of those in smaller or ‘socially acceptable’ sized bodies, but it’s important to acknowledge that larger bodies are frequently subject to unfair discrimination and mistreatment.
It’s so unfortunate that our society still does this, and if you’ve experienced any of that, I’m so incredibly sorry. It’s a profound injustice, and navigating these challenges adds another layer of difficulty. Your experiences undeniably shape your feelings about your body and weight.
While these societal pressures can intensify the difficulty of weight gain, the tools and strategies we discuss are still available and valuable. You are worthy of respect, care, and support, no matter your weight.
1. Make Sure You Are Physically Comfortable
In a society that automatically views weight gain as a “bad” thing, dealing with the psychological and societal implications can be challenging. Add in physical discomforts like chafing or clothes that no longer fit compound these challenges. Adapting to these changes to be more comfortable physically can help significantly.
Embrace your current body by selecting clothing that not only fits comfortably but also brings you joy. Addressing chafing through effective creams or specially designed garments can greatly improve your daily comfort.
Prioritizing physical comfort is a significant step towards showing compassion and care for your body and can make a huge difference when practicing Intuitive Eating.
2. Remember Why You Started Intuitive Eating
When gaining weight is making Intuitive Eating harder, remember WHY you started in the first place.
Take time to reflect on how dieting worked for you long-term in the past. How did it make you feel? What made you seek out something different? Why is healing your relationship with food and body image important to you?
Make a list of all your reasons. Come back to this list any time things get difficult.
2. Practice Functionality Appreciation
Functionality appreciation is an aspect of the broader concept of body appreciation. While body appreciation encompasses all aspects of appreciating your body, including both its appearance and function, functionality appreciation specifically hones in on the appreciation of your functional capabilities, regardless of appearance.
Body appreciation and functionality appreciation share similar benefits, such as higher life satisfaction, gratitude, overall well-being, and self-esteem. However, functionality appreciation is more strongly related to intuitive eating (22, 23).
Create a journal of all the things you appreciate about what your body can do instead of how it looks. It can help to do this when you’re not in the heat of the moment and then revisit this list any time you are feeling uncomfortable in your body.
Write “I appreciate that my body allows me to….” and come up with a list of everything you can think of.
For some examples:
- Enjoy a nostalgic movie
- Have a deep and meaningful conversation
- Craft artwork
- Play an instrument
- Go for a run
- Enjoy an ice cream cone
- Listen to my favorite music
- Do a pull-up
- Accomplish a goal
- Recover from illness
- Digest food that gives my body energy
- Take a rejuvenating nap
- Enjoy the cool feel of rain on your skin on a hot summer day
Without your body, mind, and senses, you wouldn’t be able to do some of your favorite things.
Anytime you feel yourself focusing too much on weight, revisit your list of everything you appreciate about what your body can do for you.
3. Acknowledge Your Wins Beyond Body Weight
Diet culture often leads us to believe that progress is solely measured by what the scale says or physical changes like losing weight, reducing body fat, or gaining muscle. So, it makes sense that if you’re gaining weight while practicing intuitive eating, it might feel like you’re failing. Instead, recognize and celebrate all the great things you’ve gained since starting intuitive eating. For example:
- Haven’t binged in two months.
- Enjoyed a meal out with friends without stressing over the menu or skipping the event.
- Savored holiday cookies without guilt.
- Forgot about having my favorite candy in the house.
- Found movement I enjoy and noticed the benefits of how it made me feel.
- Enjoyed a salad because it was what I was craving, not because I felt like I HAD to eat it.
- No longer feel the need to have “cheat” days
- Have more energy.
- Found ways to cope with difficult emotions apart from using food.
4. Practice Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is extending the same kindness and care to yourself in times of difficulty or failure that you would to others and acknowledging that suffering is part of the shared human experience. There are three main elements of self-compassion: self-kindness vs self-judgment, common humanity vs isolation, and mindfulness vs over-identification.
Studies have shown that self-compassion is a trait that can be learned and it is associated with positive body image and higher body appreciation and is inversely associated with eating pathology and body concerns (24).
Check out Dr. Kristin Neff for many free activities and tips on cultivating and practicing self-compassion.
Intuitive Eating Weight Gain Journal Prompts
If you need some more reflection on Intuitive Eating and weight gain, here are a few prompts to get you started:
- Reflect back to a time before you thought about your weight (if you can remember a time). What was important to you back then? What did you enjoy? What foods did you like or dislike? What did you do for fun?
- Imagine a life where weight is not your primary focus, how would your life be different?
- How much of your time each day is spent thinking about food or your body? Are you OK with that amount? What else is important to you?
- Apart from weight, what other aspects about yourself do you value? What’s important to you?
- What life experiences have contributed to you being afraid of weight gain?
- At what age did you begin dieting? Has it made your life better, worse, or neutral?
- If a close friend or family member came to you with concerns about their own weight, how would you speak to them? What insights would you offer them based on your own experiences?
- How has the desire for weight loss impacted your relationships, social life, and overall well-being?
- What are some non-physical qualities you love about yourself?
- Describe a challenge you’ve faced with intuitive eating and how you overcame it.
Final Thoughts on Intuitive Eating Weight Gain
It’s understandable if you’re hesitant to try Intuitive Eating because of the fear of weight gain. We’ve been conditioned to associate weight gain as a negative thing. However, there are so many benefits to Intuitive Eating, and fear of weight gain may be holding you back.
If you’ve been struggling with Intuitive Eating because of weight gain or fear of weight gain, I hope you found this post helpful!
If you’re interested in learning more, check out some of these other blog posts on Intuitive Eating and Body Image.
- Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss [Everything you Need to Know]
- Body Appreciation: A Comprehensive Guide to Cultivating Body Gratitude
- 100+ Intuitive and Mindful Eating Affirmations to Help Combat Negative Self-Talk
- Intuitive Eating Before and After [What to Expect When You Start Intuitive Eating]
- Looking for an Intuitive Eating Coach? Read this!
- Why Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Work: An Expert’s Perspective
- The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating [A Complete Guide + Free PDF]
- Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale [+Free PDF]
If you’re looking for personalized support, I offer individual nutrition and Intuitive Eating counseling services to help you find food freedom.
My services are tailored to your specific needs and concerns. We work to develop a plan together that will help you achieve your goals and fit into your life. Whether you’re looking to break free from the diet cycle, overcome emotional or binge eating, or stop hating your body, I’m here to help.
I am a Registered Dietitian, and as such, the information provided is accurate and evidence-based. However, I am not your dietitian, and nutrition therapy is highly individual. The information contained in this post is not intended to be a substitute for individualized nutrition advice or care.
The information provided in this blog post is intended solely for informational and educational purposes. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
If you suspect you may have an eating disorder or any other medical condition, consult with a qualified healthcare provider for a comprehensive evaluation and tailored treatment plan that’s appropriate for you. Always seek the advice of your qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.
Kristin is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Dietetics with a concentration in Biology and a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. She has experience conducting systematic reviews and writing and evaluating scientific literature in peer-reviewed journals. She has a goal of making evidence-based nutrition information accessible and easy to understand.