Intuitive Eating has been growing in popularity over the last decade. Like anything else, with that rise in popularity comes a rise in naysayers that like to debate why Intuitive Eating doesn’t work.
Similarly, there has also been a rise in people co-opting the language of Intuitive Eating just to make a buck.
Both lead to confusion on what Intuitive Eating actually is… which leads to even more misunderstanding and debate.
In this article, I’m will clear up some myths and misconceptions about Intuitive Eating, define what it *actually* is, and, more importantly, answer if Intuitive Eating even works.
Table of Contents
What is Intuitive Eating?
Before we dig into if Intuitive Eating works, it’s important to clarify what it is… and what it’s not.
Intuitive Eating is a non-diet approach to eating that works to heal your relationship with food and body by cultivating trust and awareness within your body.
It was created in 1995 by two Registered Dietitian Nutritionists, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It’s an evidence-based model with a validated assessment scale and about 150 studies to date.
Intuitive Eating is based on 10 Principles that work to either improve or remove obstacles of body awareness and cultivate sustainable habits that add to your physical and mental health.
There’s a lot of nuance and complexities to Intuitive Eating. For the sake of brevity and not turning this blog post into a book, I’m going to leave it at that. To learn more, I highly recommend reading more about it directly from the source, Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition or reading this article on Intuitive Eating.
What Intuitive Eating is Not
While it is important to learn what Intuitive Eating actually is, to understand if it works, it can be more helpful to know what it’s *not* and understand some common misconceptions and myths.
- Intuitive Eating is not a fad diet. Although Intuitive Eating has become trendy, it isn’t just another fad. Intuitive Eating is a paradigm shift that aligns with the principles of Health at Every Size. It’s a whole movement focusing on inclusivity and access to care that’s only going to continue to grow. This is what the future is moving towards, and that’s a good thing!
- It’s not just relying on internal cues instead of tracking macros or calories to reach your physique goal. A common misconception in the fitness community is that Intuitive Eating is simply a lack of tracking macros and instead just eye-balling potions and listening to internal cues. However, eating intuitively and Intuitive Eating are not the same thing.
Intuitive Eating refers to a therapeutic framework for eating and healing your relationship with food and body while eating intuitively simply refers to tuning into internal body cues.
- It’s not a non-diet approach to weight loss. First off, a non-diet approach to weight loss is an oxymoron. This is literally just diet culture (looking at you, Noom) co-opting the language of Intuitive Eating since it’s gaining so much popularity. Weight control, caloric restriction, and labeling foods work against Intuitive Eating. Calling a weight control program “non-diet” is just harmful and confusing.
- It’s not the hunger-fullness diet. As I stated previously, tuning into internal body cues is just a small part of Intuitive Eating. Doing so with the sole purpose of controlling weight can impede the goals of Intuitive Eating.
- It is not the same as mindful eating. While mindfulness is a part of intuitive eating, there is more to it than that.
- It’s not anti-weight loss. Just because weight isn’t the focus or the end goal with Intuitive Eating, doesn’t mean that it’s anti-weight loss. If someone loses weight (or gains) with Intuitive Eating, that’s fine, but you are so much more than your body or your weight, and as I’ll dig into more in a bit, health is so much more complex than weight alone.
What Does ‘Work’ Really Mean?
So does Intuitive Eating work? Well, first we need to define what “working” actually means. There is no right way to practice Intuitive Eating, and it will look a little different for everyone (more on this later).
So you literally can’t fail at practicing Intuitive Eating. It will just look different at different stages of your journey and at various points in your life.
The principles are not rules to follow, they are guidelines. Some principles may not be accessible to everyone, and that’s OK. That’s the beauty of Intuitive Eating. It works to fit your lifestyle, not the other way around, as is the case with traditional weight loss diets.
So if there’s no wrong way to practice Intuitive Eating, how do you know if it’s *working*? Well, that will depend on your goals, preferences, lifestyles, and starting point, but some indicators include:
- You can keep your previously forbidden foods in the house without bingeing on them.
- You’re consistent with exercise AND enjoy it.
- You’re not constantly thinking about food all day.
- You can eat your favorite foods without guilt or shame.
- You feel in control around foods that were once “off-limits”. The food no longer has power over you.
- You’re consistently eating nourishing and satisfying meals in a way that feels good for your body.
- You’re no longer grazing on snacks all day out of boredom.
- You don’t turn to food for comfort every time you’re sad, lonely, or angry.
- You have fewer food cravings.
- Eating no longer stresses you out or gives you anxiety.
- You have improved digestion.
- You no longer skip out on events where food is served.
- You have improved self-confidence.
- You’re able to focus on making memories and enjoying the moment with friends and family rather than being consumed with food thoughts.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, the list could go on! If you’ve started Intuitive Eating, comment below on what your most significant win is.
Intuitive Eating is a process that takes time, patience, support, and self-compassion. There’s no single outcome that defines Intuitive Eating, and experiences will look different for everyone. However, it’s important to acknowledge progress and all the wins (small or big) along the way.
This can be easier said than done, I know! If this is something you struggle with, it can be helpful to find an Intuitive Eating Counselor to help. If you’d like one-on-one help, I work with clients virtually from around the world on Intuitive Eating, check out my services here.
Why Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Work: Top Criticisms
Most of the criticism on Intuitive Eating comes from people who don’t understand it. Let’s unpack some of the top criticisms and see if they hold any weight.
Intuitive Eating is Bad for Weight Loss
Intuitive Eating is NOT a tool for weight loss.
Anyone claiming that it is for weight loss either doesn’t know what Intuitive Eating is, doesn’t understand the research, or is trying to co-opt the language to make a quick buck.
The first principle of Intuitive Eating is to reject the diet mentality. If someone doesn’t even know the basic principles of Intuitive Eating, I highly doubt they’ve dove into all the research.
So, how can this person be a good critic of Intuitive Eating if they don’t even understand it?
“I Would Just Eat ‘Junk Food’ All Day”
Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods will ultimately result in a balanced eating pattern. In fact, studies show that Intuitive Eaters have a wider variety of food intake and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables (1).
Intuitive Eating isn’t just eating what you want, when you want, without regard for anything else. It’s about eating in a way that is satisfying but also nourishing as an act of self-care. Before nutrition enters the picture though, feelings of deprivation have to be healed, which can take some time.
At first, you might have a period where previously off-limits foods take center stage in your diet because it’s exciting and freeing. Once the feeling of deprivation is gone and habituation occurs, you will be able to enjoy these foods in a more balanced way.
I’m not saying that you’re going to preferentially have a taste for broccoli over french fries, but the french fries will start to lose their power over you, and you’ll be able to make your decision based on what your body needs and wants.
After all, it’s physically not going to feel too good eating cupcakes and chips all day long. I promise they will start to lose that intense appeal and become just a tasty food you incorporate as it feels good.
Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Consider Nutrition
That’s not true at all. Gentle nutrition is a principle of Intuitive Eating. However, instead of just focusing on nutrients and calories, Intuitive Eating is about eating in a way that feels good, energizes the body, and is satisfying and enjoyable.
It’s the last principle because it’s hard to feel what’s happening in the body when you’re dieting. Dieting causes you to focus too much on external variables like rules, beliefs, and restrictions. It makes you believe you can’t trust your body.
Cultivating internal awareness takes time, practice, and support, but once the deprivation is healed, it is possible to eat in a balanced way to satisfy both the taste buds and the body.
“I Would Never Stop Eating”
It can definitely feel like this if you’re in the throes of dieting.
However, restriction is one of the biggest drivers of uncontrollable eating. That primal urge to eat will go away when you’re regularly eating nourishing and satisfying meals.
Carrying Extra Weight is Unhealthy
This is probably the most controversial and complex aspect of Intuitive Eating, so bear with me as I break this one down.
Under the traditional model of health, we’re told that weight and health are directly correlated, so the more someone weighs, the more unhealthy they’ll be. And by the same concept, if someone loses weight, they’ll improve their health, right?
Yes, there is an association between weight and health markers or certain diseases, but the association isn’t quite as significant as we may think. Health is a lot more complex and nuanced than weight alone. Many factors determine one’s health, from genetics to environment to access to stigma-free medical care. Plus, there is a lot we still don’t know regarding the associations between weight and health.
Much of the evidence on the associations of weight and health is correlational (meaning there is a relationship between the two variables but not necessarily that one causes the other).
For example, weight loss is usually accomplished by incorporating various lifestyle changes, such as eating more fruits and vegetables or increasing movement. So, was it the weight loss that led to health improvements, or was it the lifestyle changes (or a combination of both)?
Even when controlling for these variables, it’s still a lot more complex than weight alone.
Plus, long-term weight loss isn’t attainable for many people and can even lead to weight gain in some. Beyond all that, weight-loss diets don’t come without risk. There are physiological and psychological risks associated with dieting, such as disordered eating, weight cycling, and weight stigma, all of which are harmful to health.
If all of that wasn’t enough, there is evidence of health improvements regardless of weight changes by incorporating certain behaviors. Taking the focus off weight loss doesn’t mean taking the focus off health. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Intuitive Eating focuses on the behaviors that people can control since weight is primarily an uncontrollable factor.
Intuitive Eating focuses on the whole person. That includes physical, mental, and social determinants of health, rather than one uncontrollable factor that may or may not improve health.
Why Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Work for You: Trouble-Shooting
What about people who have read the book, tried to implement it, and “failed”.
I’ve heard many people say, “oh, I’ve tried Intuitive Eating, it didn’t work for me” or “Intuitive Eating is great for others, but does not work for me”.
Here are some of the top reasons why people struggle with Intuitive Eating:
You’ve Turned the Intuitive Eating Principles into Rules
It’s human nature to turn things black and white. It’s simpler if something has a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do things. This especially holds true with eating. There’s comfort in knowing that there’s clear rules that will lead to a definitive outcome. But eating is complex, nuanced, and personal. Intuitive Eating acknowledges that.
There is no right or wrong way to practice Intuitive Eating. The principles are simply guidelines, not rules, and some of the guidelines may not be appropriate for everyone.
What to do about it?
Let go of your expectations. Know that Intuitive Eating is a journey with no final destination. Just because you’re having a hard day, week, or even month, doesn’t mean that you’re failing. Have self-compassion, find support, and acknowledge how far you’ve come.
You Don’t Trust Your Body
Trust is a key aspect of Intuitive Eating.
You need to *trust* your body to tune into and honor your internal cues.
It is understandable that most people don’t trust their bodies, especially when you’ve been told your whole life by random diets that you can’t and shouldn’t trust your body.
Diets rely on external measures and rules such as portion sizes, macros or calories, time restriction, elimination of certain foods, etc. Every time you ignore your internal cues for a diet, you relinquish trust in your body over to the food rules of the diet. You start to see your body as something that needs to be controlled.
But trust can be rebuilt. It’s not easy and takes time but the more you honor and trust your body, the easier it will be.
You’re still Trying to Lose Weight
While some people do lose weight with Intuitive Eating, it is not the goal and also doesn’t happen for all people (and that’s OK). If you’re subconsciously or even consciously holding on to the desire of weight loss, it’ll interfere with the process of Intuitive Eating.
If you’re still seeking weight loss, there will still be external control. You won’t be able to make peace with food and reconnect with your internal wisdom.
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to want to lose weight. I mean, it’s almost impossible not to in a society that glorifies weight loss and dieting. It is perfectly OK if you still want weight loss. However, it’s best to put these desires on hold while you’re working through Intuitive Eating.
You View Some Foods as “Good” and others as “Bad”
If you’re still viewing some foods as better than others, it’s going to be hard to be attuned to your needs because there will still be a level of restriction.
When we tell ourselves we can’t have something, it ultimately makes us want it more. That’s how our brains are wired, and there have been studies that show this.
For example, let’s say you physically allow yourself to eat ice cream. However, at the same time, there’s a voice in the back of your head saying, “oh this is so bad for me, I shouldn’t eat this” it’s going to be really hard to quit eating the ice cream.
That’s where giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, food habituation, and challenging the food police can come into play.
Once the restriction is truly healed, forbidden foods will lose their power, but that healing can’t occur if the restriction is still there. There will still be a sense of desperation and loss of control.
You Don’t Have Support
Intuitive Eating is a process with ups and downs. It can be incredibly challenging, especially if you live in a culture that praises weight loss and diets. Without support, it can feel confusing and isolating. It’s important to find support, whether through a coach, a friend that’s gone through it, or an online support group.
Looking for one on one support? Check out my nutrition services.
You Tried to do too Much at Once
You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) try to implement all the principles at once. This will feel incredibly overwhelming and difficult. You may feel out of control with your eating, which can feel really scary and lead you to believe you’re “failing”.
Instead, start slow. Choose a couple principles to explore and implement before starting another one. Don’t know where to start?
Check out my free Beginner’s Guide to Intuitive Eating.
Food is your Main Coping Mechanism For Feeling
Eating for comfort can be a completely normal and healthy part of your relationship with food.
For example, if baking cookies reminds you of cooking with your grandma as a child and brings you comfort during a stressful time, that’s perfectly fine. Using food as comfort can become a problem when it’s your only coping mechanism for feelings of boredom, loneliness, stress, or sadness or is associated with feelings of guilt.
Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Have Enough Structure – You Feel Lost
This is *so*common to feel like this at first. Afterall, it’s the opposite of what we hear with dieting. Dieting is all about external rules. Diet culture thrives on making us think we can’t trust ourselves and that we *need* these external measures and rules.
Dieting starts out easy because you’re told exactly what to eat and how much. There’s a sense of security because you know you’re doing it “right” according to the diet of the month’s rules. But it starts to get harder and harder because these rules don’t consider our lives, preferences, genetics, history, celebrations, trauma, etc.
We’re not robots living in a vacuum. Things aren’t always easy and perfect and the same day to day. We’re human. That’s what makes life interesting, but also so tough at times. Eventually, we can no longer follow these external rules and we “fall off the wagon”.
Intuitive Eating is the opposite. When you first start Intuitive Eating, it can feel really tough and uncomfortable because it’s new. With more practice, patience, and self-compassion, it gets easier and you no longer have to think about it as much. It opens space in your mind for everything else.
A fellow colleague once used the analogy of a bottle to describe Intuitive Eating, and it stuck with me because it makes it really easy to visualize. Bottles are narrow at the top before opening up for more space. You have to make your way through the tough part before it opens up and gets easier.
You also might need more structure and guidance with eating in the beginning. Like I said, you shouldn’t implement all principles at once.
If you’ve been dieting and tuning out your hunger for a while, you might not be able to feel your hunger and fullness cues and might need some eating guidelines at first while learning to tune into your body’s cues.
That’s why it’s important to get support working with a trained professional. They can give more guidance in the beginning until you’re more comfortable on your own.
You’re not Ready for It
You might just not be ready for Intuitive Eating and that’s completely understandable. It is REALLY hard to give up dieting in our culture. Diets and weight talk are literally everywhere you turn.
If you’re not quite ready to embrace Intuitive Eating because you have a fear of weight gain, your food rules give you comfort, you’re struggling with an eating disorder, or any other reason, that’s OK.
However, if you’re waiting to feel 100% ready, I encourage you to take the leap towards Intuitive Eating. Most people are not 100% ready when they first start Intuitive Eating and that’s partly why I recommend taking it slow, taking baby steps, and getting support along the way.
Does Intuitive Eating Work for Everyone?
Short answer: yes. As I’ve been saying, there is no right or wrong way to practice Intuitive Eating.
It’s not a set of rules you have to work through one by one and if you mess up you fail. Not all of the principles may be appropriate for everyone at all times. However, maybe some of the other principles can still be incorporated.
Intuitive Eating is about internal regulation, self-care, inclusivity, body respect, and coping skills. It makes nutrition and health accessible to all bodies.
With that being said, there are some groups of people that some of the principles may be less accessible.
Situations where Intuitive Eating may be more difficult:
- Food insecurity
- Past trauma
- Eating disorders
- A health condition where you can’t connect to internal cues
- Pregnancy/morning sickness
- Dietary restrictions for ethical or religious reasons
If you believe that Intuitive Eating isn’t for you, know that you may be able to incorporate some principles of Intuitive Eating into your life, and still find benefit.
For example, to practice all principles of Intuitive Eating, you must have access to food and not everyone has that. Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat what your body needs and is craving is a privilege.
The principles related to honoring internal biological cues and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat may not be accessible if you’re just worrying about where your next meal will come from. However, rejecting the diet mentality, coping with your emotions with kindness, and respecting your body would all be helpful principles to incorporate.
FAQs on Intuitive Eating Efficacy
No, Intuitive Eating is not unhealthy.
First of all, health encompasses physical health, mental health, and social well-being.
Intuitive Eating has consistently been associated with improved physical and mental health markers such as higher body satisfaction, lower levels of disordered eating, and improved lipids and blood pressure.
Quite frankly, yes. Intuitive Eating has only been associated with positive outcomes.
While dieting for weight loss, on the other hand, may be associated with health improvements (often temporary), it doesn’t come without potential risk. Restrictive diets have been associated with psychological and physiological harms such as disordered eating, overvaluation of weight and shape, weight cycling, increased anxiety and depression, and micronutrient deficiencies, to name a few.
When the focus is solely on weight loss, it can lead to just blindly following that pursuit at all costs without considering how it’s benefiting you. For example, someone may resort to extremely low-calorie diets, dangerous weight loss supplements, or smoking to achieve the goal of weight loss.
Intuitive Eating removes that external pressure of weight loss so the focus can be on controllable habits such as incorporating more fruits and vegetables, finding enjoyable movement, managing stress, getting adequate sleep etc.
Final Thoughts on Why Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Work (or Does!)
There are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding Intuitive Eating, but most come from people who don’t understand what it is and all of the nuances and complexities involved.
Intuitive Eating is not an easy or linear process. It can be incredibly challenging, especially in our appearance-driven, diet-obsessed culture. This can lead to a lot of frustration around Intuitive Eating.
However, the benefits are so worth it when you can break free from the clutches of diet culture.
Want to learn more about how to start implementing Intuitive Eating into your life? Download my free Beginner’s Guide to Intuitive Eating.
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.