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Could Intuitive Eating Help You Lose Weight?

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For all of your hard work in the weights room and the endless hours of cardio at the gym, the best place to lose weight is always going to be in the kitchen.

Whether you like it or not, your food choices are key when it comes to achieving those rippling abs and a toned physique. What you put in your body either fuels your lifestyle or restricts it.

One dietary approach that is building momentum in successful weight loss communities is intuitive eating.

It’s not a diet per se, rather a way of thinking. It is an alternative to the restricted approach that many common diets push upon you.

But does it really help with weight loss? In this article we break down the science and take a look.


What is Intuitive Eating?

‘Dieting’ is becoming less and less accepted as a way of maintain a healthy body weight.

Intuitive eating isn’t a diet in the true sense of the word; it doesn’t require restricting your calories or food.

Instead it suggests that you eat when you’re hungry, you eat what you want, and you don’t feel guilty. There are no good or bad foods and it doesn’t involve measuring out or recording the foods that you eat. Sounds like the holy grail of cutting weight, right?

“Intuitive eating is defined as a strong connection with, understanding of, and eating in response to internal physiological hunger and satiety cues coupled with a low preoccupation with food” [1].

You eat when you’re hungry. And if you’re not hungry you don’t eat. It’s as simple as that.

As an alternative obesity treatment, this dietary model aims to teach people about regulating internal cues of hunger rather than external cues such as emotion-driven eating, habitual eating or reward-driven eating.

Here are the main guidelines of the diet:

  • Unconditional permission to eat when hungry
  • Eating to satisfy hunger rather than to cope with emotional distress
  • Reliance on internal hunger and satiety to determine when and how much to eat

It’s the difference between eating because we want to and eating because we need to. 



The Psychology of Eating

Intuitive eating has its roots firmly set in the psychology of food. It appreciates that there’s more to tucking into a meal than simply feeling hungry.

We have rules when it comes to food. Even as a child you were probably given strict mealtimes at home or even told to finish the food on your plate, regardless of whether you were full or not. You might have had set meals on set days, or grew up on a staple food source or firm family favourite

You’ve been conditioned to see food as more than just essential, life-giving nourishment. Instead you’ve built associations and triggers that can affect anything from how much you eat to why you eat.

And research suggests that external cues play a huge part in eating habits, particularly in those that are overweight [2]. The presence of ‘food cues’ undoubtedly makes restriction of food more difficult.

Key Point: Intuitive eating aims to help you form positive associations with food.

Restricted Diets Don’t Work

With obesity rates at an all-time high, health professionals and dietitians are trying a number of different approaches to eating in an attempt to find something that works.

Most people don’t tend to like ‘dieting’. The constant restriction requires total willpower, self-control and motivation. The problem is though that one slight blip can trigger the self-destruct switch.

The feelings of guilt soon become unbearable and before you know it, the diet is over as quickly as it started.

The general consensus is they just don’t work when it comes to losing the weight – and keeping it off. This is especially apparent when you look at success rates for restricted eating diets against more flexible approaches [3].

In fact, as many as 90-95% of restriction-based diets won’t work.

According to the journal Appetite [4], restricted eating is related to  higher psychological distress, including disordered and dis-inhibited eating.



The Science – What do the Studies Say?

In retaliation to the low success rates of restrictive eating, many researchers have aimed to find out if a more intuitive eating pattern is better for weight loss.

#Study 1 – Bruce et al

Bruce et al [5] conducted a systematic review of all intuitive eating studies in 2016. It consisted of any research conducted between 2006 and 2015 and totaled 24 independent studies, all involving female participants.

The researchers found that in those who followed intuitive eating, occurrences of eating disorders were lower and a more positive body image and a greater emotional functioning was observed. A number of other positive behaviours were seen too

The result: intuitive eating helped a large group of women form positive associations with food.

#Study 2 – Gravel et al

A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics [6] taught a group of 50 overweight women how to base their eating around hunger and fullness, as well as sensory input such as taste and smell. The aim was to promote healthy eating in a positive way.

The  result: women that followed intuitive eating scored better on positivity scales and showed a more promising approach to improve eating-related attitudes. The researchers suggested that these characteristics would reduce overeating episodes and lead to weight loss.

#Study 3 – Denny et al

Research by Denny and colleagues [7] investigated the effects of intuitive eating on weight loss and healthy eating behavior in a group of people from a project called EAT-III.

The study analyzed the eating habits of over 2,200 men and women according to their weight and socio-economic status.

The result: those that followed intuitive eating had lower body weights relative to height (body mass index or BMI). They also had lower harmful outcomes such as eating disorders or binge eating.



Key Point: Research suggests that when used properly, intuitive eating can improve self-esteem, life satisfaction, proactive coping, and optimism. It is well correlated to healthy body weight and eating patterns.


Don’t Forget Though – Calories Count

No matter how positive your relationship with food is, in order to lose fat you have to burn off more calories than you consume.

This means being aware of not just satisfying hunger when you eat, but also how much food you eat in a day too. And whilst research shows that the two go pretty much hand in hand when you follow an intuitive diet, it is still worth monitoring – particularly in the early days of your cut.


Summary

Intuitive eating helps you manage the external triggers that cause you to overeat. It isn’t a diet in the true sense of the word; it’s more of a framework with the intention of boosting healthy eating.

As a weight loss tool, intuitive eating can help you get to a healthy body composition. It’s worth noting though that you’ll still need to monitor yourself – particularly in the early days of your cut when hunger might be high. A free licence to eating when you are hungry doesn’t always add up to success.


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References

  1. Avalos, LC & Tylka, TL. Exploring a Model of Intuitive Eating With College Women. J Counsel Psych. 2006; 53(6): 486-497
  2. Polivy, J et al. Caloric restriction in the presence of attractive food cues: external cues, eating, and weight. Physiol Behav. 2008; 94(5): 729-33
  3. Meule, A et al. Food cravings mediate the relationship between rigid, but not flexible control of eating behavior and dieting success. Appetite. 2011; 57(3): 582-584
  4. Tylka, TL et al. Is intuitive eating the same as flexible dietary control? Their links to each other and well-being could provide an answer. Appetite. 2015; 95: 166-75
  5. Bruce, LJ et al. A systematic review of the psychosocial correlates of intuitive eating among adult women. Appetite. 2016; 96: 454-72
  6. Gravel, K et al. Sensory-based nutrition pilot intervention for women. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014; 114(1): 99-106
  7. Denny, KN et al. Intuitive eating in young adults: Who is doing it, and how is it related to disordered eating behaviors? Appetite. 2013; 60(1): 13–19



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