Intuitive eating is an increasingly popular dietetics concept that directly refuses diets, that is, dietary restrictions. This article will figure out for whom and why this technique was developed, whether it is worth following intuitive eating principles to lose weight or improve health indicators.
History of Intuitive Eating Principles
The main thing to understand right away about intuitive eating is that the technique was initially developed for people with symptoms of ED or eating disorders. These are compulsive overeating, bulimia, anorexia, etc. – clinical diagnoses from the class of mental disorders (ICD-11).
In people with these problems, the mechanisms of hunger and satiety are deformed, usually due to excessively harsh dietary restrictions in the past. And the intuitive approach is positioned as a technique that will restore a person’s good relationship with food.
Back in the 70s, anti-diet centers began to appear in the United States. Their programs promoted the idea of not dieting.
But it is the intuitive eating method that dates back to the 90s, when two nutritionists, E. Tribole and E. Resch, systematized the existing knowledge on this topic. They developed their own program and wrote an intuitive eating book – Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works.
After the book was published, the concept of Intuitive Eating migrated to academia. They began to study it actively. There were a rating scale and a lot of scientific research.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
As per E. Tribole and E. Resch, intuitive eating is described as an adaptive form of eating characterized by a strong connection to hunger and satiety’s internal physiological signals.
On the official English-language website, we will find this explanation: intuitive eating is a personal process of developing respect for health when a person learns to recognize and respond to body signals in order to satisfy their physical and psychological needs.
Also, according to adherents, intuitive eating is a food philosophy designed to restore a good relationship with food and oneself in a person.
In general, there are many definitions, but they all revolve around one idea. And it becomes clear that intuitive eating is a psychotherapeutic technique for people who are tired of losing in the struggle with their bodies. For those who want to learn to respect their body – instead of seeing it as a battlefield for the ideal.
Intuitive Eating Principles
There are 10 main principles of intuitive eating:
- Give up the diet;
- Respect your hunger;
- Make peace with food;
- Challenge the food police;
- Respect your completeness;
- Discover ways to satisfy besides food;
- Be kind to your emotions and feelings;
- Respect your body;
- Feel the pleasure in your body from exercise;
- Treat your health with good nutrition.
Intuitive eating principles aim to give up strict food restrictions, sports for pleasure, and, most importantly: respect for hunger, their health, and body in all its forms and manifestations.
Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss. Its Health Impact
Popularizers note that many myths have grown on the Internet around the idea of Intuitive Nutrition. And this technique is often misunderstood.
One of the most common misconceptions is the perception of intuitive eating as a “diet without limits.” Something like “eat whatever you want.” In fact, of course, it is – but not immediately, and this is important to emphasize.
The approach is focused on people whose concepts of “want / don’t want” are deformed towards “can / cannot.” Therefore, popularizers warn:
Intuitive nutrition is contraindicated in the first stage of rehabilitation for ED!
First, according to experts, a detailed and specific meal plan is needed. And after that, you can begin to introduce intuitive eating into life.
Even if a person does not have ED symptoms and read about the concept in a sketchy format, the misconception that intuitive eating can help you lose weight can be formed. This is not true!
Nutritionists-intuists on the official websites advise running away if a trainer or healthcare employee offers you intuitive nutrition for weight loss.
Most of the studies that compare intuitive eating to dieting do so in terms of health effects. At the same time, the personal interest of the authors can be easily detected in the works. For example, there is Tracy Tylka’s painstaking study of the Intuitive Eating Scale. In the introduction, she writes:
“24-week intervention based on intuitive eating principles has been shown to decrease cholesterol, triglycerides, and systolic blood pressure among middle-aged women.”
In describing this usefulness of the approach, she refers to an earlier study by Linda Bacon (Bacon et al., 2002).
As per this study, the research team invited 78 obese women and divided them into 2 groups – dietary and non-dietary. Each group received a wellness program. However, the dietary group adhered to dietary restrictions and worked according to dietary standards, while the non-dietary group followed the principles of intuitive eating.
Their condition before, during, and after the program was assessed according to a variety of criteria:
- anthropometry (weight, body mass index);
- metabolic preparation (blood pressure, blood lipids);
- energy consumption;
- eating behavior (restraint, eating disorder pathology);
- mental state (self-esteem, depression, body image);
- depletion of the body;
- participants’ subjective assessments: was there any benefit from the treatment?
According to the results of the experiment, it turned out that beneficial properties of intuitive nutrition, such as lowering low-density lipoproteins (that is, “cholesterol”), or triglycerides in the blood, or improving metabolism, are inherent in the usual dietary protocol with restrictions on calories and food.
The experiment does not show any particular benefit of intuitive eating but only illustrates that it is unnecessary to go on a diet to improve many indicators. Also, there was no comparison at all with a group of people who continue to eat without any system.
When it comes to weight loss, BMI dropped significantly in the diet group (5.9 +/- 6.3 kg). In the no diet group, there was a wide variation in changes (-0.1 +/- 4.8 kg).
After six months of the experiment, they were measured again – in the diet group. All participants lost another 6 kg. In the intuitive eating group, the results are different for everyone – someone did not lose anything during this time, and someone lost almost 5 kg more.
But in the group of diets, a high degree of general depletion of the body was observed – 41% compared to the small figure in the no-diet group, only 8%.
Also, intuitive eating has justified itself psychologically. To the question “Did the program help me feel better?” the non-diet group had many more “yes” answers than the diet group – 93% versus 51%.
However, it would be best if you did not immediately think that this is salvation – it is not surprising that people without dietary restrictions felt better than those with limitations. This is an obvious enough thing!
In 2013, another review came out – an overview of all the research available at that time on the topic of intuitive eating and health. There were 26 articles. Among other things, 19 of them study the relationship between an intuitive approach to nutrition and weight or BMI.
In addition to BMI, such indicators as blood pressure, “bad cholesterol,” and other markers (for example, oral glucose tolerance test, C-reactive protein concentration, etc.) were measured.
The review’s conclusions are optimistic: studies show a consistent link between intuitive eating and decreased BMI and improved mental health.
At the same time, the authors specify the following features in the “results” section:
- the intuitive eating method will help maintain weight at baseline but may not lead to weight loss;
- the method leads to an improvement in psychological health and, possibly, to an improvement in physical health indicators (blood pressure, cholesterol levels, etc.);
- the method is useful for normalizing eating behavior;
- it is likely that intuitive eating is not associated with high levels of physical activity.
“It may not lead to weight loss,” but “there is a natural decrease in BMI.” How is this possible?
That’s because 10 studies found that intuitive eaters have, on average, a lower BMI than non-intuitive eaters. But this is data about people who ALREADY adhere to intuitive nutrition for a certain amount of time – not only during experiments but also after them in everyday life.
The complexity of the assessment lies in the fact that the analysis of people outside the experimental conditions will always have errors.
When it comes to losing weight while experimenting, the effectiveness of intuitive eating is questionable. The study that found significant weight loss had a small sample size, poor group control, and brief follow-up periods.
Exercising also plays a role in weight loss. Do intuitive eaters play sports? It depends on the person. There is a program called “My Body Knows When.” The authors associate it with the intuitive eating method, which includes an exercise module.
Overall, an analysis of available studies did not reveal a significant association between intuitive eating and high physical activity levels.
Another review collected 68 studies that looked at normal, overweight, and obese people. The authors concluded that there is no conclusive evidence to call intuitive eating an effective way to control weight.
However, in some cases, this approach can help you lose weight. Even more often, it helps prevent weight gain.
In general, the research thesis is as follows:
Intuitive eating may not necessarily help you lose weight, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility.
But there is another advantage: it is often said that the effect on weight loss in a regular diet does not last long. Soon, the person is gaining weight again.
This is attributed to the fact that research on weight control over the past 20 years has dramatically increased short-term treatments’ effectiveness but turned out to be less successful in the long term.
A review of studies on long-term outcomes of calorie-restricted diets was conducted to assess whether the diet is effective obesity treatment.
The analysis showed that diet does lead to short-term weight loss. But one-third to two-thirds of dieters gain weight later on.
As a result, we can deduce:
If you want to lose weight effectively, eating intuitively doesn’t necessarily help you, as a regular, balanced diet with exercise might.
On the other hand, an intuitive approach is a more effective strategy for normalizing eating behavior, perception of your body, and improving well-being already OUTSIDE the diet, when you achieve the result and can fix it.
Concerning health, there is a connection with both diet and anti-dietary approach.
But there are two points:
- First, some authors have found that diet does NOT lead to significant health benefits in the future. Moreover, regardless of whether the weight has returned or not.
- And second, while there is a link between intuitive eating and improved physical health, more research is needed with more extended follow-up periods.
Pros and Cons
Summarizing the research, we can deduce the advantages of the intuitive eating method:
- Overall improvement in body score;
- General improvement in eating behavior;
- Stabilization of the emotional state.
At the same time, according to research, intuitive eating is not positively correlated with weight loss. But, in principle, it is not positioned as a way to lose weight, so this cannot be called a minus.
Intuitive eating is not “weight loss magic without diets“!
But the peculiarities of the transition to this system can become an obstacle for many:
- Intuitive eating is a learned skill. The approach requires reconfiguring such structures in the head as “body, food, eating, beauty, self-esteem,” and so on. This may not be so easy.
- There is a danger of overeating since intuitive eating does not have a clear food intake structure and amount.
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