What Is Intuitive Eating? The Science of the Diet in Which No Food Is Off-limits

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The jury is out as to whether intuitive eating is the best diet plan. Getty Images

Diets for weight loss usually involve restriction. The 5:2 diet relies on restricting calories, and the ketogenic diet relies on restricting particular types of food.

However, research suggests that restrictive dieting can lead to a higher body mass index (BMI) over time, and a greater future likelihood of being overweight. There is also evidence suggesting that food restriction can lead to a preoccupation with food, guilt about eating and higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress. So if diets don't always help you lose weight and could contribute to psychological problems, what other solutions are there? Recently there has been an increased focus on the concept of "intuitive eating."

Intuitive eating was popularized by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who published a book on the subject and developed a website dedicated to the topic.

The goal of eating intuitively is to listen to your body and allow it to guide you on when and how much to eat, rather than being influenced by your environment, emotions or the rules prescribed by diets. The concept is similar to mindful eating, and the terms are often used interchangeably.

Mindful eating involves developing an awareness of internal hunger and satiety cues, and making conscious food choices. It emphasizes the importance of paying attention to the emotional and physical sensations experienced while eating.

Unlike many other diets, intuitive eating encourages you to eat what you want; no food is off-limits. While some may expect this to lead to eating more high-fat or high-sugar foods, research suggests that this is not the case. Advocates of intuitive eating suggest that the more you restrict yourself, the more likely you are to binge later.

The concept of intuitive eating is simple and doesn't involve complicated dietary rules. But what does the evidence suggest?

Positive effect on mental health

In terms of weight loss, it is not yet clear that intuitive eating is more effective than calorie restriction. Results from observational studies found that people who ate intuitively had a lower BMI than those who didn't. However, since people who restrict may do so because they already have a high BMI, it is difficult to determine the true effect intuitive eating had.

Also, results from intervention studies with overweight or obese people are not as clear.

For example, one review found that of the eight studies assessed, only two noted a reduction in weight from intuitive eating. In a more recent review, weight loss was seen in only eight out of 16 studies. And out of the eight, weight loss was statistically significant in only three.

Unlike other diets, the focus of intuitive eating is not on weight loss but rather on addressing the reasons why people eat. So, even if its effectiveness as a weight-loss method is uncertain, it could still provide benefits by promoting healthy eating behavior.

This possibility has been supported by research suggesting intuitive eating may lead to a reduction in binge-eating symptoms and eating for external and emotional reasons. Intuitive eating is also associated with greater positive body image, body satisfaction, positive emotional functioning and higher self-esteem.

Finally, a recent study found that higher levels of intuitive eating predicted lower eating disorder symptoms, compared with calorie-counting and frequent self-weighing. This is a contrast to typical restrictive dieting, which has been associated with an increased risk of disordered eating, one that may be greater for those who also experience symptoms of depression and low self-esteem.

While more research needs to be conducted to establish if intuitive eating can lead to weight loss, the positive effects on mental health and healthy eating behavior are promising.

Listen to yourself

One problem with intuitive eating is that it assumes we can accurately tell how hungry or full we are. Research suggests that people who are better at perceiving internal sensations may also eat more intuitively. However, since there is evidence that people with eating disorders have difficulty recognizing signals from inside their body, it seems possible that some people may struggle to respond to the intuitive eating approach simply because they struggle to listen to their own bodies.

Also, while it seems logical to only eat based on internal sensations rather than environmental cues, for many people this is not a practical solution. The time at which we eat—such as sticking to specific family mealtimes, or designated times during work to have a lunch break—is often out of our control. While in principle eating when you are hungry seems ideal, in practice it is not always possible.

Intuitive eating may be an effective way to lose weight, but so far there is not enough evidence to suggest that it works better than conventional, calorie-restrictive diets. But the benefits to psychological health that eating intuitively provides suggest it is a much more healthy approach to how we eat.

It may not work for everyone, particularly those who struggle to feel sensations in their own bodies. But at a time when it seems that everything in our environment is telling us what to eat and how much to eat, it may be worth taking time to listen to your body to find out what you need.

Melissa Barker is a PhD Candidate at Royal Holloway.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own. ​

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.