Can you lose weight with intuitive eating?

04 Dec 2019

There has been and is somewhat of a misappropriation of intuitive eating; that is, people helping others to lose weight using intuitive eating. But, anyone claiming they can use intuitive eating to help you lose weight has COMPLETELY missed the spirit of this eating style. It’s near impossible to truly eat in accordance with what your body wants when you’re trying to restrict calories or food groups to ‘slim down’. With intuitive eating it’s essential to put weight loss on the back burner as any weight loss attempts can erode your internal signals that you use to tell you what, when and how much to eat.

Intuitive eating follows a health at every size (HAES) approach to health meaning that everyone (no matter what their size!) should have access to non-judgmental healthcare and is able to  include more healthy behaviours into their life and be healthier because of it.

But don’t you have to lose weight to be healthy?


The argument that you have to lose weight to be healthy is so flawed. Regardless of what we’re told (basically every day, by everyone) weight isn’t the be-all and end-all of health. And health isn’t the be-all and end-all of life – the belief that the pursuit of health is the main goal of life is known as healthism. 

There’s so much more to living than just being ‘healthy’ and the drive for health is basically flawed at its core. All of us, in some respect (and some of us more than others) are ‘unhealthy’ in that we might have an infection or underlying disorder or disease. But that doesn’t mean we can’t live life to the full and definitely doesn’t make us bad people.

We also can’t tell someone that if they lose weight they WILL be healthier, much of the scientific research claiming that this is the case has been done when people in bigger bodies have been compared to people in smaller bodies. Therefore, we just don’t know that much about what happens to health risk when people in bigger bodies become smaller. For a deeper dive into health and body size check out this post.

But what does the evidence say?

There have been more than 120 studies (and counting!) looking at the effects of using non-diet approaches such as intuitive eating. Evidence from weight studies typically shows that various diets help some people (not all) to lose weight for a short period of time and then once the study has ended this weight is re-gained. There are a lot of reasons why this might be and I’ve written about diets and weight studies before.

Looking at evidence from scientific studies intuitive eaters actually tend to have lower BMIs and the potential for better health outcomes such as: 

* Reduced LDL levels

* Increased HDL levels

* Reduced blood pressure

* Improved insulin sensitivity

* Weight maintenance (not weight loss)

* Improved positive psychological factors, e.g. self-esteem, body image, body acceptance etc

* Reduced negative psychological factors, e.g. depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction etc

The evidence for psychological influences shows that these benefits last a lot longer than when other methods such as traditional dieting or social support groups are used. However, evidence from reviews shows that at this moment there’s limited evidence for physical benefits and more research is needed to confirm results. 


My own experience

I'll just briefly talk to own personal experience, which will undoubtedly be different from yours but offers at least one perspective. I had been obsessed with keeping my weight below an (entirely arbitrary number) for years and one which was my natural weight as a teenager… unlikely to be what I weigh in my mid-twenties for sure. 

When I discovered intuitive eating I gained some weight initially but which now, 2 years later, has plateaued (at least I think it has, I weigh myself so rarely these days). Contrary to my fears of never ending weight gain my body found it’s natural weight set-point and now stays there, effortlessly!

How to start reducing weight obsession

So the point of intuitive eating isn’t to help you lose weight (even though it can do a whole lot more). And it’s a great idea when you begin the approach to try and re-frame your worth and health as distinct from your weight. Now this ain’t easy, but here are some tips you can implement now to begin the journey to a weight-free world.

Get rid of your scales

I’ve been there, weighing myself every single day. But if your scales aren’t in the house then the temptation to know your weight every second of the day might be lessened. So start your non-diet journey by chucking them out! And by chucking them out I mean responsibly removing them at your local recycling centre, ofc.

Re-frame how you ‘weigh’ yourself 

We are worth so much more than our weight. Jameela Jamil has been instrumental in a campaign to help us to re-think how we value ourselves. Check out her ‘I weigh’ campaign which has been hugely influential in fighting back against diet culture.

Refuse to be weighed at doctors 

Now I don’t know when it became a thing to go to the doctor’s with a cold and immediately have to be weighed, but you can refuse to be. Or if it feels too uncomfortable you can be weighed backwards so you don’t have to look at the number. 

Challenge your biases around people in bigger bodies

Catch yourself when you’re having negative feelings about yourself or other people based on how they look – be mindful of your thoughts. At first you might be surprised by how often you default to body shaming but the first step in breaking a mentality is being aware of it in the first place.

Also, here are a couple of excellent review papers exploring some of the research around non-diet and diet approaches, I’d highly recommend for some extra exploration of the evidence!

Tylka et al. (2014). The Weight-Inclusive versus Weight-Normative Approach to Health: Evaluating the Evidence for Prioritizing Well-Being over Weight Loss.

Van Dyke & Drinkwater (2014). Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review. doi:10.1017/S1368980013002139

"What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human” - Brene Brown