What is intuitive eating?

Losing weight usually means putting it back on later. Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor presents 'intuitive eating' - an approach that could help you break the cycle.

Intuitive eating illustration - fork

For many of us, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can be a lifetime struggle. Research tells us that of those who lose weight, only about one in five will maintain this. Most people regain a third of their lost weight in the first year, and the rest over the following three to five years.

Intuitive eating aims to break the cycle of constant dieting by reconnecting with the body’s natural signals of hunger, fullness and satisfaction

This matters because most adults in the UK are overweight or obese. It’s problem that we need to address to protect our long-term health, including reducing our risk of heart and circulatory disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

The number of diets – many of them fads – continues to grow, but so do rates of obesity.

In the last couple of years, the diet mentality has come under some criticism, coupled with a new movement towards body positivity, mindfulness and ‘self care’. As a result, intuitive eating has received more attention. This approach aims to break the cycle of constant dieting by reconnecting with the body’s natural signals of hunger, fullness and satisfaction.

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating aims to offer a non-diet approach that still takes healthy eating into account. It was developed in the 90s by two American dietitians based on their experiences of working with overweight people, and the growing popularity of the non-diet movement.

They aimed to encourage body acceptance, but also take the health risks of being overweight or eating unhealthily into account. This is important as, while no-one should be upset or ashamed about their bodies, we also know from BHF research that being obese increases your risk of heart and circulatory disease.

Does intuitive eating work?

Since the programme was developed, studies have been carried out to look at its effects. Much of this research focuses on the psychological benefits, and intuitive eating has performed well against restrictive dieting. But studies looking at the food choices of intuitive eaters have also found that they are more likely to consume a wider variety of foods. This is good because it means consuming a wider range of nutrients.

Intuitive eating won’t come with recipes, meal plans or strict instructions, so it might seem daunting to begin with

Although weight loss is not the focus of intuitive eating, a recent review of about 25 studies also showed that people following this approach generally weigh less than those following restrictive diets. This is promising, but it’s still not conclusive, as the studies are generally small and focus on specific groups of people – so we don’t know whether they’d apply to everyone.

If you want to try intuitive eating, be aware that it won’t come with recipes, meal plans or strict instructions, so it might seem daunting to begin with, especially if you’re used to following restrictive diets. It’s a process of re-learning your relationship with food, so it will take time.

For it to work, it’s important to embrace all 10 principles. This can mean there is some trial and error as you not only start to eat what you want, but also recognise hunger and fullness and begin to understand how to make the right choices for your body.

Whether you try intuitive eating or not, it’s worth remembering its first principle. Long-term health means a long-term approach to healthy eating, not short-term diets.

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