Can I Do Intuitive Eating and Still Lose Weight? Dietitians Have the Answer (and All Agree)

This time of year is so saturated with diet culture and black-and-white thinking about health and weight. Registered dietitian Brenna O'Malley, creator of the virtual private practice The Wellful, told POPSUGAR, "Don't get sucked in! Freeing yourself from guilt around food and getting off the dieting cycle to tune in to your body and figure out what works and feels good to you is the best gift you can give yourself this season." She's referring to intuitive eating, which has been (thankfully) gaining popularity, but is it possible to eat intuitively and still lose weight?

What Is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is a philosophy developed by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their groundbreaking book from the '90s called Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. "It's a way of eating that provides a path toward healing from disordered eating and creates peace in one's relationship with food and body," said Heidi Schauster, MS, a registered dietitian and the author of Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship With Food, Body, and Self. When we aim to nourish and respect our bodies and not try to fix or change them, we enter into a more nurturing, caring relationship with them, no matter what the outcome is around weight, Heidi said.

When you commit to intuitive eating, Evelyn and Elyse said in their book, "you will be released from the prison of yo-yo weight fluctuations and food obsessions." It brings you back to when you were younger and you had no issues obsessing about food and your weight — back when you ate the foods you loved and were able to self-monitor how much you ate in a healthy way.

What Happens to Your Weight When You Start Intuitive Eating?

There are three possible outcomes when you start intuitive eating: weight loss, weight gain, or weight staying the same, said Kirsten Ackerman, MS, RD, CDN, who hosts the Intuitive Bites podcast and identifies as a fat-positive dietitian. She told POPSUGAR that all three outcomes are welcome, because weight is not the focus of intuitive eating.

Some people may experience unintentional weight loss with intuitive eating after breaking free from the restrict-binge cycle, while others will gain weight that they'd lost through restriction, explained Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN, an anti-diet registered dietitian nutritionist, certified intuitive eating counselor, and host of the Food Psych podcast. Christy said that we can't predict what's going to happen for any particular person when they start eating intuitively, but in her experience, most people gain some weight in the early stages of intuitive eating because they've been deprived for so long.

Can I Eat Intuitively and Still Lose Weight?

"Intuitive eating isn't a diet; in fact, the intuitive eating approach is explicitly opposed to intentional weight-loss efforts," Christy said. She added that the true approach of intuitive eating "is anti-diet and anti-intentional-weight-loss. A true intuitive-eating provider will never promise weight loss as an outcome."

Healing your relationship with food and your body, and finding freedom from the physical and mental harm dieting can cause is what intuitive eating is all about. This means that "it's not possible to practice intuitive eating while pursuing intentional weight loss," Kirsten said. She added that intentional weight loss disconnects you from your body by placing the focus on the external variable of body weight. When intentional weight loss is the goal, honoring and supporting your body's needs becomes a secondary goal. "The process of intuitive eating puts trust in the body to restore weight to a place it feels comfortable maintaining when being adequately nourished," Kirsten explained.

What If I Still Want to Lose Weight?

It's totally understandable, expected, and normal to have the desire to lose weight in this culture, especially for higher-weight people who are constantly bombarded with messages that their bodies are wrong and need shrinking, Christy said. Giving up the pursuit of weight loss is challenging, and even harder the more weight stigma you've experienced in your life and the longer you've been dieting. If you've been stuck in the cycle for decades, it's incredibly difficult to move away from the dieting mentality, but it's also freeing.

Once you stop making weight loss your life's goal, you'll be able to make peace with food and your body, honor your hunger and fullness cues, break free from food obsessions and harmful dieting and exercise habits, and truly enjoy life.