Intuitive Eating- Does It Really Work?

Anri Pretorius

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August 4, 2020
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The first time I read the words intuitive eating (IE), I had no idea what it meant. So, before I delve deeper into whether IE really works, let us define it first  “The fundamental premise behind IE is that, if listened to, the body intrinsically ‘knows’ the quantity and type of food to eat to maintain both nutritional health and an appropriate weight. This concept is sometimes referred to as ‘body wisdom (1).”

Now that we understand what IE means we can go further. As I was doing research, looking for scientific studies that explained whether IE works, I came across some interesting studies. For example a study done by L. Anderson et al. (2) titled: ‘Contributions of mindful eating, IE, and restraint to BMI, disordered eating, and meal consumption in college students’, came to the conclusion that IE was negatively correlated with eating disorder symptoms in individuals. This is already a positive for IE. If you are more curious to know how restraint eating, IE and mindful eating (to endorse emotional and physical awareness and acceptance while eating), compare to each other, feel free to look up the aforementioned study.

But for the purpose of this article, I am not going to stand still on comparing different types of eating manners, I’d much rather like to see how IE impacts  health. Therefore, I referenced a literature review I came across that studied the influence of IE on health indicators. At the end, I will give my own opinion on whether I think IE works. I believe in evidence-based facts and that each individual is unique, therefore IE may work for some individuals whereas it might not for others. The reason I choose to reference this literature review is because it summarises the results of a lot of studies on IE. However, for the sake of briefness, I will only touch on the main points of this review. If you feel you want to know more, please look up the references. Okay, so without further ado, let us get to it!

The 6 key findings of the literature review by (3) will each be summarized to get the overall picture of IE on an individual’s health indicators.

1. Intuitive eating and weight/ BMI:

From the 19 out of the 26 studies that investigated IE on weight, IE had a weight maintenance effect. 

2. Intuitive eating and physical health indicators other than BMI:

Here, 4 studies were taken that investigated cholesterol levels, inflammation markers and blood pressure. One study found significant improvement in baseline levels in total, LDL (known as bad cholesterol) and HDL (known as good cholesterol) cholesterol levels after two years of IE (4). A different study found that 12 weeks post intervention (IE) there were improvements in the C-reactive protein, which is one of the inflammation markers in the body, but not in other physical indicators/ measures (5). There was mixed evidence found regarding blood pressure.

3. Intuitive eating and physical activity levels:

The literature review found that IE has no connection/ influence on one’s physical activity level.

4. Intuitive eating and quality of dietary intake and eating patterns:

Given that IE encompasses the notion of ‘body wisdom’ (that the body will instinctively drive the variety of foods needed for good health) it may be expected that intuitive eaters will have a more nutritious and positive eating pattern diet. This hypothesis found support in 2 out of the 5 studies that studied IE and nutrition intake. 

5. Intuitive eating and psychological health indicators:

Overall, it was found that although IE does not necessarily result in lowering one’s weight  it helps one maintain it as seen in the weight and IE findings. IE is positively associated with body acceptance and lower levels of depression, especially in women.

6. Sustainability of intuitive eating:

We live in a society that embraces cultural and social eating, which makes IE difficult to adhere to. Two of 4 studies in the literature review reported higher drop-out rates in non-IE programs (4,6) and the other 2 studies compared similar rates in drop-out (7,8). So even if IE has an improvement on health, it will be difficult to implement as a public policy if IE cannot be maintained and sustained by individuals as with traditional dieting.

Wow, so that was quite a mouthful! I hope that you as the reader has more insight now on IE and what it encompasses. As promised, my own opinion on whether IE works: I think if we look from a BMI/ body weight perspective, that IE will work for individuals wanting to maintain their current body weight in the long-term and not shake off unwanted weight. I doubt that IE will make you lose pounds of weight (especially short term). 

People that like a clear- cut plan and are fond of lists might perform better following a healthy, traditional set out diet, whereas I am more of a mindful and intuitive eater by nature. I have tried dieting in high school for my modelling and yes, I did lose weight, but after just 2 months I was back to my old eating routines. Not that my old IE routines were necessarily bad eating habits (I must confess I was a sucker for sweet things). I just wanted to lose a few more pounds and thought that strict food intake control would make that happen. It did, but only short term and I had to go back to dieting each time I failed to follow this strict calorie intake. Then, when I started studying my BSc Dietetics degree (with the bonus point of it changing my own diet eating pattern for the better), I realized that a healthy and balanced diet with a positive food attitude is a key factor along with adequate physical activity in achieving a healthy lifestyle.

In other aspects of health as was listed in the article it was seen that IE can have a positive effect on you as an individual. So, all I can say is find what works for you as an individual, whether it is joining the intuitive eaters club or not; also, very important: Remember to enjoy food! After all, it is delicious 😊 

References:

1. Gast J, Hawks SR. Weight Loss Education: The Challenge of a New Paradigm. Heal Educ Behav [Internet]. 1998 [cited 2020 Jul 10];25(4):464–73. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9690104/

2. Anderson LM, Reilly EE, Schaumberg K, Dmochowski S, Anderson DA. Contributions of mindful eating, intuitive eating, and restraint to BMI, disordered eating, and meal consumption in college students. Eat Weight Disord. 2016 Mar 1;21(1):83–90. 

3. Van Dyke N, Drinkwater EJ. Review Article Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: Literature review. Public Health Nutrition. 2014. 

4. Bacon L, Stern JS, Van Loan MD, Keim NL. Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters. J Am Diet Assoc [Internet]. 2005 Jun [cited 2020 Jul 10];105(6):929–36. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15942543/

5. Dalen J, Smith BW, Shelley BM, Sloan AL, Leahigh L, Begay D. Pilot study: Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL): Weight, eating behavior, and psychological outcomes associated with a mindfulness-based intervention for people with obesity. Complement Ther Med [Internet]. 2010 Dec [cited 2020 Jul 10];18(6):260–4. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21130363/

6. Leblanc V, Provencher V, Bégin C, Corneau L, Tremblay A, Lemieux S. Impact of a Health-At-Every-Size intervention on changes in dietary intakes and eating patterns in premenopausal overweight women: Results of a randomized trial. Clin Nutr [Internet]. 2012 Aug [cited 2020 Jul 10];31(4):481–8. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22296874/

7. Cole RE, Horacek T. Effectiveness of the “my body knows when” intuitive-eating pilot program. Am J Health Behav [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2020 Jul 10];34(3):286–97. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20001186/

8. Universités P, Paris U, Sorbonne D, Cité P. Jean-Louis Adrien Thèmes de recherche Recherches en cours Principales publications. J Obes [Internet]. 1987 [cited 2020 Jul 10];2010:2–4. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20798861/

Edited by Arielle Jacobowitz

Anri Pretorius

Anri Pretorius

My name is Anri Pretorius, I am a South African citizen busy with my third year in dietetics. I am studying at the University of Stellenbosch in Cape Town. I love eating healthy foods and am particularly fond of spicy foods. I enjoy participating in any sport and see exercising as one of my favourite hobbies. The most recent sport I took up is cycling. I am a bibliophile and spend my vacations at home reading any book I can find that interests me. I also have two pets, a miniature French poodle and a rescue cat.