Intuitive Eating Weight Gain: Is It Inevitable?

Is it possible to learn intuitive eating without weight gain?

After decades of trying restrictive diets and attempts to reducing our dress size, many of us want a new solution to find success with food that has nothing to do with counting calories, points, or macros. Enter: Intuitive eating. Despite our interest in a new way of eating, many of us still have fear about weight gain. So it begs the question: Is it possible to learn intuitive eating without weight gain??

Intuitive eating specifically appeals to those who have spent years dieting and want to heal their relationship to food once and for all. But intuitive eating is more complex than just “eating whatever you want”. Becoming an intuitive eater is easier said than done. 

Many of us have lost the ability to be mindful around food, notice nuances in our appetite, or regulate our cravings. 

There is often one huge question that looms over the heads of those who venture into intuitive eating: 

Will eating intuitively make me gain weight? 

Is it possible to eat intuitively without gaining weight?

Intuitive eating may not be for everyone… but likewise, I’d argue that intentional weight loss isn’t for everyone either!  *gasp*

Read on to find out which group you fall into and how to take steps to become more mindful with nutrition regardless of where you fall on the spectrum! At the end of this article, I discuss exactly who should and should not focus on intentional weight loss. 

Let’s dive in!

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is a framework to help you get back in touch with your body’s hunger/fullness cues, heal your relationship to food, and focus on improving health without focusing on weight loss. 

What is Intentional Weight Loss?

In contrast, intentional weight loss is the active pursuit of weight loss through diet and lifestyle changes. Of course, we are all familiar with this. 

In our current world, diet culture is pervasive. Everyone and their mother is a chronic dieter and perpetually trying to lose weight. The diet mentality keeps us stuck in a vicious cycle: trying to lose weight and rebounding by gaining weight only to begin again with another diet.

Intentional weight loss can look like this – and often, it does! I am a huge advocate for stopping yo-yo dieting. For some people, when appropriate (read on to see what I mean here), there are also sustainable weight loss and healthy eating strategies that can help you stop chronic dieting once and for all.

Let’s take a look at how intuitive eating and weight loss approaches are so different from each other!

Which approach is right for you: intentional weight loss or intuitive eating?

“I hear a lot about intuitive eating, but it is hard for me to totally abandon all hope of weight loss. I know I need to heal my relationship with food, but I also want to lose weight… How can I know which approach is best for me right now?”

I hear some version of this concern from clients all. The. Dang. Time. And I get it. 

If these two ideas seem like they may be at odds with each other, that’s because they truly are opposite goals! In fact, the first principle of the ten-step intuitive eating framework requires you to drop the diet mindset and begin de-emphasizing weight loss. 

So, how do I know if Intuitive Eating is right for me?

The intuitive eating approach is designed for individuals who have a disordered relationship with food. 

If you are in recovery from an eating disorder or have disordered eating habits that prevent you from having a positive relationship to food, there’s no doubt about it: intuitive eating is absolutely right for you.

Signs that you may benefit from intuitive eating:

Signs that you may benefit from intuitive eating

Just in case you have your doubts (again, I totally get it!), here are some examples of signs that you could benefit from focusing on intuitive eating to heal your relationship to food:

  • Obsessive food thoughts are high
  • Feel out of touch with hunger/fullness cues
  • You have a restriction mindset
  • An unhappy or poor relationship to food
  • Have been yo-yo dieting for months or years
  • You have strict food rules
  • Feeling loss of control around food
  • You have poor body image
  • An attachment to the scale
  • Rely on exercise to “burn off” your calories from food

And that’s just to name a few! Even though these habits and behaviors are all super normalized in our culture, they are anything but normal! And they are most definitely harming your relationship to food. 

Spending some time recovering from these habits and behaviors and building a healthy relationship to food is paramount to your success with nutrition even before you ever think about trying to lose weight!

Who Could Benefit from Intentional Weight Loss?

Signs that you may be ready to focus on weight loss

Here’s a small checklist to discover whether or not seeking intentional weight loss is right for you:

  • Do you have very little history of disordered eating habits?
  • Are you already a mindful eater?
  • Have you spent significant time developing a solid foundation of habits and behaviors before seeking weight loss?

If you answered yes, yes, yes to these, you might be in a great place to consider sustainable, intentional weight loss.

Wherever you are in your journey, it’s OK! These questions can help guide you toward a solid foundation by having a healthy relationship to food. Once you are *there*, then we get to talk about next steps!

Let’s talk about the number one question I receive about eating intuitively: intuitive eating and weight loss!

Can I lose weight when starting intuitive eating?

In short, it is possible, yes. 

But let me be crystal clear: intuitive eating is not a weight loss approach. It is designed to help you improve your relationship to food. The framework promotes getting in touch with your body’s natural appetite cues and focusing on health independently of weight loss. 

But… you might be wondering. Don’t some people lose weight while learning to eat intuitively? 

The answer is simple and comes from the law of thermodynamics. Weight loss is a result of eating less total calories than you burn in a day. Some people end up making more balanced choices and naturally lowering their calorie intake when eating intuitively.

And that is how they lose weight. Period.

Dieting and restricting can cause us to overeat when not on a diet. This is the yo-yo diet cycle: spend a period of time restricting and losing weight followed by a period of time overeating and gaining weight. 

So, remove dieting from the equation, and people decrease their total calorie intake overtime after giving themselves permission to eat all foods. 

Ironically, keeping foods off limits is one of the biggest indicators of increased cravings and poor appetite control. Thus, when you release the restriction, you may find that you end up eating less total food than before. 

Will I gain weight while eating intuitively?

Some weight fluctuations are EXPECTED when you normalize your relationship to food and liberalize eating behaviors. 

In fact, when venturing into intuitive eating-land, you can expect to either lose, gain, or maintain your current weight. It is not super easy to predict and all comes down to your unique body’s needs and preferences. 

There is a theory that describes this phenomenon called Set Point Theory. This hypothesizes that our body has a comfortable weight where it prefers to hang out. Thus, through intuitive eating, we all will arrive at our natural set point. 

A huge issue to consider about set point theory is that yo-yo dieting (AKA weight cycling via yo-yo dieting) is a precursor to increasing your set point weight. 

If you read that and thought… “Wait, dieting can make me gain weight?!” YEP, you are correct! Chronic yo-yo dieting may increase our set point weight. This is why so many women see weight gain after dieting!

Are you still wondering if you should just try again to lose the weight before trying to heal your relationship to food? When you consider that trying another diet could increase your weight or set point in the future… that might be all the reason you need to begin learning mindful eating habits sooner than later!

When can I focus on weight loss?

The truth is, some people may never be able to intentionally focus on weight loss for their mental and emotional wellbeing. For these folks, intuitive eating is the ONLY way that they can stay recovered from disordered eating behaviors. 

Now, that’s not to say that you can’t learn to eat in a more balanced, structured, and positive manner – we just can’t make these habit changes with the sole goal of intentional weight loss in mind. 

This approach is called gentle nutrition: combining mindful eating practices with structured nutrition counseling to provide lifestyle changes that do not trigger a poor relationship with food!

Chances are that just because you don’t have a history of an eating disorder doesn’t mean you don’t have some internal work to do before focusing strictly on weight loss. 

You might find that focusing on non-scale victories is even more powerful for you than a weight loss focus.

Is having a weight loss goal ok?

And finally, for some folks, it is possible to get to a place where intentional weight loss is no longer a triggering experience. After understanding your unique hunger/fullness cues, how to satisfy cravings, and how to eat regular meals, you might find yourself in this position!

In my opinion, we all need to spend a significant period of time developing behaviors that lay a solid foundation for their physical and mental health before they ever consider working directly on weight loss goals. 

Many intuitive eating dietitians will tell you that weight loss is never part of the continuum of working together. And I work with many clients who were turned away by another dietitian because of their interest in weight loss. 

It’s important to note that my approach is not considered intuitive eating. I do not consider myself an intuitive eating dietitian or coach.

I find this conversation to be extremely nuanced. Because of this, I do not follow the traditional intuitive eating counseling style. Rather, my philosophy for safe, intentional weight loss is along the lines of mindful eating intersecting with weight loss counseling: many intuitive eating principles overlap with mindful eating strategy, but the larger focus is still weight loss.

Takeaways on mindful eating when pursuing weight loss:

I cannot emphasize enough how powerful intuitive eating can be if you are working on improving your relationship to food and your body. At the same time, I hold the belief that intentional weight loss is OK and not harmful for some people, even after spending time healing disordered eating behaviors.

So, let’s recap some of the take home messages here.

Regardless of where you are in your journey, take the following steps to improve your relationship to food and become a more mindful eater!

  • Consider where you fall on the spectrum of disordered eating to having a strong relationship to food and your body before making intentional weight loss goals
  • Focus on habits and behaviors instead of numbers for your mental wellbeing
  • Expect weight fluctuations while normalizing your relationship to food
  • Work with a qualified Registered Dietitian who deeply understands behavior change and mindful eating practices

If you know you have a poor relationship to food and have never spent significant time learning how to eat in a balanced and gentle way, a mindful eating approach may be a great fit for you!

If you already consider yourself a mindful eater with solid nutrition habits, and you want more structure in a weight loss-focused direction, then you have your answer!

So, what do you think? Which approach seems like the best fit for you? 

Lucky for you, I work with people on both ends of the spectrum! If you feel like you are currently struggling with this, I would love to chat and get to know you! 

Send me a message through the contact form on my page, and let’s talk it out!

Talk to you soon!

*This blog is for educational purposes only. I am not certified in intuitive eating as a dietitian.

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