Is intuitive eating weight loss a thing? We provide 15 dietitian approved gentle nutrition weight loss tips to help you sustainably lose weight without going on a crash diet.
If you have landed on this blog post, perhaps you are on your intuitive eating journey but are also looking to lose weight. While it is certainly possible to have weight loss goals while simultaneously being an intuitive eater, I first want to highlight that intuitive eating is NOT a weight loss diet. In fact, intuitive eating is actually incompatible with weight loss.
So what is the point of this blog post then? Glad you asked.
Even though intuitive eating isn’t a weight loss diet, it is still possible to incorporate some of the intuitive eating principles on your weight loss journey, regardless of your goal. I would also much rather someone seek out the support of an evidence-based dietitian for gentle weight loss support, than to fall for extreme fad diets they see online.
With that said, I wanted to share 15 gentle nutrition tips to help you achieve sustainable weight loss without going on a restrictive crash diet.
Tip #1 Think about what you can add not take away
Most of the fad diets out there focus on eliminating certain foods or food groups from our diet. Whether it’s gluten, sugar, dairy, or booze – we’re always cutting something out in the name of weight loss. While cutting out foods you love often “works” in the short term, we very quickly burn out, give in, and eat ALL the forbidden foods. Sound familiar?
When we let ourselves fall into “scarcity mentality”, we go on a bit of a rebellious streak that makes us want what we can’t have even more. So when it comes to “intuitive eating weight loss”, I prefer to stop thinking about what we are taking away, and focus instead on what we are adding to our diet. For example, maybe we make a point to add a serving of salad with our sandwich lunch, or add a source of protein like greek yogurt to our bowl of cereal at breakfast.
The point is that even if we don’t consciously think about cutting foods out, adding satiating foods IN often helps edge out some of the less nutritious, less satiating foods. For example, when you have a protein rich breakfast rather than just simple carbs at breakfast, you’re less likely to find yourself snacking on powdered donuts in the office before lunch. The result is that you often end up consuming fewer calories without even noticing you’re doing it. This little mindset tweak of imagining abundance rather than denial is often enough to keep people more dedicated and motivated to stick with a new healthy habit.
Tip #2: The hunger crushing combo
My long term followers know I’m talking about fibre, protein and healthy fats. Feeling satiated longer is valuable for most people because – you’re not yourself when you’re hungry. But when it comes to “intuitive eating weight loss”, specifically, satiety is key.
It’s really hard to create any kind of caloric deficit if you feel like eating your own arm off. But each of these three food components have scientific reasoning as to why they keep you satisfied for longer. For instance, protein is the macronutrient that requires the most work to digest, meaning its transit time in your GI tract is longer than that of other foods. Protein has also been proven to reduce grehlin levels (aka your hunger hormone). One study found that participants who consumed 30% of calories from protein consumed almost 500 calories less a day compared to those who consumed 15% of calories from protein.
As for fat, fat is the strongest inhibitor of gastric emptying which means that it helps food to stay in your stomach longer, therefore keeping you feeling fuller even longer. Finally, fibre helps reduce the blood sugar response of carbohydrate-containing foods by slowing down transit time, delaying stomach emptying, preventing blood sugar crashes and reducing hunger. So yes to fibre, protein and healthy fat in some combination in most meals and snacks.
Tip #3: Dress up those naked carbs
Naked carbs are foods like white bread, desserts, white rice etc – in other words, they’re foods lacking the hunger crushing combination we just discussed. Which is basically just another way of conceptualizing the hunger crushing combination.
My suggestion is to combine your naked carb with some protein and/or fat to help boost the satiety factor and slow the blood sugar and insulin response. For example, if you like white bread have your white bread – i’m not going to force you to give it up or switch to a fermented sprouted bread if thats not enjoyable to you. But perhaps you can smear that bread with some natural nut butter and top it off with berries, or throw on some mashed avocado and an egg. This is not only going to help ward off hunger a lot longer (thereby reducing the likelihood of a snack attack) but it will also keep your insulin levels from jolting up and down.
Tip #4: Slow down and tune in
One review of the literature found that eating slower was associated with eating less, while other research suggests that fast eaters are more likely to gain weight compared to slower eaters. This is most likely because it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to communicate to your brain that you’re satisfied. My suggestion for “intuitive eating weight loss” is to carve out time for you to sit down and enjoy your meal. If that means you need to pencil meal times into your day planner or set a google calendar alert so that it’s not just an afterthought, then do it.
Imagine your hunger is like a gas gauge – ask yourself where you are on the hunger scale from 0-10 before you start eating. As you eat, tune into your hunger and ask yourself again:
Where are you now?
If you started at a 2 or 3, and you’re half way through what’s on your plate, are you a 5 now?
Still a 3?
It’s okay not to see an abrupt shift or even be able to recognize what it feels like to satisfy your hunger yet, it definitely takes practice to hear. Now keep eating until you feel at a place that is comfortable for you. For some people thats a 6 or 7, especially for experienced intuitive eaters, but for others it feels uncomfortable to be anything less than a 10. Thats okay too.
I don’t want to turn this into a hunger/ fullness diet but you might find that with enough data collection and enough mindfulness that a 10 no longer feels so good. But you’re never going to know if you rush through the meal and miss those early warning signs that you’re full.
Tip #5: Get rid of distractions
Even if you are eating at a snails pace, its hard to tune into your body’s internal cues if you’re surrounded by external distractions. I’m talking about your phone, your computer, TV, driving, walking etc. But we do know that distracted eating is often one of the biggest triggers for mindless eating.
An analysis of the research found that folks who ate with distractions ate 10% more than those who ate without distractions. It not only seems to have an immediate impact on how much you eat during the distracted meal, but also in subsequent meals as well, as we often forget we even ate or how much. Its like my hubby who will tell me he “didn’t eat anything that day” but Ive watched him eat a bagel, banana, apple, cheese and half a rotisserie chicken while taking business calls over the kitchen sink. When we eat on autopilot, the food just somehow makes it into our mouths. So power down and invest in the time to eat uninterrupted, and then use that mental bandwidth to refer back to that hunger scale from within.
Tip #6: Meal prep
Because we’re not great at making mindful decisions when we’re ill prepared. If we go back to the analogy of our body as a car and our hunger being our gas gauge, it’s hard to find the best deal on gas if we haven’t mapped out our route. When we get desperate, we’re likely to overspend at the boojie full service station.
The same goes for food and nutrition. I know we’re all busy, but I see meal prep as a small investment. Everyone does meal prep differently, some people like to pick a few recipes and make a big batch of a few full meals to be divvied up in containers for the week. Personally, I get bored of this. I also find it makes it hard to honour my cravings in the moment because I feel obligated to eat 5 days of the same recipe that maybe I was craving a whole week ago.
I personally prefer to make meal components and then combine them in different ways throughout the week. For example, i’ll grill a bunch of chicken breasts and bake some tofu, make a big pot of quinoa or rice, and chop up and roast a ton of veg. Then I have the building blocks for different salads, soups, stir-fries and sandwiches that I can mix and match with a different sauce or garnish.
Tip #7: do a fridge and pantry makeover
No, I’m not actually saying you need to go on a kitchen detox and throw out all the “junk” before your diet begins. Im actually suggesting that you simply reorganize things to make more nutritious foods more convenient and accessible. For me, this is an extension of the meal prep tip but it doesn’t necessarily require more cooking.
I always recommend washing and prepping nutritious stuff and placing it front and center in the fridge or pantry so that the moment hunger hits, it’s the most intuitive and convenient choice to make. If you really want a little chips or some ice cream, it’s okay to keep them in the house, but place them somewhere where you would have to actively seek them out, not just constantly grab them because they’re the first thing you see. Again this encourages us to be more mindful and deliberate about our choices, even more indulgent ones, which will usually lead to greater satisfaction and less mindless overeating.
Tip #8: Approach trigger foods wisely
I’ll start off by saying I’m not a fan of overt restriction and that means that I don’t think any foods should be completely off limits, even when you’re trying to lose weight. Which is why I would suggest allowing yourself said “trigger” food every day, which may work for a lot of people who are trying to lose weight who have a history of yoyo dieting.
To explain this even further, I’ll share my personal story with trigger foods and disordered eating. When I was struggling with food, my trigger was sugary cereal. I was obsessed. So as part of my healing process, I started to make it part of my daily routine. I challenged myself to have a bowl of sugary cereal every morning without guilt or shame until eventually, the novelty wore off.
In the present day, I have no interest in sugary cereal when it’s in the house. Having said that, I also understand that not everyone is at a point in their relationship with food where they feel confident having all of their “trigger” foods hanging around. So in this case, particularly in the context of weight loss, I would suggest either mindfully and intentionally planning to buy them or going out for them, and when you do, enjoying them guilt free.
This is what I would call awareness, not restriction. You’re aware that this food is easy for you to overeat so you’re being intentional and mindful as you enjoy it, but you’re still approaching it with permission so as not to trigger a binge restrict cycle.
Tip #9: Make water your BFF
I think its a really common piece of diet advice to “not drink your calories” when trying to lose weight and that you should avoid all juice, soda, alcohol, and sugary coffee drinks. However, I am not that extreme. My approach is to choose water for hydration purposes and to work everything else into your diet the same way you would a fun ice cream cone with friends, or Friday family pizza night.
The reason why I am more intentional about limiting calorie-laden beverages compared to food is that we know that its easier to override our natural hunger and fullness cues when we drink our calories vs eating them. There are a few reasons for this but experts believe that people have a harder time deriving psychological satisfaction from drinks because they mindlessly chug them back. On the other hand, we interact longer with food through smelling, biting, chewing, and intentionally swallowing.
Liquids also travel faster through the GI tract so they alter satiety and hunger hormones differently than food, especially if its a drink with little to no protein, fibre or fat. Research suggests that even when eating intuitively, we just don’t fully compensate for the calories we consume in liquids by eating less food. As a result, it’s easy to gain weight when drinking a lot of calories. In fact, one study on over 50,000 women found that those who increased their intake of sugar sweetened drinks from one a week to one per day added 358 calories daily and gained significant weight, while women who reduced their intake cut 319 calories.
But If juice is your thing, or you need double cream and double sugar in your coffee to function in life – then of course, work that into your day as you would anything else that will make your eating pattern sustainable and enjoyable. But what I am saying is to choose water for hydration, whole foods for nutrients, fibre, and satiety, and sugar sweetened beverages for pleasure, flavour and fun.
Tip #10: find your food faves
Take some time to figure out what you actually truly like. This goes for so called “healthy” foods as well as alleged “junk”. Through this you’ll maybe discover what special foods you will enjoy fully and more mindfully that will result in feeling truly satisfied rather than continually on a hunt for what you really want.
This also means diving deep to determine which “diet” alternatives are sufficient alternatives and which are not. For example, if you love Halo Top, great. But if eating a pint of Halo Top triggers a satisfaction hunt for the real deal and in the process you need to eat a bag of chocolate chips, a few low fat popsicles, and then finally plow through your Ben and Jerry’s, its probably not a great choice. So figure out what foods you truly want and enjoy and strategically work them into your week.
Tip #11: Prioritize sleep & manage stress
There is solid evidence that skimping on these basic acts of self care can be detrimental to your weight loss efforts. Evidence suggests that lack of sleep can increase our hunger hormone ghrelin, reduce our satiety hormone leptin and as a result, can increase appetite and weight. It may also interfere with the reward center in the brain, resulting in greater cravings for high sugar and high fat foods. Its therefore not surprising that a 6-year prospective study found that those who slept less than 5 hours and more than 9 hours a night were 35% and 25% more likely to experience a 5 kilogram weight gain over 6 years, respectively.
Likewise, we have ample evidence that increases in the stress hormone cortisol is associated with weight gain over time. This increase in cortisol tends to result in gravitating towards more accessible food because we lack the mental energy to plan, prep, and cook. Not to mention we also use food as a coping mechanism for stress.
Tip #12: Acknowledge your emotional eating patterns
Try not to weaponize food. It’s normal and healthy to eat in response to emotions some times since food is intrinsically and socially linked to celebration, mourning, culture and more. But when it becomes our only coping mechanism to deal with our emotions, it becomes a dangerous weapon. So try to experiment with other coping strategies for difficult times like journaling, walking, a hot shower, doodling, meditation or talking to a friend. If you’re finding yourself consistency turning to food to manage your emotions, a licensed therapist can definitely help.
Tip #13: choose whole foods more often
I don’t believe in setting arbitrary guidelines or rules on how much of your diet should be from whole unprocessed or minimally processed foods like yogurt or frozen fruit, vs ultra-processed snack foods or fast foods. There is no quality evidence that would inform a hard and fast ratio like this and I just see it as another rule to obsess over and inevitably break.
So my advice instead is to think of convenience foods as “assistants” to the whole foods doing the heavy lifting in your diet. If a store bought ranch dressing is going to help you get a salad on your plate – eat the damn ranch. If popping a frozen pizza into the oven once a week means you help reduce your stress and get to bed at a reasonable hour, pizza party it is. Focus on the majority of your diet coming from whole or minimally processed foods, and let go of any guilt associated with the rest.
Tip #14: Move your body in ways that feel good
I actually think its helpful to decouple your association of exercise with weight loss. Yes, of course, exercise contributes to a caloric deficit which in turn can enable weight loss. But research suggests that exercise doesn’t contribute as much as we like to think to weight loss efforts and putting too much stock into it give people a false sense of entitlement to extra calories because they “put in the work”.
Regardless, we know there are tons of benefits to exercise. So my suggestion is to just focus on movement you enjoy. Ultimately, if you don’t enjoy the movement, you’re not going to stick to it, or you’re going to let it encourage overconsumption as a “reward” for a punishing regime. So incorporate some daily movement into your day as an act of self care, ideally something to support metabolic muscle like resistance training. But ultimately, make it something you can stick to for life.
Tip #15: be kind to yourself
Losing weight is a marathon, not a sprint. Please do not make it a sprint. Because if your running skills are like mine, there’s a good chance you’ll fall on your face and never want to run again. In other words, if you rush it, statistically you’re more likely to gain that weight right back. Since we need to look at this as a long game, I also don’t recommend weighing yourself too often or maybe not at all. The scale is just one tool that may be supportive for some and toxic for others. Ultimately, everyone will have success markers that work best for them.
But if the weight loss stalls, don’t freak out. You’re not failing, so don’t give up and forgo the progress you’ve made and the healthy habits you’ve formed. Shift the focus to other markers of success to help you maintain momentum, even if the number on the scale isn’t what you want to see. Weight loss is so complicated and as much as we want to simplify it to calories in and calories out, our bodies often have other plans. So the best thing we can do is to work with our body not against it and give yourself some grace.
My goal with these “intuitive eating weight loss” tips is to shift the focus away from denial and restriction, and towards more additive considerations that focus on self care, nourishment and optimizing nutrition. A reminder that this is not an exhaustive set of tips and if you are looking to find solutions that work for you, you’ll want to work with a dietitian for personalized care. But if you are sick of the extreme diet rollercoaster and the associated weight cycling, I hope these gentle nutrition tips offered some evidence-based long-term lifestyle changes to consider.
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Updated on September 8th, 2021
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.