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Is Intuitive Eating the Answer to Weight Loss?

Proponents of intuitive eating promise that you can eat whatever you want as long as you're sufficiently attuned to your body. Nutrition Diva is not so sure.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
August 30, 2016
Episode #397

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Kathy writes: “The claims for intuitive eating—that I can eat whatever my body craves and eventually lose weight—sounds too good to be true. However, the book I’m reading is very convincing. What’s your take?”

I think a lot depends on how you define “intuitive eating.” 

What Is Intuitive Eating?

Tracy Tylka is a psychologist on the faculty of Ohio State University. She and her colleagues have developed and refined something they call the Intuitive Eating Scale, which assesses things like how much you rely on internal hunger and satiety clues to decide when to eat (and when to stop) as well as your tendency to eat for emotional rather than physical reasons. 

Numerous studies have shown that people who score higher on the Intuitive Eating Scale are less likely to be overweight and more likely to be happy with their bodies and their lives in general. Being self-aware and mindful really can help us make better choices about food.

However, some people have taken this idea of intuitive eating much further, arguing that that the body knows what it needs and that cravings for foods are a signal that our bodies need nutrients found in these foods. The implication is that if we can just become sufficiently attuned to our bodies, we can eat whatever we desire because we will only desire what we need.

I’m not so sure.

Do We Crave the Food We Need?

An appetite for a certain food could sometimes be due in part to a need for certain nutrients. But cravings are not a very reliable guide to our nutritional needs. People suffering from iron deficiency frequently have an irresistible desire to chew on ice cubes, for example. Ice, however, does not contain a substantial amount of iron.

I think this theory also dangerously discounts how powerfully our desires and appetites are affected by environmental and psychological cues. Intense cravings can be triggered when we see images of appetizing foods or a delicious aroma wafts across our path—even if we aren't’t remotely hungry the moment before these triggers appear. Cinnabon isn’t pumping that cinnamon roll fragrance into the mall by accident, you know.

We can also become conditioned by habit. When my family goes to the beach, we always enjoy a frozen custard from Kohr Brothers (which is the best frozen custard in the world). I don’t think a whole lot about frozen custard when I’m not at the beach but I start craving it the minute I see the boardwalk—and probably not because I’ve suddenly developed a calcium deficiency.

Relying on our cravings to guide our food choices also implies that we should make all of our food choices in the moment. And yet studies have shown that deciding what we’re going to eat several hours before we eat it leads to better choices.

Can We Trust Our Hunger?

Some proponents of intuitive eating also promise that being sufficiently attuned to our body’s hunger and satiety signals will prevent us from overeating. Here again, although I think it’s really valuable to cultivate more awareness of our physical hunger signals, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to count on these signals alone.

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