Every year, millions of Americans go on diets.
For many of them, long-term weight loss proves to be an elusive goal. Most people who lose weight eventually regain it.
While medical experts continue to study the potential upsides and downsides of dieting, some people are turning to non-diet approaches to eating to reshape their relationships with food.
Those non-diet approaches include intuitive eating, a nutrition philosophy that encourages practitioners to eat mindfully and pay attention to their body’s internal hunger cues.
Rather than counting calories or categorizing foods as “good” versus “bad,” intuitive eaters strive to “honor their hunger,” “respect their fullness,” and “reject the diet mentality.”
Research that intuitive eating may not be an effective weight loss strategy, but it does appear to have other physical and mental health benefits.
“Intuitive eating has been linked with improved cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and reduced markers of inflammation,” Dawn Clifford, a registered dietitian and associate professor of health sciences at Northern Arizona University, told Healthline.
“In terms of mental health, intuitive eating is associated with improved body image, lower levels of depression, and self-esteem,” she added.
Anyone can potentially benefit from intuitive eating, Melissa Majumdar, a dietitian at the Brigham and Women’s Center for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery in Boston and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Healthline.
But it might be particularly helpful for people who have trouble listening to their internal body cues, including people with a history of chronic dieting.
“I try to teach people to connect with their body and hear and feel signals that are there,” she said, “that they might be ignoring because of other environmental factors or just the way they’ve trained their body.
“I work in bariatric surgery and weight management,” she continued, “and I have patients who have dieted their whole life and really struggled with their weight and don’t necessarily know when they’re hungry and full anymore because they’ve kind of squashed those feelings.
Majumdar uses intuitive eating strategies to help those people reconnect with their bodies.
She encourages them to pay attention to the effects that different foods and eating habits have on their feelings of hunger and fullness, energy levels and attention span, and mood.
She also encourages people to explore their food cravings, by pausing and reflecting on what’s driving their cravings before acting on them.
“I like to use something I call the H.A.L.T. method with people,” she said. “Figuring out, are you happy, angry, lonely, or tired, and exploring if there’s any other emotion connected with why you’re having this craving.”
Majumdar wants people to explore their cravings.
“Sometimes it means, have an ice cream cone and that’s OK,” she said. “But sometimes we’re using food to replace some emotion or some feeling.”
Intuitive eating may not be an option for everyone.
For example, it can be difficult for people dealing with food insecurity to prioritize and respond to their body’s internal cues.
“If you’re someone who is struggling to make ends meet,” Clifford said, “it can be stressful always wondering if you’ll have enough money for food or where the next meal is coming from.”
Clifford said people who aren’t sure when they can afford their next meal can’t exactly turn to an intuitive eating plan.
“They may intentionally need to overeat, since they don’t know where the next meal might be coming from,” she said.
For people who do pursue an intuitive eating approach, there’s often a learning curve involved.
It can take time to discover how different foods and eating habits affect you.
Rather than feeling guilty for “eating missteps,” Clifford encourages people to practice self-compassion.
“Instead of beating yourself up for eating more than you planned,” she advised, “simply ask yourself with a gentle and curious stance, ‘how might I do that eating experience differently next time?’”
Majumdar encourages people who are interested in intuitive eating to read about the philosophy, including its intended purposes and principles.
She also suggests working with a registered dietitian who can provide information about intuitive eating, share strategies for putting it into practice, and promote self-reflection.
“I think working with a registered dietitian is very helpful because they can [guide someone to] reflect on what they’re feeling,” she said.
“If someone has lots of negative feelings about food or negative feelings about dieting, talking it out can help them refocus some of their thoughts,” she added.
Some people are turning to non-diet approaches to eating to reshape their relationships with food. This include intuitive eating, a nutrition philosophy that encourages practitioners to eat mindfully and pay attention to their body’s internal hunger cues.
Over time, intuitive eating might help some people develop more positive relationships with food and their own bodies.
“Intuitive eating is really just a method for helping you move closer to becoming a normal eater,” Clifford said. “Someone who doesn’t obsess or stress about food, but simply enjoys a variety and eats at regular intervals.”