“I’m done with dieting… I’ve had enough. I can’t go on one more diet!”
You’ve probably said that at one point.
You start looking for an option. Then you find intuitive eating, and it sounds interesting! No more food restriction. You follow your hunger and fullness cues instead of counting calories.
You want to try intuitive eating to lose weight…because food freedom sounds oh so appealing and exciting after years of dieting!
More and more women are turning to intuitive eating these days. It’s “cool” to be anti-diet, and even cooler to be an intuitive eater. Intuitive eating has been proposed as the next big “diet trend” in the next decade ahead…and that’s a big problem!
Typically, when we refer to “diet trend,” we refer to ways of eating to achieve weight loss. That’s what we expect, and for most of us, that’s what we seek. We think we need to lose weight. Notice that the keyword here is NEED. We want to lose weight and we don’t want to diet anymore so intuitive eating seems to be the perfect option.
It’s normal to want to lose weight
I want to validate those weight loss desires. Those desires to modify your body to fit the “thin ideal” are real and constantly encouraged in a society that is laden with weight stigma and fatphobia. It makes perfect sense that you have that desire and that you think you need to lose weight.
If you find yourself asking the question, “How can I practice intuitive eating and still lose weight?” then this post is for you. And so, I’m writing this blog post to help you understand what intuitive eating is about, how your body maintains a certain weight through your set point, why it’s useless to fight against this mechanism through dieting, and what you can do instead.
You will learn:
What is Intuitive Eating?
If people ask for an intuitive eating definition, this is what I usually give them: “a self-care eating framework that uses your body’s internal cues of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction to guide your eating behavior.” Notice that this definition emphasizes the body attunement element of intuitive eating, meaning that you need to listen to your body in order to eat intuitively.
This approach to eating allows you to develop a healthy relationship with food and your body. It teaches you to trust your ability to meet your own needs, distinguish between physical and emotional hunger, and ultimately develop body wisdom.
Will intuitive eating make you lose weight?
If someone who claims to be a health professional tells you that you’ll lose weight with intuitive eating, run the other way! No health professional can rightly claim that Intuitive Eating leads to weight loss. I’ll explain why.
Rejecting the diet mentality is the first principle of intuitive eating. Focusing on weight loss will only hinder your progress as an intuitive eater.
Does that sound surprising? Well, it shouldn’t if you understand what eating intuitively means.
Intuitive Eating is based on interoceptive awareness or the ability to perceive physical sensations inside your body. This means, to be able to eat intuitively, you need to connect with your body and listen to your body’s “messages.”
In contrast, focusing on weight loss is based on external rules. It dulls your interoceptive sense and leads to body-doubt. It makes you think that something is wrong with you just because you’re not losing weight as you expected. Thus, you’re likely to think that intuitive eating “doesn’t work.”
While it’s true that some people lose weight when they eat intuitively, weight loss is more of a side effect rather than the focal point of intuitive eating. Some people who eat intuitively don’t lose weight, and that’s okay. Intuitive eating is weight neutral and is aligned with the Health At Every Size approach. (For more info on this approach, I recommend that you read the Health At Every Size book by Linda Bacon.
Time and again, research has proven that dieting for weight loss is not sustainable. Besides, it causes more harm than good to your body and mind. Dieting increases the risk of eating disorders, binge eating, weight cycling and weight stigma.
Your set point first
Think of your set point like a natural mechanism that your body uses to maintain a natural weight. This mechanism runs without your intervention. It’s just like how your lungs manage the appropriate amount of oxygen for your body or the way in which your heart manages your blood pressure.
Another fascinating analogy is how your brain automatically gets you steady on a bike even if it’s been 10 years since your last ride. It just happens without you having to think about it. Set point manages your weight in the same way.
In her book Health Every Size, Dr. Linda Bacon describes our set point as the fat thermostat in our bodies. Your set point acts just like a heat thermostat in a room. When set to a certain temperature, the thermostat will send a message to the heating system to activate when below a determined temperature.
Your hypothalamus is the region of the brain that controls the system in your body that regulates your set point. It sends messages of hunger and fullness to manage your weight. Set point will make you think of the cookies in the cupboard and will also make you say no to the pizza when you’re full.
Our set point manages all the various components in the complex human body that create our body weight. Your set point is your ideal body weight, the body weight you manage naturally without food restriction, deprivation, and over-exercising. It is your weight between diets, the weight at which you can live a non-food or exercise-obsessed life.
The set point is the body’s internal system to maintain healthy weight. One 1970s research study showed that the average weight of a 60-year-old man was only four to five pounds more than the average 30-year-old man. That kind of weight maintenance is no accident and not the consequence of dieting either.
Dr. Bacon has this very powerful example in her book, Health at Every Size:
“Just consider a 50-year-old woman who weighs about five pounds more than she did when she was 20. If she eats about 2,000 calories a day over the course of 30 years, she takes in about 22 million calories. Since five pounds of body fat stores about 17,500 calories, that means that her body was just 0.08% off in balancing energy in versus energy out. This amounts to a difference of about 50 calories per month—less than the calories in one egg!” – Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight (p. 12).
Our set point can fluctuate during our lifetime. Currently, research estimates the fluctuation to be between 10 to 20 lbs. Set point fluctuates so it can maintain homeostasis.
If you are ready to explore Health At Every Size, you can download Dr. Bacon’s manifesto here.
Homeostasis and happiness set point theory
Homeostasis is the ability of the human body to maintain a stable environment. It’s key to our survival. The body’s magical ability to adapt to its environment at any given condition is what allows us to survive.
This ability to maintain balance is what maintains a stable body temperature, stable blood pressure, stable level of iron, blood glucose…and yes, body weight. All of these biological systems focus on maintaining homeostasis, a.k.a. balance, so we can survive and thrive in our environment.
It even goes beyond the physical body. Homeostasis is also what creates your thoughts and emotions. Your mind responds to its emotional environment as well.
The happiness set point theory is almost similar as the body weight set point theory. It suggests that our level of subjective well-being is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life. As a result, it remains relatively constant throughout our lives. Our level of happiness may change temporarily in response to life events. However, it almost always returns to its baseline level.
For humans, homeostasis means survival. Our bodies will do anything to bring us back to homeostasis so we can survive, including the dreaded weight gain.
Identifying and manipulating your set point
Are you at your set point right now?
That’s a very good question which unfortunately is not that easy to answer. How much fat protection your body requires (your set point) is the result of a complex interplay of genetics and the lifestyle choices you made today as well as in the past.
You see, at this time, we do not have a tool that will allow us to determine an individual set point. We also don’t have the knowledge on how to manipulate someone’s set point either. As of today, the complexity of the human body and the number of elements involved in managing one’s set point exceed our scientific capacity.
So to be clear, if you see a headline claiming to have the secret trick to lower your set point, like the 21-day set point reset detox, which I just saw recently, that’s 100% diet culture in action. It’s a lie! Don’t buy into it because it’s a scam. It’s just another gimmick from someone who wants to make money from your despair about your body weight.
What we do know is that if we want our body to settle at a natural weight that is effortless and healthy, we must make our brain feel safe. When the brain feels safe, it will send messages to the body that it’s safe. Will you lose weight? We do not know. No one actually knows. But what we know is that health arises or is maintained in a safe physical and psychological environment.
Why dieting is not the answer
When you go on a diet or when you exercise, you create an unsafe condition for your body.
The human body perceives intentional weight loss as a threat. That’s the reason diets don’t work. Your body will adapt to the starvation/deprivation period while you’re dieting and trying to lose weight.
But as soon as you release the pressure of the unsafe condition (i.e. you stop dieting or over exercising), your body will come right back to your set point. In many cases, it will ensure complete protection from any further threat of weight loss.
So, what can we do? Based on all the current research that I’ve read, I’d like to suggest focusing on creating a relationship of trust and respect with the innate wisdom of your body. Create a safe environment, both psychologically and physically, in which you and your body can thrive in, not just survive.
The best place to get started is to educate and understand what could be perceived by your body as unsafe specially when it comes to food and body weight.
I would encourage you to get started by listening to episode 214 of the Going Beyond The Food podcast right up to the part where I recommend a tool to help you determine what could be impacting your set point.
Here’s a free checklist and resource to help you understand the set point theory and get started on your journey into a more trusting and respectful relationship with your body.
How to get started with Intuitive Eating
In all the years that I’ve been helping women as a clinical nutritionist, I’ve found that intuitive eating is the best starting point for developing a healthy relationship with food and one’s body. I’ve also made a part of my life. The women I’ve helped, as well as I, can attest that it’s positively life-changing!
First, you can download my Get Started with Intuitive Eating Guide for free. It will teach you a 3-step process that will help you get started with intuitive eating right away.
Also, you can listen to the intuitive eating podcast episodes. Here, I share my best tips and interview experts who give their valuable insights on eating intuitively.