Two people sitting and enjoying a meal together.

By Living Well Nutrition Peer Counselor Meigan Freeman

Intuitive eating was developed by two registered dietitian nutritionists as an alternative to toxic diet culture. It focuses on taking care of your body rather than starving it, as many diets tend to do. From this revolutionary program branched many other projects, including Health at Every Size® (HAES®), a body acceptance movement developed by our very own UC Davis doctoral graduate, Dr. Lindo Bacon. Intuitive eating and HAES® have been the focus of many research studies which result in increased self-esteem, mental wellness, fruit and veggie intake, and decreased eating disorder behaviors in participants. 

Before we dive into these research studies, I want to break down a common body weight myth. Have you heard that being overweight is a risk factor for higher mortality or certain diseases? I sure have, however this correlation is toxic and demonizes overweight or obese individuals for a largely genetic and environmental factor which is difficult to control, their body mass index (BMI). Many epidemiological studies that assessed the relationship between BMI and mortality did not control for confounding factors like fitness, nutrition quality, weight cycling, or socioeconomic status. When the confounders are controlled for, the association between weight and mortality tend to decline. Body weight may be an indicator of unmeasured lifestyle factors, some of which can be modified with healthy lifestyle behaviors regardless of BMI (Campos, P., et al). In other words, BMI is not the most readily controllable factor towards health, rather health is about other factors, like increased fruit and veggie intake, fitness, and mental well-being. For a further breakdown of common nutrition myths, I highly encourage you to read Dr. Bacon's short and informative HAES® manifesto.

Despite what the media wants you to believe, it is so important to understand that a person's weight and BMI is NOT a measure of their health. Remember, you cannot tell just by looking at someone's weight if they are healthy or not. So, if losing weight is not the cure-all for living a healthy life, then what is? Well, intuitive eating will not cure everything, but research does show that applying this weight-neutral concept can provide participants with long-lasting mental and physical benefits. 

The first study I looked at was conducted by Dr. Vivienne Hazzard, PhD, MPH, RD who studied the associations of intuitive eating by following a group of ~1,500 adolescent participants over 10 years. She found that intuitive eating education was linked to lower instances of depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, and extreme weight control behaviors, such as binge-eating, skipping meals, and diet pill intake (Hazzard et. al., 2020). 

In a second study, Dr. Mary Christoph, PhD, MPH, followed up on the same participants who were previously educated in intuitive eating as adolescents and then surveyed them on retained intuitive eating knowledge and dietary intake as adults. Women in the top quartile of intuitive eating retention consumed 0.6 servings more fruit and 0.4 servings more vegetables, as compared to women in the bottom quartile. Men in the same top quartile consumed 0.3 servings more fruit and 0.6 servings more vegetables, but 0.6 less servings of whole grains, as compared to men in the bottom quartile (Christoph et. al., 2020). Overall, participants who retained their intuitive eating knowledge as adults consumed more fruits and vegetables than participants who did not retain this knowledge. As we all know, regular consumption of fruit and vegetables are important for obtaining fiber and micronutrients.  

            A third study conducted by Kelly Romano, MS, EdS, found harmful associations between calorie counting and self-weighing among college students. These behaviors were linked to higher levels of eating disorder severity and attitudes as assessed by the standardized Eating Disorder Questionnaire. In contrast, intuitive eating was found to be associated with lower eating disorder severity scores (Romano et. al., 2018) These results are especially alarming to me, as I see many so-called nutrition and fitness experts encouraging calorie counting on social media. Next time you come across this advice, consider whether or not it is healthy for your mental and physical well-being. 

            Overall these research studies show that intuitive eating can lower disordered eating attitudes, including binge eating, restriction, and diet pill intake, increase body- and self-esteem, and even increase fruit and veggie intake as compared to weight-loss focused diets. You can start incorporating intuitive eating and HAES® into your life by: 

  1. Respecting and appreciating your body, and its size, for the incredible life that it gives you.

  2. Trusting and honoring your body's signals of hunger, fullness, and appetite. Remember that restricting food leads to overeating in the long run. 

  3. Coping with your emotions with kindness, comfort, and nurture without using food as a crutch. 

  4. Adopting healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising for fun (think dancing, yoga, swimming, and team sports) and incorporating nutritious foods that you enjoy. 

  5. Rejecting the diet mentality that offers false hope of losing weight easily and permanently. These diets do not work and are often designed to make you gain your weight back! Focusing on weight loss is not healthy, rather incorporating healthy habits like fun exercises and fruits and vegetables is where it counts. 

I sincerely hope intuitive eating and HAES® has resonated with you. As a nutrition student, it breaks my heart to see my family, friends, and peers fall into the weight-loss trap. You do not need to lose weight to be healthy or beautiful. Embrace your diversity and treat yourself with kindness. For more intuitive eating resources, tips, and studies visit intuitiveeating.org and lindobacon.com

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