Pretty much everyone who is interested in intuitive eating holds some desire for weight loss, because otherwise they’d already be a pretty intuitive eater. We live in a culture that is obsessed with dieting and thinness. As I heard body image therapist Ashlee Bennett explain in a recent Food Psych interview, expecting to not be affected by that is like expecting a fish not to be affected by water. So of course the question of can I diet to lose weight before starting intuitive eating is a common one.
It’s really hard to imagine not dieting or trying to control or lose weight. Plus, many of the most prominent voices for intuitive eating are thin, thanks to the lack of diversity in dietetics, and who gets rewarded with followers on social media (including myself in that). So it makes sense that some might come away with the idea that intuitive eating is only for people who are already thin - something they have to diet for in order to earn the privilege of participation.
Can I Diet to Lose Weight Before Starting Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is for everyone and every body. And you don’t have to lose weight before starting. In fact, I would highly recommend not dieting to lose weight before starting intuitive eating. If your weight has been artificially lowered, it’s not going to stay there, and if you’re still trying to maintain your artificially low weight, then you’re not going to have the space to embrace intuitive eating. And as we know, dieting frequently triggers backlash eating. Dieting before intuitive eating would more than likely just lead to an even more chaotic feeling “honeymooon” period that would reinforce the perceived need to restrict and control.
That said, I think it’s useful to dig a little deeper into the desire to lose weight before starting intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is often framed as this simple thing where you just decide to stop dieting (simple, ha!). As if you wake up one day, ditch diets, and poof - you’re an intuitive eater! But that’s not at all how it works out in practice.
In reality, everyone goes through a period of straddling the fence. You hold on to some old dieting behaviors while taking steps towards letting go of others. Intuitive eating is not a diet that you just start and stop. It’s a process where you slowly work through your desire to control or lose weight and letting go of dieting behaviors.
(Note: This is where working with a dietitian and/or therapist trained in intuitive eating is helpful. We can guide you in the process in a way that feels safe and comfortable for you. If that’s not available to you, the Intuitive Eating Workbook or IE Workbook for Teens is also helpful for learning how to incorporate intuitive eating principles.)
All of that is to say that if you’re not ready to completely put weight loss on the back burner, that’s OK! You are still welcome to the world of intuitive eating!
The desire to lose weight before starting intuitive eating stems from a fear of letting go of the thin fantasy, and a fear of weight gain with intuitive eating.
It’s true, I cannot predict whether you will lose weight, gain weight, or stay the same size with intuitive eating. And even if I could, I don’t know if that information would be helpful, since unfortunately I know many people would chose not to pursue intuitive eating if they knew it meant weight gain, even though my experience working with people who have gained weight in intuitive eating is that they more often feel better in their body.
I think it’s important to validate that the idea of letting go of a thinner body is really scary. There may be an intense sense of mourning or grief involved, and that’s not being dramatic.
I also know that while I hope you pursue the path of intuitive eating and body acceptance, I do believe in body autonomy, and that’s a choice only you can make. However, you do deserve to make a fully informed choice, the know the potential risks involved with continuing on the same path. Something that never gets talked about, since dieting is often framed as a magic wand solution to all your woes.
When considering how dieting has harmed, how many of the following have you experienced:
The thing is, dieting has side effects. And while I can’t predict exactly how your body will respond to intuitive eating, I can pretty well predict the outcome of going down the same path of dieting and restrictive eating. If you’re interested in intuitive eating and reading this post, my guess is that you already have an idea of what that looks like too.
If you’re not totally ready to give up the pursuit of weight loss, it’s OK! You are allowed to create your own intuitive eating journey - take as many baby steps as you need, or feel free to sit down and take a break while you process your relationship with food and your body. You’re even allowed to decide that it’s not for you - although obviously I hope you don’t!
Doing something that involves a lot of unknowns is scary. But one thing I do know is that you deserve the freedom that comes from a more peaceful relationship with food and your body, and that can’t be found in a diet.