Intuitive Eating? It sure sounds great on paper…no food rules, no counting points or calories, no tracking in an app…but when you do step on the scale, you feel apprehensive and disappointed and wonder…is Intuitive Eating making you fat?
Maybe you’ve been following Intuitive Eating for a few months now, and along with a release of food rules, you’ve gained twenty pounds… you knew that it was possible that you’d gain some weight, but 20 pounds? It just feels like too much.
Will the weight gain ever stop?
You really want the benefits of a diet-free lifestyle…but at what cost? Is this weight gain even healthy?
This blog post will help you to assess what may be happening, and walk you through the non-diet approaches that you can take to feel more comfortable with your personal Intuitive Eating journey.
(Are you new around here? A warm welcome! I’m Melissa, an Intuitive Eating dietitian and founder of No More Guilt. You may want to check out this post with some basic info about Intuitive Eating as a foundation for getting the most out of this blog post: is intuitive eating really the eat anything you want diet? Sort of.)
Let’s launch this post with a few ground rules.
Setting the foundation
Before we begin, I need to remind you of something really, really important: there’s nothing wrong with being fat.
That may be an extremely surprising statement to hear from a dietitian. Especially when the messaging you hear from social media, magazines, as well as your healthcare providers, doesn’t match that.
You may also be tempted to roll your eyes at me – someone with thin privilege – saying that there is nothing wrong with being fat. That’s okay. I don’t know what it’s like to be fat. Not for one day of my life.
Even so: it is still important to talk about…I’m willing to have tough conversations that advocate for my client’s wellbeing.
As you well know, our society places a heavy emphasis on being thin. Messaging consistently promotes lies, including that being smaller will help you live a better life (false!), you’re lazy if you live in a larger body (also false!) and that thinner always = healthier (totally false) (1).
What’s important for you to know is that people come in all shapes and sizes and you cannot tell how healthy a person is just by looking at them and checking out their size. Let’s cover body diversity first.
(If you’re new to the term thin privilege, here is a quick rundown of what that means: examples of thin privilege hidden in plain sight.)
Body diversity exists
This may surprise you, but my career as a registered dietitian began in weight loss research. Let me tell you this: The idea that thin is better and healthier is faulty at best…and harmful at worst.
The truth is some folks are just bigger than others. That’s not a good thing or bad thing…it’s just a fact that we come in all shapes and sizes. We don’t look the same.
This video called Poodle Science is a great explainer of what size diversity is and how it impacts our bias toward people in bigger bodies.
Just like some people are taller, and others are shorter, or some people have more melanin in their skin while others have less…some people have blue eyes, freckles, or curly hair. Humans come in all different (body) packages.
Unfortunately, we approach researching health pretty differently based on the person’s body shape and size. And this bias impacts how we analyze the results. Our brain is trained to look for information that confirms what we already believe (2). So, if the researchers believe that being fat is less healthy, they will set up their study in a way that assumes it’s true, possibly causing them to focus on data that supports their ideas.
You may have had difficult experiences with doctors and family members giving you the idea that your body size was wrong and in need of fixing. And blaming everything on your size, whether it was actually connected to your size or not.
We RARELY study health in fat bodies unless we are trying to shrink them, or, use correlation studies to make big leaps on the connections between health and size. I dive a little deeper into this idea right here: real talk: can you be obese and healthy?
And for the research we do have on weight loss? The rates of “success” – meaning, weight loss that sticks – are abysmal (3, 4). And even worse, weight loss is not actually linked to improved health as often as we assume.
Health is about habits, and also luck
We cannot control our genetics or the social determinants of health that impact our lives. This is the basis of health throughout our lives.
From there, what actually helps us to be healthier are our habits. This includes everything from eating vegetables, managing stress, getting a good night’s sleep, and moving our bodies in a way that feels joyful. These habits are woven throughout Intuitive Eating. As you lose your food rules and focus on the habits that make you feel good mentally and physically, you may lose weight, gain weight or your weight may stay the same…that’s the tricky part! We cannot measure health by weight (5).
What would be better is to look at fat bodies as neutral and do research from there. This idea is different from the way most research begins – with a bias that anyone in a larger body is wrong or unhealthy.
In my practice, I see how much better (and effective!) it feels – for clients and providers – when you work on health from an inclusive space. There are plenty of folks in smaller bodies who aren’t actually that healthy and there are people in larger bodies who are very healthy. We cannot assess a person’s health just by looking at them. So why not act like it?
I can’t know what the right weight is for your body, but your body does. This is called your “set point” weight.
Let’s chat about that, next.
What is set-point weight?
So…what is a set point? Your set point is actually a range of pounds, usually within 10-20 pounds, guided by your genetics and other factors that include your diet history and your environment. A set point weight is one at which you feel physically good (no extreme hunger, fatigue, urge to binge, etc.) and is easy to maintain (without extreme food rules or diets).
Just like your shoe size, eye color, or skin tone, your set-point is something you’re born with. When we try to change our weight with restrictive diets, our body tries to protect itself.
Set point weight theory explains why trying to control weight through restriction causes big problems. Various animal models and human starvation studies prove the body works tirelessly at a biological level to keep weight within a tight range in an effort to prevent starvation (6, 7).
Set point weight is a complex and dynamic process driven by your metabolism as well as your hormones. I often break this work down for clients so they can understand the complexities and mesh those with their own lived experience with weight.
Have you longed for weight loss for years?
This desire makes total sense given how highly it is valued in our society. But: I don’t recommend focusing on your set point as the new goal.
Why, you ask?
Transferring your daily obsessions from “what will it take to lose weight?” to “what will it take to reach your set point weight?” won’t create the true feeling of freedom you’re after. Actually, clinging to a weight-oriented outcome of any kind stalls the process! To find real peace, you need to stop focusing on weight entirely.
Still, for those of us – myself included – that learned you can be any weight you want if you just “set your mind to it” – which is total BS- it’s helpful to understand this theory.
For more on set-point weight, check out this recent blog post: how do you reach your set-point weight?
Becoming an Intuitive Eater is a journey of making peace with food, your body, and even the weight that it was meant to be.
Where do we go from here?
So now what?
You may have suppressed your weight by eating less and moving more for years. You’re sick of it. You’re ready to begin Intuitive Eating…and then you begin to experience weight gain. Why? Your body is returning back to the weight it is meant to be when you are not fighting your body’s set point weight 24/7.
For some people, weight temporarily does fluctuate while you learn the Intuitive Eating skills. For others, regardless of how well their Intuitive Eating skills are coming along – you may gain weight as you let food rules go, and that’s okay.
(You may also lose weight with Intuitive Eating. Or your weight may stay the same. Everyone is different. Your body knows what weight feels best: this weight is easy to maintain and makes you feel good physically and emotionally.)
What I do know as someone who worked in weight loss research as a Registered Dietitian for a long time before leaving that work for my private practice now dedicated to healing food guilt is this: your weight is not your health.
By watching my mother’s lived experience in a bigger body and sitting with 100s of clients recovering from lifelong dieting struggles – I’ve come to understand that living in a bigger body is not quite as easy as just “accepting yourself” in your mind. Body image work is more complicated than just “liking your body.”
What I do know as a daughter of a woman in a bigger body who struggled all her life is this: your health and size are not your worth. These things aren’t moral. Being thin is not a prerequisite for being a good and worthy person.
If you care about health as a personal value – I’ve got you as a registered dietitian. I value real health…and real health is much more complicated than a number on a scale. We’re going to talk about this more in this post.
Living in a larger body is different than living in a smaller one…and sometimes much more painful and difficult.
Because of this truth, I support clients ingrappling with the realities of living in a world that actively makes it harder to live in a bigger body.
This includes your regular visits to the doctor’s office, when you shop for clothes, have a meal out at a restaurant (no booths, please!), or rent a car – so that it does not impact your chance to find food freedom.
My list of ideas to move through your concerns about weight gain was compiled with awareness of these real challenges. Our society needs to change the way folks in bigger bodies are treated, and it’s okay if you don’t want to keep shrinking yourself as a coping strategy. (And, in a fat-phobic society it also makes sense that you have wanted to.)
You deserve community
Here’s what I’d like to ask you: Are you in a community with other folks in bigger bodies who can support you in your experience toward freedom? A community of people who understands what life is like on a daily basis?
There are a lot of uncertainties when you become an Intuitive Eater, at first. And support helps.
My programs come with a community for this reason.
However: you may wish to find a community of peers that are also led by a fat person who shares your identity. I’m happy to help: you can reach out to me on Instagram and I will point you toward another practitioner that I trust.
I believe it’s super important to help squash shame and to help you see you are not alone in your healing experiences.
With that said, here are a few more questions to consider to move through fear of weight gain WITHOUT setting you back on your journey:
- Have you addressed your food rules in a way that all foods feel neutral? This takes a lot of practice! Here is a blog post to get started: how to stop the good food vs. bad food spiral: Halloween edition
- Do you have the skills to problem solve your health or accessibility concerns in ways other than shrinking your body?
- Have you maximized your emotional coping toolkit?
- Are you finding ways to incorporate joyful movement?
- Have you defined health in a way that honors your mental and physical health? Can you value both, not one over the other? This is the only way to truly practice gentle nutrition without setting yourself back
With Intuitive Eating, you don’t need to do all the things perfectly, or even all of the time, in order to feel confident and comfortable in your process. When we work together I show you how to move in the right direction and stay flexible so you no longer make decisions from a place of fear or all-or-nothing extremes.
The No Guilt Framework
As a registered dietitian, I’ve worked with 100s of clients in larger bodies and listened to their stories. I’ve also witnessed my mom’s struggles with weight and history of diet after diet throughout my childhood. Thanks to these insights, I’ve come to understand that living in a bigger body is not quite as easy as “accepting yourself”. Our society is too fat-phobic for that to be true.
To help my clients, I made this checklist that will include some prompts to help you consider how you want to navigate any loss of privilege you may experience as you embark on your own Intuitive Eating journey. One of my suggestions is to join the No More Guilt Community so that you can find peace and support with women like you going through this.
It is probably one of my most common questions: can you be an Intuitive Eater and lose weight?
Or at least prevent weight gain?
Unfortunately, I cannot predict what your body will do as you become an Intuitive Eater and bid farewell to diets for good.
You may gain weight. And I understand that can feel terrifying.
As an Intuitive Eating dietitian, I’m going to teach you how to improve your IE process, but at the same time, I want you to be aware: that doing things to stop weight gain is the same as doing things to cause weight loss.
Your brain and body may register your actions the same. A red flag may fly high saying “she’s doing it again!!! she’s restricting” and depending on how you restrict – you may invite unwanted guilt, shame, and food obsessions – including binge eating.
When I work with my clients, I help them sort out an approach that helps them feel better WITHOUT setting them back to square one. That’s why tip #1 is to explore your fear of weight gain.
And this may surprise you, but The No Guilt Framework does not focus on reaching your set point weight as the goal. It’s counterproductive, however tempting it is…trust me.
So what do you do when you know that weight gain is possible on an Intuitive Eating journey?
Instead of focusing on weight, I show you how to feed yourself in a way that feels effortless and enjoyable. Then I help you STAY focused on non-weight goals, even if a little part of you does still want weight loss. And that part of you that wants weight loss? I’m interested in hearing that part of your story because I understand it through the eyes of my mom.
As a member of The No Guilt Community, you’ll have the support and community that will help you to find peace, understanding, and the ability to live your best life. A life without food rules, without trying to shrink yourself, has room for joy, fulfillment, and connection. Are you in? I’m rooting for you.