Intermittent Fasting vs. Intuitive Eating

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Intermittent fasting (IF) is quite the rage in the dieting world right now. In case you don’t know what IF is, it’s a dieting method where you fast for a certain number of hours and/or change your meal times to allow for long periods of fasting during each 24 hour period. Proponents say that IF helps promote weight loss and indeed, several studies have shown this to be true.

However, it appears that IF is not any more effective than regular dieting. A recent study showed that after a year of either dieting or IF, the amount of weight lost was the same between two groups.

Some studies have also shown IF to be difficult to sustain for long periods of time. This makes sense to me as fasting is not easy to do. Hunger gets in the way and I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be hungry for too long. Isn’t this why the word “hangry” was born? Don’t we all get a bit grouchy when we’re ravenously hungry? I know I do.

What the proponents of IF also don’t tell you is that regardless of how you lose weight, the chances of regaining the weight are very high. In fact, 80% of dieters who intentionally lose at least 10% of their body weight will gradually regain the weight to end up as heavy or even heavier than they were before they dieted. Or, as researchers at Penn State found, “Only about one in every six Americans who have ever been overweight or obese loses weight and maintains that loss.”

Hence, two questions come to my mind: 1) why do something that is likely to put you in a bad mood? and 2) why do it if the chances of long-term success are pretty low?

Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to these questions. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether dieting is worth the risk. But losing and regaining weight over and over again, e.g., yo-yo dieting has health risks too, like increasing your risk for heart disease and/or diabetes. Every diet book, program, or pill should have this disclaimer front and center but they don’t. Why? Because they’d lose money if they told you that yo-yo dieting was bad for you.

This is where intuitive eating comes in. Intuitive eating (IE) saved me from a lifetime of chronic dieting many years ago and to this day I sing the praises of IE from every roof top I can. It changed my life and for millions of others as well.

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IE was cultivated by a number of health professionals who read the writing on the wall that dieting really doesn’t work. Ellyn Satter, MSW RD, first wrote about it in the 1980’s and then Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch wrote the seminal book Intuitive Eating” in the 1990’s. Their book has been translated into dozens of languages and has sold millions of copies around the world.

Basically, IE is about learning how to eat like we did as young children; we ate when we were hungry and we stopped when we were full. This doesn’t mean that we grabbed food at the first hunger pang – far from it – but most of us did not seek out food when we weren’t hungry nor did we eat past the feeling of fullness on a regular basis.

IE also teaches awareness of the diet mentality and how it harms us. It gives us permission to eat whatever we want, whenever we want. Many people freak out when they hear that last part and say things like “Oh, I would eat everything in sight if I ate whatever I wanted.” Maybe…but probably not. Getting permission to eat what you want has a reverse psychological effect for most of us. It helps us to focus more on what our body wants than what our minds want. It also takes the power away from the food and gives it back to us where it belongs. It takes time and practice to follow IE completely but it’s well worth the effort.

Most of my clients who have learned IE and who are practicing it everyday tell me that they couldn’t be happier. They may not lose a large amount of weight (some do, some don’t) but that’s not the point of IE. Being free from dieting and rigid food rules is the point and one that is well worth striving for. You don’t have to deal with the guilt and misery of “failing” yet another diet nor do you have to starve yourself for long periods of time.

The main thing I love about IE is the concept of trusting your appetite instead of trying to control it. Dieting teaches us to ignore our hunger and fullness cues which is the exact opposite of IE. IF is even worse – it teaches you not only to eat less but to actually NOT EAT AT ALL even though you might be starving. That might be fine one time but I can guarantee you it is not easy to do on a regular basis.

When you trust your body to tell you when it needs food and when to stop eating (after you feel full and satisfied), you become more relaxed and able to enjoy food, which in turn helps you to stop when you truly have had enough. If you eat past the feeling of fullness, which is normal once in awhile, then it will likely be longer before you are hungry again and less hungry, prompting you to eat less at the next meal. But you wouldn’t know this unless you were paying attention to internal cues for hunger and satiety, which is what IE teaches you to do.

Sounds crazy, I know. But it isn’t. It’s actually very do-able and you’ll be healthier in the long run. Check out the research on IE here.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight. Most people do. But dieting doesn’t work in the long run, whether it’s via IF or traditional dieting methods. The best course of action is to stop dieting and start listening to your body. Learn to honor your body’s cues for hunger and fullness and heed those cues. Respect your body’s needs for physical activity too. After making those changes, your body will settle into the weight it was meant to be, which is what it will keep trying to do anyway. This way you’ll save yourself a lot of time, money, and frustration!

If you’d like to learn more about intuitive eating, consider reading the IE book mentioned above or working through the IE workbook developed by the same authors. Keep an open mind as it’s definitely a different way of thinking. But you won’t be alone, there’s lots of support out there, including numerous Facebook support groups, an online intuitive eating forum, and hundreds of health professionals (including myself) who have completed an intensive training with Evelyn Tribole, MS RD, to become certified as intuitive eating counselors.

Thus, IF is one of many ways to lose weight but so far, it has not been proven to be any more successful than traditional dieting. Losing and gaining weight over and over again has been shown to increase risk for heart disease so in my opinion, it’s best not to diet at all. IE, on the other hand, is not a weight loss diet but is a more sustainable way of eating and has numerous mental and physical health benefits. So it comes down to what your long-term goals are and how much time and energy you want to invest in weight loss efforts. For me, I’ll stick with IE – I may not be as thin as I could be if I dieted all the time, but I’m happier and healthier and that’s good enough for me.