Dazed Eating

Intuitive Eating Sounds Great

Intuitive eating is a concept that sounds great. It has enthusiastic fans. And a new study published in Obesity finds that people who score high on a scale of intuitive eating were less likely to have excess weight or obesity. Géraldine Camilleri and her colleagues conclude:

Although no causality can be inferred from the reported associations, these data suggest that IE might be relevant for obesity prevention and treatment.

Intuitive eating, as measured in this study, has three dimensions:

  • Eating for physical rather than emotional reasons
  • Relying on hunger and satiety cues
  • Unconditional permission to eat

You can find assessments of intuitive eating that are miles away from the very careful assessment of this new publication. Linda Bacon published a study in 2005 to support her view that IE and size acceptance leads to better health outcomes for people with obesity. Her publication is essential reading for believers in the Health at Every Size movement.

At the other extreme is a recent publication in Nutrition and Health. Based on a small controlled study, Anglin et al conclude that “CR (calorie restriction) is a superior approach to weight management compared to IE.”

Our own view is in line with the more measured approach of Camilleri et al. The concepts of intuitive eating are appealing. It’s not surprising that better skills for responding to physical hunger and satiety might lead to a healthier weight status and better health outcomes. But strong evidence from rigorous studies is lacking.

Fantastic claims are made for intuitive eating. Good studies should back them up.

Click here for the study by Camilleri and here for more from the New York Times.

Dazed Eating, photograph © Eric Martin / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


March 22, 2016

4 Responses to “Intuitive Eating Sounds Great”

  1. March 22, 2016 at 7:17 am, Mary-Jo Overwater said:

    IE is great if, as you point out, skills are learned, practiced, and applied consistently to help the holy grail of ‘self-regulation’ toward physical/physiological hunger and eating be achieved and sustained. However, with obesity, there’s so many physiological reasons — not just emotional — that can usurp IE efforts at every turn. A tremendous amount of education, counseling, continued education, monitoring, and support is most likely necessary to assure that IE is mastered and sustained. It’s an exciting field and I look forward to seeing more rigorous studies on it.

    • March 22, 2016 at 7:36 am, Ted said:

      Well said, Mary Jo. Thanks!

  2. March 22, 2016 at 12:24 pm, Allen Browne said:

    IE is great if the person’s energy management system and set point are OK and their environment is OK. Unfortunately for most people with obesity, this is not true. Their energy management system has gone awry due to what they eat, their activity level, their microbiome, their stress level, their circadian rhythm, their exposure to obesogens, epigenetic changes in utero and prenatally, etc. The basics – Eating for physical rather than emotional reasons Relying on hunger and satiety cues, Unconditional permission to eat – are not in keeping with this malfunction of the energy management system and unhealthy set point that now drives their behavior. Self regulation is easy when the system works and very hard when it is broken – and many parts of our modern environment end up breaking the system. Complicated but true – obesity is physiology driving behavior – not behavior driving physiology. To help people with obesity we need to figure out what part of the energy management system is broken, repair it and reset the set point – i.e personalized medicine.

    • March 23, 2016 at 3:46 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Allen. It’s a good reminder that simplistic answers don’t often work for a complex problem.