Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size are NOT Anti-Health
By: Kelsey Pukala, dietitian at Nourishing Minds Nutrition
Have you heard rumors about Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size (HAES) being anti-health? Or others saying that “it’s just eating whatever you want, whenever you want?” Or a form of “giving up” because nothing else “worked for you?” I’m here to tell you that Intuitive Eating and HAES are not anti-health. They are, in fact, pro-health!
I will also say that I’m on a journey and am constantly learning. I’ve always wanted to help others (oh heyyyy enneagram type 2) pursue health, which is why I became a Registered Dietitian. Unfortunately, so much of what I learned in school and in my dietetic internship was very weight centric. Basically, I was taught that weight equals health. For years, that is how I practiced, but what I didn’t realize was that I was actually doing harm. Of course, I thought I was helping! And I say often that we are always doing the best we can with the information that we have. However, when I stumbled across Intuitive Eating and HAES, everything changed, including the way I practiced.
Obviously, you can’t practice something you’ve never heard before! It took me some time to fully dive in to these concepts because they are SO counter-cultural. I had to wrestle with a lot of my own internal bias. Now, I understand that Intuitive Eating and HAES are all about health! They are evidence-based paradigms and there is some wonderful evidence to support them. Fundamentally, these paradigms recognize that health is so much more that what we eat, our body weight and how much we exercise. They are based on sound research understanding that diets don’t work and our weight is not directly correlated to our health.
Intuitive eating is NOT just eating whatever you want, whenever you want and HAES doesn’t promote the idea that anyone can be healthy at any size. People can be healthy at a variety of sizes and we cannot assume that someone’s weight is causing a certain symptom, disease or illness. Associations may exist, however, health issues occur in people of ALL body sizes.
We also have virtually no research supporting weight loss as a prescription for any symptom, disease or illness. There are studies that show weight loss is potentially sustainable within about a year or two of dieting, but then the majority (as in 98%) of people will gain the weight back after 3-5 years. We do have excellent evidence demonstrating that you will most likely gain more weight back after dieting. I wish dieting and pursuing intentional weight loss came with a warning label including potential side effects like: slowed metabolism, increased future weight gain, increased risk for disordered eating and eating disorders, feeling addicted to food, feeling out of control around food, depression, anxiety, possible loss of menstruation, digestive issues and on and on and on.
Something important to note is that intuitive eating and HAES are not anti-weight loss, they are anti-intentional pursuit of weight loss. Occasionally, if someone begins their intuitive eating journey and becomes more in-tune with their hunger/fullness, copes with emotions without using food, moves their body in an enjoyable way, eats satisfying meals and respects their body, it’s possible they may lose weight. And that’s totally fine! I often tell clients that one of three things will happen when they start their journey: they will either lose weight, gain weight or stay the same.
Weight is neutral. Period. Weight is an outcome, not a behavior. I repeat, weight is an outcome, not a behavior. Intuitive eating and HAES are concerned with behavior change rather than body weight (which is largely out of our control). There is strong evidence correlating positive behavior change to positive health outcomes even with no change in weight. I often find that people will sacrifice their mental, emotional, spiritual and even physical health in pursuit of a smaller body and I don’t think that’s very healthy! HAES and intuitive eating have shown that through behavior change, people are empowered to improve their health. It is possible to improve blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, mood etc. independent of weight loss!
Another thing worth noting is that intuitive eating and normal eating is the goal of eating disorder and disordered eating recovery. That means that sometimes, it’s important (and necessary) to follow a meal plan or eat past what may be comfortable or dramatically scale back movement and wait to work through all of the principles of intuitive eating temporarily. This is because disordered eating, eating disorders, restriction, chronic dieting etc. can throw off our hunger and fullness signals. They just aren’t as reliable because they have been ignored through eating in a way that was external to your body. The good news is that with regular, nourishing meals and re-learning how to trust your body, hunger and fullness can, once again, be trusted.
Lastly, intuitive eating and HAES are NOT diets. That means there is no right or wrong way to pursue them. Everyone is on a journey and every eating experience is an opportunity to learn something about your body. You can’t “fail” intuitive eating or “fall off the bandwagon” because there are no food rules and you can’t do it “wrong.” While this may seem initially overwhelming, over time it becomes freeing to experience food without rules, guilt, shame or anxiety and also empowering to make food decisions based on both your head and body knowledge. If you don’t know where to start, I would highly encourage you to work with a non- diet Dietitian! Moving towards intuitive eating and embracing HAES can take time(which is 100% normal) and, here at Nourishing Minds Nutrition, we LOVE working with clients as they navigate what intuitive eating looks like for them. We love empowering our clients to discover what food freedom, body acceptance and pursuing health looks like for them!
Thank you Kelsey for this incredibly helpful blog post! I find intuitive eating and health at every size have so many misconceptions surrounding them, at Nourishing Minds Nutrition my team and I hope this type of information is helpful to educate you further!