Many who begin a diet do so with the desire to improve their body composition. Unfortunately, the available data on dietary success is rather daunting, and with failure rates estimated from roughly 85-95% it’s apparent that common dietary interventions are incomplete.1
This article will explore the relevant topics that need to be considered when beginning a dietary intervention and the pros and cons of intuitive eating.
The Goals of Dieting
The primary reason for dieting is to decrease body fat levels. This is highly beneficial since being overweight or obese is strongly associated with increased risk of all-cause mortality.2 Weight loss occurs as a direct result of sustaining a hypocaloric diet—consuming fewer calories than your body burns throughout the day.3
This is the first law of thermodynamics which states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another but can be neither created nor destroyed.4
By knowing this it’s easier to understand why all diets produce virtually identical results with regard to weight loss regardless of their composition. All diets work because their structure creates a hypocaloric state. So we can remove a level of stress often involved with rigid dieting and select the diet that will be most enjoyable and increase adherence.3
One point that needs to be addressed is that weight loss does not always equate to fat loss. Depending on your diet and the severity of the caloric deficit you may be more at risk of losing lean tissue than fat mass. A simple method to mitigate muscle loss when dieting is to utilize a moderate to high protein intake in conjunction with resistance training.5
With regard to body composition improvements, maintaining lean mass should be prioritized and consuming 2.3-3.1 g/kg of lean body mass per day of protein and resistance training at least three times per week should be sufficient.5,6
Structure Your Approach
We’ve established that when calories and protein are equated virtually all diets produce identical results, so now let’s shift our attention on how to structure our approach.
All diets have some form of measurement tool, ketogenic diets have you consuming less than 20g of carbs daily, paleo restricts several foods groups, low-fat diets restrict your fat intake, etc. But all approaches either directly or indirectly reduce your overall caloric load.
One of my favorite quotes commonly attributed to Peter Drucker is “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” This is especially relevant within the context of dieting. If we have no effective method to evaluate progress, how will we, in fact, know that we are making any progress at all?
By tracking our journey, we can establish some measurement to chart our progress and provide feedback to course correct. This could be in the form of tracking calories through an app, monitoring your body weight, taking photos, measurements, etc. But along with this comes in a new level of complexity.
There is emerging evidence that associates eating disorders with rigid dietary control.7 Anyone who’s dieted for an extended period of time can attest to the affect dietary restriction and constant tracking can have on exacerbating your own neuroticism. In some cases, this can potentiate disordered eating behavior.
In contrast, flexible dietary control is a strong predictor of dietary success.8 But even in this more flexible approach, there is difficulty in defining what constitutes flexible control and rigid control on an individual basis. From one individual to the next the perception of difficulty and impact may be markedly different.
The Role of Intuitive Eating
One approach to dieting that has gained a lot of traction has been intuitive eating. The idea is that it promotes a healthy attitude toward eating and body image. The basic premise is that you learn to understand your body and hunger signaling so you can begin to eat when you’re hungry (and not simply craving foods) and stop when you’re full.
This is a great process in theory but in application there are significant limitations. The most obvious of which is that an overweight or obese individual does not have this level of awareness, and since this approach places no restrictions on food intake it leaves the dieter with little or no guidance.
For overweight individuals following their own hunger signaling, weight loss is unpredictable because hunger signaling defaults to well beyond their daily energy requirement. In fact, a 2017 systematic review found that “having a body mass index ?30 is associated with significant under-reporting of food intake”.9
This is one aspect of the intuitive eating approach that is unfortunately not discussed enough. In many cases, I am a proponent of intuitive eating, but its efficacy is largely due to the guidance of a qualified professional10 and/or the experience of the dieter in question.
So, under what circumstances is intuitive eating actually beneficial? Experienced dieters that have demonstrated a successful track record of weight management are good candidates for this approach. An example would be a bodybuilder or physique athlete during the off-season. In fact, this approach may have significant benefits because as one study found “Low levels of dichotomous thinking mediated the relationship between intuitive eating and disordered eating”.7
This reduction in monitoring can be a crucial reprieve for athletes looking to distance themselves from the meticulous nature of contest prep diets. Intuitive eating has also been shown to be beneficial for individuals diagnosed with eating disorders and body image distortions.7
This is because intuitive eating takes the focus from achieving a specific body image and develops a health-centric focus. This occurs in conjunction with proper education on healthy eating habits and developing an understanding of their own hunger signaling.
This approach has several benefits. However, without proper guidance and education, the effectiveness of intuitive eating as a weight loss protocol for overweight and obese individuals is questionable.
But the reality is that individuals with disordered eating are estimated to be roughly 8.7% of the American population.11 So what should you do if you do not have an eating disorder and aspire to improve your body composition but are relatively new to dieting?
Since rapid initial weight loss in conjunction with lifestyle adjustments is strongly associated with successful long term maintenance, one potential strategy is to take an iterative approach to dieting.12
To begin, you can implement a dietary intervention that offers structure with a measure of flexibility. One choice might be the flexible dieting approach where you aim to hit predetermined macronutrient targets by consuming 80% clean food 20% fun food. This or any other intervention that offers a reasonable degree of structure and flexibility can be very effective starting points.
As you begin to lose weight due to the initial structure your intrinsic motivation increases as does your level of adherence. As you gain more experience dieting and honing your ability to accurately estimate your caloric intake, you can gradually shift to a more intuitive approach to eating.
Practical Takeaways For Body Composition Improvement
Overweight and obese individuals struggle to accurately estimate their energy intake. This presents a significant obstacle to utilizing intuitive eating as an effective body composition protocol since there are few practical guidelines. Intuitive eating can be more beneficial than conventional diets for individuals diagnosed with eating disorders or body image distortions. A significant aspect of its success can be attributed to acquiring professional guidance during the intervention. Intuitive eating can be very effective for experienced dieters and off-season bodybuilders who have a good intuitive sense of their energy intake but don’t want the additional burden of tracking calories and macros. Intuitive eating can be an effective method for weight and body composition management when transitioning from a hypocaloric diet to a planned maintenance block. Intuitive eating is likely not an effective protocol for beginner dieters looking to lose a substantial amount of body fat due to the lack of guidance and accuracy of estimating their energy intake.
I hope this article sheds some light on the benefits and limitations of intuitive eating. Lift big.
1. Ayyad, C., and T. Andersen. “Long-Term Efficacy of Dietary Treatment of Obesity: a Systematic Review of Studies Published between 1931 and 1999.” Obesity Reviews, vol. 1, no. 2, 2000, pp. 113–119., doi:10.1046/j.1467-789x.2000.00019.x.
2. “Association of All-Cause Mortality with Overweight and Obesity Using Standard Body Mass Index Categories. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” British Dental Journal, vol. 214, no. 3, 2013, pp. 113–113., doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.2013.131.
3. Gardner, Christopher D., et al. “Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion.” Jama, vol. 319, no. 7, 2018, p. 667., doi:10.1001/jama.2018.0245.
4. Laws of Thermodynamics
5. Calbet, Jose A. L., et al. “Exercise Preserves Lean Mass and Performance during Severe Energy Deficit: The Role of Exercise Volume and Dietary Protein Content.” Frontiers in Physiology, vol. 8, 2017, doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.00483.
6. Helms, Eric R, et al. “Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 11, no. 1, Dec. 2014, doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-20.
7. Linardon, Jake, and Sarah Mitchell. “Rigid Dietary Control, Flexible Dietary Control, and Intuitive Eating: Evidence for Their Differential Relationship to Disordered Eating and Body Image Concerns.” Eating Behaviors, vol. 26, 2017, pp. 16–22., doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2017.01.008.
8. Meule, Adrian, et al. “Food Cravings Mediate the Relationship between Rigid, but Not Flexible Control of Eating Behavior and Dieting Success.” Appetite, vol. 57, no. 3, 2011, pp. 582–584., doi:10.1016/j.appet.2011.07.013.
9. Wehling, Helena, and Joanne Lusher. “People with a Body Mass Index ?30 under-Report Their Dietary Intake: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Health Psychology, 2017, p. 135910531771431., doi:10.1177/1359105317714318.
10. Cole, Renee E., and Tanya Horacek. “Effectiveness of the My Body Knows When Intuitive-Eating Pilot Program.” American Journal of Health Behavior, vol. 34, no. 3, Jan. 2010, pp. 286–297., doi:10.5993/ajhb.34.3.4.
11. “Erratum to: The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.” Biological Psychiatry, vol. 72, no. 2, 2012, p. 164., doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.05.016.
12. Nackers, Lisa M., et al. “The Association Between Rate of Initial Weight Loss and Long-Term Success in Obesity Treatment: Does Slow and Steady Win the Race?” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, vol. 17, no. 3, May 2010, pp. 161–167., doi:10.1007/s12529-010-9092-y.