Intuitive eaters do not diet - they recognise and respond to internal hunger and fullness cues to regulate food intake, explains Steven Hawks of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who adopted intuitive eating habits several years ago and lost 50 pounds in the process.

"The basic premise of intuitive eating is, rather than manipulate what we eat in terms of prescribed diets - how many calories a food has, how many grams of fat, specific food combinations or anything like that - we should take internal cues, try to recognise what our body wants and then regulate how much we eat based on hunger and satiety," he said in a university statement on Wednesday.

In a pilot study, Hawks and colleagues studied the relationship between intuitive eating and several health indicators among a group of female college students.

They identified 15 women who were intuitive eaters and 17 women who were not intuitive eaters, and ran a battery of tests to see how healthy they were.

Mass index

Overall, women who scored high on the Intuitive Eating Scale were healthier than those who were scored low on the scale.

High intuitive eaters had a significantly lower body mass index than did low intuitive eaters, and had lower levels of harmful triglycerides and higher levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and, therefore, a better cardiovascular risk profile.

Asian populations  are primarily
intuitive eaters

Hawks plans to do a large-scale study of intuitive eating across different cultures.

For example, Asian populations are primarily intuitive eaters - they eat when hungry and stop when full.

Compared with Americans, Asians have a "much healthier relationship with food, far fewer eating disorders, and interestingly, far less obesity", Hawks notes.

Diets and dieting often fail to result in long-term weight loss, largely because food restriction works against human biology, is not sustainable, and may lead to negative outcomes such as weight recycling, altered body composition, increased fat storage, decreased metabolism, and eating disorders, Hawks and colleagues explain in the American Journal of Health Education.

Natural mechanism

Proponents of intuitive eating for weight management believe that all individuals possess a natural mechanism that, if allowed to function, will ensure good nutrition at a healthy weight.

Therefore, it is possible to maintain a healthy body weight while maintaining an unrestrained relationship with food.

"As individuals get in touch with this 'inner guide' or access their 'inner wisdom' they will be more in tune with their body's physical needs and will eat in a way that supports healthy weight maintenance and positive nutrition," Hawks and colleagues write.

"... we should take internal cues, try to recognise what our body wants and then regulate how much we eat based on hunger and satiety"

Steven Hawks,
Brigham Young University, Utah

To get on the road to intuitive eating, a person needs to adopt two attitudes, according to the researchers. The first attitude is body acceptance. "It's an extremely difficult attitude adjustment for many people to make, but they have to come to a conscious decision that personal worth is not a function of body size," Hawks said.

The second attitude, that dieting is harmful, relates to the first - namely, that dieting does not lead to the results that people think it will lead to.

To become an intuitive eater, a person also needs to adopt two key behaviours. They must learn how not to eat for emotional, environmental or social reasons, and they must listen to their body and eat only when hungry and stop when full.

They must also learn how to interpret body signals, cravings, and hunger and respond in a healthy way.