Individuals who struggle with their weight often feel as though they’ve tried every diet and weight loss program with little success. But you’ll be happy to know that there really is an approach that doesn’t involve traditional dieting, restrictive eating, or supplements which is called intuitive eating.

Can traditional dieting lead to weight gain?

Yes, that is true. The process of traditional restrictive dieting frequently leads to weight gain. Researchers call this “dieting-induced weight-gain.” Biologically, when you diet, your body experiences the process as a form of starvation. Your body doesn’t know that you’re purposefully restricting your food intake and can go into “survival mode,” slowing your metabolism and causing you to crave food.

A 2011 Finnish study of more than 2,000 sets of twins aged 16 to 25 years examined the weight-amplifying effect of dieting. Those twins who participated in an intentional weight loss effort were nearly two to three times more likely to become overweight than their non-dieting twin. With each additional dieting effort, their risk of becoming overweight increased even more. The researchers concluded, “It is now well established that the more people engage in dieting, the more they gain weight in the long-term.”

Other studies have shown this to be true in children as well; and that the risk of binge eating and food preoccupation increases with the frequency of dieting. A team of UCLA researchers reviewed 31 long-term studies and concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain, with up to two-thirds of the participants regaining more weight than they lost.

Are my weight loss goals realistic?

Fitting into a size 10 may not be a realistic goal for everyone. Research indicates that our bodies want to keep us within a certain weight range. A person's range is mostly due to genetics, but can also be influenced by processed food intake, sleep, stress, exercise, and certain medications. Weight loss through dieting often takes you out of your range, which explains why losing the weight and then trying to maintain it becomes nearly impossible.

What is the best way to manage weight without dieting?

The best approach is to recognize the damage that dieting does and accept that dieting can fail for many. Instead, forget about all your dos and don'ts and focus on a more mindful approach to eating. Think about the things that do affect your weight range: exercise, stress management, adequate sleep, and reducing the processed foods you eat.

I recommend a mindfulness approach called "intuitive eating." This approach has been around the longest and has the most research backing it up.  Learning it takes a leap of faith, time, and practice. But it’s not difficult – everyone can do it and the rewards are worth the effort.

The ten principles of intuitive eating

Intuitive eating can help you learn to create satisfying, sensory, pleasurable eating experiences and can free you from your internal battle with your weight. It is based on ten principles. 

  • Reject the diet mentality.
  • Honor your hunger.
  • Make peace with food.
  • Challenge the “food police.”
  • Feel your fullness.
  • Discover the satisfaction factor.
  • Cope with your emotions without using food.
  • Respect your body.
  • Exercise – feel the difference.
  • Honor your health.

Intuitive eating can help you to achieve a sense of unconditional permission to eat the foods you desire when you’re hungry. You will find that you are eating for physical reasons, rather than emotional. These skills can last a lifetime.

Learn more about the Intuitive Eating Program at the Lifespan Lifestyle Medicine Center.

Sheenagh Bodkin, MD

Dr. Sheenagh Bodkin is director of obesity medicine at Coastal Medical.