Can we focus on weight loss or building muscle while eating intuitively? My clients often wonder if “it is ok” to have goals around changing their body in some way (weight loss, muscle gain, functional exercise) while they are trying to heal their relationship with food. Let’s take a look at what this means and when it may be helpful or harmful.
Different parts of us
The first conversation I like to have with clients is, “What brought you here today?” I want us to understand what we are working on, and often there are competing parts. I recently have been reading more about the Internal Family Systems approach which empathizes how there are different parts of us present all at once, vying for space and wanting to pursue goals often measured by different metrics. The way we set up our values determines our metrics- how we will evaluate if we are actually successful or not.
As I see with my clients, many of us have a part that wants to heal the relationship with food and release the food-related guilt. We want to find peace with our size and shape, and we seek self-compassion and that nurturing inner voice that tells us to open permission for the foods we want to enjoy and buy the bigger pair of jeans. To be ok with our here and now body. This path often leads to contentment and opens up more space for pursuing what we value most and finding deeper meaning in life.
But then there is also the part of us that may not be satisfied with how we look, how we feel, or our actual or perceived limitations associated with our current body or size. It can feel very conflicting to have both parts presenting so strongly. Being curious about what these parts are actually in service to is a really meaningful exploration. Often we can notice that the part of us that wants to change our body might be aligned with fear, anxiety, a sense of low self worth, or another pain point and we fuse to the idea that changing our body will “fix” it.
Taking a look at our values so we can better align with them is an important part of moving toward greater happiness.
If our value was to heal our food relationship with food then it might sound something like, “Feel at peace with food and my body” which means the metrics we use to see if we are successful might include:
Allowing permission for all foods
Listening and connecting to our body
Eating enough to feel energized and content
Bringing in self-compassion if we begin to feel guilty or frustrated with ourselves, eating, or body
With these metrics, which are aligned with the Intuitive Eating framework, our focus would be on a joyful food relationship that honors ourselves as we are. We measure success by how we feel (energetic, calm, low anxiety) and how we can open up space for more peace (permission, self-compassion). These are things we can control in that we can practice mindfulness, body attunement, and self-compassionate inner language. It takes work, but we have the power to continue along that path.
With the focus on changing our body, then there is often the inner voice that is more aggressive, more dictatorial. This voice tells us to keep working hard to change our body, and depending on what our idea of beauty is, we might want to build muscle or alternatively, shrink down smaller, take up less space. This voice can sometimes be more powerful than our desire to nurture ourselves. Especially if we are struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, the voice can be intrusive and demand attention. Often my clients call it “a bully”.
If our value was to change our body then it might sound something like, “Modify your eating and movement to meet body goals” which means the metrics we use to see if we are successful might include:
Not listening to hunger but eating the amount we have determined will help change our body (this amount is undetermined by research so we are always “experimenting” i.e dieting)
Making time for exercise even when we don’t want to or it interferes with other responsibilities
Seeing the scale move in desired direction (if you feel unenergized that is ok because that is not the metric)
“Working harder” to reach goal regardless of anxiety or isolation or how much it disrupts the rest of our life to focus on food, body, movement
With these metrics, it can be easy to disrupt the body connection and further empower this critical, bully voice. The problem with this value as a central tenet determining our metrics of success is that we can’t control if we actually change our body. We can control our behaviors, but not everyone’s body responds the way they hope.
Having values that we can’t control sets us up to fail.
Reading this- what are your values? I have many, many clients who want both, and we have rich discussions about the possibility of holding both weight loss and food peace at one time. But it is also these clients who are least likely to find the peace they are looking for with food and body.
Because clients become frustrated and can give up when they are measuring success wrong (scale) and ignoring the signs they are actually doing well (better touch with hunger and fullness, good energy, less food noise).
Intuitive Eating and Weight Loss
So ultimately can these values (healing the relationship with food AND weight loss) co-exist?
Intuitive Eating is not a weight loss framework- it doesn’t value it and never will. It is not meant to be used for this purpose. It includes rejecting the diet mentality as principle #1, and this tenet guides the process in such a way that counting calories or carbs, measuring food portions, or obsessing over grams of protein is in direct opposition with honoring body cues to determine how much to eat. But that is not to say that working on the food relationship while focusing on changing behaviors that may lead to weight loss is not possible.
For example, if you focus on listening to your hunger and fullness and moving your body intuitively (when you want, how your want) then you might discover that you were eating past fullness often, skipping breakfast due to being busy which was decreasing your metabolic rate, and maybe you actually LOVE walking which you didn’t realize. Adding in a satisfying breakfast, respecting fullness, and walking daily might promote weight loss for some. In studies, intuitive eating is associated with a lower BMI for this reason (uggh, BMI is not a great measure of health, BUT it is what they use in research to make population comparisons), and listening to our body often promotes equilibrium within us and encourages our bodies to move toward our naturally preferred weight.
Notice how the value here is still healing the relationship with food and listening to your body and needs? Ultimately, if you can’t release the desire to change your body, then you might still be holding on to food rules, forbidden foods, or restrictive ideologies that would interfere with the process of body attunement necessary for Intuitive Eating and food peace.
Building muscle and Intuitive Eating
What about someone who is in touch with the body and just wants to get stronger or build more mass? I know I enjoy weight lifting and revel in the feeling of being strong and working towards a functional goal like a faster mile or heavier deadlift. If someone enjoys this, I feel it can absolutely coexist with Intuitive Eating as long as the metric of body attunement is greater than the metric of changing the body. For example, when I lift, I am not interested in changing my body’s aesthetic but rather in changing my strength and ability to carry my children, run for running’s sake (enjoyment, endorphins), and decrease stress. Again, if the value is body function or stress relief vs aesthetic AND we enjoy the movement, this can be very intuitive.
I’ve noticed clients have issues with the food relationship if they are seeking to build muscle through the diet mentality lens. They may be meal prepping bland foods they read about in a magazine but don’t enjoy eating or counting calories or macros and not allowing more than they counted. This is harmful to the body connection and food relationship as well as a slippery slope to a higher degree of disordered eating.
If eating is intuitive and determined by our hunger, our bodies will be naturally hungrier when we lift weights or workout. If there is a disordered voice that questions this hunger, this is something to be curious about and usually is related to the above example of working in the diet mentality. This disordered voice is likely tied to the value of changing the body and is not Intuitive Eating-aligned.
What about protein? Gentle nutrition is the last principle of Intuitive Eating, and it basically entails considering variety, balance, adequacy, and foods that align with our health goals and values. I disagree with counting anything habitually (protein, carbs, fat- anything), BUT we must remember that research supports higher protein for athletes. If we filter our protein needs through gentle nutrition, I feel it is certainly helpful to bring awareness to protein pacing at meals in a non-rigid or stress-inducing way. This is not counting grams but rather ensuring that we have a protein source at most meals and when it makes sense for us. This can also be very helpful with our satiety and overall sense of satisfaction.
What about Intuitive Eating and functional exercise?
I recently had a client who wanted to work out more to get in better shape so that they wouldn’t get out of breath on the stairs. They were concerned this goal was in conflict with their journey to decrease disordered eating and improve their body image so they were avoiding movement in that direction. We discussed the goal and value attached to this desire (feel better walking and hiking aligned with the value of living a more vital and active lifestyle) and ultimately, they realized the fear of moving being connected to dieting was unwarranted. We should always be curious about our underlying wants and needs- not exercising out of fear of disrupting healing is its own kind of rigidity! Intuitive Eating should never be a reason to not pursue functional exercise that would increase meaning in our lives, and moving for the joy of it is an important principle of IE.
If possible, friends, try and put any strong desire to change the body on the back burner (or no burner!) while we heal the relationship with food and focus on behaviors we can modify that will enhance- and not disrupt- our body connection.
Let's chat! What has your experience been with pursuing weight loss?
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments. I’d also love to set up a deep dive initial session with you to support you on your journey!