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Conventional dieting is under attack for its rigorous structure and emphasis on weight alone, where intuitive eating comes off as far too lenient to many.
It may seem like a relatively new issue, but really, the dieting vs intuitive eating debate is just the latest incarnation of an age-old dilemma: is it better to plow through obstacles or go around them?
The first framework (conventional dieting) is more representative of the old-school approach to getting things done, self-improvement or otherwise—just roll up your sleeves and suffer through the work.
Intuitive eating, however, is more focused on listening to your body’s cues and separating food from emotional well-being to gently modify eating patterns.
Which is better for the average dieter?
That requires a much closer look at both the diets and the dieter’s individual circumstances.
The Conventional Dieting Mentality
Herbal health “supplements” have been around for millennia, but the earliest documented evidence of an actual weight-loss diet was The Art of Living Long, a book written by Luigi Cornaro in 1558.
The once-obese Venetian not only managed to lose a lot of weight by reducing caloric intake, but he also lived to 100 years of age in a time before mankind even knew what germs were.
Of course, his methods (dining mostly on egg yolks and wine) have been greatly refined over the centuries, but both modern diets and Cornaro’s share some of the same characteristics, such as:
- A quantifiable goal
- A set time frame
- Quantifiable steps
- Clear restrictions and allowances
In the modern context, the quantifiable goal of a diet is usually to lose a certain number of pounds (muscle-building comes in second).
The time frame can be days, weeks, months (who knows?), or even years—the point being that it’s a definite time frame.
Some diets are more flexible on measuring caloric intake, but many (Weight Watchers is a big one) require close adherence to specific limits—a quantifiable step.
Finally, most diets explicitly restrict some foods and encourage healthier alternatives.
Examples of Conventional Dieting
Almost every trendy diet that has popped up in recent years falls under the domain of conventional dieting.
This includes intermittent fasting, the ketogenic diet, the South Beach diet, Atkin’s, Weight Watchers, and more.
Whether it’s training your body to metabolize fat instead of carbs (keto) or simply reducing calories, the commonality here is that you’re actively targeting weight loss or muscle gain with a structured plan.
The Intuitive Eating Mentality
Though it may seem like a thinly veiled excuse to simply eat whatever you want, intuitive eating is actually much more calculated than it sounds.
Yes, adherents can technically eat whatever they want, but the diet’s founders—Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch—designed the methodology with ten principles that aim to normalize unhealthy eating patterns and the psychological drivers behind them.
Here are the ten principles of intuitive eating:
- Reject the diet mentality
- Honor your hunger
- Make peace with food
- Challenge the food police
- Respect your fullness
- Discover the satisfaction factor
- Honor your feelings without using food
- Respect your body
- Exercise—feel the difference
- Honor your health with gentle nutrition
The founders go on to explain on their website that the principles are designed to “cultivate attunement to the physical sensations that arise from within your body,” including the removal of barriers to attunement.
In a word, this lifestyle is about making dietary choices around what your body is telling you it needs—there are zero restrictions in terms of calories, specific foods, eating times, or anything else.
If you feel hungry, eat.
If you feel full, stop eating.
Your body is literally made to move, so move it.
The greatest barrier to intuitive eating for many of us is trying to silence all the “noise” of our addictions to sugary, processed foods while straining to hear what our bodies really want.
For adherents who do manage to cut through this noise, healthy and nutritious foods become just as enjoyable as that slice of pizza.
Who Wins the Conventional Dieting vs Intuitive Eating Debate?
Thankfully, we can avoid the wishy-washy compromise (“they’re both great in their own right”) when answering this question—there are indeed situations when one diet/lifestyle is better than the other.
A quick look at the research helps to define these contexts.
Quality Trumps Quantity
A review from the University of Athens, Greece searching for the best diet for “safe, effective, and sustainable weight loss” makes some interesting distinctions between standard “hypocaloric” diets and less calorie-focused diets.
The authors referenced a study of 609 participants who followed either a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet for a year (clean, whole foods with no caloric limits).
Both groups lost an average of more than ten pounds per person, even without caloric limits.
Researchers prudently noted that “both groups ended up consuming fewer calories on average (daily deficit of 500-600 kcal) even though they were instructed not to count calories.”
In other words, this year-long trial makes a strong argument for the ability of clean and intuitive eating to naturally decrease caloric intake, which makes sense because junk food won’t give your body what it needs (so you eat more!).
It’s the ultimate antithesis to the cheetos and ice cream rabbit hole—it’s just a matter of surmounting the peak of addiction and sliding down the less traveled side to a much healthier place.
Mindful Eating and Psychological Health
Conventional dieting may have a slight edge on intuitive eating when it comes to the raw statistics (weight/BMI, health outcomes, etc.), and even that’s highly debatable, but there’s very little question that intuitive eating is psychologically healthier.
Australian researchers conducted a review of 26 articles and surveys in hopes of illuminating the “relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators,” among which they included psychological well-being.
They found after the full analysis that intuitive eating results in improved psychological health, and to a limited extent, body mass index (BMI).
The authors also labeled intuitive eating as a “weight maintenance, but perhaps not weight loss” method, and they noted that physical activity did not markedly increase with intuitive eating.
Motivation Makes the Difference
The key to determining whether intuitive vs conventional dieting is right for you is to uncover the motivation behind the diet—why are you making the change?
If it’s because you’re negatively comparing yourself to celebrities or fit friends, conventional dieting may actually exacerbate the insecurity, anxiety, and depression that drives these comparisons.
However, this doesn’t mean that intuitive eating is the ultimate diet in this case, because it’s not as effective for losing significant amounts of weight.
If your desire to diet comes from a less harmful place (medical reasons, general longevity, trying to keep up with the kids, etc.), then conventional dieting can work for you if you’re both disciplined and forgiving enough.
Conversely, if you’re looking for a much more flexible and forgiving lifestyle shift that will nourish your sense of self-worth as well as your body, intuitive eating it is.