Content warning: This piece briefly mentions disordered eating.
Since launching Goop in 2008, Gwyneth Paltrow has endorsed quite a few questionable health trends.
First, she suggested women steam-clean their vaginas—even though the vagina is self-cleaning, thank you very much. Then, she advised women to stick jade eggs up their vaginas to improve their sex lives, which garnered an overwhelmingly negative response from ob-gyns.
Most recently, Paltrow has championed something called the “intuitive fasting” program, writing the foreword to a new book on the topic by Will Cole, a functional medicine practitioner.
Unsurprisingly, there’s been a backlash against intuitive fasting over the last couple of months. Just search the term on Twitter and you’ll see plenty of people speaking out against it.
What’s the truth? Here’s what you need to know.
What is intuitive fasting?
“Don’t be fooled: Intuitive fasting is just another diet in disguise,” says Alida Iacobellis, RD, creator of the MORE Method. “It’s a four-week program that claims to provide a roadmap for the most effective ways to fast and which foods to eat at what times to get the most benefit.”
Cole claims his four-week intuitive fasting plan will help you “take control” of your hunger and make “intermittent fasting intuitive.”
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a diet trend that places limits on your eating window as a way to reduce your caloric intake, versus making certain foods or food groups off limits, explains Iacobellis.
While there could be some benefits to intermittent fasting, such as fat loss and reduced inflammation and cholesterol, claims about anti-aging and cancer prevention are largely based on animal studies, not human trials, Iacobellis adds.
Jamie Wright, UK-based nutritionist, writes in an article about Cole’s intuitive fasting program that the diet begins with a 12-hour fasting window to “reset” your body, which is then followed by fasting for up to 18 hours to improve your metabolism. By week three, says Wright, you’re down to eating just one meal a day. According to Cole, this phase of his program is supposed to support cellular repair and boost your overall health and longevity.
Why is intuitive fasting bogus—and how is it harmful?
Let’s get right to it: Intuitive fasting isn’t a real thing. As Cristina Hoyt, MS, integrative clinical nutritionist and body image coach, notes, Cole has essentially co-opted and conflated two other terms that have become popular over the last few years: intuitive eating and intermittent fasting.
“I think the message is dangerous and also really opportunistic,” says Hoyt. “It’s like, ‘Let’s take two things that are really popular right now, and let’s blend them together and make it my own and say it’s not disordered.’ That’s a toxic thing to do. There’s nothing intuitive about planned restriction.”
Iacobellis echoes the same sentiment: “Intuitive fasting is an oxymoron,” she says. “There’s nothing intuitive about prescribing a narrow list of acceptable foods and putting limits on the windows in which you can and can not eat.”
In general, fasting has the potential to trigger disordered eating habits. In an article for U.S News & World Report, Rutgers University psychology professor Charlotte Markey, PhD, writes that “even if people begin IF with healthy intentions, as I believe most do, their behavior can still become an eating disorder.”
In fact, research shows dieting in general is a risk factor for disordered eating, especially among young people. “In one review study published in the journal Pediatrics, ‘extreme’ dieting, including severe restriction of caloric intake (hello, intermittent fasting), was predictive of eating disorders,” writes Markey.
That’s not all: Iacobellis explains that fasting can also increase cortisol, the stress hormone, which can lead to cravings. “Overeating and binge eating are two common side effects of intermittent fasting, behaviors that would negate many of the claimed benefits of intermittent fasting,” she says.
Fasting has other potential negative health effects too: It can impair your sleep, make you less alert, and increase irritability, writes Markey.
Another reason to be skeptical of intuitive fasting, in particular? Cole doesn’t have a medical degree, although he is a doctor of chiropractic (yes, a chiropractor). He states on his website that he doesn’t practice medicine or diagnose or treat conditions.
FWIW, Cole does have postdoctoral training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition—but he also has a history of promoting suspect diets, like the “ketotarian” diet, the subject of his 2018 book. (The ketotarian diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet that excludes most meat and animal products.)
As Abby Langer, RD, writes in a blog post about the ketotarian diet, “Cole uses shitty research to back up some of his claims. He’s heavy on the rodent studies, light on the human ones.” She also calls the ketotarian diet “restrictive.”
What’s the difference between intuitive fasting and intuitive eating?
Although Cole may be trying to capitalize on the popularity of intuitive eating, this holistic approach to nutrition is nothing like intuitive fasting. Intuitive eating and intuitive fasting couldn’t be further apart, really.
“The big piece of being an intuitive eater is taking out the shame and guilt around food,” says Hoyt. “It’s about understanding what your body’s desires are and also understanding what your body needs from a biological standpoint.”
Part of taking out the shame and guilt around food is “de-moralizing” it, which means stopping categorizing some foods as “good” and others as “bad,” says Hoyt.
Cole does the opposite. He tells you which foods are good and safe—and that can plant the seed that anything deviating from that will do your body harm, says Hoyt.
“What makes his message even worse is that he attaches it to self love,” she says. “He says over and over again on his Instagram that if you loved yourself enough, and you loved your body enough, you would take care of yourself.”
Iacobellis adds that intuitive eating is a weight-inclusive, self-care eating framework. Unlike intuitive fasting, a four-week program, intuitive eating is “not a program you follow for a set amount of time to get results, it’s truly a way of being,” she says. “There are absolutely no rules about what or when you can or can not eat.”
Intuitive eating happens in two parts, explains Iacobellis: The first part is all about building awareness of your body cues, like different types of hunger and fullness. The second part is responding to those cues effectively.
Of course, intuitive eating isn’t perfect. People with chronic health conditions often feel left out because evidence-based nutrition information shows you can support healing through the use of nutritional interventions, says Hoyt. This creates a perfect storm for someone like Cole to come in.
So the question becomes: How do you integrate evidence-based nutritional interventions into intuitive eating? Plus, how exactly do you go about de-moralizing food? “It’s really complicated,” says Hoyt.
In general, though, intuitive eating does come with a variety of science-backed mental and physical health benefits—and that’s more than experts can say about intuitive fasting.
“Research shows that intuitive eating can improve cholesterol levels, improve body image and self-esteem, decrease disordered eating and emotional eating, reduce stress levels, improve mental health, and contribute to increased life satisfaction and happiness,” says Iacobellis.