The question I receive more than any other in regards to nutrition is “do I have to count calories?”
In short, it depends.
Weighing and measuring food is intimidating, time consuming, and can cause stress.
It is intimidating because we know what it is going to tell us; we eat too much.
It is time consuming because we now buy our food in “convenience” stores instead of cooking at home.
It can cause stress because we eat at irregular intervals and want what we want when we want it.
These are all just excuses.
Change is hard. It involves looking at oneself and admitting that maybe things aren’t working. That maybe reality isn’t in line with the narrative we have told ourselves.
The reality lies in the data. If you continue to consume more calories than you burn you will gain weight. So how do you know what your in/out ratio is if you aren’t tracking?
Somehow we expect that losing weight should be different than any other pursuit that we desire to succeed at.
There have been many attempts at solving this conundrum for potential dieters, to the tune of billions of dollars. Paleo, Intermittent Fasting, Whole 30, Ketogenic, and Caveman diets are all just backdoor methods of creating a caloric deficit. They achieve this by shortening available eating windows or by eliminating food groups altogether. All without counting calories, measuring or weighing food.
A popular nutrition strategy that I see popping up more and more is “intuitive eating”.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
What is intuitive or instinctive or mindful eating? To start, I am not referencing any one book or diet but rather a term that has become vernacular in the fitness world. For simplicity, I will just refer to this diet strategy as intuitive eating. In short, it is a term used to describe a method of “diet” for fat loss or muscle gain without utilizing tools such as counting calories, restricting certain foods, or utilizing a macro counting structure.
You may have heard me reference it on social media during my recent “mini-cut” where I was utilizing some different strategies to lose a little bit of my winter fluff. Along with my normal calorie and macro counting strategies I experimented with an intuitive approach and was still able to lose a little bit of fat, though not nearly as quickly or as predictably as with more measured approaches.
How did I do it?
Well, to begin, I ate at a caloric deficit. Actually, I could end the article here and you would have all of the information you need to make an informed nutritional choice in regards to weight loss. Since you are still reading I will assume that you would like a bit more information.
What The Research Says
Unfortunately, there has been very little research done on intuitive eating. From a literature review done in 2017 on mindful and intuitive eating there seems to be very inconclusive evidence to the efficacy of intuitive or mindful eating on weight loss1. In a review of 68 publications the authors of a research review found that, while these methods had a positive effect on increasing awareness of internal cues to eating no significant weight loss was shown across the studies.
Does that mean it is a useless tool? Hardly.
Intermittent fasting, ketogenic diets, paleo, vegan diets all have similar effects on fat loss when controlled for calories. There is no magic in methodology, it still comes down to the laws of thermodynamics. Some diets will work better for some people based on how they make that individual feel, how the composition of food affects that individual, and what their history of behavior with food dictates. Therefore, all dietary strategies have merit.
The research (or lack thereof) does confirm to me that intuitive eating is a method that should be reserved for a very select population.
Is intuitive eating right for you?
I have seen quite a few fitness professionals have a high level of success with intuitive eating. They are able to maintain a very low body fat percentage year round with a considerable amount of muscle mass. In fact, I myself would describe my nutritional approach to be within the confines of intuitive eating for the majority of the year.
There are two things in that paragraph that have to be addressed in order to take an honest look at intuitive eating and its efficacy for the general population. First, I reference myself and other fitness professionals and second I mention that it is for most of the year. Let’s break that down.
Fitness professionals are just that; professionals. Experts in the fields of training and nutrition. So when it comes to body composition we have years of experimentation and thousands of data points that inform our every decision in reference to both training and nutrition. We have seen what works and what doesn’t over countless times with a multitude of clients covering broad populations. We talk. In fact we all spend an inordinate amount of time discussing different methodologies and their efficacy. In the words of every bar girl hanging out in Meatpacking District tonight “we are literally obsessed”.
Therefore when we are eating by intuition it is not some instinctual voice provided us by the ethereal plane but instead the product of infinite minutiae gleaned over years of experience. So when a fitness professional tells you they are eating intuitively understand that their “intuition” is actually a highly educated and informed series of decisions.
The second point I made was that we do it most of the year. Most.
When I want to make a change in my body composition, be it fat loss or muscle gain, I start to track my intake. Calories and macronutrients are recorded. My foods are all weighed and measured. Prep is done down to the gram.
In order for me to see success in the margins of fitness (which is where I live, I know that I am an outlier) I need to have data to assess. In addition to the scale, I measure body parts and take pictures. If I am not measuring my intake how do I know what needs to change in my diet in order to affect change in my body?
In order for you to decide whether or not intuitive eating is right for you depends solely on your experience with tracking and measuring your foods. If you don’t yet have experience with successfully losing fat or gaining muscle through a data based program I would highly recommend you start there. The most effective plan will always be to hire a coach. Someone that can help you to monitor your intake/outtake and, more importantly, navigate through the mental gymnastics that dieting requires. Good coaching isn’t cheap, so that is not an option for everyone. You can always download on online calculator or app for free to give you some numbers to hit. From there, use Myfitnesspal to track food intake (but their recommendations are not very good so use the app/tracker that you downloaded to set your calories/ macros). There are also some good guidelines that you can follow in my free guide to improving your physique: Diets Suck. You can download it here.
All said, I would not recommend intuitive eating for fat loss or muscle gain. If you are an experienced dieter than it could work for you during maintenance periods but monitor your weight. If you start to see fluctuations of more than a couple of pounds over a week it may be time to start tracking again, even if it is just for a few days to reassess.
There is really nothing “intuitive” or “instinctual” about eating for body composition. We are opportunistic eaters by nature. Our instinct is to eat calorie dense foods as often as possible in the largest quantities available. Not the best method if you are trying for a six pack.
If you already have a solid handle on your nutrition, if you are not trying for muscle gain or fat loss, and if you just want to live your life without being a slave to the food scale then give intuitive eating a try. If, however, you are looking to drastically alter your body composition I would try another, more measured approach.
1- Janet M. Warren, Nicola Smith, and Margaret Ashwell (2017) A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/nutrition-research-reviews/article/structured-literature-review-on-the-role-of-mindfulness-mindful-eating-and-intuitive-eating-in-changing-eating-behaviours-effectiveness-and-associated-potential-mechanisms/351A3D01E43F49CC9794756BC950EFFC