Counting calories Vs. Intuitive Eating
Hey, hey hey! So, I know that usually my blogs are semi-informational (or at least I’d like to think they are) but today I have a little bit of a different vibe going on. I kind of want to talk about something I see as a cycle in the health and nutrition sphere. I find that many people, particularly women, are often caught up in the struggle of knowing what, when and how much to eat and want to shed some light on the different ways of approaching this topic. But I will preface, this is more of an opinion than fact, so please take it as such. As a Nutritional Practitioner, specializing in Digestive and Adrenal health, I don’t necessarily fall into the category of weight loss and diet plans. I do however have a decent amount of experience in the area as my back ground before turning to nutrition was personal training and I often deal with the fall out of what excessive and rigid calorie counting can bring on. So, to be clear, let’s talk about what we mean when we are talking about counting or tracking calories and macros. Most people know what a calorie is, but the word macro comes from the term Macronutrients, referring to carbohydrates, fats and proteins. When people track macros, they track what percentage of their caloric intake comes from each of those nutrient groups under an overall calorie goal. For example: If my calories were set for 1800 daily, I could break down my macros in a 30/30/40 split eat 30% of my calories from fats, 30% from protein and 40% from carbohydrates. This is a rudimentary format, but you get the idea. Now, on the opposite side of the fence, we have what has been recently termed Intuitive Eating, but humans have actually been doing this since the dawn of time, and quite successfully might I add. The purpose of this post isn’t to start bashing either side for it’s pitfalls or potential problems; There is enough of that going on in this space to begin with. Rather, I want to paint a picture of WHEN each of them is appropriate to use and some of the sticky points you might run into when trying to decide which is right for you right now.
So, lets get on with it and jump in to the world of tracking and counting. I’m going to be blunt here and say, counting calories is not for you if you have problems with restriction or obsession. If you know for a fact that you tend to react negatively when you don’t hit your “numbers” and punish yourself with excessive caloric deficits and exercise or that you continue to restrict even when all signs are pointing towards rest, you don’t need to read this part. Skip straight to intuitive eating my beautiful friend. However, for those of you who can be a bit more flexible, here is when tracking can be useful: When you have a very specific goal in mind. That’s it. Now, there are lots of different faces this could take on from aesthetic to performance goals but the theme remains the same. Perhaps that means you want to lose 3% of your body fat or add a calorie surplus for 6 months to gain some muscle, but what it does NOT mean is you want to “lose weight or get healthy”. These are considered general goals and not necessarily based strictly on the amount of calories you take in. For example, I know many, many women who are in a constant state of calorie deficiency, yet cannot for their life lose weight because their adrenal axis is dysfunctional, their metabolism has slowed down significantly to conserve energy and their body is producing excess cortisol in the face of desensitized receptors. In cases like these, which are occurring more often than not in our now over-stimulated, technology-driven and toxically-burdened world, the simplified model of Move More Eat Less is not only flawed but also harmful when used long term. So when DO we want to use the model of tracking? When our goals are so specific that we have to have a baseline of data to record either progress or decline. If I am an elite athlete trying to increase my total work volume, I’m probably going to need to be in a small caloric surplus during this timeframe to support my energy needs and reduce catabolic effects. On the same note, if I am working to reduce my body fat to a percentage where my abdominal muscles are visible, I am going to need to carefully restrict calories and macros until I reach that goal and so it continues with almost any other specific goal. After my goal has been reached (think short term) I will have a good idea of what numbers got me there and roughly how to stay there and this is when we can, and I think should, move into Intuitive Eating to maintain our set point or baseline. Tracking all day every day is stressful. Perhaps this isn’t immediately obvious, but it does use brain power, time and will to stay within such strict guidelines and giving your body and mind a break can often be the reset needed to propel you forward into your next goal.
So enter Intuitive Eating. It sounds like a fancy name, but overall what this implies it that you eat in a way that makes sense for your body based on factors like hunger, seasons, nutrient needs and food sensitivity reactions. While it may sound complicated, it’s really just a way of finding out which foods and how much of them make you thrive. Yes, there is some legwork to do beforehand, but once you have gotten in tune with your body and its signals, there’s quite a bit more freedom to be had. I personally use Intuitive Eating most of the time but also have gotten familiar with the fact that I have certain food intolerances, what it feels like to be hungry vs. emotional signals, that I need more food when I am under mental/emotional stress, and that I do well when I eat less starchy carbohydrates and more high quality fats. Did this take some time and some tracking at first? You bet. But now, I find that I can tune into the way I am feeling in order to know what I need. This way of eating has been keeping us humans alive for centuries as recognizing reactions to foods was what allowed us to incorporate new foods into our diet without risking death. Ultimately, a food would either fulfill your energy needs, make you ill or, in worst cases, kill you. There were no magazine articles or TV commercials around during most of human history admonishing us against this food or that – so intuition was our only metric for staying alive. Has anything changed? Not really. Despite the fact that media may have you believing you are incapable of understanding the “science” of eating, it’s helpful to keep in mind that we have been doing it successfully for, well, ever. Only recently have we begun to struggle with chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes as we simultaneously give up our power to corporate giants and food manufacturing companies who are making all the rules. Coincidence? I think not.
So as we part ways today, I want you to keep in mind what Intuitive Eating is NOT. It is not:
An excuse to eat whatever you’re craving at the moment, regardless of its nutrient density. I.E. “I feel like I need three donuts today,” is not valid. What IS valid is, “my body is craving some dense starches and a break from the gym. I’m going to eat some steel cut oats and do some restorative yoga today.”
An excuse to overeat. Once you become familiar with different hunger signals, you will know there is a huge difference between wanting a snack because you’re avoiding an overwhelming work project and actual hunger because you ate breakfast 4 hours ago. Just because you’re eating foods that work for your body, doesn’t mean that you won’t see increases in body weight and fat if you’re eating too much of those foods.
An excuse to eat foods that you know trigger negative reactions in your body. This is actually the exact opposite of intuitive eating. If you know for a fact that every time you drink milk you get congested sinuses and forehead acne and choose to drink it anyway, YOU’RE NOT LISTENING.
I am sure there are plenty of different advocates for both tracking and intuitiveness. Again, this is not meant to be a post bashing either one, nor is it meant to say one is better than the other. I simply want to shed light on the fact that they play very different roles and when it comes to choosing it will depend entirely on the context of your goals for that moment. If you have been applying one of these models to your current eating regiment and are not happy with A. the way you look or B. the way you feel, perhaps its time to switch over to the other and get a little bit more information as to why you aren’t looking and performing your best. So, while I could probably rant forever (this is a fairly multi-facteted topic) that’s all for now. Let me know what your thoughts are in the comment section and what you have found works best for you! As always, thanks for letting me take up a few minutes of your day and happy eating!