Intuitive Eating and Calorie Counting: Are They Mutually Exclusive?
Intuitive eating and what I’ll call “planned eating” are often contrasted as occupying opposite ends of a philosophical continuum.
On one end is intuitive eating, embodying complete trust in the body’s wisdom, as well as its ability to regulate itself without external interference and rules.
On the other end of the hypothetical spectrum is “planned eating” – what many people would just call “dieting.” I’ll get more into this in a bit, but let’s say for now that it includes strategies like counting calories, measuring food, and planning meals based on nutritional goals.
I’ve talked about false dichotomies before, and I truly believe that this is one of them. Intuitive eating and planned eating do not need to be at opposite ends of some imaginary spectrum – in fact, there doesn’t need to be a spectrum at all!
Both approaches to self-regulation and healthful eating contribute helpful tools to the eating toolbox – both have the potential to build self-awareness and key eating skills, as well as improve one’s relationship with food and the self. Even though they’re often held up as mutually exclusive, this is an unnecessary division.
In fact, both strategies also have inherent weaknesses, and – in many ways – using the two philosophies in tandem allows them to influence and inform each other, helping to shore up the gaps that exist in each approach.
Let’s break down each approach one by one, starting with intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is an approach to self-regulation that was popularized by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their 1995 book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. You can learn more about their work on their website, intuitiveeating.org, including their “10 Principles of Intuitive Eating,” which include important healthful eating skills, like “Honor your hunger,” “Respect your fullness,” and “Honor your feelings without using food.”
Here are the strengths of intuitive eating:
(1) Practicing the principles of intuitive eating in an intelligent way naturally cultivates trust in the body. You learn to listen to your body’s signals, respond to true hunger cues, and build an awareness of “satisfaction” (vs. fullness). These are key skills for long-term healthful eating.
(2) Intuitive eating overtly rejects deprivation, restriction, and a “diet mentality.” For people who have spent years struggling to manage their weight on traditional diet plans, adopting a simple and self-respecting approach to eating can restore dignity and joy, as well as help foster a long-term change in lifestyle.
(3) Intuitive eating directly confronts stress eating. As I often discuss with my clients, intuitive eating urges people to “find ways to comfort, nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food.” Building a repertoire of self-nurturing strategies helps to cut down on stress eating, which automatically makes weight management easier.
(4) Intuitive eating respects the natural size and shape of your body, and helps you to see that you can’t change your genetic blueprint. Many people end up on a hamster wheel of frustration with diets because they don’t realize that they can’t actually burn off their “stubborn fat” exactly the way they envision or as fast as they want. Accepting your body the way it is – right now – helps many people build a healthier relationship with food and exercise.
Here are the weaknesses of intuitive eating, as I see it:
(1) Intuitive eating doesn’t explicitly take into account the variability of satiety (how different foods can create a “satisfied” feeling). For example, when I eat broccoli, my interest in broccoli diminishes as my fullness increases. When I eat tasty, cheesy pasta, however, my interest in the pasta increases as I eat – even if I don’t perceive a feeling of fullness, it’s possible that I could eat double the portion size that would be objectively appropriate for my weight management.
In other words, satisfaction does not occur linearly with all foods. Foods that are high in fiber and protein satisfy more quickly, while foods that contain combinations of carbohydrates, starch, sugar, salt, and/or fat tend to satisfy more slowly (or even ramp up desire).
(2) Intuitive eating doesn’t take into account the variability of experiences that individuals have, and how entrenched routines, habits, and hormones can be. Did you know that your body learns when to be hungry, based on when you eat each day over time? This is called “hormonal entrainment.” Your body’s “natural rhythm” is a practiced, learned cycle of hunger and energy, much like how we can train ourselves to sleep at the same times every night by using good “sleep hygiene.” I have worked with clients who do not know the feeling of hunger – sometimes, it takes practice in a routine to even experience it.
Similarly, someone who has counted calories and macros for years has internalized subtle portion control habits and excellent “eyeballing” and food selection skills. If someone has not spent time building and internalizing these food habits, intuitive eating doesn’t have any foundation on which to expand – there aren’t necessarily instincts to draw on.
(3) Intuitive eating discourages the use of strategies that could be helpful for many people, like measuring their food servings or reading labels, just because these behaviors are reminiscent of dieting. However, just because these behaviors can be done obsessively or rigidly, doesn’t mean they can’t be helpful with a different mindset and a different context.
(4) Finally, intuitive eating over-idealizes concepts that aren’t necessarily true – I have heard proponents of intuitive eating romanticize the instinctual and perfect eating of children and animals, for example.
Anyone who has spent time with children or animals know, however, that neither are immune to the survival instincts that can cause us to overeat in our current overstimulating food environment.
There is an over-idealized assumption that – somewhere deep inside – we have a perfect and accurate self-regulatory force that becomes messed up through dieting. However, I would argue that intuitive eating isn’t something to “discover,” but a skill to be learned and practiced. Children learn it faster than adults because of their lack of habituated behaviors, but they do not possess a special, unspoiled magic – all people must learn how to adjust and regulate themselves and their behaviors to function optimally in a food environment that doesn’t encourage healthful eating.
Now let’s take a look at the approach that’s often thought of as being on the other side of the spectrum…
“Chronic dieting” is often used by proponents of Intuitive Eating as a catch-all term to include all objective, external strategies (pretty much “anything else” other than Intuitive Eating), but I would argue that there is a pretty wide chasm between sporadic stabs at heavily rule-based dieting (i.e. quick-fix detoxes) and a thoughtful, balanced, organized approach to adopting objective eating guidelines that can become a permanent way of life.
I define “planned eating” not as following a diet, but instead as incorporating external, objective strategies to aid in self-regulation. This could include measuring/weighing food, counting calories and/or macros, and – ultimately – planning meals to satisfy objective requirements for goals.
Here are the strengths of using this approach:
(1) Taking a nutrition and guidelines based approach to eating educates the individual on appropriate portion sizes through practice and repetition. By seeing and consuming roughly the same portion sizes of foods over and over again, a person can begin to internalize what is the “right” serving size as an individual for their lifestyle and goals.
Using a half-cup measuring cup to spoon out pasta, for example, can help re-train the eyes and the brain to appreciate one serving of pasta, instead of allowing our appetites to be passively trained through gargantuan restaurant portions.
(2) Specific strategies like counting calories and macros can help educate an individual on nutritional principles like getting sufficient protein and fiber while minimizing sugar and refined carbohydrates. This is one of my issues with the exclusivity of Intuitive Eating – not all healthful eating goals are related to hunger and fullness and weight.
By adopting specific strategies to increase the satiety received from food, appetite can be indirectly regulated, health can be improved, and smart habits can be built. Tracking calories or macros is a powerful tool for self-education and habit change, when used properly.
(3) When used intelligently, a guidelines-based approach to eating can be extremely flexible. Intuitive eating, despite its claims to be free of rules and self-shaming, can ironically turn into an inflexible and rigid mindset.
For example, I have heard stories of people skipping family meals or abstaining from eating at special events because they “weren’t hungry” at the time. Obviously this is not the ideal application of the method, but it’s easy to see how “only eating when you’re hungry” as a primary rule could become socially problematic. Using nutritional awareness, portion control, and planning, you can easily shape your eating around special events to feel free and flexible while still honoring your body.
(4) A guidelines-based approach to eating also takes human nature into account – we often flourish with structure and boundaries. I have written about the tyranny of choice before, and I would add to my previous blog post that “ad libitum” eating does not always result in the best eating decisions – especially if we are fatigued, stressed, or bored.
For example, I recently spoke with a client who mentioned that she had adopted a “uniform” for her clothing – she bought several interchangeable outfits and now knows exactly what she’s going to wear every day. The stress of clothing selection has been removed from her life and her headspace. Food can also cause that decision-making fatigue, and – sometimes – cutting down on options and having a set of reliable habits can provide you with shortcuts to serenity on a daily basis.
However, an approach to eating that is dominated by rules can also become limiting. Here are some of the weaknesses of this approach, when it’s not informed by the principles of intuitive eating.
(1) All numbers are just estimates – it takes experimentation to find the “right” numbers and combinations for you, your lifestyle, and your goals, and this can take up a lot of bandwidth for someone. You may calculate that you need to eat 1800 calories a day to lose weight, but you may find that you don’t lose any weight at all on 1800 calories and need to aim lower. Similarly, you may be prescribed 1200 calories a day for weight loss, but you find that your marathon training demands more from you and is simply not an option.
All plans, numbers, macro splits, and metabolism calculators are only an estimation, and require time and commitment from you to make them work.
(2) When not managed well, using an approach that focuses on numbers can be extremely time-consuming and confusing. I find that, for my clients who do not cook very much, approaching food in this way can be discouraging, because they don’t really know how many ounces of turkey are on the sandwiches at their work event. I encourage clients like this to focus even more on skills other than tracking, like portion control skills, food selection (i.e. eating more vegetables), and meal timing.
Because of this inherent weakness, it’s important that people commit to which guidelines/”rules” will give them the most bang for their buck, and let the rest go, because they can’t control what their office is catering for lunch that day.
(3) The language that permeates commercial diet books and plans tends to be, as Intuitive Eating would describe it, “body bashing.” I highly encourage clients to be careful about what sources they read and what media they expose themselves to. It’s true that “diet culture” also happens to be fat phobic. Consistently scrolling through “fitspiration” Instagram profiles can create an unrealistic idealization of fitness that creates a distaste for your body as it is now, or create an illusion of control over genetics or natural body size/shape.
Be a critical thinker and a discerning reader. What language do you see peppering your fitness-related media sources? What are you allowing to “train” your brain to see as normal or desirable, or as undesirable? Be cautious about what you allow into your mind on a daily basis.
(4) Especially in susceptible individuals, over-focusing on rules, guidelines, and numbers can result in obsession and fixation. I have a handful of clients who, from day one of coaching, were very clear that they were not going to weigh themselves or count calories. As one client said with great self-awareness, “It just messes with my head.” And that’s okay.
The best-case scenario is to approach planned eating – whether you use calories or not – as a form of training the self to habituate to specific food habits, in order to inform intuitive eating habits.
They’re not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to choose. They work excellently together. Both intuitive eating and a guidelines-based approach to eating offer a menu of skills and strategies you can use to improve your eating, and, frankly, they help address the weaknesses and gaps that each approach inherently has.
But in the end, both approaches are only as effective as they are effectively used. In other words, much of the success of a method is going to come down to implementation and mindset. If someone tackles Intuitive Eating with a rigid, self-shaming approach, their experience of Intuitive Eating is going to be colored by that filter. If someone approaches calorie counting with a self-accepting, flexible mindset, their experience of “dieting” is going to be relatively easy and effective.
As I said at the beginning of the post, you can just throw out the mentality of the “spectrum” and choose any strategies that help you. Much like I just broke down the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, I would recommend taking time to analyze your own strengths and weaknesses, and choosing the lifestyle changes that emphasize your natural strengths and help to correct gaps in your experience, knowledge, or habits.
Want to work on developing the healthy strategies that work for you? Check out my free, closed Facebook group, Habits First, where you can find a private support community and take my free 6-week habit change challenge!