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Can you eat intuitively and still reach your goals?

From someone who used to aggressively track macros, I now practice intuitive eating and have been to maintain the body I want year round without any real effort. But I don’t think intuitive eating works for everyone (at least NOT AT FIRST).

Diet trends come and go all the time, some more popular and successful than others. Arguably one of the most unique diet trends in recent years is intuitive eating, and for good reason: it’s not really a diet.

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating is a popular diet trend that involves intuitively deciding what your body needs to eat and how much of it, as a way of regulating your energy balance, stopping overeating and encouraging a healthy relationship with food.

Intuitive eating takes on an ‘anti-diet’ approach, throwing out and discounting dogmatic beliefs about what you should eat, when you should eat and how much you should eat, in favor of personal autonomy, freedom and alignment with your body’s needs. Rather than focusing on weight loss like most diets, intuitive eating focuses on improving your relationship with food and your mental and physical health.

Advocates of this diet claim that when you are mindful about your internal hunger and fullness cues, you will nourish your body sufficiently and will experience freedom with food as well as some physical changes like weight loss. The belief is that you are not eating intuitively if you are over or undereating, because your body knows that it needs and asks for it, you’re just not listening.

So why is intuitive eating a diet trend that's here to stay? Because it removes the rules, the stress, the restriction and the unhappiness associated with the majority of other diets; and it actually works. A systematic review published in 2014 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that when overweight or obese participants learnt to eat intuitively i.e. listening to internal hunger and fullness signals, they were able to significantly decrease their weight or maintain their weight. Despite some participants maintaining their weight, this is still significant for individuals suffering with binge eating tendencies who are not following a meal plan and given freedom to eat whatever, whenever. Nonetheless, all participants were able to improve their cholesterol levels, compared to the control group who were put on a standard diet.

The systematic review also assessed the long term implications of intuitive eating, finding that after one year, individuals decreased their cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, body dissatisfaction and improved upon their relationships with food, their body image and self-esteem.

Intuitive eating isn’t like a regular diet. It may be difficult to grasp in the beginning, but when you get it, you're going to experience a freedom with food that improves your mental and physical health.

What is macro tracking?

Counting calories is starting to be viewed as a thing of the past. Weight Watchers have become Wellness that Works and calorie counting has been discounted as obsessive and leading to orthorexia, or in some cases fueling the obesity crisis (not sure how that works!). So what’s the real deal with counting calories? Is it no longer necessary?

Counting calories involves counting each calorie that you consume in every food and drink product over the course of the day, to ensure you’re not overeating. The way this is calculated is based on your total daily energy expenditure, i.e. how many calories you need to eat in a day to maintain your energy output. If you have an energy balance you will maintain the same body weight, if you have a positive energy balance i.e. you’re eating more than you’re burning, you will gain weight, and visa versa.

It’s an effective method when you’re just starting out on a health and fitness journey, or if you’re struggling to see results either gaining or losing weight. Did you know that according to a 2007 study, under-reporting food intake is the most common reason that individuals struggle to lose weight? You may have forgotten about that creamer and sugar in your coffee, but your body hasn’t; and it’s causing you to gain an extra pound a week. Calorie counting helps to decrease the likelihood of misreporting your consumption, so you can start seeing results.

Intuitive eating vs macro tracking

When you listen to your body and give it what it needs, you can live a life free from the restriction of tracking. Tracking macros can be bad for your mental health, particularly if you have a preoccupation with food or a tendency of disordered eating (which is a lot of people!).

It seems amazing in theory, but in practice this can be difficult for people who struggle to control their cravings and urges to eat. People who have struggled with their weight may be inclined to go against their intuition in favor of flavor, or perhaps have stunted their ability to listen to internal hunger or fullness signals; in which case, intuitive eating becomes idealistic, impractical and ultimately ineffective.

If you’re at the beginning of your journey towards a healthier you, calorie counting can be an effective, easy way to get there. However it can be arduous and stressful, and can result in a negative relationship with food. Intuitive eating can be great, but it depends on where you’re at in your journey.

Intuitive eating isn’t a recommended approach for everyone, including:

  • If you are new to nutrition, you won’t know what your body ‘needs’ because you don’t have a basic understanding of macronutrients. So if you ‘need’ carbs, you may not be able to recognize this.

  • If you have specific health/fitness goals like dramatic weight loss or muscle gain - this is going against your current biological predisposition and so your hormones won’t be able to direct you towards this.

  • If you eat processed/junk food, your hunger/fullness hormones are likely off, because these types of food are endocrine disruptors e.g. if you eat refined carbs, you will crave them, regardless of satiety.

  • If you have body image issues, intuitive eating may encourage binging/restricting cycles as your internal cues are overpowered by emotional triggers.

  • If you interpret internal cues as a justification to eat an excess of junk

If you're unsure, try each approach for one day and see how you get on.

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