With all of the nutrient tracking apps available these days it is quite simple to keep track of the foods you eat and the macronutrients they contain with just your smartphone. In the fitness community "tracking macros" is a common practice. For some this may not be a sustainable, long-term practice. In this post I want to introduce an alternative approach to tracking macros called intuitive eating.
The new technology that has been introduced in nutrient tracking has greatly advanced the field of exercise and nutrition. You no longer need to write down and calculate nutrient values of various foods to know how many calories, protein, carbs and fats you are eating. While this is a great advancement for the fitness world, it could also be looked at as a setback. When tracking macros, some individuals become fixated on the amount of calories they intake on a daily basis. This can lead to unhealthy behaviors towards food which can effect overall health. Though nutrient tracking apps can be seen as a tool to work towards a more intuitive approach to eating or dieting.
Intuitive eating can be defined as a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body's natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight, rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods. (1) Intuitive eating can therefore be seen as the opposite of tight macro tracking. There exists a spectrum, on one side you have strict nutrient tracking and on the other side you have intuitive eating. While complete intuitive eating may be an ideal approach to dieting, it takes a great amount of initial education and experimentation. Nutrient tracking apps can be a great tool to initially quantify the macros (carbs,protein, fats) you are taking in. This allows you to see how your body reacts to changes in caloric intake, giving you an idea of how much you need to eat on a regular basis to meet your goals.
Many view intuitive eating as a non-dieting approach, essentially the opposite of a traditional diet. While traditional diets may have their place in some populations, long-term adherence is usually not very good, not to mention psychological distress and potential disordered eating behaviors. (2) According to statisticbrain.com, 45% of Americans make New Years Resolutions with weight loss being the most prominent goal, 92% of those people fail. The statistics are grim, but this is reality. There are other approaches to dieting such as flexible dieting which I will go more in-depth on in future posts. The data seems to indicate that intuitive eating has numerous benefits. A 2012 review study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at past studies that taught participants to recognize and follow internal cues of hunger, fullness, and satiety. (3) As a general consensus among the studies they found that overweight or obese participants who learned to eat intuitively achieved significant decreases in weight or maintained their weight. Additionally, they found various positive health markers in those that followed intuitive eating protocol.
Pros of Intuitive Eating
- Helps take emotion out of eating
- More sustainable over long term than traditional diets
- Healthier relationship with food
Cons of Intuitive Eating
- Initial learning or experimentation phase
- Considerable amount of willpower required (to not overeat)
- Difficult to quantify nutrients
You may ask how can I implement intuitive eating? Below are some steps you can follow to becoming a more intuitive eater.
- Be Aware - Be mindful of the whole process of eating from cooking to taking the first bite. Take note of how hungry you are before eating. Try to ditch any notion of the "clean plate club." Just because the food is there in front of you does not mean you have to eat it (regardless of what you parents may have told you as a kid)
- Portion Size - Although portion size sounds like a term out of your latest diet book, let me assure you that it is not. Many times when we sit down to eat we load up our plates according to our perceived level of hunger. If you have ever heard someone say, "your eyes are bigger than your stomach," they may have been right. Be conscious of how much food you are putting on your plate.
- Pace Yourself - Eating is not a race, although some people from big families may beg to differ. No matter how hungry you are, try to take your time when eating and enjoy the flavors of your food. Although eating is a physiological necessity, this does not mean one should not enjoy the process.
- Listen to Your Body - It is said that it takes ~20 minutes for your stomach to register that it is receiving food and becoming full. (4) This is due to various hunger-related hormones, the main ones being leptin and ghrelin, but I will save those for another post. This makes the previous point even more important. When you eat fast, you do not give your stomach a chance to register the food you are ingesting, increasing the chance of overeating.
- Start Slow - Another reason that fad diets usually do not work is because of the drastic changes they require. To increase adherence to intuitive eating, start slow. Make it a goal to intuitively eat at one meal per day to start out. Feel how your body reacts and then progress to 2 or 3 meals per day from there.
- (Bonus) Exercise Regularly - Although exercise is not directly linked with intuitive eating, the two go hand in hand. Regular exercise can help increase metabolic capacity (meaning you get to eat more at the same weight) If you are new to exercising consider starting out by taking a walk a few times per week and slowly progressing from there.
On a last note, intuitive eating isn't for everyone. Some people have more success with quantifying their intake through nutrient tracking apps and the like. If there are no disordered eating patterns due to nutrient tracking and the individual is seeing success, they may not need to work towards becoming a more intuitive eater. Everyone is different, and there is not on approach that works for everyone. The goal here is sustainability.
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- Schaefer JT & Magnuson AB. (2014). A review of interventions that promote eating by internal cues. J Acad Nutr Diet; 114: 734-760.