There are two very different philosophies of dieting.
The IIFYM Diet is a good example of this method.
The other eschews numbers and opts for rules about how, what, and when you should eat, instead.
All forms of dieting that agitate for one form of “clean eating” or another fit into this category, including the subject of this article: intuitive eating.
Both of these approaches can work, and both have pros and cons.
The first, quantitative approach more or less guarantees results, but it requires a fair amount of technical know-how, and it can be rigid, impractical, and tedious.
The second, qualitative method is generally easier to understand and apply and more flexible and accommodating, but it’s also easier to screw up, and thus comes with a higher failure rate.
Now, I’m going to assume you’re here because you don’t want to go through door number one.
You don’t want to have to weigh and measure everything that you cook, you don’t want to fiddle with My Fitness Pal every day, and you don’t want to learn how to count macros on the fly.
Well, intuitive eating is the answer.
It’s not a “diet” per se, so much as a way to learn how to regulate your eating based on your body’s natural feelings of hunger and satiety (fullness).
It doesn’t allow you to sidestep any of the fundamental principles of the human metabolism, like energy balance and macronutritional prioritization, but it does allow you to apply them more flexibly and, well, intuitively.
It’ll teach you to be more mindful of what you eat, you won’t have to spend much (if any) time planning and prepping your meals, and it can fit just about any and all life situations and circumstances.
Intuitive eating isn’t an end-all, though.
As you’ll see, while it’s great for maintaining a lean physique without having to crunch numbers, it’s not well suited to building that physique (meal planning is far more better for this).
Let’s find out why.
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Many people think that intuitive eating means simply eating whatever you want whenever you feel like eating it, but that’s missing the mark.
That’s more like anarchic eating, and it will almost invariably result in weight gain and other non-optimum health conditions.
Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is a system of controlling what you eat based on your body’s internal cues, rather than meal plans or other external means.
It’s a scientific term, actually, and it can be summarized in three simple precepts:
- Eat when you’re hungry.
- Stop eating when you’re full.
- Don’t restrict your food choices (except for medical reasons).
Well, yes, but it’s also easier said than done.
Studies show that we eat a sizable portion of our daily calories for reasons other than hunger.
Boredom, procrastination, peer-pressure, and convenience are all common triggers that sway us to eat more than we need, and often of foods that we don’t even really want.
Well, the main goal of intuitive eating is to stop allowing these external influences to influence our eating patterns.
Instead, it aims to make your diet dictated by your body’s internal systems and common sense.
Of all the different approaches to diet and weight loss and maintenance, intuitive eating is one of the few that can reliably work.
The primary reason for this is it’s in line with our biology.
Our bodies come with a rather sophisticated system to regulate our appetites and prevent both weight loss and weight gain, and all intuitive eating does is attune us to it.
It often gets skipped over as too simplistic (people love shiny objects), but study after study have confirmed that it’s an effective way to maintain a healthy body weight.
That’s why research shows that people who are good at eating intuitively are generally leaner, healthier, and less likely to gain weight than those who aren’t. They’re also generally better at sticking to their diets.
People who eat for reasons other than hunger, on the other hand, have a much higher chance of being overweight or obese, which naturally degrades health.
Intuitive eating also isn’t just for people that don’t want to plan or track their food intake.
It’s a valuable skill to have even when you’re counting calories or macros or following a meal plan, because it will inevitably cut down on accidental (or intentional) overeating, which means better long-term results.
You can gain muscle and lose fat with intuitive eating.
This is especially true if you’re new to weightlifting and eating a high-protein, nutritious diet.
Your body is in a hyper-responsive state when you first start doing these things, meaning that less precision is needed in the kitchen and gym to see results. So much so that you almost can’t go wrong for the first few months, really, so long as you don’t binge your progress away and keep doing your workouts.
That honeymoon eventually comes to an end, though, and then it gets much harder to keep making progress.
And that’s where intuitive eating falters.
A good example of this is a study that found that intuitive eating helped people lose weight just as fast as calorie counting at first. Eventually, though, weight loss ground to a halt among the intuitive eaters but continued at a steady clip in the calorie counters.
There are two primary reasons for this.
First, it’s harder to intuitively match our true caloric needs than we’d hope, because it’s just too easy to think that we’re only eating to satisfy our hunger, when we’re actually eating more than is required.
This is because our hunger levels are largely influenced by what we see, not just by how much food we truly need.
An elegant example of this is found in a study wherein some of the participants were given bowls of soup that would secretly refill as they ate.
Everyone was allowed to eat as much as they wanted, and the people eating out of these “bottomless bowls” ate about 73% more than the people eating out of regular bowls.
The researchers periodically asked them if they were full, and the most common response was, “How can I be full, I still have half a bowl left?”
Experienced bartenders will overpour drinks if they’re using larger glasses, for example, and food science professors and dietitians serve themselves too much ice cream if they grab a larger bowl.
Second, the more weight that we lose, the more our body becomes naturally resistant to further weight loss.
This is due to various physiological mechanisms that are collectively referred to as “metabolic adaptation,” and they work to increase our energy intake and decrease our energy expenditure.
In this way, intuitive eating actually starts to work against you as your body fat percentage drops, because it strives more and more to match energy intake with output, thereby halting weight loss.
Another downside to intuitive eating is it’s hard to do well if you live a sedentary lifestyle (as most people do).
Studies show that regular exercise positively influences your perception of hunger and your body’s response to eating food, which is why physically active people generally make the best intuitive eaters.
Basically, sedentary people usually need to eat more to feel full than physically active ones, and burn quite a bit less energy, which makes it harder to maintain their body weight.
Now, everything we’ve discussed thus far has been in the context of wanting to lose weight. What about wanting to gain weight?
Well, unfortunately, intuitive eating doesn’t work well for gaining weight, either.
If you’re looking to gain muscle and strength, you’re going to need to get used to eating more food than you naturally want to.
You don’t have to drink a gallon of milk per day, but there’s truth in the old bodybuilding adage that you have to “eat big to get big.”
And that’s easy to do. For a bit.
Eventually, though, your caloric intake will creep downward without you even realizing it, and your gains will grind to a halt. That’s just how the appetite works. Your body doesn’t want to overeat for long periods of time.
Yet another drawback to intuitive eating is it makes it hard to get your macros right.
All this is why I believe that intuitive eating is most suited to maintaining your body composition, and not transforming it.
In other words, if you’re more or less happy with your current physique and aren’t particularly striving to get bigger, leaner, or stronger, then you can do well with intuitive eating.
If, however, you’re looking to lose fat or gain muscle as quickly and effectively as possible, then a more structured approach to dieting (like meal planning) is going to serve you better.
Most advice on intuitive eating begins and ends with the three steps I shared earlier:
- Eat when you’re hungry.
- Stop eating when you’re full.
- Don’t restrict your food choices (except for medical reasons).
That is the long and short of it, but there are a few other things that you should know to increase your chances of success.
First, intuitive eating works best for people that have experience with meal planning and tracking their calories and macros.
Most people have no idea how many calories are in the foods they eat or how they break down macronutritionally, and that can make it very hard to make good food choices and exercise good portion control when eating intuitively.
That’s why I’d recommend that, as your first step toward developing your intuitive eating skills, you do a month or so of proper meal planning.
Protein is the single most important macronutrient for several reasons:
- It helps you recover better from your workouts.
- It helps you lose less muscle when restricting your calories for weight loss.
- It helps you feel fuller and more satisfied from your meals.
The bottom line is a high-protein diet beats a low-protein one in just about every way, and especially for us fitness folk.
And that’s why, when eating intuitively, it’s a good idea to make sure that you get in 3 to 5 hearty portions of protein (~30 to 40 grams) per day.
This will make for an all-around better experience and better results.
And last but not least, intuitive eating works best if you mainly eat “healthy” foods.
Many people are drawn to the “no restrictions” part of intuitive eating, and then screw it up by over-indulging in high-calorie junk food and beverages.
This is doing it wrong.
Instead, you’re supposed to get the majority of your calories from relatively unprocessed, nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and lean proteins, and then work in some indulgences, if you desire.
Intuitive eating a legitimate dietary method that we can all benefit from.
If you’re like most people, you’ll find it more convenient and enjoyable than calorie counting, because all it requires is a bit of self-awareness and self-control.
If you don’t mind meal planning, or even enjoy it, it can be nice (or convenient) to take a break now and then, and intuitive eating works great for that.
You need to understand its limitations, though.
While it can be terrific for maintaining your current body weight and composition, its lack of precision makes it subpar for gaining or losing significant amounts of muscle or fat, respectively.
So, if you’re happy with your body the way it is, or if you want maximal flexibility in your diet, then give intuitive eating a try. It should serve you well.
If, however, you’re looking to dramatically improve your body composition, then I recommend a more systematic and organized approach to eating, like meal planning.
What’s your take on intuitive eating? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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