In the never ending battle of “Which diet is best?,” many names come and go – Keto, Paleo, South Beach, Zone, Atkins, Weight Watchers, to name a few. In more recent years, two dietary approaches have gained quite a bit of traction, and have consequently garnered quite a few questions as well. Today, we’re talking about calorie counting and intuitive eating. More specifically, we’re talking about the relationship between the two – are they mutually exclusive? Can they be combined? Which one is best, and when?
What do “Calorie Counting” and “Intuitive Eating” mean, anyway?
Let’s establish a working definition of both terms before we begin.
“Calorie Counting” = tracking calories consumed in order to stay as close as possible to a calculated target number that reflects one’s goals; a subset of this is counting macros, in which calories are categorized by protein, fat, and carb sources
“Intuitive Eating” = increasingly becoming aware of one’s body’s needs and internal cues in order to eat the appropriate types and quantities of foods to reach one’s goals
In simple terms, counting calories is all about data; intuitive eating is all about feelings.
Why should I care about calorie counting and intuitive eating?
The short answer is this: there are really only 3 different categories of diets.
1. Food quantity-based strategies
2. Food quality-based strategies
3. Feelings/emotion-based strategies
Of course, a 4th strategy category might look like a combination of the 3 listed above, but I’m sure that would be outright ridiculous, right? To suggest that someone takes a more moderate approach and includes some flexibility in their diet? So crazy!
(Spoiler: most people do reallllllllllly well when they combine the benefits of all 3 categories without being overly loyal to any one of them!)
At their core, calorie counting and intuitive eating rely most heavily on a quantity-based strategy and a feelings/emotion-based strategy, respectively. By looking at the bare bones and foundations of each of these dietary approaches, you can begin to see the potential benefits and difficulties associated with each.
Depending on one’s personality, diet history, goals, and even world view, there is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach to dieting. In fact, many of these variables also change over time, which further complicates the quest for “the best” diet: what works for you now may not work well in 6 months or 6 years from now.
This Battle is Really No Battle at All.
Just because you read it on the Internet, you should probably assume it’s totally true, right?
One of the many tactics that companies and sites will use to convince you of some health and fitness truth is creating the illusion that a strategy of some kind is far superior to others, and, by extension, is mutually exclusive to the rest because of how superior it is.
Case in point, I’ve read far too many posts from those who practice intuitive eating, but cannot understand why someone would track anything.
Or from those who track every calorie in and out, but refuse to believe that their internal cues could ever guide them well.
The comments sections on posts about this topic as both laughable and terrifying at how heated they get!
Internet battles like these would have you believe that one of these strategies is fat superior to the other, while at the same time being completely exclusive as well.
In this case, just as in many others, this just isn’t true. Neither the superiority, nor the exclusivity.
Two Possible Resolutions: Goals and Sequence
Buckle up because this article is going to end as quickly as it started – but I don’t want you to get so wrapped up in all of this that you miss the takeaway. Remember, we’re talking about self-analysis here. None of this is really about right or wrong, but rather making sure that you are intentionally choosing truth over marketing.
(I do have some general dieting recommendations based on the dozens of clients I’ve worked with in case you’re struggling at all. Keep reading!)
Here’s your homework:
1. Think about your own approach to dieting (for fat loss, for better health, whatever). Do you tend to focus mostly on food quantity, food quality, how you feel, or some combination of the three?
2. How well has your approach been working for you? Consider your big end goal – is your current diet strategy actually helping you to reach closer to that goal every single day? If your goal is fat loss, for example, have you made sustainable progress toward your goal, or have you lost and gained back the same few pounds by trying the same things over and over?
3. How closely do you cling to your current diet strategy? Do you find any piece of your personal identity in following a certain diet? Are you more attached to the diet than to the results you had hoped to achieve from it? Do you have any fear or anxiety in thinking about changing diet approaches?
Now that you’ve done your homework (or at least you’ve read through it!), let’s look at two enormous variables to consider when it comes to assessing any dieting strategy, then specifically with calorie counting and intuitive eating.
The answer to “What is the best diet?” or “Which is better, calorie counting or intuitive eating?” is wildly dependent on the very first variable you should consider in all of this: your goals.
Your goals will determine most aspects of your strategy, both in your nutrition and in your fitness. What you’ll do, when you’ll do it, how often you do it, how you’ll do it, etc. This is the biggest and most definitive roadblock to answering a “which is best” type scenario. In nutrition and fitness, there is rarely one defined “best” across all categories of diets, workouts, foods, or equipment.
Instead, a much more helpful way to look at things is by assessing how closely a specific strategy matches your goals. How effective it will/could be is first, closely followed by how well you will/could be able to adhere to it given your current lifestyle.
Regarding calorie counting and eating intuitively, both could potentially work equally well given these parameters. Counting calories and macros has the inherent advantage of tracking and analyzing lots of data in order to help pave the road to your goals. For body composition goals such as losing body fat and building muscle mass, this approach often works really well in setting realistic expectations of progress, as well as trouble-shooting if something isn’t working. Likewise, eating intuitively can work really well for those who are more concerned with health/wellness goals such as resolving gut issues or overcoming disordered eating. Goals in this category may not benefit from extra quantitative or qualitative data, and in fact may be hindered by tracking.
Your goals will ultimately define how “superior” a diet strategy is for you.
Secondly, the slightly less concrete side of this issue deals with where you are at in your fitness journey, and what your future goals look like.
Perhaps you’ve been reading through this article, and a certain question has come up in your head a few times.
“How exactly does intuitive eating work? How do you just decide to eat intuitively?”
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! We’re just now getting to the crux of the problem haha.
Contrary to what many sites/salesmen would tell you, intuitive eating is not really a type of diet at all.
No, no, let me say that a bit more definitively.
Intuitive eating is not a type of diet.
Rather, intuitive eating is a skill that is often the ultimate end goal of other fitness and nutrition goals.
Let me explain.
It’s all in the name – how exactly are you supposed to eat intuitively… if you don’t know what you’re doing? If you don’t know what to look for, or how you should be feeling?
As a skill, intuitive eating is not something you can simply prescribe and expect results from. You need to learn it – you need to practice it and prepare for it. And the best way to practice and prepare is often by being more precise beforehand. This isn’t to say that you need to be overly strict or so reliant on your own willpower, but using another skill like counting calories can in fact be a great way to set yourself up in the long run.
Most people will build up a skill like counting calories in order to help them reach a certain goal such as fat loss. Once they’ve reached that goal, they’ve racked up months or even years of practice of eating a certain quantity and quality of foods, all while tracking how their body feels along the way. This long history of practicing such precision in their nutrition makes it less necessary to physically track and count every calorie and macronutrient – they have built a more intuitive sense of what their body needs. They no longer need their nutrition training wheels because they have found balance on their own.
Some people truly do enjoy tracking and counting calories long-term, but the majority of my clients love the new challenge of eating intuitively in order to maintain their results, or to move on to the next goal. There is a lot of empowerment that comes along with knowing what your body needs and know how to meet those needs. Think about how nice it feels to be mindful of your food, but to not be fearful or anxious? How freeing it can be!
The Bottom Line
That would have gotten us nowhere as far as understanding the how’s and the why’s behind it all. In fact, taking a longer, deeper look into all of this has hopefully given you better direction in your own approach to reaching your goals. Perhaps you have greater confidence in the way you’ve been doing things, and you know that your patience will pay off. Or maybe you’ve had an “aha!” moment and have realized that you need to make some changes. Either way, you can take heart in knowing that you have all the tools you need to be successful – you may just need to practice using them!