Listening v. Learning

Listening to your body / eating intuitively / being kind to yourself. All buzz words and phrases in recent years. And as I’ve written many times before, a perfectly valid way to eat if in doing so you are in a position where you are happy with your body and your energy levels.

I can eat and stay on track without tracking quite easily. I do track, largely as a habit that I don’t find particular cumbersome or triggering, but I could not track and still roughly know how my week’s food intake was likely to affect me. I maintain, as I have written previously, that is largely because I have mastered tracking, got an idea of what I need in terms of food.

But to move beyond the arguing what works best to lose body weight thing for a moment, you know what I personally could not do via intuitive eating. Listen to what type of food my body wants.

Because the idea of feeling like I need xyz so that’s what I’ll give my body allows me too much freedom to eat things that will derail my goals and in portions that at no point would my body actually intuitively be asking for. All I’m saying is my body rarely screams at me in needs vegetables.

Perhaps I need to be more in tune with myself. Maybe I could teach myself to think hmmm I feel fatigued my body is craving carrots instead of god I’m knackered I really need a tub of ice cream. Point is though I do know what my body needs. Over the years I’ve learnt what my body needs, what works, when, what actually makes me feel sluggish even though I think it won’t, what times of day I prefer exercising on an empty stomach and when I need to be fed first and so on. That was by trial and error and planning and tracking rather than eating when my body told me and what it old me. I mean apart from anything else I think with my brain how would I even plan my shopping eating intuitively! I’m flexible of course I am, sometimes I don’t feel like whatever I’ve planned, sometimes I need extra food than what I planned, or more sugar or more carbs.

The fact remains I think by understanding my body by seeing what works and then sticking to the systems that have worked and suit me and my taste buds and make me feel good when I train, I mat not be listening to my body but my body is probably more grateful that I’m doing that over eating what it thinks it want (it seriously only ever think it wants cake I tell you now). Is what I do more onerous that intuitive eating? I really don’t think it is.

Ultimately I don’t think we need to get caught up in the idea that tracking and planning and eating mindfully is bad. It may not suit some, there may be some it isn’t a good option, that’s the case for most things though. Like anything intuitive eating might not be the solution to all diet problems.

Is Calorie Counting Restrictive?

One of the most commonly quoted objections to calorie counting is the lack of freedom, the feeling that it is a restrictive way of eating.

Yet if you eat intuitively but find yourself saying I can’t eat ‘that’ I think that’s more restrictive than tracking how many calories are in ‘that’ as you eat it.

‘That’ might be bread or pasta or ‘bad’ carbs. ‘That’ might be chocolate or cake or crisps. ‘That’ might be a takeaway or other type of junk food.

We often put lots of rules in place with our own diet, have our own ideas of what constitutes a ‘good’ diet and what is ‘bad. If we find ourselves saying we mustn’t eat certain foods or eating them and then feeling guilty that is not a non restrictive diet. Whether you track or eat intuitively if you find yourself avoiding certain things you enjoy that is still a restrictive way of eating.

In fact, if you track your calories to work towards your goal and eat all the foods you enjoy whilst doing so I’d argue that that is much less restrictive than not tracking but having a list of avoid / bad foods.

Calorie counting for all it’s apparent simplicity causes a great deal of debate amongst some people, but I think sometimes it gets a bad rap for restrictive ways of eating when it can actually be a way of eating much more freely and removing some of the guilt from eating certain foods.

Calories Counting v Intuitive Eating

I’ve written previously about intuitive eating and how I feel like you cannot eat intuitively until you understand calorie tracking. Two ever so opposite end of the scale things but they kind of work together.

I get why people don’t necessarily want to track calories. I get that for some people it could get a bit obsessive. I get that you don’t just want to make food about numbers. I get that it’s time consuming and dull. I get that there’s so much more to life than how many calories you eat and constantly thinking about what you have left in your calorie bank.

But. But but but.

If you want to lose weight… or gain weight for that matter… you have to be eating the right amount of calories compared to how many calories you expend each day / each week.

Now you might be someone who is happy with their weight. If that’s the case you probably can just eat intuitively, because what you are eating right now is keeping you where you want to be. This post is not for you!

If you want to change your weight, up or down, that indicates that what you currently eat right now either provides you with too many (if you want to lose) or not enough (if you want to gain) calories. Before you say it, yes maybe you are that rare person who is struggling because of a condition and the reason is far more complex, but harsh truth – the majority of us are not that person, the majority of us just aren’t eating the right amount for our goals.

So if you aren’t eating the right number of calories right now you can’t eat intuitively. Because to do something intuitively requires knowledge of how to do it in the first place. At work, do you do tasks you’ve done many times before instinctively, without thought- looking at a problem and knowing the issue and solution before you’ve really even thought about it? Can you answer the question before it’s even been asked because you know what they’ll ask because it’s what everyone always asks? Could you do that on your first week of the job? Of course not. You learnt your job and over time through doing your actions became more instinctive, more confident.

Same with calories. You need to understand how much of the type of foods you eat is right for you to reach your goal. To do this you need to track. The more you learn about this as you track the less you need to rely on tracking, because you can learn to start reading you own body and hunger and getting used to the right kind of portion sizes for you and your goals.

So over time you can track less, maybe just checking in occasionally to check your still in the right zone, or using it as a refocus if you’ve found yourself going a bit off track. You don’t have to commit to a lifetime of strict tracking everything that passes your lips. But to get a handle on where you are at and work out where you need to be you do need to be aware of what you are really eating, and tracking is really the only way.

If you don’t want to track you don’t have to of course, but if you’re frustrated you aren’t reaching you goals and aren’t tracking you may want to reconsider because whether you track or eat intuitively calories do count.

Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating and the anti diet movement.

I’m a bit torn by this.

On the one hand I want to support the idea of eating what you want, not feeling guilt for eating certain foods or certain amounts of food and listening to your own body.

But I also think if you want to make a change – specifically lose or put on weight – you need to know what you are eating.

Because really, if you don’t currently track what you eat you are kind of eating intuitively.  So if you aren’t where you want to be that intuition isn’t quite working right now.

I’m not saying track everything forever, but getting an idea of where you are at and learning what the right amount of calories feels like will allow you to eat with more freedom going forward.

I think of it a bit like learning to drive or staring a new job.  When you first start something new you really think; you are aware of what you are doing and when, maybe following notes or using reminders, you never do something without checking or on auto pilot.  Once you have been doing it for a while you gain confidence, you know how to do things and don’t need to constantly check, tasks are done instinctively and sometimes you ‘just know’.

When you see someone experienced do something well but making it look effortless you can normally bet they were not like that at the start.  They went through a learning process and what might now be done without thinking almost definitely took a lot of concentration to begin with.

So I think listening to your body and eating what it wants is a great concept, taking away some of the negative feelings that can be associated with diets, but if you also want to achieve a certain result the fact is you still need to effectively manipulate your calorie intake and that takes knowledge, of where you are at and where you need to be.

Intuitive eating can be a thing, but your intuition needs to be in the right place first.

Intuitive Eating

Recently I’ve heard a few people say they would prefer not to count calories and instead want to try Intuitive Eating.

Intuitive Eating is almost an anti diet movement, believing people should eat when they are hungry and what they feel their body needs.  It follows a ten point plan which includes respecting your hunger, not labeling food good or bad and not using food as an emotional crux.

There is actually very little about intuitive eating that I disagree with, it largely encourages people to have a healthy relationship with all foods and not starve themselves.

My issue with Intuitive Eating is this.

Unless you have already mastered tracking calories you will struggle to reach your goal eating intuitively. 

I can see the appeal.  If you’ve always struggled to stick to a certain number of calories the idea of eating what you ‘feel like’ you need is appealing.  Let’s be realistic here though.  If you were able to do this you’d probably already be at your goal (here I’m assuming it’s some form of fat loss).

If you’re not at your goal, which here I’m going to assume is fat loss, you are probably currently eating more calories than you burn.  If you were not you’d be losing fat and not looking for an alternative way of eating.

So what you need to do is learn how to track, then stay within your calorie goal for a sustained period of time.

Now once you have mastered this and done this for a fair while chances are you will be able to eat intuitively.  You’ll start to get an idea of how much you need to eat each day to be at the right energy level for you and be able to track less and still stay on track.

But until you reach this stage eating intuitively is likely to be much the same as eating as you currently do, with a limited idea of how much you are actually eating and no way of educating yourself on how to make the changes you need to make.

Think of it like driving a car.  Now when you drive you probably get in the car and just go- everything happens automatically without even thinking.  But that wasn’t the case when you first started to learn – you followed rules and checklists.

Think of your job, how you were in the first few weeks or even years of doing it compared to now.  As you become more skilled in something you can react more instinctively, but to begin with you need to learn that trade.

So if you want to eat intuitively and reach a specific goal, you really need to qualify to do that by first learning how to track and understand calories.