I speak a lot about methods vs principles in my blog post, emails and on social media.
A method of dieting is ‘Keto’, or ‘Vegan’ for example, but a principle is calories in vs calories out. While you can use whatever method you like for dieting, the underlying principle that will dictate whether you’ll actually lose weight is that you’re eating fewer calories than you use on a daily basis.
You can do Keto if you like, but if you’re not eating fewer calories than you use, you won’t lose weight. So, the principle always trumps the method.
Now there are hundreds of methods, but very few principles. If weight loss is the goal everyone needs to start off with ‘calories in vs calories out’ as both the principle and the method, i.e. you need to start counting calories to truly appreciate how this principle works.
But this doesn’t mean you need to count calories forever.
In fact, those who have experience with losing weight by counting calories can eventually transition away from tracking by adopting initiative eating and intuitive fasting.
WHAT IS INTUITIVE EATING?
Intuitive eating put simply, is a method of eating whereby you allow your intuition to dictate when you eat, how much you eat, and what you eat, rather than a rigid plan put in place by a coach or trainer.
For example, rather than sticking to the rigid rule of eating breakfast every morning, if you are intuitively eating, you may decide to skip breakfast entirely on the mornings when you’re not hungry.
By the same token, if you know you are going to be doing some physical activity that day; let’s say you are commuting into the city to work which means a lot of walking and climbing stairs, then you might have some carbs with breakfast, for example; Scrambled Eggs with toast. If you know you’re working from home that day, you might have a lighter carb-free breakfast like yogurt with fruit.
Intuitive eating is all about listening to hunger signals your body is giving you in order to make decisions about what and when to eat. But it’s also about preempting when hunger is going to occur and acting accordingly to limit your calorie intake. This 2020 study found that ‘Intuitive eating was linked to greater weight stability’ in men and women when compared to very rigid or very flexible eating patterns
In my opinion, Successful intuitive eating is only really possible after a long period of tracking calories. Tracking calories gives you the solid background context you need about the number of calories certain foods actually contain, allowing you to make intelligent decisions when you remove the ‘guidewheels’ of calorie tracking
WHAT IS INTUITIVE FASTING?
Intuitive fasting is similar as a concept to intuitive eating, but it’s more about knowing when NOT to eat. This is just as important as knowing when to eat.
One example might be if you’ve had a big meal and lots of drinks on a Saturday night. Before you started tracking calories you might well have just got on with your Sunday eating schedule ‘as normal’, i.e. getting up and having breakfast without even thinking.
When working within the intuitive fasting framework, however, rather than just blindly eating without thinking, you might recognize that you’re not hungry on Sunday morning, so you skip breakfast entirely.
DOES INTUITIVE EATING WORK FOR EVERYONE?
In my experience, intuitive eating will only work well for people who have prior experience of calorie tracking and calorie restriction. These people have effectively already taken the ‘red pill’ and seen exactly how calorie intake (and calorie output) affects body weight.
This pilot study carried out in 2012 compared the effectiveness of intuitive eating to calorie restriction for two groups of obese adults. The study showed that calorie restriction was actually more effective for weight loss than intuitive eating, with the calorie restriction group losing weight consistently throughout the duration of the study.
This is likely because the participants were obese, and had no prior experience with eating in accordance with their hunger levels, most likely eating ad libitum, while the calorie restriction group had much firmer guidelines.
THE GOLDEN RULES FOR INTUITIVE EATING
While intuitive eating doesn’t need a heavily structured approach, it does pay to have some ground rules in place.
You’ll likely learn many of these on your calorie tracking journey anyway, this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but these are the measures I put in place to make eating intuitively easy and effortless.
- TRACK YOUR WEIGHT
So you might not be tracking calories anymore, but you should definitely track your weight.
Calorie tracking can be time-consuming and invasive for some, but tracking your weight certainly doesn’t require the same time commitment, it takes as little as 5 seconds each morning and simply requires standing on the scales.
The advantage of doing this is that you’ll get a constant feedback loop as to whether your need to adjust anything, or even temporarily revert back to calorie tracking for a short period to get back on track.
It’s far better to weigh yourself daily and spot that your weight is trending up, rather than to weigh yourself once a month only to learn you’ve put on 5-10lbs without even realizing.
- LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Your body is pretty good at telling you when you need to eat and when you don’t.
There are a couple of different hormones that regulate hunger levels, i.e. Leptin and Ghrelin. When you need to eat, the body secretes Leptin, which is the ‘hunger hormone’ and will increase your drive to eat. Conversely, Ghrelin will be produced when you’re full and no longer need to eat.
In the absence of calorie tracking, it’s even more important to listen to these hormones.
When you feel yourself getting hungry, eat a moderate amount, this will stop becoming ravenous and over-consuming calories.
When you’re full, stop eating. Or just don’t eat in the first place, which leads me on to my next tip…
- ABANDON SOCIAL CONSTRUCTS
I genuinely believe that lots of people struggle to lose weight because they are tied to the Western social construct of ‘three square meals a day’.
This isn’t a physiological requirement, but rather a trend that’s become part of our environment; you eat breakfast lunch and dinner, right? That’s how you’ve always done it, so why change?
Well, because you don’t necessarily need 3 meals each day.
Some days, you might only need 2, or even 1.
The number of meals you ‘need’ depends on your activity levels, but don’t be afraid to skip a meal or even have one meal a day if you don’t feel you need it or you aren’t hungry.
- PLAN AHEAD
If you know you’re going out for a big meal out in the evening, don’t blindly eat your regular breakfast and lunch.
The likelihood you’ll end up with more daily calories than usual if you do that is high. Instead, eat much smaller portions than you normally would at breakfast and lunch to compensate for the amount you’ll be eating at dinner.
- CREATE CALORIE ‘BUFFERS’
The idea of a calorie ‘buffer’ is similar to what I’ve just described above, but these can be used before or after the ‘event’.
So, if you’ve had a bout of high-calorie intake and you haven’t eaten lighter leading up to as a preventative measure, you can always create the buffer afterward.
So, after a big meal on a Saturday night, you might fast on Sunday to compensate for the unusually high-calorie intake
- EAT LOW CALORIE DENSE FOODS
Low calorie dense foods are foods that will fill you up, but without packing too many calories. Doing this will drastically improve your chances of maintaining your weight because you will be more full, more of the time, so you’ll feel less drive to reach for high-calorie foods.
Low-calorie dense foods are typically vegetables, fruit, low-fat dairy and certain cuts of lean meats. Some examples might be;
- Sweet Potatoes
- Turkey breast
- White fish
- Low fat yogurt
- Low fat milk
If you ensure that these types of foods make up the bulk of your diet, you’ll struggle to overeat on calories and you’ll always feel full and satisfied
- SNACK ON PROTEIN
Mindless snacking is an easy way to rack up the calories quickly, so if you are going to snack you need to ensure that what you’re eating is going to be filling and healthy.
High protein snacks are the way to go. Protein is good for weight loss and weight maintenance for all kinds of reasons, but one of the main reasons is that it can help to keep you full.
You also burn more calories digesting protein than you do carbs or fat.
2-0 to protein!
So, if you’re going to snack, prioritize, high protein, low-calorie options, some examples are;
- Boiled eggs
- Beef Jerky/Biltong
- Cottage Cheese
- Whey protein shakes
- Protein bars
- Low fat yogurts
- Low fat milk
- MAKE THE MOST OF LOW HUNGER
We already know that you need to listen to your body’s hunger signals so you know how much to eat, but what if you’re not hungry at all?
Take advantage of it.
Not hungry at breakfast? Skip breakfast.
Not hungry at lunch? Skip lunch
You get the idea… This is essentially what’s called ‘intuitive fasting’.
Think about it. You are not doing yourself any favours by eating when you’re not hungry, but by not doing so, you’re saving yourself however many calories you were going to eat.
That could be 200 calories or 2,000 calories.
If you skip a couple of meals per week, that’s a LOT of calories.
- PLAN FEASTS AROUND EVENTS
Eating a ton of calories is usually a lot more fun at social events; BBQs, Weddings, Work nights out.
At events like this, the booze will usually be flowing and they’ll often be near-limitless supplies of food. If you’re not careful you could end up eating (and drinking) 1,000s of extra calories. This doesn’t need to be a problem as long as you’re not doing this on a regular basis at home as well.
Think about it… Is sitting at home on your own eating a huge pizza then feeling bloated for days afterwards really that fun? No? Then stop doing it.
A simple rule is to eat light and eat when you’re at home on your own, and save the calorie-blowouts for fun, social occasions.
- DON’T BUY CALORIE DENSE FOODS
Tip number 6 was about sticking to low-calorie dense foods.
It should therefore come as little surprise that the opposite of that tip is to avoid calorie-dense foods. Calorie dense foods are generally foods that are high in fat, these include;
- Cooking oil
- Nut Butters (e.g. Peanut butter)
- Cream and Full fat milk
- Any foods containing one or more of these elements
All of these foods will contain lots of calories, so avoiding them will help you naturally keep a lid on your calorie intake.
Now, I’m not telling you to ‘eat clean’ or anything, far from it, but what I would recommend is not buying these sorts of calorie-dense foods when you do your weekly/monthly grocery shop. If you want to grab a Chocolate Peanut butter brownie when you grab a coffee now and again, great, but if you don’t have these foods in your cupboards, you can’t eat them on a regular basis, simple.
HOW TO TRANSITION AWAY FROM CALORIE TRACKING
It’s all very well knowing how to eat and fast intuitively, but what if you’re not there yet? What if you’re still tracking calories daily and worried about removing the guide rails?
To reiterate, you should only be looking to transition to intuitive eating and intuitive fasting if you’ve been tracking calories successfully (i.e. using it to achieve your goal; probably weight loss) for a 12 month period.
But when you’ve been doing that, what should be your next steps?
- Track every other day
Don’t just stop tracking one day. Start tracking every other day, you’ll probably be nervous about doing this, but you’ll still be tracking your weight, so your‘ safety wheels’ are well and truly on. Worst case scenario, you can always just go back to tracking daily.
The idea is however that your habits will be so ingrained that for the days you don’t track, your calories should fall within your normal daily calorie intake figures anyway.
Track everyday other day for a month
- Track 3 days per week
Next, transition to 3 days per week.
Make sure that ONE of these days is a weekend day, the reason for this is that you’re much more likely to overeat on weekend days, so by tracking on at least one day, you’ll be keeping yourself in check.
Track 3 days a week for 2 weeks.
- Stop tracking altogether (but still weigh yourself everyday)
After 6 weeks of intermittent calorie tracking, just stop.
It’ll be scary, but you need to do it at some point.
Remember; the world is going to end, you’ll still be weighing yourself on a daily basis, so if anything goes drastically wrong, you’re going to know about it pretty quickly.
Providing you continue to weigh yourself, and stick to all the good habits you’ve ingrained throughout your diet, as well as sticking to these intuitive eating golden rules, there’s no reason why you can’t maintain your weight for the long term, without yo-yo dieting or tracking calories ever again.
For me, intuitive eating and intuitive fasting should be the endgame for anyone looking to maintain the weight they’ve lost on their diet.
Most people need to be very careful about ‘jumping the gun’ with intuitive eating however because it’s virtually impossible to eat intuitively unless you have the background context of calorie tracking for at least 12 months.
Without this context, you’ll just intuitively eat an amount of food that will prevent you from losing weight.
Intuitive eating is connected to self-reported weight stability in community women and men: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30821648/
Assessing the effectiveness of intuitive eating for weight loss – pilot study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23139388/
Joe is an online weight loss coach and qualified personal trainer of 15 years who helps busy, professional men and women lose fat and build muscle.
Having a 9-5 desk-job, Joe understands the struggles of juggling a hectic life with trying to maintain a good physique.