Diet Anarchy: Should You Count Calories or Eat Intuitively?

By Lisa Egan

Originally Published at Ready Nutrition

You have probably heard all sorts of ideas about how many calories you need to eat to lose weight.

Women’s fitness and health magazines and websites tend to throw random calorie recommendations around, ranging from 1000 – 2000 calories a day.

Some diet plans drop calories as low as 500 per day. I don’t know about you, but I’d probably want to eat everything that wasn’t tied down if I tried to survive on so little food.

Well-meaning friends may tell you “just eat less than 1200 calories a day and you’ll lose weight”. I’m not sure where that number came from – it seems arbitrary, especially when you consider that every BODY has different needs based on various factors.

All of this conflicting information is overwhelming.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be.

If you want to know how many calories YOU need each day, it isn’t that difficult to calculate.

And if you don’t want to count calories, you don’t have to.

In fact, some experts say that people shouldn’t count calories AT ALL. This approach is referred to as “intuitive eating.” It is based on the premise that becoming attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective (and less stressful) way to reach and maintain a healthful weight.

Neither method is “better” than the other. It is a matter of personal preference. As with forming any new habit, the best approach is the one that works for YOU.

Some people are analytical and prefer to have hard numbers to use as a guide. If you are one of those people, the calorie counting approach may work very well for you.

If you are not a numbers person and do not want to worry about counting and tracking how many calories you eat every day, the intuitive method will likely work better for you.

With either approach, it is important to remember that losing 1-2 pounds of fat per week is safe and reasonable for most people.

Calorie Needs Method

Several factors, including your age, height, current weight, body fat percentage, amount of lean mass you presently have, and how active you are are used to determine your individual calorie requirements.

The first step is estimating what your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is. BMR refers to the minimum amount of energy (in the form of calories) that YOUR body requires to complete its normal functions, such as breathing, digesting and processing food, and keeping your heart and brain working properly. Important stuff – you need enough gas in the tank to keep everything running properly!

BMR varies from person to person and increases when your amount of muscle tissue increases. Lose muscle, and you’ll need less calories. Gain muscle, and your caloric needs increase (psst – that’s a good thing, so make sure you don’t lose muscle mass by eating too little and not exercising enough!)

Exercising increases your BMR, and it can stay raised after 30 minutes of moderate physical activity. In fact, your BMR may stay elevated for approximately 48 hours following exercise. Strength (or “resistance”) training is better at causing this sustained elevated BMR than cardiovascular exercise.

Here’s a link to my favorite BMR calculator: Hussman Fitness BMR Calculator

To give you an example of how the calculator works, here are my results:

I’m 42 years old, 5’2, female, with about 22% body fat.

Here’s what the calculator told me:

Your Base Metabolic Rate (BMR) is in the area of 1319 (Harris-Benedict formula) and 1462 (Schofield formula) calories per day. Your lean weight is about 109 pounds.

TARGET A BALLPARK OF 1060-1450 HONEST CALORIES PER DAY if your main goal is fat-loss, and about 1640-2110 calories per day for muscle gain without fat loss. THEORETICAL: estimate your daily burn, then subtract 500 calories daily for every pound of fat you want to lose per week. With energetic daily workouts, you’ll burn about 1980 calories daily (we’re assuming you’re at least moderately active and not totally sedentary the rest of the day). If you have a sedentary job or think your metabolism is slow, simply reduce that estimated burn by about 10 percent. From that figure, subtract 500 calories for every pound you want to lose each week.

So, if I’d like to lose one pound of fat per week, I should consume around 1400 calories per day. I am pretty active (I weight train and do high-intensity kettlebell workouts several times per week), so I’m going with a higher caloric intake than I would if I was sitting around my office all day.

Of course, these numbers are estimates and your caloric needs will vary from day to day.   On days when you are more active, you’ll need more. On days where you sit around the house or office (like I am today, for example), you’ll need less.

It is easier (and healthier) to lose fat through a combination of watching calories AND exercising. Here’s an example of what I mean:

We established that I need around 1400 calories per day to lose about a pound of fat per week. If I go to the gym and do a moderate intensity weight training workout for 50 minutes, I can try to estimate how many calories that workout burned to determine what I need to consume for that day using an online calculator like this one from The American Council on Exercise: Calculate Your Calories Burned

That calculator says I’d burn around 295 calories during a 50 minute INTENSE weight training workout. So, on that day, I could probably increase my calories from 1400 to 1695 on days when I do that type of workout  (1400 + 295 = 1695).

There you have it – some basic techniques you can use to figure out how many calories you need with and without exercise.

To track your calories and exercise, you can use a free website like FitDay.

Intuitive Eating Method

This nutrition philosophy goes by other names like “non-dieting”, normal eating, wisdom eating, mindful eating, and conscious eating.

The term “intuitive eating” was coined by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their 1995 book titled, appropriately enough, Intuitive Eating.

Here’s an explanation of the approach, from their website

Intuitive eating is an approach that teaches you how to create a healthy relationship with your food, mind, and body–where you ultimately become the expert of your own body. You learn how to distinguish between physical and emotional feelings, and gain a sense of body wisdom. It’s also a process of making peace with food—so that you no longer have constant “food worry” thoughts. It’s knowing that your health and your worth as a person do not change, because you ate a food that you had labeled as “bad” or “fattening”.

The underlying premise of Intuitive Eating is that you will learn to respond to your inner body cues, because you were born with all the wisdom you need for eating intuitively. On the surface, this may sound simplistic, but it is rather complex.  This inner wisdom is often clouded by years of dieting and food myths that abound in the culture.  For example, “Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full” may sound like basic common sense, but when you have a history of chronic dieting or of following rigid “healthy” rules about eating, it can be quite difficult.

A study on intuitive eating was conducted by Ohio State researcher Tracy Tylka in 2006. It showed the effectiveness of the approach:

First, Tylka developed and validated an assessment scale to define key traits of Intuitive Eaters, which are: unconditional permission to eat, eating for physical rather than emotional reasons, and reliance on internal hunger/satiety cues. Lastly, Tylka used that assessment scale on over 1400 people and determined that intuitive eaters have a higher sense of well being and lower body weights, without internalizing the “thin ideal.”

Tribole and Resch have developed 10 Principles of intuitive eating to use as guidelines:

  1. Reject the diet mentality.
  2. Honor your hunger.
  3. Make peace with food.
  4. Challenge the food police.
  5. Respect your fullness.
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor.
  7. Honor your feelings without using food.
  8. Respect your body.
  9. Exercise – feel the difference.
  10. Honor your health.

Dr. Lynn Rossy of Tasting Mindfulness has developed guidelines for mindful eating called BASICS:

Breathe and Belly Check for hunger and satiety before you eat.

Assess your Food

Slow Down

Investigate your hunger and satiety throughout the meal

Chew Your Food Thoroughly

Savor Your Food

Which Method is Best?

Both calorie counting and intuitive eating are effective approaches to reaching and maintaining a healthful weight.

For some, beginning with calorie counting is a way to increase awareness of portion sizes and how much is being consumed daily. A move to intuitive eating is made after knowledge of calories and portion sizes is ingrained.

For others, calorie counting becomes a way of life. Some people simply need the structure and this method works best for them.

And for some, intuitive eating is the best fit, allowing them to settle into and maintain a comfortable weight.

No matter which approach you choose (if any) remember that the scale is not a good indicator of weight loss progress – or overall health – and that making any food “forbidden” can backfire and cause cravings.

The best eating approach is the one you will stick to. Find a method that suits your lifestyle and personality to reach your healthiest weight and maintain it for life.

Additional Resources:

Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating and Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food

The Mindful Appetite: Practices to Transform Your Relationship with Food

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think