February 25th, 2010
Calorie Counting vs Intuitive Eating (How To Go From Calorie Clueless To Calorie Competent)
Why is it that any time you hear the words “calorie counting” or “food journaling”, people start running for the hills? If creating menus, counting calories and keeping a food journal are research-proven, effective tools for nutrition awareness, education, motivation and accountability (they are), then why is there so much resistance to it?
One reason is because it’s perceived as work and hard work doesn’t sell! Another reason is that skeptics say, “What about intuitive eating?” “What about people who lose fat without counting calories?”
Sure, you could choose not to count calories and eat what you “feel” your body is asking for, but if you do, that’s called guessing. If you guess correctly and eat the right amount, you lose weight. I would call that luck! Would you rather roll the nutritional dice or bet on a sure thing?
Nutrition journaling and menu planning replace guesswork with precision.
Perhaps even more important, they are also crucial parts of the learning process to raise nutritional awareness. There’s only ONE WAY to truly understand food and how it affects YOUR body: You have to go through all four stages of the learning process:
Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence – you are eating the wrong foods in the wrong amounts and you’re not even aware of it. (You don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t know that you don’t know what you’re doing)
Stage 2: Conscious incompetence – you are eating the wrong foods in the wrong amounts, but for some reason, you now become aware of it. This is often because of a “hitting bottom” experience or an “I’m not gonna live like this anymore” epiphany. (You don’t know what you’re doing and now you know that you don’t know what you’re doing!)
Stage 3: Conscious competence – you educate yourself and begin to eat the right foods, but it takes a lot of thought and effort to eat the right things in the right amounts. (You know what you’re doing, but you have to think about it and work very hard to make it happen because you’re using willpower and still learning)
Stage 4: Unconscious competence – you’ve made the conscious effort to eat the right foods in the right amounts and you’ve counted calories and kept a nutrition journal for long enough and with enough repetition that these behaviors become habits and a part of your lifestyle. (You know what you’re doing and you do it easily and automatically without having to think about it).
I think the concept of intuitive eating has merit. If we listened to our body’s true signals, I believe that our appetite, our activity and our body weight would properly regulate themselves. The problem is, in our Western, technologically-advanced culture with an obesogenic environment, a sedentary lifestyle, social pressure and food cues tempting us at every turn, our intuitive bodily wisdom constantly gets short-circuited.
In our modern society, being able to eat by instinct and successfully guesstimate your nutrition or trust your feelings of hunger and satiety are not things that come naturally or easily.
The only sure-fire way to reach that hallowed place of unconscious competence where eating the right foods in the right amounts becomes automatic and you truly understand YOUR body is by going through the nutrition education process.
Two simple ways to count calories and get this nutrition education you need are the meal plan method and the nutrition journal method.
The Meal Plan method
Using software or a spreadsheet, create a menu plan meal by meal, with calories, macronutrients and serving sizes calculated properly for your goals and your energy needs. You can create 2 or more menu plans if you want the variety. Then, follow your menu plan every day. You simply weigh and measure your food portions to make sure your actual intake matches your written plan. With this method, you really only need to “count calories” once when you create your menus. This is a method I use and recommend in my Burn the Fat Feed The Muscle Book and Burn the Fat Online Body Transformation Program.
The Nutrition Journal (Food Diary) Method
Another way to track your nutrition intake is to keep a nutrition journal or food diary, either on paper or with an electronic device, software or website. This is more like “calorie counting” in the traditional sense. Throughout the day, after each meal, you log in what you just ate, or at the end of the day, you log in all your food for the entire day. The former is the best option, since people seem to get really bad cases of “eating amnesia” if they wait too long before writing it down.
I recommend counting calories and keeping a nutrition journal at least once in your life for at least 4-12 consecutive weeks or until you achieve unconscious competence. At that point, it becomes optional because habit and intuition take over.
You can come back to your meal-planning and journaling any time in the future if you slip back or if you have a very important goal you want to work on. It’s a tool that will always be there for you if you need it.
What do you think? Are calorie counting and intuitive eating mutually exclusive or does the former lead to the latter? What do you do? Count calories? Count portions? Successful intuitive eater? Used to count and now unconscious competent? Would love to hear from you. Post a comment below.
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, fat loss coach, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle. Tom’s articles are published on hundreds of websites worldwide and he has been featured in Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Oprah magazine, The New York Daily News, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He has appeared on dozens of podcasts and radio shows including Sirius XM, ESPN-1250, WCBS and Day Break USA. Tom is also the creator of the new Burn the Fat Body Transformation System and the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle.