Dieting vs intuitive eating: is calorie counting necessary for you?

“How can I lose weight without following a diet?” “Tracking every single calorie that I eat feels too unnatural.” “Can I eat intuitively to lose weight?” “If I’m trying to build muscle, is it necessary for me to watch my diet?”

These are some pretty common queries that I get on a regular basis. I thought it would be a great idea to put this into one episode that answers all your doubts regarding dieting, meal plans and intuitive eating.

In today’s episode we shall outline the 3 primary ways most people in the fitness community usually go about hitting their nutrition goals: meal prepping, flexible dieting and intuitive eating.

We shall cover the basic design behind each method, their individual pros and cons and how you can go about picking the strategy that best suits your circumstances. Let’s get started.

What is meal prepping? 🥗

Dieting usually has a negative connotation in most people’s minds. People think that dieting means giving up their favourite foods, being hungry all the time, not being able to indulge in snacks and having just a terrible experience overall.

The origin of this perception seems to be the traditional bodybuilding diets. You know, the ones comprising of chicken, rice and broccoli which people with massive muscles eat day in and day out.

When people think of meal prepping, this is the picture that immediately pops in their heads. Boxes and boxes of pre-cooked chicken, rice and vegetables. Eating from those boxes for one entire week only to repeat the process the next week again.

While not entirely incorrect, this is a narrow perception of meal prepping.

Meal prepping is just a method of batching, which is a productivity hack which allows you to function more effectively. The fundamental rule behind batching is that you complete similar tasks in batches.

So, if you had the task of writing an article, if you were to batch the process, you would sit down one day and do all the brainstorming, another day you would go out and take pictures for your article, another day you would write everything out and finally on the last day you will edit the piece and finalise the design. This is the most efficient way to go about it.

But if you started writing the first day itself, then midway decided to add a picture and then went back and edited a paragraph, the process becomes haphazard and time-consuming.

Similarly, most people prepare meals every single day in a haphazard manner.

You find some ingredients, chop some vegetables, cook the mixture and eat it. Some days you may not have all the ingredients. You may be like: “Oh I thought we had eggs. Guess no eggs with my toast today.” or “Oh the milk carton is empty! Guess I just have to chew up this bowl of oats.”

This leads to a lot of unnecessary confusion and inefficiency. Meal prepping solves all of this. If strength or physique goals are important to you but you have absolutely no interest in adjusting calories for every single meal, this may be the way to go.

Only downside? You will probably be eating the same meals every day of the week.

How meal prepping works is that you pick one day of the week, preferably a day you always have off which in case of most people is the weekend. So, you pick a day of the week to do all your grocery shopping for an entire week’s worth of food.

You will know the recipes of the meals you’ll be making beforehand and will have bought every single ingredient you need.

These recipes will be tailor-made to your individual nutritional requirements.

Then, you will carve out 4-5 hours that day to just prepare big batches of all these meals and store them in plastic meal sized containers. These containers shall sit in your fridge until it’s time to eat.

Then you just pop out a container, heat it in the microwave and you are good to go.

The main advantage of meal prepping is that it takes away ALL the mental gymnastics people have to do when watching their food intake. You know exactly what you need to eat, you have to cook only once a week and your nutrition is on point EVERY SINGLE MEAL.

There is zero scope for error. Also there is zero variety.

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What is flexible dieting? 🍎

For people who feel that eating like this day in and day out would be nothing but absolute torture, there is the second option of flexible dieting. This is the polar opposite of meal prepping in the sense that there is zero planning involved when it comes to your foods.

At the beginning of your fitness program, you sit down and figure out your required calorie and macronutrient intake to meet your fitness goals. You can figure these things out using any online calculator.

Here are links to a few online calculators that you can use: One | Two| Three

Then with the help of a food diary app like MyFitnessPal, you set your daily macronutrient and calorie targets. Now you are free to eat ANYTHING and EVERYTHING as long as you can hit all your targets at the end of every single day.

This may seem like the ultimate dream but it can also quickly get exhausting for many people.

To be accurate with flexible dieting, you have to be willing to weigh using a food scale the majority of foods that you eat. You have to read nutrition labels of EVERY SINGLE FOOD that you consume and record it in your food diary app.

There can be no guesswork especially if you are new to this method, as it can quickly throw you off track and you will end up eating way over or under your daily targets.

Many people may find such intense food tracking to be obsessive and some with unhealthy relationships with food may find flexible dieting to make their food related issues even worse.

The benefit of flexible dieting on the other hand as the name itself suggests is its flexibility. You can accomodate all your favourite foods into everyday meals without needing to “cheat“.

A little bit of discipline with tracking and you will have all the freedom to explore any food you want without restriction.

This means you can eat pizza when you are out with friends, indulge in some cake on a birthday party and occasionally eat a whole tub of icecream guilt free.

You might also like: Weekend Weight Gain— Will a Weekend of Bad Eating Ruin Your Diet?

A hybrid method combining meal prepping and flexible dieting 😎

Personally, I like to use a combination of meal prepping and flexible dieting for my nutrition needs and I think this approach has served me extremely well. A hybrid approach would involve keeping certain meals of the day constant throughout the week.

For me, I always eat the same breakfast and dinner EVERY SINGLE DAY.

There is no change in these two meals at all. But for the two other meals that I eat, I follow a flexible dieting approach. I also occasionally incorporate snacks if I feel that extra craving. Such an approach is a good balance between the extremes of meal prepping and flexible dieting.

It helps to remove the need to meticulously track every single meal by making some meals constant throughout the week. It also at the same time gives you the flexibility to incorporate variety into your diet through 2-3 unstructured meals everyday.

It really is the best of both worlds and is an approach I highly recommend to most people.

What is intuitive eating? 🤔

Away from all of these methods is the newest yet somehow at the same time the most ancient method of eating, which is— intuitive eating. As the name suggests, intuitive eating involves eating as and when you feel hungry and stopping when you think you are full. That is it.

The whole principle of intuitive eating is based on the feeling of physical hunger. And while this may seem like the most “natural” way to eat for a lot of people, it really can prove to be difficult to utilise it to achieve your physique or strength goals.

First and foremost, different foods satisfy your brain’s hunger signals differently.

Eating foods rich in fiber like oatmeal, fruits and vegetables will make you feel full quicker and will also keep you feeling full for longer. Such foods are also low in their calorie content and hence great if you want to stay full while on a calorie restricted diet.

But on the other hand, processed foods like chocolate, pizza and ice cream don’t satisfy your body’s hunger signals well. So, you have to eat more quantity of such foods to feel satisfied.

Processed foods are also highly palatable because they are engineered with the perfect balance of salt, sugar and fat to appeal to your taste buds. This makes you want to keep eating more of them.

These cravings may often overpower your hunger signals and you may end up eating more even though you were already full.

In such a scenario, eating intuitively would be the best way to consume unnecessary calories and risk your health, all in the name of eating in a manner more attuned to your body.

While you may be thinking now: “So what’s the issue? Not like I am eating pizza everyday! I can just eat more whole foods.” This is easier said than done. The problem in the 21st century is the accessibility of processed foods.

Sure you can choose to eat whole foods. But how difficult is it to get some processed food when the craving hits?

You can have food delivered to your doorstep at the swipe of a finger. Packets of chips are available in the aisles of every retail outlet. Such ease of access further complicates the problem with intuitive eating.

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When can you use intuitive eating? 🎯

Does this mean intuitive eating is absolute nonsense? No. Intuitive eating does have its place in dieting and nutrition.

But it is best suited for people who have a long term experience with either meal prepping or flexible dieting. And who have been successful in adhering to one of these 2 methods in the past.

To provide you with an analogy, if you used a ruler to measure 1-foot of length for a long time, after a while it is possible for you to gauge if a length of rope was 1-foot just by visually inspecting it. It is similar for any skill. Once you have become extremely proficient at using a tool to measure something, you are also better at guessing the measurement without the use of the tool.

This may not be accurate, but it would still be pretty close.

When people have been meticulously watching their diet for a while, they are more attuned to their body’s needs. They are also more educated on the nutrient composition of different foods and are more aware about which foods keep them feeling full for longer.

Equipped with this experience and knowledge, it is often a good idea for people experienced with dieting to gradually shift to a more intuitive form of eating. However even with 5 years of consistent food tracking under my belt, I don’t think I have yet reached this level of proficiency to be able to completely rely on my intuition and guesswork for my nutritional needs.

Takeaway ✅

So, if I had to provide a key takeaway from this episode it would have to be this. If you are serious about your fitness goals— be it getting stronger or be it losing fat or just building some muscle, you would have to take your nutrition seriously.

This doesn’t mean deciding on some fancy new diet that eliminates fat or carbs or makes you eat only meat.

This means you have to pick meal prepping, flexible dieting or my hybrid approach of combining the both to achieve your goals. If you are of the mindset that such a method is unnatural, requires too much discipline, or is too mathematical, you probably don’t have your priorities set straight.

You have to choose what is more important to you— Is it more important for you to be able to eat whatever you want all the time or is it more important for you to reach your fitness goals? Make your decision accordingly.

Like Jocko Willink would say:

“Discipline equals freedom.”

There’s a lot of truth to these words. Think about it.

Which method do you follow to hit your daily nutrition goals? Is it working well for you? Let me know.

If you have been trying to reach your weight loss goals for a while now, but are struggling a bit in the process.

It’s probably because of a lack of consistency, a lack of guidance or a lack of support.

If you’d like a 24×7 support system to hold your hand and guide you through the process till you get to your goals, you should consider 1-on-1 coaching with Workday Physique.

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