Counting Macros vs. Intuitive Eating: Aren’t we missing the bigger picture?

At the moment, I feel that the fitness world on Instagram is divided – there are those who count macros and there are those who eat intuitively. Both groups of people lull me into a false sense of security that everyone is more aware of food and nutrition than they actually are. I lose count of the amount of times people outside of my Instagram fitness bubble look at me stunned when I turn down a banana or an orange juice. ‘But it’s fruit?!’ Even at the gym, the discussion of specific nutrients leaves some people with confused looks on their faces. It is easy to forget how uninformed most people are about what they eat.

I dislike the nutrition labels on US foods and feel that some of the proposed FDA changes are for the better and some are for the worse. With the general population knowing as little as they do about nutrition, I feel that the simpler the nutrition labels can be, the more beneficial they will be in educating and informing the consumer. I obviously pay a great deal of attention to nutrition labels, but I only look at about a third of the information on there – the rest I don’t even glance at. All I am interested in is ingredients, calories, carbohydates, fat, fibre, protein and sodium. (I only pay attention to sodium because I dislike salty tastes, so if it is high in sodium, chances are, I won’t like it!) The rest of the information that is currently on there seems to be out-dated fad information. For example, the ‘calories from fat’ information probably stemmed from the time, about 10 years ago, that fat was the enemy and low fat diets were all the rage. One of the proposed FDA label changes now is to add ‘added sugars’ onto the label, co-inciding with the current anti-sugar hype. Give it 5 years and no-one will be interested and it will be another irrelevant aspect to the nutrition label.

I get asked a lot about my philosophies and protocols on nutrition, both on and offline. For me, I can’t imagine not tracking macros. It works for me, both mentally and physically. It enables me to pursue two of my passions (cooking and eating….yes, eating is definitely a passion) and it has enabled me to progress. It is as much of a part of my life as getting dressed. I don’t even consider not tracking macros. But, I do understand that it isn’t for everyone. I personally could not eat intuitively. I have a large appetite and would be forever worrying whether I had eaten too much. The ‘intuition’ would go out the window and I would let the unknown quantities of my food rule my head, filling me with obsession. For other people, I know they find intuitive eating liberating as they don’t have to weigh food or input/calculate anything. 

I have heard a lot recently that tracking macros is a diet, not a lifestyle. I think it can be both. As with any nutrition protocol, there are those people who are very familiar with it and there are loads who aren’t. To me, it is a lifestyle, but for a newbie, it may seem like a diet. Weighing food is exactly what you would do if you were baking a cake, it is not irrational, ludricrous behavior. Instead of the motive being achieving a perfect bake, weighing everything enables true flexible dieters to make progress and live sustainably. I am so familiar with it now, that it probably only adds an extra 15 minutes into my day. 15 minutes to enable me to live healthily and happily? I’d call that bang for my buck.

I have also heard a lot recently that there is a wealth more to nutrition than counting macros and I whole-heartedly agree. Flexible dieting is heavily glamorized online and perceptions seem to be that it is all about fitting in as much junk as possible and taking photos of it. For me, fitting in junk was a key step in my relationship with food. From struggling with binge eating for several years, the novelty that I could fit in junk and not gain weight was a key initial step in me achieving a more mentally balanced state. Now, I eat junk in small quantities but most of the time, I don’t want to eat it. I enjoy eating the fresh, crunchy textures of fruits and vegetables and there are few things that give me as much pleasure as cooking up delicious meals for the week. I love experimenting with flavors and different ingredients and am always happy (although teased for it!) bringing my Tupperware pots into work. Why would I want to pay multi-billion dollar companies for mediocre (at best) food, when I can do it better, cheaper and healthier myself?

I never claim to be a nutrition expert. I am not qualified and don’t pretend to be. I am always learning and feel my knowledge barely scratches the surface of all there is to know. I am also definitely not anti-intuitive eating, for some, it is the perfect approach for their lifestyle. But intuitive eating comes with the premise that you know both what you should be eating as well as understanding many complex aspects of nutrition. Forcing the idea that intuitive eating is the only ‘balanced’ way to approach living healthily is therefore very heavily skewed towards people submerged in the health and fitness industry. I think it is easy for online fitness communities to appear representative of society, but, they are very definitely representing only a very small minority of people. For most people, both counting macros and intuitive eating are completely redundant. So instead of throwing out blanket statements that one way of approaching nutrition is the only way of living, shouldn’t us folk who are passionate about nutrition understand that it is not a one size fits all? Shouldn’t we be spending less time trying to compartmentalize nutrition into boxes? And shouldn’t we be encouraging people who don’t live and breathe this to try new foods, cook more and understand exactly what they put in their mouth? 

-Benchpressingbaubles, x

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4 thoughts on “Counting Macros vs. Intuitive Eating: Aren’t we missing the bigger picture?

  1. Hey there, I just came across your post. I totally agree we need to simplify things for the average person – there’s way too much conflicting information out there especially in the world of nutrition. I’m an intuitive eating coach myself, and I came from the world of counting macros so I’ve definately experienced both sides. A couple of your comments made we worried that you’re discounting intuitive eating without quite understanding what it’s about and what it’s like to actually do (which is really common when you’ve never actually tried it, I used to be the same). This comment is by no means an attack or criticism, and I’m also not telling you what to do, simply clarifying for you and your readers some common misperceptions about intuitive eating.
    You mentioned that you have a large appetite and would worry if you ate too much, but that’s what you learn – to listen to your appetite, it knows best. When you eat intuitively, you know exactly when you’ve eaten too much because you’re too full. Your own body is the guide, so there’s nothing unknown about it. Counting macros teaches us that our bodies can’t be trusted, that we don’t know what and when and how to eat, when these are actually as innate as needing to pee! For example, if you eat until comfortably satisfied then that’s not too much, because your body has told you that it’s enough and not too much. When you come from a macro counting perspective that’s hard to imagine, because you are limited in the amount of food you can have – on days where you’re not that hungry you have extra macros left, and generally eat them at the end of the day when you’re not hungry, just to hit them. This tells your body to ignore your own appetite signals. Simultaneously, on days where you’re really hungry you might feel hungry all day and never satisfied, but your macros don’t allow you to go over, you get used to an over-hungry feeling and again teach yourself to ignore your own appetite signals. Intuitive eating teaches you to listen to your own body, not an external guide or rule. In fact, I’d say counting macros means you are more likely to eat too much, because your nutritional requirements are not the same every day, or even every meal, so it’s impossible to calculate the exact amount you should eat (unless you listen to your own signals). Does that make sense? The other thing you mentioned is that “intuitive eating comes with the premise that you know both what you should be eating as well as understanding many complex aspects of nutrition” when actually intuitive eating is three things: 1. Unconditional permission to eat all foods; 2. Eating according to your own hunger and fullness signals; 3. Dealing with emotions without food. It relies on the premise that you practice gentle nutrition – which means no strict rules and simply choosing whole foods, fruit and vegetables in instances where making these decisions won’t cause you to feel deprived. That’s it. You don’t have to know anything about nutrition or about ‘what you should eat’ because your body will tell you. I know this sounds crazy because we’re so used to relying on external cues, but actually our bodies carry this wisdom inside, it’s how we’ve survived for millions of years.
    This comment turned into an essay (LOL) and again please please don’t take this as a criticism, I just wouldn’t want you to discount it when you don’t necessarily have the whole picture. I always suggest to people to read the intuitive eating book (it’s like $8 on kindle) and then make a decision about whether it’s for them.

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    1. Hi, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! I completely agree with you on your points as a whole. I am not discrediting intuitive eating, in fact, this is how most people go about consuming their daily food, but the people who label themselves as intuitive eaters tend to be infinitely more mindful and deliberate about their food choices. For lots of people, intuitive eating works well and they enjoy it and get results. For me, it is too arbitrary, which is what i was trying to convey. For someone who has suffered with binge eating, relying on satiety levels which can easily be influenced by emotion, is just not a lifestyle that would benefit me. I need the rigid macro split for peace of mind and for accountability. Prior to counting macros, food would make me cry. It would plague my thoughts and i would always be wondering if i had eaten too much or not enough. I think of it like a recovered addict. A recovered alcoholic can, unfortunately, not have a casual glass of wine. A recovered binge eater cannot, unfortunately necessarily rely on cues. I definitely didnt take your comment as a criticism, love a healthy discussion!

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