The argument of macro-counting vs intuitive eating continues. But I’m not sure why it should be an argument – what works for one person may not work for another, either in terms of results or just everyday life. Some people love taking the guesswork out of leaning up, and for them macro counting is ideal. For others like myself, macro counting just doesn’t work.
Without knowing portion sizes, intuitive eating is difficult. A benefit of macro counting is that it is easy to overeat when trying to visually assess how much is right for ‘maintenance’ or ‘cutting’. Intuitive eating may not be suitable for you if you just don’t know what is a good amount to eat – examples might be if you’re recovering from any sort of eating disorder and/or need to re-learn what a ‘normal’ portion size is. Relying on hunger cues doesn’t work if you’ve spent a long time ignoring them.
However, having come from a background of obsessive calorie counting, I HATE counting macros. I have tried it and I understand the appeal, but for my mental health at least (not to mention I’m lazy), it’s not for me. After visiting my nutritionist, Rhiannon, I realised that it’s just not necessary to count to keep healthy and not even necessary if you’d like to lose weight.
My position right now: losing fat through intuitive eating, and it’s going really well. I have no doubt I could lose more fat through macro counting but I’m just not about that life. Last night I had ice cream, and delicious foods keep me sane and on track. I don’t view them as ‘muck ups’ or becoming ‘derailed’, I view them as breaks from what is 80% of the time a nutrient dense, vegetable rich diet.
Problems with counting:
1. As mentioned in some depth in one of Rhiannon’s facebook lives, calorie counting is a very rudimentary method of figuring out how much you are eating. The amount of energy you get from your food depends on the food’s composition and how it is broken down by your body, which then also depends on what your body requires at the time of consumption and how you’re built. For example, sugar is immediately available to your body for use (read about simple carbs) and so you will extract all the calories from that. However, a measure of a fibrous food will have plenty of energy in it that is unavailable to our bodies and therefore will not be used.
2. Macro counting reduces the inaccuracies found in calorie counting but still doesn’t address many issues with counting in general. We all know that eggs are better than snickers, but the problem with macro counting is that is doesn’t separate quality and quantity. Zero sugar protein bars with a million ingredients are super easy to fit into your macros for the day, but a handful of nuts or nut butter may not be, despite the fact that ‘real’ food is frequently better than processed substitutes. Macro counting ignores the intricacies and importance of getting enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and counting itself does not encourage this. Low-carb/low-fat/no sugar cookies are not ‘real’ food, and I think macro counting can ignore health at the expense of ‘perfect macros’. This isn’t to say that everyone who counts macros eats like this, but sadly I know plenty of people who do.
3. Macro counting may also encourage you to ignore your natural body signals. Sometimes, these need to be retrained – if, for example, you eat either way too much or way too little, your body can get used to this state of being, and counting can be a good tool to get yourself to a place where you are eating what is normal and right for your body. However, counting the perfect macros can leave your body in a state of near constant hunger, and ignoring this may lead to problems down the line. Years of ignoring my body’s signals have led to a messed up hunger-satiety system. Up until about a month ago, I very rarely felt hungry, but also never really felt full, which stems from my weekly restricting and fortnightly binges some years ago. I would spend the week starving only to eat thousands of calories in one sitting, meaning that now my body is messed up in regards to signals. After years of re-learning how to eat, I am finally rewiring my body, but I can tell you: it is not an easy process once it has gone wrong.
4. Sustainability is also a problem with macro (and calorie) counting. As someone who often eats out, on the move and at friends’ houses, I would find it impossible to accurately count anything, and trying would take a lot of time, effort and stress. In my opinion (and this is just my opinion), for health eating to be a sustainable lifestyle change, it needs to be manageable and fun. I understand that some training athletes or bikini competitors may require very specific macros and calories to achieve their goals, but I ask you: in the long run, how sustainable is it? Are you enjoying yourself? Can you see yourself doing this in 10 years/if you had kids? Would you want your kids to do the same? I understand that for many people macro counting is a temporary tool to a bigger goal, but if it is your only means of eating right and you become fearful of food without that control, then start to run into problems, both physical and mental. In my opinion I have so many better things to use my mental bandwidth on.
Realistically only YOU can know whether macro counting is in your best interest and really working for you. If counting macros is working for you, great – but if you don’t like it or you’re not keen to try, then this article is for you!
My top tips for cutting without counting:
- Know your portion sizes
- Ditch the diet
- Pay attention
- Ignore the scales
- Drink up
- Increase movement
- Track your progress (but not how you’d think)
Know your portion sizes:
You need to know what ‘one portion’ is. Your morning bowl of granola can be upwards of 100g, which, when you consider some of the ingredients, is slightly terrifying. Know your approximate portion sizes for grains, vegetables, meats and fats and you’re less likely to over eat any one food.
Ditch the diet:
Find peace with food. Without letting go of that constant ‘must lose weight’ mentality you will never be able to eat intuitively and, ironically, you may end up being at a higher weight than intuitive eating would leave you at. This is because ‘banning’ certain foods (gluten, sugar, dairy etc) leaves you craving or thinking about those foods a lot. Forget about banning foods – you can eat whatever you like. I know a lot of people feel like they would go out of control and eat everything in sight, and maybe you would, at least initially. But after eating whatever you like for a while, you’ll get bored of it – there’s a certain allure of ‘forbidden’ foods, and once that rule has gone, the foods lose their power over you. Whilst dieting, more types of food are appealing to us than when not dieting. Sooner or later, you’ll learn to self-regulate unhealthy and healthy foods. Unhealthy foods make us feel horrible after a while. Trusting our bodies to self regulate by ditching diets is a key step towards being able to lose fat without counting or banning whole food groups. This will prevent those restriction-binge cycles, which are not just harmful physically but are also SO mentally damaging. ‘Failing’ at a diet is damaging enough to our brains, meaning that we have reduced self worth, end up gaining weight in the long run and entering the whole diet, binge, restrict cycle again. Break the cycle – the long-term results are far more rewarding, both mentally and physically.
Put down your technology and concentrate on your food. Enjoy the taste of it and savour every bite by chewing a lot, rather than eating as quickly as possible. You’ll be surprised how quickly you get full when you eat mindfully!
Ignore the scales:
‘Losing weight’ is a REALLY unhelpful term. As we all know, muscle weighs more than fat but takes up less space, making us look slimmer. Instead of focussing on how much weight you’re losing everyday, focus on how you feel, and the types of food you eat. There is absolutely no problem in wanting to cut for aesthetic purposes but longer-term results come when weight is not the primary focus. Eating better foods and treating my body like a machine that needs fuelling well encourages me to eat healthier foods.
Sure, diet coke tastes good and has no calories (so would work well in people’s macros) but realistically what good is it doing your body? What nutrients are provided? When my entire focus was on losing weight, I would stop drinking water at night so that I would weigh less the next day: it’s easy to see how counterproductive the scales are. Focus on feeding yourself nutritious, wholesome ingredients when you need them and the results will follow.
This is a classic tip, but I always have water before and with a meal – it means that when I eat I know that I’m not actually just thirsty. I drink around 4l of water a day.
To lose fat you have to be in a calorie deficit, but this doesn’t have to just come from eating less. Working out/moving more can make up part of that deficit. When I’m cutting I walk as often as I can – I’ll walk around London and rack up between 12,000 and 20,000 steps a day, which definitely has an impact on fat loss. This sort of low intensity exercise is also the best for fat burning. What matters is not that you fit in 20,000 steps a day, it’s that you do more than you do when you’re not cutting. If walking everywhere isn’t feasible, get in your steps at the gym – I like to put on a film/podcast/episode and watch that if I’m in the gym. For iPhone users you can keep track of your steps in the health app.
Track your progress (but not how you’d think):
To track my progress I tried to avoid scales and measurements. I focussed on how I felt on a day-to-day basis, including energy, focus, cravings etc, because to me, these things are just as important as how I look (if not more important). I focussed on filling my body with food that was going to do it good, and found that progress followed soon after. I have lost 2.5kgs slowly, and whilst this is not a large amount, I feel healthier, more energetic, crave unhealthy foods less and am stronger rather than weaker than before my cut.
These are points that have helped me this summer, but of course I am always learning! One of my biggest changes has not been in my body, but in my mind. Looking at physical results alone, my biggest ‘success’ was losing huge amounts of weight quickly at the start of my eating disorder. But when you look at health (mental and physical), this last year has been the best of my life. There is no quick fix to health or happiness, but it is easy to make steps everyday to increase your happiness, get stronger and look amazing at the same time!
Please let me know if you’ve found this article helpful – I know it’s a long one but it’s an important topic with lots of nooks and crannies! Do you eat intuitively or have you been focussing on macro counting? I’d love to know your thoughts and opinions 🙂
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