The Calorie Counting vs. Intuitive Eating Debate

The Calorie Counting vs. Intuitive Eating Debate

A restaurant lists the calorie counts for its patrons... I love it!

Every so often, I get into this debate with people who reject the concept of “calorie counting” outright. And while I’m the type of person who believes in understanding someone’s viewpoint before I make a decision about it either way (because there is a difference between understanding someone and accepting their opinion as right), I’m not going to make it easy, either.

The very first series I wrote on this site was about my experiences with calorie counting, and it’s a process that’s very near and dear to my heart. Before I explain my experiences with calorie counting and my own personal stance, I think it’s fair to explain the concept of intuitive eating. I think, as you read along, you’ll discover what my real thoughts about intuitive eating actually are.

I know, I know… no one loves wikipedia. I’m quoting it anyway:

Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight; rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods. It’s a process that is intended to create a healthy relationship with food, mind, and body. Intuitive Eating, just like the many books available today, goes by many names, including non-dieting or the non-diet approach, normal eating, wisdom eating, conscious eating and more.

I think that’s a pretty solid definition.

I think I’ve said enough on this site that implies that I am anti-dieting. I don’t believe in restrictive rules that I can’t abide by, thus resulting in my incessant need to “cheat.” I don’t believe in the “health obsessed, yet still unhealthy culture” in our country today.. that takes advantage of people’s confusion about weight loss and wellness. I don’t believe in society’s need to idolize sickly looking women (and by sickly looking, I mean not fit, just thin-for-the-sake-of-being-thin). I don’t believe in perpetuating the idea that you have to buy every book or every trendy fad fitness toy to be healthy… especially when all it’s gonna do is collect dust until you donate it to Goodwill. I just… I reject most of what popular culture tells me about wellness, food and weight loss. That part of the intuitive eating philosophy, I accept and advocate.

I’m also big about developing healthy relationships with food. I support conscious consuming. I don’t support using food to self-medicate. Or hiding food. Or using food for any reason other than fueling the body and enjoying the experience. A lot of us don’t even realize that we have unhealthy relationships with food because we’re not even conscious of what we’re doing when we do it. We just.. consume.. feel better.. and move on to the next issue. Wash, rinse, repeat.

However, people who support intuitive eating also have this tendency to reject calorie counting as a faction of that “health obsessed, yet still unhealthy” culture that we have. Weight loss programs abound, that restrict you to a certain amount of calories, as if calories are the key indicator of weight loss success or failure. (Countless posts here will tell you.. they’re not.) Without proper focus, it can absolutely become obsessive. Supporters also believe it puts too high of a priority on calories… as if a calorie is a calories is a calorie, and it doesn’t matter where they come from so long as you’re under X number.

I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that. I think they are great philosophies. I also think they’re thoughtless, slightly privileged and a little disconnected from the reality that calorie counting can provide… because while I am an intuitive eater now, I got here through calorie counting. And because of that, because these people want to pit the two against one another, instead of using calorie counting as a means of maturing into intuitive eating, calorie counting wins out for me.

When I first realized that my problem was not only how much I was eating but what I was eating, I struggled a bit and had to start from scratch. For me, this meant that I completely dropped processed foods and – because I was missing the processed dishes I was eating – had to learn how to cook. Some people take the insulting stance of “you should know that eating a cupcake is not healthy,” but it’s not that you should know it is unhealthy.. it’s about knowing just how unhealthy it is.

I developed a love of cooking, because I realized just how much fun it could be to experiment and actually succeed with a well-put-together dish. And with every dish, I learned what each ingredient contributed to the dish. It taught me to be mindful of just how much fat I was adding to a dish (by way of oil, butter, cream, avocado, nuts, whatever) while still seeking to create a flavorful dish. I learned that I needed to be mindful of a “tipping point” in my dishes: sure, I can recreate the flavors in my favorite restaurant pasta dish… but did I really want the size? Did I really need the size?

I calorie counted everything in my baking, and learned where I could pare down the sugar and excess fat while still enjoying myself. And in baked goods where I learned just how calorie-heavy they were… I learned that I couldn’t eat them often – or at all, for that matter.

While I was doing all of this calorie counting, something was happening to me that I didn’t recognize at first, but I’m eternally grateful for after the fact. All of this experimenting with real ingredients as opposed to processed foods allowed me to redevelop my own sense of being full. That’s right – a lifestyle that relied on food that originated from dust and, within my insides, turned back into dust and failed to fill me… thus compelling me to eat more and consume more calories… altered my ability to eat intuitively. It worked against my intuition, and caused me to disconnect from it. It caused me to lose my ability to connect to myself and my body. I suspect I’m not the only person that has ever had that problem.

Being a calorie counter – as well as an amateur cook – allowed me to learn how different foods make me feel inside. I learned how foods with a lot of fat are much higher in calories and are supposed to fill you up quicker. I learned why there’s a difference in how I feel after eating my cheesecake vs someone else’s cheesecake… which taught me to stop eating someone else’s cheesecake. I learned.. I learned… I learned so much from my experience with counting calories that, if I had just bypassed it for the sake of “trying to become an intuitive eater,” I wholeheartedly believe I’d still be flailing about and clueless, almost 110lbs ago.

Why can’t we have both? Is the risk associated with calorie counting soooooo great that we cannot instead focus our energies on developing a healthy program that nurtures calorie counters into people who become more conscious of the contents of their dishes and better able to listen to their bodies? Why is wellness always all or nothing, especially when overlooking the middle usually results in a lot of people being left in the dust? And, let’s face it – some people want to lose weight. Is there something so wrong with that? They should be allowed to understand their bodies and how to better control the weight those bodies carry. (Or do we fear that allowing healthful discussion about “how to lose weight” implies that people need to lose weight? Isn’t it easier to just work to fix that mentality?)

In closing, I offer up a polite suggestion. Instead of railing against calorie counting… take the stance that, for those of us who don’t come from some grand understanding of “you’re an idiot if you don’t know that a cupcake isn’t healthy,” it is a way to learn just how unhealthy some things are. Understand that it helps us quantify just how bad our decisions are and can be if we aren’t conscious and careful. Understand that it helps us realize that each food we put into our bodies should serve multiple purposes – not just “be yummy” – because our bodies have needs… and our bodies try to tell us what they need, if we’re able to listen. You can’t make it from the first floor to the second without walking up a few steps… and for me, calorie counting was those steps.

So.. if I have to choose? Calorie counting. All day.

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By | 2017-06-10T11:27:15+00:00 December 23rd, 2013|It's All Mental|42 Comments

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes food and fitness, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is also certified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because she likes having alphabet soup at the end of her name.


  1. Reecie October 4, 2010 at 11:38 AM - Reply

    great post. After reading your earlier posts I did try calorie counting for a week. And I figured out that I consumed as much as I thought I did on average, but it was very helpful in knowing for sure. I just recently started doing so again because I seem to have gained weight overnight! (like that really happens) but in addition to like you said being mindful of WHAT you eat and where the calories come from is equally important as knowing what perhaps I may need to cut back on.

    • Erika October 4, 2010 at 12:43 PM - Reply

      Agreed – I frequently go back to counting just because the level of awareness you have to use regarding when you’re eating (sneaking snacks or “taste tests” frequently) and what you’re eating is so high.. it tends to get me back to being more conscious when I’m slippin’!

  2. Jubilance October 4, 2010 at 12:19 PM - Reply

    For the most part I agree with this post. Calorie counting & intuitive eating go hand in hand.

    This year I’ve embraced a Primal/Paleo lifestyle, which has worked great for me for a variety of reasons. I started focusing on the calorie & carb contents for various foods & was amazed at what I was putting into my body. Being aware of what I was eating helped me be more intuitive, and also listen to my body to see if I was really hungry, vs. eating cause I was bored, or because it was there, etc.

    • Erika October 4, 2010 at 1:05 PM - Reply

      Hmm, I’m interested in what parts you might disagree with!

      I’m partially paleo now – more like a raw fooder, but only at around 70% – so I get where you’re coming from, I just know that what solidified paleo philosophy for me was the fact that it rectified the concerns that calorie counting highlighted in my life. I honestly have too much to credit to calorie counting to turn my back on it, lol.

  3. Ladi Ohm October 4, 2010 at 4:43 PM - Reply

    I’ve recently gone back to calorie counting as well… I thought I had a pretty inituitive sense of what to eat, but the current stress of trying to apply to law school (lsat this saturday…boo), has really pushed me to some unhealthy food choices (cupcakes, lots & lots of cupcakes). I know this cycle really well, especially after gaining a gazillion pounds in grad school, and I really don’t want to go that route again.

    I really hope to maintain control over my eating habits because that was the major tool in helping me lose the weight I’d previously gained. I’m finally at a point where I feel great about my weight, and health, and I don’t want to lose that.

  4. Streetz October 4, 2010 at 5:19 PM - Reply

    Good post!

    I never used to Calorie count because I figured that as long as I got results that I desired, there was no need. It wasn’t until I researched nutrition deeper, that I realized that a comprehensive view of weight loss, and fitness, was necessary for accuracy, trial and error corrections, and empirical data analysis.

    I keep a food journal where I document what I eat, its calories, etc. It helps me so much because my weight loss/gain and other bodily changes can be directly plotted to how you eat and work out.

    I agree that it never has to be all of nothing. The people who succeed the best know how to do it all and use what works.

  5. aisha October 4, 2010 at 7:15 PM - Reply

    I also went from calorie counting, to intutitive, and now i’m back to calorie counting. I only count calories when I working on a weightloss goal. Instead of disappointing myself when I’m not in the mental space to count caloriesI work more on intuitive eating and it has helped me maintain. Now that my life isn’t as hectic I am back to focusing on counting calories and I’m losing again.

    It really happened when I gave up “quick weightloss” as a goal.I refuse to beat myself up during those times when my life takes over. I’ve changed my life enough to know how to maintain any thing I lose.

  6. Rita October 4, 2010 at 9:35 PM - Reply

    For me calorie counting didn’t quite work…it felt to much like restrictions and dieting…I think I just never got the hang of calorie counting and I never wanted to be that person yelling “stop, do you know how many calories are in that chip?”…even though I am not a fan of calorie counting I do subscribe to reading my labels and staying away from as many processed foods as much as possible

    • Erika October 5, 2010 at 10:23 AM - Reply

      I think I’m most interested in your opinion because I’m wondering what’s so wrong with saying “Do you know how many calories are in that?” Especially since, if the answer is “no” or “too many,” you don’t eat it.

      I think THAT is the key to addressing what the issue is that “intuitive eaters” have against calorie counting. Being the person that “Do you know how many calories is in that?” implies. It’s really interesting to me.

  7. Eunice October 4, 2010 at 9:59 PM - Reply

    Like you, I rely mostly on intuitive eating nowadays, but they definitely go hand in hand. In order to get to a point where you know, for example, that a giant cupcake is bad for you (mmm cupcake) first you have to know why (by knowing calories/fat/etc). When I first became aware of nutrition/fitness, I did calorie count and I still go back to it from time to time. I agree that this is the best way for most people to learn portions, moderation and to get started on a path towards a healthy weight.

    Not everyone reads health blogs. Hell, some people don’t even know what what a calorie is. You have to start with the basics and work your way up!

  8. Randi October 5, 2010 at 9:50 AM - Reply

    I fully agree with everything in this post.

    I love when I tell people that I eat what I want but I just calorie count. They always say “don’t you feel restricted?”, “You are probably obsessed with calories” etc

    I am a calorie counter. I am proud of it. It has allowed me to lose 49 lbs relatively easy. Half way through my current weightloss I decided to try “intuitive eating” (although I didn’t know it was called that at that moment). It worked out well for me since I was able to maintain my weightloss. What I wasn’t able to do is lose weight with intuitive eating. So I am back on calorie counting and watching the scale move steadily down. I am fully confident that when I get to my goal weight I will return to intuitive eating and be successful.

  9. Kanguru October 5, 2010 at 10:17 AM - Reply

    I agree calorie counting has helped me in loosing 30 pounds this year, and when I went to “intuitive eating” I stopped loosing, however I did maintain my weight. I still have about 30-40 pounds until I reach my goal so calorie counting is the way for me.

  10. Madame: The Journey October 5, 2010 at 11:09 AM - Reply

    I do believe both concepts can mesh successfully. Mine is more of transitional experience. I count, but still long for the day when I no longer have to. In my ‘healthy lifestyle’ quest, I look forward to craving nourishing (clean) items and consuming such in appropriate proportions – without a calculator or a food scale on my kitchen counter. The day I begin to trust myself/my body and it’s signals, is when I’ll know I’ve “made it.” I suppose that’s where my fascination with the ‘intuitive eating’ philosophy comes in.

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