Calorie Counting vs. Intuitive Eating: What works for you?

by Nicole on April 26, 2012

This post was sparked by talking to some clients about their eating habits AND by Jillian Michaels podcasts. I’ve basically been raving about the JM podcasts since I started listening to them. I find them to be very informative, inspirational and give nice insight to Jillian Michaels. Jillian is a HUGE advocate for calorie counting. She stands by the notion that everyone can lose weight by calorie counting and paying attention to calories in verses calories burned.

I have been a calorie counter before… when I did weight watchers after my freshman 20 in 2007. It wasn’t so much calorie counting but point counting. And those points stayed with me for awhile. I was able to point count almost anything for awhile. Eventually I stopped counting points/calories and fell into a place of intuitive eating. Eat when I’m hungry, stop when I’m full. Eat basically what I want (although what I want is generally healthy!)

So what’s the difference and where do you fit in?

In my opinion (which clearly this ALL is my opinion) if you are trying to lose weight, it’s probably best to do a combination of both of these things (in the sense that if you want a certain food, go for it, but stay accountable as well). I find calorie counting to be helpful to do at least for a little while to help you realize what is actually going into your body.

The most important thing you can do for yourself is to eat WHOLE foods that are not processed, no matter what diet system you are using. Get rid of the Weight Watchers bread and focus on whole grains (brown rice, millet, quinoa), veggies, healthy fats and lean proteins. Eating those types of foods will help you lose weight. Then find a mix of what works for you. You can still intuitively eat and keep yourself accountable.  And remember, those drinks have calories too!

This was just my two sense after a week of reflecting on my experiences. Get to know your body and what it really wants. After you start to make the switch to REAL, WHOLE foods, you’ll be surprised how much you crave those REAL foods. 

What are your thoughts? What works for you?  Please share your experiences! 

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

lindsay April 26, 2012 at 8:44 am

i really enjoy this post friend. It is a balance of both. I think intuitive eating is great, once we find our hunger cues, but then again it’s hard to reconnect to those cues when you’ve been eating by the clock. Totally worth it though. and keep those whole foods coming!


Kierston April 26, 2012 at 8:49 am

I recently purchased a couple of books on mindful eating as it has caught my interest. I’m looking forward to getting them and learning more about it.

Thanks for sharing this post, it was very insightful :)
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Tina @ Best Body Fitness April 26, 2012 at 8:57 am

I’m a big believer in both as well. I calorie counted when losing my baby weight until I felt comfortable again with eyeballing portions. I would never set myself into a rigid plan and gave myself the freedom to switch things out based on my cravings/preferences for the day but the overall calories helped hold me accountable to better choices too. Great post!
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misszippy April 26, 2012 at 9:14 am

Interesting topic! I am definitely an intuitive eater. It’s just my personality type–I hate getting too detailed with things, whether it’s tracking my running mileage or my caloric intake. My focus is always on healthy, whole foods and I try to pay close attention to when I am hungry/when I am not, and only eat when I truly am.
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Lori Lynn April 26, 2012 at 9:43 am

I have counted calories in the past, and lost weight with it. But it does get really easy to get obsessive over it. I do need to go back to counting calories though, b/c it makes you pay attention to how much you’re eating during the day.
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Michele @ nycrunningmama April 26, 2012 at 9:43 am

Very interesting post! I used to be VERY focused on calorie counting, but as you mentioned as a “con” it can (and did) lead to somewhat of an addiction. I was literally obsessed with every single calorie that went in my mouth. Ended up going down a not-so-healthy road. In recent years, I am definitely more of an intuitive eater. But I have to be careful b/c so often I pop in my mouth whatever AJ doesn’t eat – and I sometimes I am not even hungry. LOL. It’s tough…There are times when I think I am hungry, but in reality I am either tired or bored (my two pitfalls when it comes to eating healthy).
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Sabrina @ Nutritiously Sweet April 26, 2012 at 9:46 am

I agree that you need a little bit of both. When I was losing weight I did calorie counting until I became obsessed and decided this wasn’t healthy because I was eating by “how many calories I had left” vs. if I was really hungry. It really is all about balance and you learn that little by little!


Lauren April 26, 2012 at 9:56 am

I definitely shy away from calorie counting. I know it can be really helpful for people but for me it’s always felt like a jail. I get really miserable when I feel like I CAN’T have this or I CAN’T eat that. And on top of it I usually feel hungry most of the time. Over the past two years I’ve really gotten to a place where I’m conscious of what I’m eating and what I have eaten. If I’ve already indulged in something not super great for me I’ll eat good for the rest of the day. It may take me way longer than the average person to drop weight on the intuitive/moderation path but I’ve found I’m way more likely to keep it off and it saves my sanity too.
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Elizabeth April 26, 2012 at 10:05 am

I really enjoyed this post! I used to be a calorie counter but it turned very obsessive and I ultimately developed a slight eating disorder. I would “save” all my calories by starving myself during the day and then binge on dinner. It was so unhealthy and of course, I ended up gaining weight because of it. I know calorie counting can be done effectively, but I just know it is NOT for me or for people who think they might be prone to ED’s. I actually just picked up the book on Intuitive Eating and I’m really excited to dive in! I’m already eating a fairly healthy diet, but I still suffer from emotional binge eating. Thank you for this post! I’m going to pass it on to some friends who have been asking me about different ways to lose weight. :)


Sarena (The Non-Dairy Queen) April 26, 2012 at 10:28 am

I agree, it’s a balance of both. When you are trying to lose weight, you really need to count calories. This helps you make sure that you are burning more than you’re consuming. I think once you’ve gotten to your happy place then you can move into intuitive eating, but still in your mind you have to be aware of the balance in calories. I am definitely all about the whole foods and baking for yourself to make sure you’re not eating tons of preservatives. Great post Nicole!
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Kelly April 26, 2012 at 10:42 am

I am more of a calorie counter but I think whatever works for the individual is the way to go.
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thehealthyapron April 26, 2012 at 10:44 am

1. congrats on the pregnancy!! I didn’t know! I’ve been detached from the blog world this year!

2. I completely agree that both calorie counting and intuitive eating should be learned in tandem. I would have never lost weight without calorie counting and being preggo myself, counting has helped me stay accountable when all that calls my name is chocolate! On the flip side, learning about intuitive eating and getting back in touch with my hunger/fullness has helped me with just eating in general. If I’m not hungry, I just can’t eat anymore and it’s been a natural way for me to keep my weight in a healthy range. Sure, we all have our moments but when you really listen to your body, it tells you what it needs!

Great post!
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Danica @ It's Progression April 26, 2012 at 10:49 am

this is a great post….I’ve done calorie counting and just recently I felt that it was getting nearly obsessive, I was frustrated/annoyed by having to add up every little thing I ate and every workout I did, and it was starting to make me stress out about all the numbers. I realized I was unhappy with it and for about a month now I’ve been trying to just simply eat whole/healthy/fueling foods and eat when I’m hungry. Counting calories worked for me for a while, and I’ll probably do it again at some point, but it definitely got too much in my head. It can be so hard to find the balance! I definitely enjoy treats, but I know that at least 80% of the time I eat whole foods that are not processed and truly good for my body…It’s a long process!
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Jess April 26, 2012 at 10:51 am

Really thought-provoking post, thank you! I’m currently a calorie counter, have been for the past year and it’s been an awesome learning experience, and has helped me to get my body to its happiest weight its ever been at. I’m currently counting but also learning to be intuitive and trying to wean myself from counting EVERY day. By now, my body has adjusted to my caloric number and knows when its full or not so now it’s about me learning to trust that fact so eventually, I can get away from counting daily. Right now, I’m still figuring out what will work long-term. But bottom line – the focus on whole, real, unprocessed nutritious eats is where I focus my time, and it’s very tasty indeed. :)
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Calee (@chimes) April 26, 2012 at 10:54 am

I do best when I do a combination of both. I counted calories for so many years that I know about how many calories are in everything that I eat. If I am traveling or during the holidays, I calorie count.
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Christine @ Oatmeal Bowl April 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm

I love intuitive eating. And its my cup of tea. But only works when you are eat healthy & clean already. Because eating unhealthy and then trying to be intuitive doesn’t work – as ‘junk’ food – aka sugar – works with an addicting behavior. So you will just crave more junk. And then intuitive eating doesn’t work.

I use intuitive eating a lot with working out. My body know what it needs to refuel. It says spinach – spinach it is. Turkey – turkey it is. And I usually end up making really delicious combinations via intuition.
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Anna @ On Anna's Plate April 26, 2012 at 3:55 pm

I always *wish* that I could be a calorie counter– I know it’s a great way to really lose a few (or a lot of) pounds. But whenever I try, I always give up after a day or two– my brain just isn’t good at tracking things in that way! Oh well :-)
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Meredith @ DareYouTo April 26, 2012 at 5:25 pm

GREAT post!!! I agree that a mix of the two, and a particular focus on eating real foods from the earth rather than processed, packaged items, is best. It’s ideal to simply “know your body” and feed it what and when it wants, but food tracking and calorie counting is useful to do every so often to check in, so you become aware of how much you are actually eating.
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Lindsay @ In Sweetness and In Health April 26, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Awesome post! I would probably prefer to go with intuitive eating, but I definitely know that I need to be more in-tune with my hunger. I’ve done calorie counting and find that I just become way too obsessive!
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Lauren @ Lawfully Wedded Wife April 26, 2012 at 11:09 pm

I love the idea behind intuitive eating and have been doing it for years, but going on that alone actually made me fall below healthy BMI! So right now I’m calorie counting to make sure I get what I need. Turns out that my apetite is just small and eating on intuition alone leads to me not getting enough calories! I hope to be able to go back to intuitive eating once I’ve reached my healthy weight. :)
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Miz April 27, 2012 at 6:33 am

I could go on and on and on but intuitive or mindful eating changed my entire life.
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Aylin @ Glow Kitchen April 27, 2012 at 11:45 am

I generally roll with intuitive eating. As long as I’m eating well, I realize the calories are irrelevant. However, sometimes my intuition gets twisted by stress, so I can go overboard. It’s then when calorie counting comes in handy until I get more in tune again.


Samantha April 27, 2012 at 11:57 am

I cannot for the life of me get into calorie counting. I failed at Weight Watchers too because of the points system.

I’ve learned recently to really pay attention to bodily queues, eat whole/un-processed foods, and not over-indulge in the junk and it’s already making a difference!
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Mary@FitandFed April 27, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Wow, interesting to hear all the reader feedback on calorie counting vs. intuitive eating. I haven’t calorie counted in a while but it definitely focuses my attention and helps me lose weight. I think intuitive eating can work well once you are already in a healthy eating groove. Keeping a food diary could be a good compromise middle path for being aware of what you eat without becoming obsessive or feeling so restricted. People tend to eat significantly less just from the act of keeping a food diary.
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Deb April 28, 2012 at 12:49 am

Nicole, I’m seriously grappling with this issue at the moment and have started on an intuitive eating regime, but… it’s scary as I have a fair bit more weight to lose and don’t exactly trust myself yet.

So… jury’s still out for me!

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Priscilla April 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm

I guess intuitive eating suites me because I don’t have the luxury of time to read through the calorie contents and all. What works better for you? Thanks for plotting the pros & cons. Really informative.

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