Intuitive Eating or Calorie Counting: Which is Better for Weight Loss?

I LOVE the idea of intuitive eating. Pay attention to your internal hunger before you eat, stop when you are no longer hungry—nothing is forbidden. Your body knows what it needs and if we listen to it, we’ll make good decisions and live at peace with food. But let me explain why I’m not a fan of the idea that intuitive eating by itself is the one-and-only-way to weight loss. 

Studies show that normal weight people tend to eat more intuitively than those with excess weight. However, when we look at intuitive eating treatments for obesity, the effect on weight is generally small. It is true that binge eating decreases, people feel better about themselves and they improve their relationship with food. But, again, not a lot of weight loss. By comparison, we know that calorie counting (or points for you Weight Watchers fans), self-weighing, and following structured meal plans can help people manage weight.


We Need a Philosophy AND a Plan

Intuitive eating is primarily a philosophy—it’s an overarching approach to how and why we eat. It provides a framework for our decisions. But obesity is a disease that sometimes requires a bit more than a philosophy to treat. We may need a specific plan. That’s where the four letter word “diet” becomes relevant. We all follow a diet of some sort and getting specific about a plan doesn’t have to lead to feeling deprived and wanting what we “can’t have.” We can accomplish this by using both intuitive eating strategies as well as self-weighing, tracking calories and following a plan (that has some flexibility built into it).

To me, intuitive eating and traditional approaches can harmonize like, well, Simon and Garfunkel performing “The Sounds of Silence.” Trying to stick to a plan provides an opportunity to pay closer attention to our feelings of hunger and why we are eating. By comparison, when we let go of guilt related to food and use healthy coping strategies, it is easier to stick to a reasonable plan. Can you hear the harmony? --I feel more relaxed already. Here are a few tips for using both intuitive eating along with more traditional approaches:


Weigh daily or at least once per week.

Accept that your weight is only a number. It says almost nothing about who you are and your value. Yet, it will not lie to you about the effectiveness of your strategies to manage weight. If you feel better about your relationship with your food but your weight is creeping up, it alerts you to reconsider your eating and physical activity patterns.


Accept that nothing is forbidden unless you decide to make it so—you get to decide.

Some successful weight loss maintainers decide that certain foods are simply too difficult to consume in moderation and the food is not important enough to continue wrestling with. For one of my former clients it was doughnuts. Another patient said she had a rule that potato chips were never in her house—occasionally she would eat a few at a party. For my 2-liter-per-day pop drinkers, I don’t sugar coat the potential pitfalls of decreasing soft drink consumption instead of eventually eliminating it altogether. But in the end, it’s always their choice. It’s not dictated by someone else’s diet rules. Although learning to eat mindfully and with intention is usually best, self-imposed dietary boundaries aren’t always bad.


Make eating guilt-free by thinking about the consequences of eating foods alongside the potential pleasure of eating it.

You can do this by considering the calories in the food and how you will physically feel after eating the food. If you decide to eat the food, consider the stopping point that will be a win-win (pleasurable without overconsuming).


Pay attention to hunger and fullness, but realize our emotions and circumstances can easily play tricks on us.

Mindful eating can be difficult in certain environments. Know which environments make this difficult for you and consider developing a plan ahead of time.


Eating when you aren’t hungry can sometimes avert future problems.

If you routinely skip meals because you aren’t that hungry, you may be setting yourself up for overeating later on, especially if the environment is tempting. Know your patterns and responses and don’t talk yourself into or out of eating based on temporary feelings that are likely to backfire later. This is a common problem for breakfast skippers who overeat in the evening.


Enjoy your food but don’t make it the primary source of your enjoyment.

Make sure your life is full of pleasurable and purposeful activities that require good nutrition to fuel them. Learn to make healthy foods pleasurable to your eyes and taste buds—a simple internet search will spark many ideas.

Learn to use many tools.

No matter your beliefs about weight management, it is indisputable that obesity is a chronic condition that is resistant to treatment (all treatments).  Even though research suggests both intuitive eating and calorie counting can be useful, research is not YOU. Each of us can evaluate our own patterns, psychological make-up, and preferences to determine what sort of approach may work best. But remember, just because one approach may be useful in most situations, doesn’t mean other tools should be taken out of your tool box. The more tools you can use effectively the better your chances at long-term success.

*For more strategies to manage weight check out my recently published book, A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time.*

Anglin, et al., Diet quality of adults using intuitive eating for weight loss - pilot study. Nutr Health, 2013.

Daubenmier, et al., Effects of a mindfulness-based weight loss intervention inadultswith obesity: A randomized clinical trial. Obesity, 2016

Boucher,et al., Teaching intuitive eating and ACT skills via a web-based intervention: A pilot single-arm intervention study. JMIR Res Protoc, 2016.

Van Dyke and Drinkwater, Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review. Public Health Nutrition, 2013.