"Flexibility is relative - Not everyone is a body builder!!"
Is intuitive eating realistic in an obesogenic society?
There are some problems with the current weight loss paradigm, and I'm sure people would agree with me as it's been said many times over, that people don't have an issue with losing weight, they have a problem with keeping it off!
Perhaps tracking food, being more food educated or adopting a restrictive diet whilst trying to do energy restriction purposefully by weighing and tracking to achieve weight loss, is an issue!
There's a high failure rate, and when there is success, people usually run into other problems such as developing an unhealthy relationship with their body image or with food.
While the intuitive eating line of research emphasises different things as it's typically thought of as a weight neutral approach that is more about realigning someone with their hunger signals.
So the idea is, that because we live in a quote on quote "obesogenic environment" meaning that there's constant food availability, it's highly palatable, and it's more common in our society to have less structured meal times to eat, from eating on the go, to mindless eating, or to eat foods for reasons unrelated to true satiety or hunger.
Is tracking and weighing inherently harmful?
We need to look at the pros and cons.
There is a fair amount of data showing that those who regularly track their food or their weight may be able to prevent weight regain after they've lost their weight, however there are also studies that show those who weigh and track have a greater association with disordered eating. But it's not exactly known what's causing what!
Is intuitive eating realistic in an obesogenic society?
I would say for the goal of having a healthier psychology, healthier physiology, and maybe something as an instage for those who are overweight, intuitive eating might be very helpful. But just like we have to ask this question for people who live in an obesogenic society we have to ask the question for those who are weight class restricted athletes or bodybuilders, where does intuitive eating fit in?!
In relation to strength and physique sport, well maybe when we can trust our hunger signals, and when they are normalised and when we have satiety response in the deep dark depths of comp prep, or if you regularly have to weight cut to your weight class in powerlifting/weightlifting, intuitive eating might not help.
Indeed intuitive eating is related to our natural hunger signals, that being true hunger vs cravings.
And if you are below your quote on quote "settling point range" if you're very lean, then the natural thing is to gain a little bit of body fat.
This is more likely a healthier way to pass on your genes from an evolutionary biology perspective, this may run counter to the goal of your sport at times, but it doesn't mean that we should abandon the concept of intuitive eating!
Are weighing, tracking and intuitive eating opposed?
I think this question is relevant to the general population and the answer to this would be that they aren't opposing, and the best place to start would be with education and getting them to develop an awareness of nutrition. Such as; teaching someone how to read a food label, teaching someone the role of each macronutrient in the body and how these may affect overall body composition. Helping someone understand energy balance and that weight gain and weight loss are a result of total calories consumed vs calories burned along with quality of food consumed.
The next step without tracking and weighing at this point would be to have someone develop more self awareness and to help them further distinguish the differences between hunger vs cravings.
A great way to help a person develop a strong sense of self awareness around their eating, is to get them to keep a journal. Which is quite literally a dear diary of what they ate and how they felt after each meal For eg: Meal 5 - Meat Pie (fell into a food coma, felt sluggish, and bloated, Meal 2 - Had a banana and a pear, felt great.
If people can link their energy, emotions and moods around what they consumed, it could quickly develop a very simple yet effective way to get someone who has no idea on what a good meal plan looks like, to simply make healthier food choices in the future.
The next step would be to help someone make over all better choices for their life style by applying some structure that fits their time and budget. Such as, educating them on best caloric intake given their current activity level, taking into account how much money they have to spend on food and the time they have to prepare meals, ensuring that they aren't just doing what's super convenient, but actually applying some planning ahead.
Then only as a last resort, would I recommend my client to be tracking and weighing if they can't achieve fat loss with the aforementioned.
Now in terms of strength and physique competitors we could ask the same question of whether weighing and tracking can seem dichotomous (opposed)?
I can speak from personal experience that they absolutely are not, as it was only through weighing and tracking that I was able to achieve intuitive eating.
I can tell you now, I don't weigh or track a single thing any more, but I don't need to weight cut for anything at the moment as I've become really good at measuring food portions by eye and by listening to my hunger signals. And if I do get cravings, well I just need to see what I haven't eaten for the day and why I'm craving certain foods.
And as I have only been competing in powerlifting this year, I have maintained my weight class weight during and in between each prep, as I compete at 72kg and usually weigh around 70.5kg to 71.5kg all year around by developing a very consistent approach to my eating.
In my head I have a set meal plan structure, and whilst the food changes weekly, the structure remains the same, it really is a win win for me. And can be for anybody that can adopt this approach. It offers both structure and flexibility.
Simply put without some intentional restriction at some point, 99.99% of people will not get into the required condition it takes to be a competitive bodybuilder, because it's having the ability to be restrictive when required and then learning to reintegrate back to normal life when the show is over, basically being able to maintain pretty level headed between controlled starvation for a number of weeks, vs going back to normal "uncontrolled" healthy "ish" eating in the off season.
It's interesting to draw attention to the few bodybuilding athletes that have the ability to compete time and time again, vs a large amount of those athletes who compete once or twice and may need to drop out due to the sheer struggle of being able to maintain some sort of a balance and mental ability to go from one extreme to the next.
Now let's look at alternatives to weighing and tracking.
"Rules, structure and habit based solutions"
You could take an ad libitum approach with your foods, that being, you can eat as much as you want but ensuring that the foods you eat are in line with your goals. For example, eating fresh fruits, veg and protein sources.
Another structured approach could be that you eat at certain times of the day, and avoid grazing between meals. You could set alarms on your phone to help you along with this approach, but it's just another way to avoid eating in a caloric surplus.
Acceptance based therapy - Is the idea that you're simply coming to terms with the fact that you're going to make choices that result in a little less pleasure from food and that you're ok with being a little uncomfortable with making choices that are better. It's essentially putting delayed gratification at the forefront, along with a reaffirmation of values and goals, and accepting that a little discomfort can only bring you much closer to your goals.
It's better to stick to basic food when you are calorie restricted because too much flavour makes you eat more. Now I don't mean, never put any flavour on your food, however keep your flavours simple.
My go to's for flavouring meats once heated are - Hommus dip (try it on any meat YUM), Tomato or BBQ sauce, salt and sometimes pepper. This is subjective and may not be appropriate for comp prep so check with your coach on best seasoning approaches. Gen pop, I can't see why you can't have a few go-to's which can be basic yet quite pleasurable.
If you are physique competitor, just remember that you have chosen to diet, and you need to accept that dieting will be uncomfortable.
How far can these alternatives get you? Can you get shredded by eating this way?
You can get pretty far, I personally eat "good" foods in a paleo style way of eating (can hunt or gather for it: eggs, meat, fruit and veg) I maintain a lowish but healthy body fat percentage year round, as I usually sit around 20-22% body fat... With that said I haven't had my dexa scan done in a while so those figures could be off.
Getting into "stage" condition, I'm sorry guys but you just need to track and weigh foods to get into the best possible shape as you can get.
Intuitive eating is probably not appropriate because it is a weight neutral strategy, that is based on the whole concept that focusing so much on losing weight and seeing your body as a problem and seeing food that is something to be restricted can easily result in body image issues, lack of self love, poor relationship with food, long term disordered eating or could exacerbate further the problems that are already there.
It's probably much more appropriate if you are maintaining within your powerlifting weight class or in the off season as a bodybuilder.
More of a gaintaining approach: where a person is slowly gaining weight, focusing on hunger signals and trying to be satiated most of the time.
Another scenario where it might be useful is with non-aggressive deficits, where by a person eats to only remove hunger, not to the point of complete satiation, but enough that you aren't hungry. Over time this could result in a fair amount of weight loss but this may also take a while to develop the habit of removing temptation of eating more than one really needs to.
I personally have never been overweight, how ever I did have weight fluctuations where I became obsessed with looking at the scale every day and feeling disappointment at the end of the day compared to the morning, and I also tracked and weighed my food for a couple of years before I developed a strong eating intuition.
It could be quite possible for someone to approach a mini cut (4-6 week dieting for example) by using intuitive eating, where they might be 3-5% over their weight class and be able to make weight, or also for someone who has developed better nutrition habits over time and wants to get "beach lean".
So that is essentially how intuitive eating can fit in within the paradigm of bodybuilding and physique sports. It's not ideal for a contest prep, where by a male needs to be under 10% body fat for stage for example, or a female needing to get into the mid to low teens for her body fat percentage.
How ever in the off season, this approach definitely plays a role!!
Another thing to think about in the off season is, "How do we get back to that?" As we have to get away from intuitive eating during contest prep, how do we then re-develop that relationship of intuitive eating once the shows over.
Bodybuilding really is shifting from insanity back to normality. This phase is about recovery but also having this gradual return so that we understand the signals again and pay attention to them at an appropriate rate.
It's known that binge eating after a show is actually harmful and if done consistently it slows down the recovery process in some ways related to the hormonal status. For example testosterone levels recovered slower in men who were really overeating post show.
So again what do you do when the show finishes? Initially you want to implement a healthy surplus, with the aim to gain 5-10% over show weight within 1-2 month period. It's an aggressive surplus but it's not binge eating, and this approach will also give you a lot of food to play with.
How ever, hunger levels are still going to remain high, satiety won't be functioning properly, so this initial phase right after the last show of the season is specifically unsuited to intuitive eating.
You're going to need structure to avoid binge eating, at the very least you should still track calories and protein at the very least and you're going to need to transition in stages if you want to recover properly.
A great way to tackle this is with a 3 tiered process to get away from that black and white thinking.
Tier 1 (Best) - Best case scenario during prep you're getting within + or - 5 to 10g for each macro.
Tier 2 (Better) - Maybe you weren't able to get your fat and carb ratios down so you just + or - 100 calories and then within 10G of Protein.
Tier 3 (Good) - Protein is also out of whack in cases where you're travelling or over consumed food earlier in the day, you may have for example 200 calories left in your day but your macros are off, so you just consume those calories regardless of the macros.
This is probably how your transition should be, right after the stage, you're going to forget about macros, increase calories and maybe just focus on protein and calories for a while and then make the shift of keeping a running track of calories in mind while maintaining good habits.
Eventually when that food focus subsides and when the competitor doesn't feel like they're constantly hungry or never full after meals and once they can notice those signals returning to more or less normal, that's when you can move away from tracking and actually get back to that intuitive eating mindset.
But it'll probably have to be intentional, it'll have to be tapered, ideally the first time doing this you may want to be supervised by a coach helping you to intentionally move from flexible dieting to intuitive eating, from in season, to transition, to then off season.
So to summarise:
Flexible dieting is a relative term: what we consider flexible as those who come from a background of more restrictive, good and bad food traditional bodybuilding or powerlifting kind of nutritional dogma, is unlikely going to be flexible for the general population.
If it fits your macros (IIFYM) is only flexible if you've already been on a very rigid plan.
Weighing and tracking food can be potentially harmful for someone who already has disordered eating issues. This shouldn't be an approach for everyone straight off the bat without first some education about the role of macronutrients are, the purpose of weighing and tracking, sharing the long term strategy, but again this approach will always be somewhat restrictive.
You can go a long way with habit changes, structure and satiating foods without needing to track. With the general population and if that's you reading this article, this is a great place to start when changing your eating habits.
This approach is also great for athletes who may need to drop a weight class and get leaner by changing some habits such as selecting highly satiating foods over snacking, and making more mindful choices to hit athletic goals.
Tracking and weighing should be the last port of call for general population. It should be something used only if needed, and when done, done for a purposeful short period of time to help them understand what they're doing on a regular basis, what the energy content of their foods are and just to have a better understanding of portion control.
So this has been a discussion of intuitive eating and how it might fit into the paradigm of nutritional tracking for physique and weight class restricted athletes and how that might look a little different for someone who is apart of the general population and why.
I hope this article has been helpful, and if you enjoyed this piece please share this page on your social media and help others to become more nutritionally educated.
If you have any more questions on this please shoot me an email, I'd love to connect with you.
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