Today’s topic is one that’s been on my mind a whole lot lately. A nutrition question that is frequently asked is: Should I be eating intuitively when I’m hungry or tracking what I eat and going off the numbers?
Before I tell you my answer, I’d like you to think about this question for a moment. No really, take a moment and think about what you’d say if someone asked you. (Humor me please, this is the educator in me.)
Now, my answer: YES, eat intuitively!! Tracking numbers often leads to becoming reliant on the numbers rather than recognizing your own body’s needs. Your body is incredibly wise and those tracking websites and apps are all using estimates. They’re estimating your energy needs and using nutrition data done in a lab on a random sample item of the food tested. And that’s not to mention that your estimates of portion size, etc. are usually not entirely accurate either.
So random sample food that may not reflect the actual nutrition of the food you ate, formula estimating your energy needs, and, unless you’re a super type-A person that weighs every morsel ingested to the nearest gram (also please don’t do this), inaccurate food measurement. Yes, they can give you an idea if you might be in the ballpark with your nutrition needs, but as above, it can vary so much. And yes, some individuals can go into a lab and get their metabolic rate measured to determine a more accurate picture of energy needs, but most of us don’t have access to or need that data.
AND also my answer: It depends. Many active individuals are actually not eating enough for their on-the-move lifestyles – and the body, because it is wise, makes decisions about where it is going to prioritize its precious calories. So if you’re going to go for a trail run in the forest for the day followed by an evening bike ride or weight session, and then follow with something similar tomorrow and the next day, and throw in a weekend long couple workouts, AND you’re routinely not eating enough to meet your caloric needs, the body is going to choose where to spend those nutrients because when this precious energy is used for one function, it is not available for another one. Essentially, you are putting your system into survival mode.
And it plays out along these lines as your body says, “Well, if you’re going to make me go do these workouts, I’ll put my energy here, though maybe with a little less pep, energy, and high-end ability, but I’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul, so I’ll compromise over here with bone metabolism, or over here with female reproductive hormones or thyroid health, or immune function, or over here with the GI system and the ability to break down nutrients in food (because digestive enzymes are made of proteins which may be lacking in the diet), or muscle and tissue repair or”…. and the list goes on.
Why am I bringing all this up? Because it’s actually common for active individuals to be eating to hunger levels and still not be eating enough.
While intuitive eating means we should honor our hunger, many athletes have a suppressed appetite after long or intense workouts, and we still need to replace nutrients quickly after exercise, and learn to recognize that symptoms of hunger go beyond simply an empty stomach.
While intuitive eating means we should respect our fullness, if you get to the point of overeating by having excessively large meals, it is often because of low energy intake throughout the day or because you did some seriously strenuous exercise. With more even or adequate energy intake before and during a long workout, you can avoid that ravenous feeling of needing to eat quickly and impulsively, which means you’re paying more attention to fullness.
A SELF-ASSESSMENT TO HELP YOU NAVIGATE YOUR ENERGY NEEDS
So what to do if tracking all your meals isn’t very accurate (and not to mention time-consuming and takes the joy out of eating and deciding what to eat), and eating intuitively might be a little faulty, especially at the beginning?
My suggestion is to start with a self-assessment. Ask yourself these questions:
– Am I sick more than I should be?
– Do I struggle with fatigue more than I think I should?
– Am I improving in my performance?
– Have I had a lot of injuries?
– How’s my overall health? Basic bloodwork results holds a plethora of data on how the body is ‘performing’ internally.
– How is my menstrual cycle and/or sex drive? Women have a little advantage here in that any menstrual symptoms or irregularities* are symptoms telling you to heed warning because there’s a larger health story.
– Do I have a lot of gut upset / discomfort?
– Am I more irritable, depressed, anxious, or have decreased concentration?
– Am I sleeping well?
– and if you have teammates or friends/family that you work out with regularly: Do I eat less than my teammates but have a higher body fat? This is subjective of course because every body is different, but yep, higher body fat and eating less is also a tell-tale sign, since lower metabolic rate occurs with lower energy availability, meaning you might be eating less but weighing more or having more cushion than previously.
– and one more because it can become prevalent with long term low energy availability: Am I thinking about food ALL THE TIME? We know from eating disorder and starvation studies that chronically deprived individuals become obsessed with food, far beyond just being interested in food.
So where to go from here?
Above all, food and exercise should make you feel good. The goal is to be aware and in tune with yourself and your body’s ability to show you signs that something may not feel right or as great as it should.
And you may benefit from professional guidance. If you’re confused or concerned about your needs, or would like a professional opinion, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.
*Women on hormonal birth control will not have the same ability to use their menstrual cycle to gauge abnormalities, since it is designed to eliminate ovulation and the normal hormonal fluctuation that occurs. If symptoms or irregularities occur without birth control, that is vital sign that your body has an imbalance somewhere.
This information does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.
2018 UPDATE: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)
Bronwen, L., Rowe, G., and Girdlestone, C. (2020). Low Energy Availability – an imbalance that impacts more than performance. CompeatCon Nutrition Conference.
Fahrenholtz, IL., Sjodin, A., Benardot, D., Tornberg, AB., Skouby, S.,…and Melin, AK. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and reproductive function in female endurance athletes.
Torstveit, MK., Fahrenholtz, IL., stenqvist, TB., Svlta, O., Melin, A. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and metabolic perturbation in male endurance athletes.
Tribole, E. and Resch, E. (2003). Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary program that works. (2nd ed.). St. Martin’s Griffin.