8 tips to make intuitive eating work for you

“Do I want to track macros for the rest of my life?” Asking myself this question made me reflect on my current approach towards eating. And honestly, the answer in my case is probably no.

I don’t see myself at the ripe old age of 72 still meticulously weighing out and adding every single food I consume to MyFitnessPal or Cronometer.

Now I’m not questioning whether calculating calories and tracking macros works or not, it’s been proven again and again to be an effective and reliable method for building a lean, muscular body.

But is it the perfect solution for everyone to manage their weight and eating patterns? And how sustainable is it long-term, i.e. do you really want to be doing it for the coming 40 years?

So while we absolutely shouldn’t dismiss tracking macros as a viable strategy, there are other alternatives that might suit your lifestyle better.

In this article we will look at a different tool in the toolbox called intuitive eating, or ad libitum dieting, where the idea is to eat when hungry and eat until one is satisfied.

This might sound absurd – especially if you’re used to tracking macros – but as we’ll discover this way of eating can work rather well if you follow the principles of healthy ad libitum dieting.

So what exactly is intuitive eating and how do you do it? Let’s find out!

What is ad libitum dieting?

First let’s establish what this type of diet looks like.

(I’ll use the two terms ad libitum dieting and intuitive eating interchangeably throughout the article.)

The direct translation of ad libitum is “at liberty” – which basically means you’re free to eat as much as you want until you feel full.

This approach is in stark contrast to tracking macros, where you aim for a predetermined amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrate and use some sort of food tracking device to hit those numbers.

Ad libitum dieting instead relies on your natural hunger and satiety mechanisms to control food intake.

You simply eat when you are hungry, you stop eating when you’re full.

Think back to when you were a kid.

Your relationship with food was probably a lot more uncomplicated than it is currently. You’d eat whatever food was set on the dinner table, and you’d eat until you were comfortably full. Then you would go about your business until you found yourself hungry again which signaled that it was feeding time.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could revert back to this hassle-free way of eating whilst maintaining a fit and lean body? The truth is that it is absolutely possible but you also have to do it intelligently.

Who is this way of eating for?

Eating intuitively can yield excellent results for most people, and most fitness goals, if you adhere to the principles of effective ad libitum dieting (which I’ll detail below).

Once again, take a moment to ponder the question:

Do I want to still be tracking my macros when I’m 60 or 73 years old?

Most likely you don’t. You just want to be healthy, athletic, and look great naked. All of which are possible without tracking macros but instead by eating at liberty, intuitively.

In terms of sustainability I would argue that intuitive eating beats tracking macros, hands down.

Imagine being able to eat freely when you’re hungry and still gain muscle and lose fat. Visiting a restaurant with family or friends for a nice meal and not stressing about screwing up your macros.

Wouldn’t that be pretty awesome?

That’s not to say there aren’t situations where tracking macros can be advantageous and in some cases an absolute must:

  • A complete beginner will learn a great deal from tracking macros for at least a couple of weeks or months. He or she will discover what foods are higher and lower in calories, where to get protein, fat, and carbs from, visualize what a certain amount of calories looks like served on a plate, that so-called “healthy foods” might contain a ton of calories, and so on and so forth.

  • If you are preparing for a bodybuilding show or a powerlifting meet, or any similiar competition, where it’s crucial that you manipulate your body composition and weight as accurately as possible. If you don’t track macros it’s going to be quite difficult, if not impossible, making further adjustments so as to produce the desired outcome.

  • Eating “at liberty” might simply not be compatible with your personality type. Either because it tends to lead to binge eating or you just find it liberating having complete control over every morsel of food that passes through your mouth.

It’s worth mentioning that these two ways of eating are not mutually exclusive – you can of course mix and match different elements that you enjoy and find useful, to build your own diet.

You could, for example, track only protein and let intuitive eating handle the remaining calories.

If you’re a fitness competitor you might rely on ad libitum dieting during off-seasons and then carefully track macros leading up to your contest for a more precise control over your diet.

Or just about any combination you could think of.

How to make ad libitum dieting work

There are better and worse ways of intuitive eating.

That’s obvious when you consider the current global obesity epidemic. Most overweight individuals are naturally doing an ad libitum diet, albeit a very poorly constructed one. Let’s avoid that.

The foods that comprises the standard American diet (SAD) are designed to bypass your hunger mechanisms and keep you perpetually unfulfilled, always wanting to eat more.

An example of it done better is at the McDougall residential program, where participants are allowed to eat as much plant-based food as they want over the course of 10 days. The collected data over 9 years shows consistent weight loss, decrease in cholesterol and blood pressure for these individuals1.

So to make this way of eating work for you, here are 7 tips that will allow you to eat as much plant-based food as you want when hungry and still maintain a nice looking vegan physique!

Tip 1: Fill up on food with few calories

This is perhaps the most important principle for effective intuitive eating: the foods you choose to eat play a huge role in determining your total calorie consumption.

As mentioned the standard American diet is an example of a horribly executed ad libitum diet. This is because it’s a diet based solely on high-calorie foods with little to no effect on satiety. It contains a lot of calories without filling you up.

To understand why, and how to make better food choices, we have to explore calorie density.

Simply put, calorie density is a measure of how many calories are in a given weight of food.

A food that has a high calorie density contains a lot of calories in a given amount of weight and vice versa a food with low calorie density has fewer calories in the same amount of weight.

As you can see in the chart below unprocessed plant foods are lower in calorie density whereas the degree of refinement (food processing) increases the calorie density.

Here’s why the concept of calorie density is so crucial:

If you base your meals around food with low calorie density as shown above (fruits, veggies, starches, whole grains, and legumes) – you can eat large amounts of food without consuming a lot of calories.

This is because these foods are not only low in calories but also high in satiety – for instance plain boiled potatoes are 700% more filling than the same amount of calories from croissants2!

It’s damn hard to overeat on unprocessed plant foods such as potatoes, zucchinis, and black beans.

On the contrary there’s a pretty high risk of overeating when you order a basket of garlic bread doused with olive oil due to the combo of high calories and low satiety.

Furthermore, these foods with a low caloric density are also high in nutrient density. By basing your meals on these foods you’ll not only prevent overeating but you’ll also get plenty of nourishment.

The take-away here is that unrefined plant foods (as grown in nature) are your best bet for controlling calorie intake while refined foods such as bread, pasta, and oils should be consumed in moderation.

Oils have a notoriously high caloric density (35 times more than vegetables!) so you’re probably best off drastically reducing or eliminating this food if you don’t want to gain weight.

Tip 2: Emphasize legumes

Any plant-eating athlete can benefit from a higher protein intake than the current RDA3.

Now you might wonder: “How do I make sure I’m getting enough protein without tracking macros?”

With a simple trick: beans!

… as well as lentils, tofu, tempeh, and all other foods that belong to the group legumes.

All of these foods packs a powerful protein-punch. For instance a cup of red lentils (uncooked weight) delivers around 50 grams of protein! Red beans 43 grams, chickpeas 39 grams, and so on.

Not only are legumes protein-dense they also have a low caloric density as shown above. This combination means you can eat lots of it with few calories and get plenty of protein.

Double the win!

Tip 3: Beware of hyperpalatable foods

When something tastes really good you’ll likely eat more of it and probably too much.

That doesn’t mean I’m advocating a plant-based lifestyle completely deprived of tasty food though.

You can, and should, cook delicious vegan food using a variety of different flavors, herbs, and spices. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying good plant-based food (hello vegan shepherd’s pie!).

With that being said there are three main offenders you should watch out for: salt, oil, and sugar.

As mentioned above oil and sugar both have an extremely high caloric density which can lead to excess calorie intake. Moreover these highly refined food are also what is known as “hyperpalatable”, which simply put means they are very easy to overeat because they taste so damn good.

Our brain is hardwired to seek and find calories to help us survive. It loves the taste of energy dense foods such as oil and sugar, which is incredibly rare in nature. The strong sensation of pleasure derived from consuming these foods can override the feelings of satiety and cause you to overeat.

The same mechanism helps explain why salt can lead to eating more calories. While it doesn’t contain any calories it definitely makes the food you eat more palatable and so you eat more of it.

Tip 4: Eat/chew your calories

To keep calories in check on an ad libitum diet, another trick is to chew your calories. Because drinking liquids has a very small satiating effect and won’t fill you up as much as solid food.

Remember the last time a can of coke was enough to dampen your hunger? It just doesn’t happen.

Yes, it’s true that a can of coke is quite different from say a smoothie consisting of fruits and vegetables where you get a bunch of beneficial nutrients and fiber in addition to the calories.

Just keep in mind that liquefying will reduce the satiety effect. Going through the process of chewing a given amount of fruits and vegetables would fill you up better than drinking the pureed version.

Tip 5: Drink water before and during a meal

One RCT study showed that drinking water before meals can enhance rate of weight loss4.

Think of water as food with an extremely low caloric density. Lots of volume but zero calories. By using what’s called “water preloading” before meals you’ll fill up more quickly when eating your meal.

It’s also a good habit to have a glass of water during your meals. Stopping the process of eating to drink water will prolong the duration of your meal… which is a nice transition to the next tip:

Tip 6: Practice mindful eating

Have you ever sat down with your lunch in front of the computer to answer e-mails or watch some Youtube video and before you know it your lunch is gone yet you don’t remember even eating?

Speaking from personal experience, when I’m distracted with other stuff while eating I can put down literally thousands of calories, no problem. Yet upon meal completion I don’t really feel satiatied at all.

When you shovel food down your mouth the brain doesn’t have adequate time to register satiety.

Thi may lead to overeating. And the solution is to practice mindful eating.

In one study, eating more slowly significantly reduced energy intake and maximized satitation5.

This means taking your time, turning off any distractions such as your laptop, mobile phone, or tv, drinking water during your meal, and thoughtfully paying attention to the texture and flavor of the food as you’re chewing.

By doing this your brain can actually process what’s going on and give you the signal when to stop.

Bottom line is to slow down during meals and focus on eating intead of watching funny cat videos.

Tip 7: Eat until comfortably full

This has become a lost art: eating until you’re not hungry anymore until comfortably full.

There’s simply no need to stuff yourself with food until you’re bursting at the seams. I’m not quite sure where or how this became the norm but it’s certainly not the healthiest way of doing things.

So next time you’re having lunch stop for a second and ask yourself, “am I eating because I’m still hungry or because I feel like I have to reach some arbitrary level of fullness or finish the entire plate?”

If you simply stop eating when done you can cut down on your calorie intake significantly.

Tip 8: Reduce your plate size

Another way to magically eat less is to replace your larger bowls and plates with smaller ones.

Studies have observed that the size of the dinnerware you use influences food intake. A bigger bowl or plate means you’re more likely to both over-serve and overeat, whereas smaller plates don’t.

This is because our brain perceives a normal serving on a smaller plate as more filling than if it was to be served on a large plate6.

One study7 found that even small increases in the size of a plate or bowl leads to substantial increases in energy intake, especially if the food also was calorie dense.

For example an increase from an 8 inch plate to a 10 inch plate results in a 67% increase in calories!

Wrapping up

Let’s recap what we’ve established about sustainable and effective ad libitum dieting:

  • Base your meals pre-dominantly around food with low caloric density, such as vegetables, fruits, starchy roots, whole grains, legumes.

  • Emphasize legume consumption for a protein boost.

  • Limit salt, oil, and sugar consumption.

  • Eat/chew your calories instead of drinking them.

  • Make sure to drink a large glass of water before and during meals.

  • Eat mindfully; i.e take your time, turn of distractions, and focus on the sensation of eating.

  • There’s no need to completely stuff yourself: eat until not hungry.

  • Use smaller plates instead of larger bowls or plates.

Hopefully that should give you some idea of how to structure an ad libitum diet!

However, there’s no need to dive in head first and implement all of these principles all at once.

It might be that all you need is to eat food with low caloric density and that works brilliantly for you. Others may benefit from further adjustments: perhaps eliminating oil and sugar, drinking water during meals, eating mindfully, experimenting with plate size etc.

And as I touched upon before, you can absolutely keep some components of tracking macros whilst implementing other components of an ad libitum diet. Maybe keeping track of protein and letting fat and carbohydrate be determined intuitively and so on and so forth.

Experiment and see what works for you!