You don't have to follow a strict diet to get lean. You don't have to follow a diet at all. Here's how to eat intuitively for the best results.
Intuitive Eating: What It Isn't
When you hear the words "intuitive eating" it's easy to get confused. If your intuition tells you to eat ice cream for every meal then that's not a dietary approach that will benefit your health or physique.
So what does intuitive eating even mean? Intuition, after all, is a natural, innate response. And when applied to the biology of human hunger, it should be a response that concludes with the nourishment of the body. Your instincts tell you to eat, so you choose precisely what will benefit you the most, and stop there... right?
That's a nice thought, but it's not the way things work. Most people who eat "intuitively" are malnourished and fat because they've set no boundaries. The foods they select are low in nutrients yet high in crap. They eat whatever they want, when they want.
To set things straight, you need to realize that certain foods will destroy your body's hunger and satiety cues and make you feel like you need to eat more, even when you're no longer hungry. This is the goal of most food manufacturers because it increases their bottom line... while increasing your waist line.
Luckily there's another way. You CAN eat intuitively and be lean. Let's take a look.
The Ideal Intuitive Eater
In a perfect world, you'd eat when you were hungry, stop when you were satisfied, and choose only foods that'd help you get the results you're after. And there's nothing saying you can't achieve that. But it'll take a little work, a little discipline, and a little understanding.
To keep intuitive eating from being a free-for-all, there are some guidelines you need to follow, especially at first. Why? Because today's food is easily accessible and instantly rewarding... and grazing all day or eating without any sense of structure won't benefit you in the end.
Eating like that can actually turn food into a crutch to ease emotions or cure boredom. Not good. Wanting food isn't the same as being hungry for it. But intuitive eating can include eating for performance too, even when you're not necessarily hungry but you need to eat strategically for growth.
If you like training in a fed state, then eating at a certain time prior to training would be part of the protocol, as would eating post training. The intuitive part, in this scenario, is to gauge the type, timing, and amount you need to consume around training. If you're smart about it, you'll learn how to create habits that will make you hungry at the right times and ready for your workout nutrition.
Intuitive Eating Requires A Skillset
Intuitive eating sounds simple, but there are some skills required. You may even need to retrain yourself to actually eat in the way you're designed to – when hungry. I know that's crazy talk, but your body actually can tell you when you should eat.
Over time we tend to teach our bodies to eat by a clock. We eat breakfast at a certain time, then "feel" hungry near lunchtime, then graze on some snacks in the afternoon. If we've under-eaten all day, we'll compensate by overeating at dinner. All of this happens within the same periods of time each day, because we've trained ourselves that way.
We weren't always like this, though. Anyone with kids will tell you about the many times you prepare lunch or dinner for them and they say they aren't hungry. Then half an hour later they say they are.
You know why? Because they weren't hungry when they said they weren't, and thirty minutes later they really were! They haven't been "trained" to eat at a certain time yet. They eat when they're hungry and don't eat when they aren't. Ultimately, they unlearn the skill of eating intuitively.
But in this post-troglodyte world we eat when we're hungry, but also when we're at the game, watching TV, at family gatherings, on dates with bae, and in the bed after bae broke up with us. The thing is, part of enjoying life is consuming food in those moments. It's a cultural and social outlet.
So I'm not telling you NOT to enjoy a hotdog at the game. I'm saying part of intuitive eating is to listen to your body when it's satiated, and not eat eleventy-billion hotdogs at the game.
Skill One – Ask Yourself If You're Hungry
Pay attention to your hunger, not the clock. This may take some time to adjust if you've been eating by the clock, or worse, around the clock. And you don't have to revamp all of your scheduled eating. What's important is cognizance – awareness. Pay attention to when you're hungry each day, and eat based on hunger.
Think, "Am I hungry?" If the answer is "yes," then eat.
If the answer is "no" then drink a glass of water, have a conversation, go for a walk, tidy up, do some work, or prepare your next meal ahead of time so it can be a healthy option instead of fast food. There are many things to do besides eat.
Asking yourself this question and following up with the answer will prevent emotional eating and boredom eating – the two biggest culprits for people who can't lose fat.
Skill Two – Let Go Of The Need To Be Full
Part of intuitive eating is paying attention to your hunger as you eat. That means slowing down and allowing the signals from the gut to reach the brain so you know when you've eaten the right amount of food. We usually overeat when we act like savages and don't slow down to chew and enjoy the meal like civilized human beings.
As a general rule, you should take 20 minutes to eat the meal in front of you. Taking longer isn't going to hurt you, and you may find you don't even finish all of your food if you do.
What does "needing to be full" have to do with this? A lot, actually. You may not even see the connection between fast eating and fullness, but this story should help...
A friend once told me about the time he went to lunch with a coworker who was obese. They went to a sandwich place, where she ordered two foot-longs loaded with virtually every ingredient the shop had to offer. With no solicitation from him, she offered the following: "I just like being full. I like being really, really full."
She then proceeded to take both sandwiches to pound-town faster than... well, you get the idea. She ate her food very quickly.
A contrast to this story is the time I ate at a lavish restaurant in Chicago, one of those places where they bring you a plate the size of Australia and a single scallop sitting in the middle of it. It was a seven course meal. I don't remember what I ordered because my inner fat boy was so engrossed in anger at the serving sizes.
Then something strange happened. By the time they brought out the dessert I could barely eat it. I wasn't fat-lady-in-a-sandwich-shop full, but I was very satisfied. And I'm not often satisfied. The reason I was satisfied was because they took about ten minutes between courses to bring the food out. By the time the dessert was served, my brain had received the signals from my gut that I'd spent a lot of money on dinner that evening. All of those thimble-sized portions actually satiated me.
So, have patience with your food. It'll eventually satisfy but you've got to give it a fair chance before you reach for more.
Skill Three – Make It All About The Protein
Unless you've been living on a deserted island with no access to anything fitness related, you probably know the importance of protein in terms of building muscle and improving body composition. But if not, here's a quick list of what protein does:
- It has the highest thermic effect of all the macros – roughly 30% of the calories in protein go towards digestion.
- It's highly satiating, so you feel fuller for longer.
- It's virtually impossible to convert to fat.
- It's absolutely required to build and preserve lean muscle mass.
Your usual run of the mill choices should be the staple:
- Chicken, white and dark meat
- Whole eggs
- Various fish
- Lean red meat (flank, sirloin, and top round are good choices)
From a quantity standpoint, it's difficult to overeat protein, but there's definitely a minimum you should be shooting for at each meal. If you're a dude who lifts and has four meals a day, then it'd be reasonable to shoot for 40-60 grams of protein per meal.
That's approximately 160-240 grams of protein a day (I know, that's a broad range but stay with me here). On average that's about 6-8 ounces of a meat-based protein source. If you're an extremely big or small outlier, then modify these numbers for your needs.
It's important to get enough daily protein, but if you can't cover your bases, then simply making sure you've covered it over a 24-hour period should be fine. Muscle protein synthesis tends to spike heavily about 24 hours after training. So if for some reason you're a bit low on protein intake on a training day, just make sure you make up for it the following day.
Skill Four – Eat 4 Meals A Day
You could meet your protein needs with only three meals a day, but you'd have to more cognizant of your protein intake per meal than you would with four. And, think about it, someone training really hard will probably be hungrier than the 3-meals-a-day average bear.
But you should really make an effort to have distinctive meals and not just a continuous onslaught of snacks... even if they're on the healthy side.
Bodybuilders used to say you had to eat every 2-3 hours in order to "keep the metabolism fired up" and be swole. This is a myth. It's also a myth that you must have a steady stream of protein coming in to fully support anabolism. Years ago, bodybuilders would even get up in the middle of the night to down more protein. The truth is, as long as your protein intake is sufficient to support growth and recovery, you should be fine.
That said, trying to smash all of your protein requirements for the day in one or two meals isn't ideal either. It's also not a good idea to wait too long after training to get some high quality protein in: within an hour or two if you trained in a fed state, and as soon as possible if you trained fasted.
For the hard-charging lifter that's trying to maximize muscle protein synthesis, there are some requirements that need to be met in order to do that. And yes, protein intake is the primary factor. But your life need not revolve around Tupperware meals.
This is why four meals a day seems to be a sweet spot to meet satiation needs and protein requirements.
Skill Five – Know The Optimal Eating Order
People don't often think about the order in which they eat their food but it can make a difference in terms of hormonal response, satiety, and how many total calories you consume.
Start by eating your protein first, then veggies and fats, then fruit, and complex carbohydrate sources last. If you don't make it to the complex carbs that's okay. The only exception to this would be your post-training meal where you'd have your complex carbs after your protein. From there move to your veggies and fats.
Preloading with protein is an easy strategy that can help your body composition. It means ingesting your proteins and fats before moving on to carbs and it may have a significant effect on body composition.
The research in this area is growing, but a little common sense should tell you that eating your proteins and fats first not only keeps you from eating more, but also lowers the glycemic index of the carbs that will be eaten at the end of the meal. This means a lower insulin response.
And while insulin spikes won't make you fatter if you're eating a hypocaloric diet, keeping your blood sugar stable keeps your appetite in check and reduces the chances of binge eating.
Skill Six – Don't Buy Crap
If you don't buy junk, there won't be junk to eat in the house. If someone gives it to you, give it away. Share immediately. Just don't store crap in your home.
Hyperpalatable foods – those which are high in sugar, salt, and fat – are manufactured for overconsumption. When there are no hyperpalatable foods to destroy, you'll learn pretty quickly whether you're an emotional eater or a boredom eater.
Why? Generally we don't load up on the kale as we're binge-watching a Netflix series... or when getting over a breakup. So if you keep these foods out of the house you won't be able to turn to them in "times of need" that really aren't times of hunger.
Also, nix things like nuts and nut butter initially. They may be healthy, but they're calorie dense and extremely easy to snack on. Once you've gotten a handle on your appetite and intuitive eating, then they can be included at a later time when you're certain you can stick to appropriate portions.