Intuitive vs. Structured Eating

The popularity of structured eating (which is a diet structured on calorie intake and macronutrient ratios and tracked using electronic software or other methods) has skyrocketed in recent years. More recently, a small, but growing, presence on social media has begun to advocate a more intuitive approach focusing on nutritious food intake with no necessity to monitor your intake.
The intuitive eating advocates proclaim that structured dieting can be a detriment to health, highlighting less nutritious food choices, possible food related mental health issues, the time it takes to track and monitor etc. This is a clear case of missing the forest for the trees and or having another agenda outwith of your belief in intuitive eating.
So let's try and clear this up. We feel like the refractory movement against structured eating was inevitable but we feel like it's misplaced, even if the individuals hearts and minds are in the right place.
The purpose of a structured diet
The purpose of a structured diet is to introduce nutritional fundamentals to an individual. There is a wide spread lack of basic understanding surrounding nutrition, resulting from the abundance of information that is more often than not conflicting.
The nutritional fundamentals any "well made" structured diet should focus on are;
Quantity of food - How much you eat
Quality of food - What you eat
Sustainability of the diet - How well you can maintain the diet
Quantity of food - Quantity of food, which directly relates to caloric intake, is the defining factor in diet related weight change and or maintenance
Quality of food - Quality of food, which refers to how nutritious our dietary intake is. It can also impact our calorie intake depending on if we consume higher ratios/amounts of protein and or fibre.
Sustainability of the diet - How well you can "stick to" a certain way of eating. This is incredibly important, not only to avoid any unnecessary binges etc., but ultimately to preserve mental health, better relationships with food, reducing stress and increasing the likelihood of success (if the quantity and quality components are correct).
The value of a structured diet
First and foremost, do they work? Well, a relatively recent meta-analysis (which is a large culmination of available data relevant to a certain subject analyzed and reviewed in a relatively non-biased manner) found that calorie counting, contact with a dietitian to monitor and educate the individual/group as well as the introduction of some behavioral change techniques were the most significant contributing factors to sustained weight loss after 12 months. Additionally (in case you were wondering which method of tracking to follow), in a separate trial, it was found that individuals using electronic trackers (such as myfitnesspal) improved their self-monitoring and lowered their calorie and saturated fat intake when compared to a group using a paper diary.
In our experience, the value of a structured diet is multi-faceted;
  • It allows for you to better understand how quantities of food effect your body
  • It allows for you to better understand which foods effect your body in certain ways
  • It allows for you to better monitor your diet and make changes when necessary and or when goals change
  • It allows for a coach, nutritionist or whichever other external source you may choose to use, to evaluate your current diet and make more immediate changes.
  • It allows for you to see where in your diet you may be lacking or exceeding your required intake of a certain nutrient and or mineral.
  • It provides a structure in which you can begin to understand and trust how quantities of food effect your body. When you know how much you are taking in and see how it effects your weight you can begin to experiment. For example, meeting all your daily requirements and leaving some calories spare for a bar of chocolate. Seeing that this doesn't lead to any weight gain will help promote mental well-being not diminish it.
The relationship between Intuitive and Structured eating
I know we've been discussing these two forms of eating as two distinct methods but they really aren't nor should they be considered in that fashion. You see, the point of a structured diet is that it is not permanent. It is a stepping stone towards intuitive eating. As you begin to understand your body more and how your diet effects it the necessity to constantly track (which should never really be the case anyway) becomes diminished.
Tracking shouldn't be gram for gram, microgram to microgram anyway and I think that's where the Intuitive eating advocates see fault and I'd agree. Tracking should be a way in which you set up more of a framework - aiming to eat within a certain range (typically 5% or under) of your energy and macro targets. Even that, calories and protein are the two which matter most for the majority of people. Once you've tracked them, fats and carbohydrates can fall where they may as long as you stick to your calorie intake (unless you're an athlete then I would pay a bit more attention to carbohydrate and fat ratios).
To advise someone who doesn't fully understand the basic fundamentals of nutrition to intuitively eat is careless. Someone who became overweight and or obese as a result of intuitive eating is likely not going to be successful by employing the same strategy. Of course the new method will work for a time, but ultimately it will only work until it doesn't. To someone like this, who may not even fully understand what it means to intuitively eat, it is the equivalent of telling them to cut bread out of their diet - a band aid for a broken leg - a quick solution that masks the underlying problem. You must understand that these individuals are not the same as you. Their triggers to eat are different, their general level of education in the subject is different, their level of activity is most likely different, their understanding and ability to regulate and or comprehend self satiation is different etc.
The industry should employ a very simple step by step progression to provide universal clarity to better weight management, health and nutritional understanding;
  1. Intuitive eating (eating what you want without understanding) - your general member of the public
  2. Structured eating (structured diets combined with active interaction and education) - your client when they first engage with you
  3. Intuitive eating (understanding what your body needs to optimally perform and how to successfully manage and or change your weight) - your client when they no longer need you
Be a driving instructor, not a baby sitter, you're supposed to educate individuals and provide them with the tools they need to be independently successfully, not tell them when and what to eat all the time like a child.
Burke, L. E., Conroy, M. B., Sereika, S. M., Elci, O. U., Styn, M. A., Acharya, S. D., Sevick, M. A., Ewing, L. J. and Glanz, K. (2011), The Effect of Electronic Self‐Monitoring on Weight Loss and Dietary Intake: A Randomized Behavioral Weight Loss Trial. Obesity, 19: 338-344. doi:10.1038/oby.2010.208
Hartmann‐Boyce, J. , Johns, D. J., Jebb, S. A., Aveyard, P. and , (2014), Ingredients of weight loss programmes. Obes Rev, 15: 598-609. doi:10.1111/obr.12165

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