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Intuitive Eating vs. Intentional Eating: What Are They & Which One Suits You?

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If you’ve been tracking your macros for a while, you may have wondered:

“What comes after tracking macros?” or,

“How can I apply the hard work I’ve put into tracking macros to the rest of my life?”

Let’s introduce two distinct concepts: Intuitive eating and intentional eating. 

What is the difference between these two? Which one is right for you? 

Let’s chat about it.

Although some people feel comfortable tracking their macros forever—many don’t. And that’s okay. There is no right or wrong way. The best option is always completely individualized and based on your goals. 

There are some instances where precise tracking is very helpful:

  • You compete in a weight class sport (such as Olympic weightlifting, wrestling or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) 
  • You have body composition goals such as losing body fat or gaining muscle
  • You are a very competitive athlete
  • You have a “time-bound” goal like a special occasion coming up (for example, your wedding or a beach vacation)

There may also be times when you want to take what you’ve learned while tracking macros and apply it to life beyond tracking. You can begin to build more self-trust and use the knowledge you’ve developed to make choices that support your goals without relying on your food scale or tracking app.

Tracking macros is like reading a textbook. It involves the down-and-dirty numbers. Tracking macros can help you learn more about what is in your food and teach you what portion sizes look like. Tracking can also allow you to confidently answer, “What is the optimal choice for me, given my goals and options?”

After spending some time tracking, however, you can put your textbook away and use what you’ve learned in everyday life through intuitive and intentional eating.

Intuitive Eating

Now we’ll introduce the principles of intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating asks you to listen to and honor all body signals at all times—no matter what. It asks you to respect true hunger and fullness cues. Developing and honing these skills takes time, practice—and a whole lot of self-trust.

Intuitive eating is a long-term approach to eating, especially if you’re wondering if macros are forever.

Intuitive eating might be right for you if:

  • You’ve already reached your health, body composition, and performance goals.
  • You’ve gone through the learning period of tracking macros and intentional eating.
  • You’re focused on improving your relationship with food and trusting your body. 

Things to watch out for when eating intuitively: 

  • Emotional eating. Food decisions are often tied to emotions. During an emotional time, we may think we’re hungry (or not hungry) and either over- or under-eat.
  • Hunger vs. appetite: Intuitive eaters need confidence in their ability to distinguish true physical hunger vs. appetite that has been created by an outside stimulus (like a strong emotion or seeing/smelling food).

Intentional Eating

eating bridges the gap between tracking and intuitive eating.

This is often a shorter-term approach to eating that allows you to stay aware of what your body is asking for and honor those needs in a way that also helps you move toward more specific health goals.

It requires a bit more mindfulness (aka - intention!) with food choices than intuitive eating. For example, if hunger is higher, intentional eating asks you to bring more attention to foods that make you feel fuller instead of denser foods that may leave you more hungry.

Intentional eating tends to be best for:

  • People who are still working towards body composition, health, or performance goals but need a step away from precise tracking for specific reasons, including:
    • A vacation
    • A special occasion
    • Tracking burnout
    • Worldwide health pandemics (oh hey, COVID-19!)
  • People who know that they don’t want to track forever
  • People who feel calm and confident acknowledging hunger/fullness cues and not responding to them right away
  • Those who feel “comfortable” eating when not hungry (while trying to gain mass) or sitting with a bit more hunger (while trying to lose fat)

Things to watch out for with intentional eating:

  • During the transition from tracking to intentional eating, some people may experience a drive to overeat once the accountability of a tracking app is no longer present. Working with a coach and easing into intentional eating can be helpful! 
  • For those trying to lose weight, undereating can occur if an individual wants to “lose weight faster”. This can cause negative metabolic adaptations that slow progress in the long run.
  • For those trying to gain muscle, overeating can occur if an individual wants to “get bigger/stronger, faster”. This can cause more rapid fat gain along with muscle gain.

So, which is right for you?

At WAG, we’ve found that most members spend most of their time using some form of intentional eating. Some of the most common situations we see for those who are putting away their food scales but staying intentional with food choices are: 

  • Women who are pregnant and may need to eat a bit more than they’re used to 
  • Women who need to gain weight to regain a menstrual cycle
  • Men or women who want to put on muscle and need to eat when they’re not hungry
  • Athletes who need to stay fueled for performance and recovery and may need to eat when they’re not hungry
  • Individuals who want to lose fat and may need to sit with a bit more hunger between meals and honor hunger signals at a later time

If you’re feeling a bit of tracking burnout but want to continue working towards your goals, intentional eating may be a great fit. It will help you:

  • Bring greater awareness to your choices
  • Build trust with yourself that you can hold yourself accountable to your choices without an app
  • Keep you moving towards your goals

If you’ve already reached your goal and you’re feeling confident in your ability to listen to hunger and fullness cues (and doing so allows you to maintain at your current body composition or performance output), you’re likely already eating intuitively.

Make sure to stay in communication with your WAG coach if you have any questions about life after tracking. Not part of #teamWAG yet? Working with a coach who will get to know you, your goals, your preferences, and your lifestyle can help you move from tracking to intentional eating to intuitive eating while feeling great in your skin and confident in your choices!

Get a Taste of WAG

The WAG Crash Course is OPEN for enrollment. This 30-day course will teach you the ins and outs of macro tracking, building healthy lifestyle habits and sustaining results without restricting the foods you love. Get personalized macros from a WAG Coach, join the members-only Facebook Group and participate in quarterly Live Q&A sessions with WAG Coaches.

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Posted by Ali Macy
Ali is a born and bred Vermonter who fell in love with nutrition and fitness in her early 20’s and never looked back. She is a coach, blog editor and Program Lead for WAG with a BA in English Literature and a Master's in Nutrition and Human Performance.

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