If someone told you that your body always knows best and to trust what it’s telling you, there’s a chance your body might tell you it absolutely, 100% needs two scoops of ice cream and a glass of wine to take the edge off tonight. And possibly tomorrow. Maybe forever.
There’s been a lot of buzz around “intuitive eating” and the anti-diet movement in the last few years and, without a doubt, “dieting” as we’ve come to know it carries its fair share of toxicity. The word “diet” has been riddled with negative connotations since it first became mainstream in the early 1900s but, at its core, a diet is simply defined as the kinds of food that a person, animal or community habitually eats.* The “diet” we’re more familiar with today though refers to an eating pattern commonly associated with restriction and frequently in extremes for the purpose of weight loss.
Enter intuitive eating, the body positive answer to all that ails the common “diet.” The idea is to focus on listening to internal cues and nourishing your body in accordance with what you perceive it to need while honoring your hunger and fullness signals and rejecting dieting mentality altogether.
It sounds pretty awesome at face value but there’s a tiny flaw in this intuitive equation - the aptly named SAD: Standard American Diet. For the purposes of this article, let SAD represent the over-processed, under-nourished diet of the developed, western world as a whole and not just the US.
The SAD diet is full of food that’s been so heavily processed it’s no longer called food. It’s now referred to as “edible products generally regarded as safe for consumption” by the FDA. I’ll let you sit with that for a moment.
A few SAD facts that punch big holes in the intuitive eating sail:
One hallmark of processed food is the use of emulsifiers: substances used to stabilize an edible product and give it a more desirable texture. Emulsifiers can be found in everything from salad dressing to peanut butter and pasta. Sneak a peak at how many things in your kitchen have any sort of “lecithin” on the ingredients list.
The problem is, emulsifiers do nasty things to our gut, like erode its lining. As a result, the satiety (fullness) receptors that live in the lining of our gut and let our brain know when it’s time to eat, when to put the fork down and whether our nutritional needs have been met, are forced to recede deep into the lining for protection and are no longer able to effectively communicate with our brain.
If a major part of the system we depend on to guide our eating behavior is suddenly disabled, how are we supposed to trust our gut to make informed decisions surrounding food?
THE SWEET SPOT
Those satiety receptors we beat into submission earlier? They were also driving the portion control bus. And now that they’re out of the picture, emulsifiers team up with their friends, artificial sweeteners, to wreak havoc on your hunger hormones.
See, our bodies are programmed to seek out glucose, a vital nutrient critical to our survival in the right proportions. In fact, as hunter-gatherers, glucose was so rare and so important that our bodies came up with a way of rewarding us for obtaining it - releasing dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, motivation and learning. Historically, when we found natural sources of glucose like wild berries, our bodies would reward us by releasing dopamine, making us happy, which motivated us to repeat that action and taught us that it’s actually really important for our survival.
Fast forward through the agricultural and industrial revolutions and glucose scarcity isn’t even close to the top of the list of our modern woes but the pleasure center of our brain hasn’t evolved in 50,000 years so we still respond to glucose in the same way - with a reward.
I know what you’re thinking, “wait, didn’t you start this rant talking about artificial sweeteners?” You’re right, and I’m glad you’re paying attention because here’s the point: Artificial sweeteners momentarily trick our brain into thinking it’s receiving real sugar (glucose) and this tells our pancreas to release insulin, a signaling hormone designed to direct glucose into cells.
The problem is, when the glucose doesn’t show up, we suddenly have an excess of insulin in our blood that got all dressed up with nowhere to go. This excess insulin also messes with our satiety signals, further hindering our ability to tell if we’re hungry.
Because of of this, humans are notoriously terrible at guesstimating nutrient intake. Eat too much and we see unwanted weight gain with a slew of side effects. Eat too little though and we see a slower metabolism with its own gang of issues. Finding the sweet spot of nutrient consumption requires more than an under-educated guess. It requires tracking.
Whether you’ve been working in a sedentary office environment for 20 years and put on as many pounds or you earned an extra 30 performing the magic trick of creating human life, reaching any goal requires both structure and accountability - two things decidedly lacking in intuitive eating.
While intuitive eating promotes body positivity and self-acceptance - two things no one who loves you should ever argue against - it simply lacks the framework needed to achieve specific health goals.
By tracking our food intake, we can set realistic goals, monitor progress, and hold ourselves accountable. It enables us to make mindful choices aligned with our individual health objectives, whether that be weight management, muscle gain, or dietary adjustments for specific health conditions.
EMOTIONAL SUPPORT FOOD IS THE NEW PET
Another pitfall of intuitive eating is the potential difficulty in identifying triggers and patterns related to our eating habits. Ever get a stressful email and find yourself reaching for a snack? Or maybe you pass the break room on the way back from the restroom every day and snag a treat from the community candy bowl just because it’s there.
We believe that we truly want the snack but what we actually crave is the distraction from a stressful situation or the comfort of a pattern - remember that dopamine release we talked about earlier? Snacking is a shortcut to temporary happiness that distracts us from the root of what triggered the action in the first place.
Tracking our food intake helps us become more self-aware and recognize connections between our emotional states, external stimuli, and eating behaviors. This awareness empowers us to overcome emotional eating, mindless snacking, or other unhealthy patterns that may be depriving us of optimal health.
While intuitive eating is a valuable concept that encourages us to reconnect with our bodies and cultivate a healthier relationship with food, it's important to recognize that it’s an acquired skill. In 2020, a 73,000 person study spanning 33 countries led by Dr. Magnus Simrén found that nearly 40% of adults were suffering from a gastrointestinal disorder. Those are only adults who have been diagnosed with a GI disorder - but let me ask you this: have you ever felt bloated after a meal? It might surprise you to hear that that isn’t normal, it’s just common, so we dismiss it without a second thought. For the record, however, the only thing you should feel after a meal, is full.
If our gut can’t reliably tell our brain what it needs, then we’ve first got to put in the work to get our mind and body communicating effectively. Tracking our food intake is an incredibly valuable tool we can use to renew gut health, balance our hormones and manage our nutritional needs. Once we’ve found our way back to balance, THEN we can truly feel comfortable trusting our gut to take the wheel.