The Problem with Intuitive Eating
Updated: Aug 17
...is that the majority of our population should not be...as their current metabolic status stands. And it's not "diet culture" to say so. Given the poor metabolic health of the average American, intuitive eating is not something to dive straight into. Intuitive Eating may be the most recent darling of the healthcare and diet industry, promoting a "listen to your body" approach to better health. This is wonderful and a breath of fresh air..in theory. No restrictions, no counting everything you put into your mouth, no following really weird rules...etc. Intuitive eating as a means to optimal health is totally possible and preferable. BUT only if you are metabolically healthy and actually in tune with your body's cues and needs. Unfortunately, less that 7% of the population is. Intuitive eating has a few glaring flaws. It assumes that 1) people actually know how to listen to their body 2) that people are metabolically healthy and stable 3) people will naturally gravitate toward the "healthy" options and 4) our genes match our current environment. 1-3 are untrue for over 93% of our population and 4 is untrue for 100% of the population.
Your genes change about 2% every 2000 years. It is not a design flaw that you crave the high sugar, high fat, high caloric, hyper palatable foods that you do. It's essential for survival. The disconnect is that those high sugar, high fat, high caloric foods thousands of years ago were not the same foods that are available to us 24/7 today. Thousands of years ago it was a good idea (aka a survival mechanism) to eat as much of these foods as possible when they were available, because of the uncertainty of a next meal. It was also beneficial to be able to seek these types of foods out. It is not your fault that you crave these foods. It's an essential component of your biological makeup. Today there is an entire profession devoted to making foods more palatable and lighting up the reward pathways in our brains. But these foods today do not have the same effect on our bodies and biochemistry, that the foods which lit up the same reward systems in our brains thousands of years ago did. They are not the same nutrient dense foods that we would have sought out thousands of years ago.
The issue with intuitive eating here is that while you'd be intuitively listening to what your body is wanting, you'd be reaching for ultra-processed and hyper palatable things that your body does not need. Craving hyper palatable foods is natural, the majority of what is available to us today is not. Without being able to listen to our bodies and give it the nutrients that it's asking for, i.e. what those foods would have delivered to use thousands of years ago, we perpetuate the problem by reaching for ultra-processed alternatives that are devoid of nutrients. These ultra-processed foods are also engineered to be addictive- there's an entire profession around it. Without understanding what nutrients those cues are asking for, intuitive eating will perpetuate your problem.
Now let's turn to the issue of metabolic health. Less than 1 in 15 Americans are metabolically healthy. There are a lot of layers here and many many factors, but for the sake of this post, we'll tackle the simplest issue-the diet industry and consequent unsuccessful efforts to lose weight permanently which can result in metabolic health issues. Unfortunately when it comes to weight loss, the majority of people trying to lose weight treat the body like a simple stick figure sketch, not understanding the complexities of the human body. It is possible to lose weight and keep it off longterm, but that's a topic for another post.
Two terms that you need to understand in order to understand the larger issue about how weight loss when approached the wrong way can effect metabolic health are Homeostasis and Metabolic Adaption:
Homeostasis: self-regulating processes by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival. I.e a stable internal environment. Your body strives to constantly be in homeostasis, which means that your body wants to maintain whatever weight it is currently at because that’s what is currently stable.
Metabolic Adaptation: the process by which the body alters how efficient it is at turning the food you eat into energy. Your body adapts to the amount of energy it is being given. When you keep restricting that energy, your metabolism slows down to keep other processes operating as optimally as possible (i.e. to maintain a state of homeostasis).
Your body is a homeostasis machine. When you lose or gain weight, your body up regulates or down regulates different pathways to compensate and keep you at your current weight. This is why you eventually plateu in a caloric deficit & can’t keep making progress. As your body up regulates and down regulates different pathways to maintain homeostasis, your caloric deficit becomes your caloric maintenance, which means that to keep losing weight you have to keep dropping your calories, eventually giving yourself nowhere to go.
Your body has slowed down your metabolism to adapt to a new caloric low, so that you stop burning as many calories & are no longer in a deficit. And eventually your “cutting calories” become your maintenance calories. Your body has adapted to your constant efforts to lose weight, thus making it harder to lose weight. If you're in this situation, and you try to intuitively eat, you will be "intuitively" eating less because certain pathways and hormonal cues have been down regulated. Thus, your intuitive eating will keep your metabolism slow. A slow metabolism is not a broken metabolism. Metabolic adaptation works in the opposite direction. You can slowly & methodically increase your caloric intake to compensate for a calorie surplus, i.e. you can maintain your current weight on a high energy intake.
When you're maintaining weight on a high caloric intake, pathways are balanced, and your hormones are happy, then you can make potentially make the switch to intuitive eating because now your hunger hormones and cravings will more accurately reflect what you actually need. In the efforts to lose weight quickly, most Americans have really done a number on their metabolism. For most Americans, their metabolism is not in a place where they can successfully intuitively eat for health. There are many many layers to this topic and using intuitively eating to achieve optimal health is absolutely possible and definitely preferable, but it's not as simple as it has been made out to be.
Telling someone to "just intuitively eat" is like telling someone in poverty that they just need to find a few a hundred bucks and they'll be set. It's not helpful and it skips a few steps. While it might seem like the "anti-diet" culture thing to do, it's not anti-diet if it drives someone to pursue another diet because their health concerns aren't fixed. Like nearly all things, arriving at a place where intuitively eating will lead you to a place of optimal health takes time. And it could take a lot of time depending on your background, how you've dieted in the past, your metabolic health history...etc.
While intuitively eating to reach optimal health is awesome in theory, it assumes things that do not apply to the majority of Americans as their current health stands. In order for intuitive eating to lead to living a life of health and abundance, we must first address our personal metabolic regulatory issues and take the steps necessary to understand our bodies' hormonal cues. We have to do the hard work first.
Statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or any other medical body. I do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.