Eating “intuitively” is an ostensibly commonsense strategy, yet it’s real and perhaps insidious enticement is the suggestion that it’s somehow possible to lose weight without having to exert any conscious effort.
But can it actually work? I honestly think that, for most people, the answer is no. Why? Well, there are two major issues with our “natural,” or default perhaps, dietary intuition:
Firstly, it’s simply way, way too turned up – we’re still genetically calibrated to a prehistoric past where the defining aspect of life was food scarcity, yet now the defining aspect of modern life is the opposite: food abundance. It’s a so called “evolutionary mismatch” problem (credit to Stephan Guyenet for that descriptor), and it’s easy to understand why it leaves us so prone to overeating.
Secondly, it doesn’t actually make sense to take a “natural” approach to an unnatural situation, and the modern food supply is indeed anything but natural. It’s a lot harder to overeat plain apples and potatoes than it is to overeat fast food, or other such foodstuffs that are literally designed to make people want to eat more. This of course compounds the first problem.
Louis C.K. eloquently sums up these issues thusly:
The proof that intuitive eating is largely ineffective, if you even need it, is all around us – most people in the first world who eat with entirely “natural” intuition, meaning more specifically that they don’t employ any kind of systematic or actively mindful restraint, carry excess body fat.
I think the fundamental flaw with the intuitive eating concept is a common misunderstanding of what intuition actually is, and how it thus effectively applies to successful dieting.
Here’s the key: good intuition is, by implied definition, something that’s cultivated and honed via experience, with practice. And that practice must often start with non intuitive methods.
Take riding a bike for example – most of us can do that 100% intuitively, without thinking about it. But when you first learned, you had to actively practice, and chances are your “natural” starting intuition screamed “we shouldn’t be moving on this unstabilized, wobbly apparatus!” You probably had to initially use training wheels or a spotter.
The same logic applies to effective modern day dieting – it’s not some “naturally” intuitive feeling that can be “discovered” within one of the countless health and fitness fads that promises “effortless” weight loss. Rather, it’s cultivated experience that’s reconciled with successful practice, practice which, again, generally must start with non intuitive methods.
To illustrate this point, consider another hypothetical example: someone who counted calories (an obviously non intuitive system) successfully for, say, two years. Suppose they lost excess weight/fat the first year, and subsequently maintained their new weight the second year. Now ask yourself: how much stronger will their “natural” dietary intuition be? A lot strong obviously – it’s now reconciled with learning how much food (read: calories) they actually need, such as it’s substantiated by extensive science. They learned how full that amount of food actually makes them feel, and what it actually looks like on a plate. And they successfully practiced sticking to that amount for two years in whatever way they found to be sustainable – indeed they learned, perhaps with some inevitable trial and error, what does and doesn’t work for them.
Skilled intuitive eaters, meaning people who successfully manage their weight by sort of just “knowing” what they can or can’t eat, are usually people who started off with a non intuitive system (usually calorie counting or some other regimented system of portion control) and stuck with it long enough to achieve success with it. Contrary to much mainstream opinion, intuitive eating is not something that’s dichotomous with non intuitive eating, nor does the latter undermine the former. In fact, one of the best ways to get better and eventually proficient at intuitive eating is to start off with a non intuitive system and to practice it. Much like the best way for a person to get intuitively skilled at bicycle riding is to start off practicing with training wheels or a spotter.
Authors note: Some of the comments here are older because this is an updated/improved version of an older post.