diets · eating · fat · overeating · weight loss

Listen to your body, yes, but with a skeptical ear….

Tracy has written lots about what works for her when it comes to food choices. Listening to her body rather than following a strict diet plan is the main piece of that. (See her post on intuitive eating.) She’s also not interested in seeking the advice of sports nutritionists (see here.) Largely she thinks our bodies know what they need and listening to our bodies is both healthier and less alienating than ‘mediated eating.’ We should eat what we want not what the latest diet plan or diet guru tells us to eat. See her post on fad diets here.

We hear this same idea from others too. According to Amber at Go Kaleo, we should listen to our bodies and let them guide us.

Our bodies are not the enemies. I like that as a slogan. The thing is I’m convinced my body is not my enemy. But I’m also not convinced it’s always my best friend either.

That said, I’m not as angry at my body as eat, drink, and run is. I’m not as amusing either. She explains why she doesn’t listen to her body in these terms:

“Because my body is kind of a little bitch.  Yep, this body is all about guarding its own shortsighted interests.  Go for a run, body?  Noooo…I asked the legs, they’d rather take a rest day! Eat some of that broccoli?  Noooo…taste buds want ice cream instead! Get out of bed and go to work?  Oh…I consulted the epidermis and it says that these warm covers feel just fine, so we’re staying put, KTHXBAI.” 

Go read the rest here. It’s very funny.

Mostly I’m in agreement with the intuitive eating idea, especially the claims that we need to make peace with food and end restrictive dieting.  I think self trust matters for women’s autonomy. Casting aside the advice of experts is liberating.

These experts tend to target women with their advice and treat us as incompetent idiots. They create incompetence and then sell products to fix the problem.

Like the woman centred childbirth movement–if you feel like walking around in labour, walk around– the intuitive eating approach teaches women that we know what’s best for our own health.

Shut out the outside noise–whether the noise is fast food advertising or nutritional advice from experts–slow down and feed your self when you’re hungry, stop before you’re full, and eat foods that appeal to you.

What’s great about trusting your body, especially for women, is its radical potential. And as I’ve said, I think lots about this is right but here I want to raise some doubts about intuitive eating, at least as it applies to my life.

The worries I have been be divided into two categories, the internal and the external.

First, let’s look at the internal issues with intuitive approaches to eating.

Our bodies often want things that aren’t the best for us. That seems obvious to me and there is an easy explanation of why this is so. In evolutionary terms death by starvation was a much more likely bad outcome than the health risk of being overweight, especially prior to childbirth years. We are creatures geared for feast and famine times living in an environment of all feast, all the time. We’re not wrong or mistaken to want to eat whenever food presents itself. Until very recently in human history that desire would have served us very well.

Our bodies also aren’t unitary desiring machines either. There are conflicts between well being for different bits of our bodies. What’s good for our brain may not be so good for our thighs. Our brain’s desire for sugar is fascinating and it’s in clear conflict with what’s best for us overall. See “Why our brains love sugar and why our bodies don’t,” here, in Psychology Today.

It seems to me to be a very romantic view of embodiment to think our bodies know what’s best. I’ve written before about the variety of ways that our bodies undercut our best efforts. See this post about our bodies scheming against our weight loss efforts.

Second, let’s look at the external factors. There is no ‘what I want’ separate from my environment. I crave cupcakes, when I crave cupcakes, because I’m in a cupcake heavy time and place. There are many places and times where I might have lived where I’d never crave cupcakes. Would I have wanted something else? Sure. I don’t crave or eat meat but in much of the world not eating meat wouldn’t be an option and probably I’d come to desire it.

On a smaller scale now this is true about the environment I create for myself. I don’t like potato chips very much and I don’t buy them or bring them into my house. But if they’re there I come perversely to want them. Our desire for food isn’t separate from our environment. And I think this is especially true for food that’s designed, like cigarettes, to be addictive. I’m looking forward to reading Salt, Sugar, Fat reviewed here in the Guardian.

My next post in habits and environmental cues looks at how we might intervene and help ourselves make better choices.

Here’s what intuitive approaches get right. We don’t do as badly as we imagine we’d do if all food is available and nothing is off limits. And I think it’s right that lots of over eating stems from restricting our diets. Certain foods are held up to be both magically bad and desirable. And highly restrictive diets are destructive for just this reason.

But, for me at least, intuitive eating isn’t perfect either. After days without vegetables I come to crave them it’s true. But I doubt that left to my own desires I’d come to want enough green things. I also think that in small amounts we might eat more than we need in some cases and less in others. My own examples come from sports performance, not eating enough when I’m racing and eating too much on days when I do long slow rides. My appetite isn’t a reliable guide to what I need to eat to perform well.

Okay, what can we do? I think small changes in behavior and in our environment can make a difference. What sort of changes? These will be the topic of my next blog post.

Note it may turn out that for you, even small restrictions bring to mind the full on serious restrictions of heavy duty during, the way that tracking and nutrition counseling affected Tracy. If that’s right then I agree it’s best to stick with intuitive eating as a way of recovering from a history of dieting.

But as I’ve said in a few blog posts, it’s part of my goal to get leaner and to improve my nutrition. I’ll be listening to my body too but with a critical ear and strategizing about ways to get it what it wants while still meeting my goals and changing my eating habits.

Further reading:

When listening to your body doesn’t work, Part 1

When listening to your body doesn’t work, Part 2

(Mark’s Daily Apple)

Nia Shanks: Ditch the diet rules, listen to your body for optimal health

The most effective diet: listening to your body

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7 thoughts on “Listen to your body, yes, but with a skeptical ear….

  1. I was thinking about you guys this morning as since reading your post on ‘good and evil’ food it really has changed my mindset. It’s like a little switch has been flicked in my brain – I’m no longer approaching every single meal with my internal assessment form on fat, sugar, carbs content etc! I’m just enjoying the food I like and the meals I’m eating. That’s been a couple of weeks now – cheers ladies.

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  2. I lost a lot of weight quickly on a dr-ordered low-carb diet two years ago but (sorry to admit) was furious and resentful the whole time and, of course, re-gained the weight. In early February I decided to lose weight again (being 55 makes it a lot more difficult) and am doing it my way: smaller portions, fewer carbs, more exercise and much less (sigh) alcohol. People forget it isn’t just food!

    We also forget (or choose to deny) what effect stress has on our food/drink choices. While we know intellectually that a steady diet of low/no carbs and tons of green vegetables is healthy, it’s just damn boring and offers many of us little pleasure. And a life without pleasure is not one that works for very long, no matter how healthy it makes us.

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  3. One time, my body told me that drinking an entire bottle of gin in a single evening was what it needed. The problem is that it changed it’s mind the very next day! Yes, it’s good to listen to our bodies, but we know that they are sometimes very fickle. 🙂

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  4. Another useful intuitive eating….is eating to feel 80% full. Assumes one is eating a balanced meal. This informal benchmark has been used for various diets ..including Okinawan diet…which I don’t adhere. I just read it and realized that’s I feel for the times I feel ‘right’ after eating.

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