Why intuitive eating doesn’t work in our ‘sweet shop’ world

Listen to your appetite. Eat what you feel like eating, when you feel like it. This appears to be the cornerstone of ‘intuitive eating’ – the new, trendy way to eat yourself to your ideal weight and better health. Of course, there’s nothing new at all about intuitive eating. All animals, including humans, have been eating intuitively since…well…forever. It’s the way we’re all wired to eat. But is it actually a healthy way to eat? Well, it depends on your food environment.

The idea for this article came from the Dear Dolly column in the Sunday Times Magazine from 11 October 2020. If you’re a subscriber, you can read the piece here.

There are, no doubt, many different interpretations of ‘intuitive eating’ – which is part of the problem – but I’m going to use Dolly’s here, seen as she was recommending it.

“Intuitive eating is about tuning into your body, listening to what it wants and responding compassionately. It’s about quieting the chatter you’ve been absorbing your whole life – the contradictory rules and convoluted calorie counting – and instead focus on the requirements of your appetite and tastes.”

Dolly’s right about one thing. Forced calorie restriction (traditional diet advice) doesn’t work for most people in the long-term. Calorie intake is ultimately determined by appetite. How hungry or full we feel during and between meals.

But we can’t just rely on our appetites to guide our food intake, without considering our food environment. Intuitive eating in a sweet shop will be an entirely different journey – with entirely different health outcomes – to intuitive eating in a greengrocer.

Human appetite regulation is a complex system forged in the fires of evolution. Shaped through a long struggle to survive in an environment of uncertain, often scarce, and invariably quite bland, food. Appetite is not a reliable partner in a world of super tasty, calorie dense, always available, convenience food.

Dolly goes on.

“If you can find a way to eat intuitively, without any cycles of restriction and reward, your body will find its way to the weight where it is naturally most comfortable.”

True. But your calorie intake and your body’s (or, more accurately, your brain’s) ‘naturally most comfortable’ weight will be different in different food environments. The evidence is pretty clear on this.

The type of food available is an important driver. In a randomised controlled trial from 2019, intuitive eating (called ‘ad libitum food intake’ in nutrition research) in an environment of only unprocessed food, for two weeks, led to people reducing calorie intake and losing weight. Giving the same people access to only ultra-processed food for two weeks led to increased calorie intake (500 Calories per day more than in the unprocessed food environment) and weight gain.

The visibility and convenience of food are also influential factors. In a 2002 study, having chocolates on the desk at work (visible and convenient) resulted in office workers eating 50% more chocolates a day than when the chocolates were in a desk drawer (convenient but not visible), and nearly three times more chocolates a day than when the chocolates were on a shelf two metres away (visible but not convenient).

Intuitive eating is an attractive proposition. In fact, it’s what all humans naturally do. But relying entirely on appetite to guide our food intake, without considering our food environment, may take us somewhere we don’t want to go.

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