Will Intuitive Eating Save you?

Intuitive Eating has had a good press. There are many Nutritionists and Therapists who describe themselves as Intuitive Eating informed.   It is the basis for the Health at Every size movement which is against weight-loss -dieting and this can only be a good thing because dieting is a bad thing, we all agree about that. Don’t we?

Many therapists who follow Attachment Theories of overeating are on this bandwagon, suggesting that, among other things, we allow and guide clients to reconnect to the natural wisdom of the body, helping people to narrow the gap between how they eat now,  and  what might be more healthy.

Some people who blog about  binge eating declare that anything they put in their mouth is OK and that could be helpful to deal with shame. Dividing food into good and bad isn’t helpful. But is that right?  It might serve people better to be nudged away from UPF even if it comes in a packet with trees on the cover, suggesting that this food is a healthy choice.

Babies – by and large- are intuitive eaters. Very young children feeding “ad libitum” (freely) , go for the strangest food combinations from one day to the next.  but over time their nutritional intake evens out and they seem, as if by magic, to eat the nutrients they need. 

But according to Bee Wilson, a food author, children lose that intuitive wisdom of eating by the age of 7 onwards. They are more likely to be “cued” to external signals like what food is available and whether it tastes nice.  It doesn’t help that our culture is full of attractive food that is designed to override our natural appetite, so it simply doesn’t make sense that in such a culture it is possible to eat intuitively any diet that could be regarded as “healthful”. There is simply too much “food noise” around us deafening our eating common sense.

Writing about deafness reminds me of other things that make it difficult to call upon the so-called natural wisdom of the body.  Most of us have some idea of what we should be eating (in theory) but it simply doesn’t happen, whether we are dieting or not. The neurological factors that affect our appetite, our body weight and ability to be appropriately satisfied after eating, depend  on many factors that are out of our control. Our eating drives are driven in part by our genes, our past and current history of eating and even our mother’s eating habits while we are in the womb.

Many people suffer “deafness” of a tiny area of the brain called the hypothalamus. This structure is like a thermostat  to monitor whether we have eaten enough or have enough fat on our bodies for the moment.  The hypothalamus listens for Leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells. Years of overeating makes the hypothalamus deaf to Leptin. We would be driven “intuitively “ to eat more than we need and we would be unable to stop eating even when we have had “enough”.

To rebalance the hypothalamus takes more than giving up dieting and certainly doesn’t mean eating whatever you fancy. I will write more about this later.  Treating hypothalamic obesity is complex.   

To add to the picture, we are designed to need pleasure from food as well as nutrients. The part of the brain involved in eating pleasure is called the Opioid centre. If our healthy diet doesn’t taste good, we have to  keep on eating. And people who have eaten badly for years have destroyed their capacity to get pleasure from normal amounts of food. Giving up dieting will not solve this problem and people will not be able to engage in intuitive eating without targeted help. So, one might ask, what kind of help does this imply?  Giving up dieting? Eating what you like without shame? Neither of these suggestions will work.

 As an idea or concept, “Intuitive eating” sounds nice and cosy but how can we get to this point?   Even the healthiest food that we ingest, such as salmon,  if farmed, may be contaminated by additives that are designed to cheat the neural systems controlling our appetite and our weight.  

Hard as it is for  people we are trying to nudge away from food rules, we have to give our clients an eating plan that at the very least regulates blood sugar and that also provides UPF-free nutritional density. But even with nutritional perfection, we cannot ignore the huge role played by psychology. Our eating choices are driven by more than physiology. Our desires are shaped by our childhood, our emotions, our self-esteem, our family systems and much more.

So the bottom line is,  nutritional therapists trying to help a client to “eat intuitively” are advised to work  alongside a specialist psychotherapist.  Binge eating bloggers may need to think twice about making it OK to eat anything we like. People need targeted help, not just strokes and platitudes. It takes more than the principles of Intuitive Eating to change a person’s relationship with food and weight from the inside out.