When “listen to your body” is bad advice


The other day, a friend asked me about Intuitive Eating, which turns out to be a name-brand version of the idea one should listen to their body and its natural hunger signals to determine how much food to eat instead of counting calories or otherwise monitoring food intake.

Setting aside the fact that you really shouldn’t be able to brand and market the idea ‘listen to your body’, it’s bad advice.

I get why it’s popular. ‘Listen to your body’ makes intuitive sense. Intuitive Eating argues that behaviors that give us the best chance of long term survival get encoded into our genes and passed on from generation to generation, which is not particularly controversial or even incorrect premise; that’s how evolution works.

Therefore, they say, whatever weight our bodies decide to be is best, whatever foods our bodies crave are best, and whatever activities our bodies feel we should do are best — after all, those intuitive impulses are what kept us alive up to this point.

This would be great advice if we were still eating the things that we evolved eating, and behaving in the ways we evolved behaving, but we aren’t. ‘Listening to your body’ doesn’t work because our food intuition developed in a world vastly different than the one we live in now.

Massive industrial farms. High-calorie foods in functionally unlimited qualities. These are not inherently bad things, but they are 100% not the same as the world we evolved in—or even our world of 150 years ago. In 1870, each farmer produced the food for five people; now, each farmer produces for seventy. Since 1909, the amount of meat and cooking oil available to us has more or less doubled.

Even modern-day fruit is a veritable sugar bomb — it’s been selectively bred to be massive and sweet, not to be high in beneficial micronutrients — a honeycrisp apple has something like 100x the sugar of a ‘wild’ crabapple. The same goes for the carbohydrate and calorie content of corn, potatoes, and virtually every grain as compared to its wild ancestors.

Hell, we’ve only had the idea of farming for 12,000 years; less than 5% of our time on this earth as a species.

In our modern environment, our highly developed intuitive systems go absolutely fucking haywire. The quality and quantity of the food we have access to is so radically different than what we evolved to deal with that our biological signals no longer can be trusted.

Back when we didn’t know when our next meal was coming (and the only way to get it was to go out and hunt or gather it ourselves), eating as much as possible of the most calorie-dense things as possible made sense. We could store the excess as fat for the inevitable moment when food became scarce again.

But today, food is never scarce. I can walk 100 yards from my front door and buy all of the calories I need for the day at the corner store for about $4.50, as long as I’m content with those calories being almost entirely fat and sugar. These foods are not only cheap enough to be functionally free, they hotwire our intuitive systems in a way that makes us literally crave them. If you listen to your body, it will tell you that eating an entire package of Oreos in one sitting is a great idea, because your body’s intuition also thinks you may not get any more food for the rest of the day or even week. It can’t adapt to modern times.

So what’s the solution? How should you eat, if you shouldn’t listen to your body? Two answers:

  1. either listen to your body, but only eat things that your body can make intuitive sense of,
  2. or eat whatever you want but measure what you eat.

It’s no accident that basically every successful ‘diet’ falls somewhere on this spectrum. “Paleo” (when done correctly), “Primal”, “Bulletproof,” and most other low/”Slow”-carb diets are all examples of categorically restrictive diets. They re-establish your body’s ability to self regulate by limiting food choice to things that your body can intuitively understand, at least most of the time (no one should feel the need to “eat perfectly” 100% of the time, and the better examples of these diet plans understand this and account for it).

Weight watchers, calorie-counting plans, and the ‘we prepare the food for you’ services are quantitatively restrictive diets that use calorie math to figure out how much food you need in a day, and then measure intake to make sure you eat that much.

Both strategies work, if you follow them. But if you rely on your intuition in a world it wasn’t designed to understand, you’re gonna have a bad time.