hunger binge

Is The Concept Of “Intuitive” Eating A Dangerous Myth?

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“When we’re constantly bombarded with food adverts, cheese pulls on social media and Bake Off, it’s hard to know what your body actually craves over what it’s being told to crave,” observes Heidi, a fellow food writer. To put it scientifically, “we are no longer in the natural environment of our hunter gatherer ancestors, where feedback mechanisms for fullness and hunger could operate properly,” says clinical health psychologist Jen Unwin, who specialises in obesity and food addiction. “We live in a crazy food environment which has messed with our appetites and brains.” The problem with refined carbohydrates – the sugar in the chocolate bars and the crisps, but also the white sliced bread and cereal bars – is that they can be highly addictive and affect some people more than others. “Once we’ve eaten something like a doughnut, we get a dopamine and serotonin high – so when we come across doughnuts in future we get a dopamine reaction before we even eat them. We crave them when we want to feel better.” Some people can moderate their response, can have one original glazed and move on with their lives. Yet for those whose metabolism has been damaged by sugar addiction or overeating, “moderation will never be the answer, any more than it is for an alcoholic”. Telling them it is, is just setting them up for a fall. “The advice is nice, but for some people it will be impossible. And if it’s impossible, it’s disheartening,” she continues.

For Gary Taubes, journalist and co-founder of the non-profit Nutrition Science Initiative, advising people to eat intuitively is “another variation of advising people to eat in moderation. It’s advice from thin people, who think the reason they’re thin is because they eat in moderation and exercise, when that may not have any real relevance to those of us who aren’t thin.” In fact, according to Taubes – who has devoted 20 years and four painstakingly researched books to the subject – the conventional wisdom that overweight people should simply “eat less and move more” is woefully misguided. “People who are lean are lean genetically, just as people who put on weight easily are physiologically disposed to do so. It’s genetic, and the only way they can control it is by avoiding carbohydrates,” he continues. “Obesity is not a disorder of gluttony, but of hormone regulation. Fat accumulation is primarily regulated by the hormone insulin, and if you are one of those people who needs to minimise their insulin levels , a low-carb diet is the only thing that works.”

The science behind this is as complicated as it is intriguing. Yet it is its relevance to intuitive eating that I’m keen to explore. If, as Taubes says, the problem for some people is refined carbohydrates, then intuitive eating is as useful to them as it is to people with food allergies. We should be very wary of promoting “psychological cures for physiological problems”, he points out. My lactose-intolerant friend craves cheese often, but following her intuition to chow down on cheddar makes as much sense as someone who struggles with insulin regulation mainlining muffins.

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