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The intuitive eating fad: is it healthy to always eat what your body asks for?


Highlights: The #intuitiveeating tag has more than two million posts on Instagram. The movement proposes putting aside diet culture and judgments about food and on our own bodies. In 1939, what seems to be the first attempt to try to find out if humans were capable of choosing foods intuitively and correctly was published. This “nutritional intelligence” does appear in animals, which adapt their food choices based on the specific nutrients they need at any given time, writes Anna Mayer. It may be that the foods with the greatest amount of micronutrients are the tastiest, she says.

The 'intuitive eating' trend proposes abandoning diet culture with an apparently reasonable proposal, but one that fails in an environment full of ultra-processed foods.

Being omnivores is an advantage because we are adapted to eating an immense variety of foods, but here the famous “dilemma” also appears, which we can summarize as: “if I can eat almost anything, what do I eat?”

Stressed by having too many options, what would happen if our body wisely directed us to choose what we need at any given moment?

Matter resolved!

We just have to let ourselves go.

I wish it were that easy.



tag has more than two million posts on Instagram, and it may seem that some research provides scientific support to definitively support “intuitive eating,” a movement that proposes putting aside diet culture and judgments about food and on our own bodies.

In studies like this one, it is defined as the practice that involves us eating when we are hungry and stopping eating when we are full, without dietary restrictions.

It seeks to make us relax, to be more compassionate with ourselves and to achieve this, its fundamental principle is that we regain contact with our hunger and satiety signals.

But why does “the body ask us” for sugar, ice cream, or a hamburger and by chance we never die for a plate of sautéed chard or get up in the middle of a movie to grab celery sticks?

Do we have innate “nutritional intelligence”?

In 1939, what seems to be the first attempt to try to find out if humans were capable of choosing foods intuitively and correctly was published.

Pediatrician Clara Davis followed 15 children who were between six and 11 months old at the beginning of the study for six years, who were given a choice between 33 foods.

By our current standards, the experiment would be difficult to defend before an ethics committee, taking into account that the children were given away by mothers who could not support them, some were malnourished at the beginning of the research (and may have taken to eating sweetened milk and potatoes during mid-childhood).

It turned out that the children chose well, made good combinations and reached the end of the study with good development.

Even in another sample that oscillates between dubious ethics and downright criminal, a child who had severe rickets was offered cod liver oil (due to its high vitamin D content) without being forced to take it.

What happened?

That the boy drank such an attack on the palate but only during the time it took him to recover: when he improved, he ignored the concoction.

Since then and until today, not much progress has been made in this area: there are studies that show our preference for foods rich in energy or macronutrients - proteins or combinations of fats and carbohydrates - but regarding the preference based on micronutrients, everything was field.

Until recently two researchers, Jeffrey Brunstrom and Mark Schatzker, set out to follow that route to find out if we have something like "nutritional wisdom" that would lead us to choose foods based not on their caloric value, but on their vitamin content. , minerals and other minor compounds.

The sweet potato can be changed for carrots or pumpkinAnna Mayer

The proposal aims to go to the root, to provide light to understand what the “universal dietary factors” are, which these same authors define in the study

Is human nutritional intelligence underestimated?

Expose food composition sensitivities in everyday dietary decisions

as those basic principles that guide our food choices, leaving out such crucial parameters as social determinants and context.

Animals do have it

This “nutritional intelligence” does appear in animals, which adapt their food choices based on the specific nutrients they need at any given time.

Even a study with primates observed how they managed to adapt their diet to their needs, when the availability of foods rich in minerals was drastically reduced after the passage of a hurricane.

This is what Brunstrom and Schatzker collect to give context to their study

Micronutrients and food choice: a case of “nutritional wisdom” in humans?


in which they asked volunteers to choose pairs of fruits and vegetables.

With the combinations they made, the greatest amount of micronutrients was achieved and, in addition, they were complementary and there was more variety, which occurred even when controlling for biases such as the nutritional knowledge of the volunteers.

But this is not irrefutable proof of our intuitive knowledge, and the researchers themselves recognize limitations.

It may be that the foods with the greatest amount of micronutrients are the tastiest, or that it is the aromatic compounds that indicate the presence of some nutrients and encourage us to eat them (something that the industry knows very well and uses to its advantage). when designing the aroma of ultra-processed foods).

The ultrapalatability of processed foods tricks usKilito Chan (Getty Images)

What exactly is “intuitive choice” in humans?

It is unknown what the mechanism by which we are able to make intuitive choices would be. Could it be that there are physiological signals that push us to do so?

For example, they propose that if our iron levels drop and we eat foods rich in this mineral, positive physiological changes would occur that would lead us to repeat that choice.

Have you just found the reason why your body craves red meat like there's no tomorrow?

Aren't you craving a can of mussels?

Well, if your body is wise, you should, because they have five times more iron than chops, and six times more than beef.

The cultural factor cannot be ignored: gastronomic wisdom is passed from generation to generation and there are combinations that seem normal to us, while others are considered a culinary aberration.

The origin of these combinations may come from the learning of our ancestors in times of scarcity and nutritional deficits, or that natural selection benefited those who made food choices favorable to survival.

It is not a definitive investigation, but it is an interesting first step to know if we have that natural wisdom.

A (apparently) reasonable proposal in an uncontrollable context

The first obstacle on the road is related to the characteristics of the food, which, in the end, is the factor that is studied in research on “nutritional intelligence” as a trigger for choosing one food or another.

Research on our “nutritional wisdom” finds fairly consistent evidence that, when we are faced with foods made with recognizable raw materials and with which we are familiar, that nutritional intelligence does appear that makes us capable of identifying those that have more nutrients and energy, those that will produce greater satiety.

In this case, we can choose better, but it seems that the intuitive system is blocked when what we have in front of us are designer foods (as we saw in

Check to taste: how ultra-processed foods alter our palate


The second obstacle is that our food choices are totally conditioned by social, cultural, family or economic factors that we already talked about in

Who wants, can't: why obesity affects the poorest

or the

precarious and overweight: this is how the risk of obesity increases


Choices subject to an obesogenic environment that encourages us to eat in any circumstance and makes the most harmful foods for our health within reach wherever we are - from school or work environments to health centers - while making access to healthy foods difficult.

An environment that seeks to explode our intake control system or the signals of hunger and satiety with advertising and ubiquitous location of extremely palatable, attractive and pleasurable foods that make it very difficult for us to stop eating: Who has not said "this It's the last potato I'll eat, seriously” before finishing the whole bag?

It's not a matter of will (and the industry has come to brag about it).

Robust scientific evidence on this new intuitive eating paradigm is scarce and tells us of limited success, if any, because it clashes with reality when it is transferred from theory to practice (as an example, these systematic reviews 1, 2. 3).

Take the test: if you want to eat something right now, what can you get easily and quickly?

Does your body “ask you” for chocolate?

It is infinitely more likely that it is your head that is “asking you”, and not that your body is sending you physiological signals that it urgently needs cocoa butter or flavanols.

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Source: elparis

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