In recent years, talk of “diets” has become verboten in favor of talk about approaching your health via the trajectory of “intuitive eating,” which, at first glance, sounds pretty good, actually. Listen to your wise body, and it will guide you in your eating choices.
The problem I have with this idea is that many of us do not have very wise bodies. I grew up in a family that feasted on white flour, white sugar, preservatives, and low-density lipids to the max. Vegetables were a punishment, fruit that didn’t come in a can a rarity, cheap meats the primary staple of each meal filled in on all sides with simple carbohydrates, tons of starch, and artificial flavoring. Over a young lifetime of eating this way, my tongue has been trained to find this food delicious; my body has been trained to crave these ingredients. But I know a little about addiction and, after examining my addictive behaviors and lifestyle in one arena, I was surprised to see the same patterns in my eating life as well. I was surprised to recognize myself as a junky food addict.
Whether we like it or not, there is a science to eating. I’m not talking about weight loss – calories in, calories out, whatever. Lose weight if you want, but I’m talking about being healthy and not suffering malnutrition. And the truth is, if you eat the way I described above, even if that’s what your body is “craving,” even if you honestly feel that intuitively your body wants you to eat Cheetos and pasta and cake with no produce or rich protein sources in there for variety, your body will suffer malnutrition. That’s not a judgment, that’s not a moral declaration, that’s in no way a condemnation of the joy anyone gets from eating something delicious. That’s just a statement of scientific fact. Your body needs vitamins, nutrients, complex carbohydrates, high density lipids (good fats), and plenty of protein to function: your vital organs need them, your immune system needs them, your brain needs them.
Now, I feel like maybe I’m giving intuitive eating a bad rap, and that’s not quite my intention. A number of physicians and skilled nutritionists advocate for intuitive eating, but I think the problem comes in translation, when a number of people literally decide they are going to eat “intuitively” without educating themselves about what that actually entails. Eating intuitively without training your body to rely on and crave high-nutrient, high-quality foods is like telling a heroin addict to use their best judgment about infant care. That person is chemically incapable of making rational, informed, wise decisions; a person whose body has been trained to crave food lacking in nutritional value is similarly chemically impaired of the ability to trust their own intuitive judgment.
I believe intuitive eating does have a place, but it cannot stand independent of a full nutritional education, nor of the retraining your body requires to learn to crave the things that are actually good for it. It’s true that your body is probably, underneath all that Doritos-loving fervor, actually craving things like whole grains, leafy greens, and lean protein. But trying to hear the whisper of, “Please give me this excellent food” over the shouting of an addicted system screaming, “GIVE ME COOL RANCH OR GIVE ME DEATH!” is – I can tell you from experience – quite the challenge.
Like your intuition about social situations, relationships, and that job you’re not sure you should take, your eating intuition needs strengthening, needs training, needs care. You don’t start off with strong intuition, after all. Life experience, education, and good habits inform a grown intuition as you get older and wiser. So do yourself a favor: set intuitive eating as a goal you will reach, and in the mean time, put on your training wheels, visit a nutritionist, do some research, and make informed choices about what you put into your body. It is beautiful, it is your vessel, and it is worth the pampering that consistent, informed nutrition can give it.