I remember the first time I tried beer. A sip of my Dad’s can of McEwan’s Export. It was bitter and weird tasting and I instantly disliked it. Despite being fascinated as to why adults drank this stuff, I decided it wasn’t for me. It was the same with coffee. On my first try, I hated the odd mouthfeel and acidic aftertaste. Now, the smell of fresh coffee makes my mouth water, and the taste of a cold beer at the end of a long, hot, day is about as good as it gets. My tastes didn’t change over time by chance, my brain wanted me to like these things.
I like to think that my brain has my back, but sadly, he’s in it for himself. While I might have hated my first experience of coffee or beer, my brain soon realised that those two drinks contained drugs that lit up its reward systems like a Christmas tree. Over time, my brain altered my perception of the taste of them from bitter and unpalatable to delicious just so that it could experience the drugs contained in the seemingly innocent drinks. Your brain, like mine, has your best interests at heart, but where your drive to eat and drink is concerned, it is not to be trusted. Using your intuition to guide how much you eat, therefore, is fundamentally flawed.
As I sit writing this in my local coffee shop, I have just finished eating a cake containing 522 Calories. The number of Calories in the cake are comparable to a pretty sizeable lunch, and it should leave me feeling full and satisfied. It doesn’t. In fact, I want to eat another, and another after that. My guess is I could smash at least 5 before I start to feel sick. Would this be the case if I were to eat 522 cals of chicken and broccoli? Almost certainly not, but where this cake is concerned, eating more makes perfect sense. My brain, with its untrustworthy trickery, is at it again. It seems like my intuition wants me to be fat.
Intuitive eating, which basically boils down to using your internal hunger signals rather than relying on counting Calories or tracking portion sizes, is gaining popularity as a new, sustainable way of dieting.
That’s all well and good, but the people who are promoting that way of eating have been counting Calories for so long, they are like walking macro calculators. They are less relying on their internal hunger systems, and more relying on their ability to guess the caloric content of the food they eat. It’s a different story for people just starting out on their weight loss journey. Intuition, it seems, is a learned skill.
Have you ever found yourself getting excited over a stick of celery? I didn’t think so. Cabbage? No. As good for you as these foods are, your brain honestly doesn’t give a shit about them. Here’s why:
- Although you have things pretty good now, an early grave was a real risk for your ancestors, and your brain is evolved to help you survive. One of the ways it does this is through a reward system.
- This reward system is what makes us want the things that we need to survive and reproduce, and is the reason we like sex, social interaction, and food.
- Your caveman ancestors wouldn’t have lived for long by eating 200 Calories worth of spinach a day. As a way to protect you from starvation, once you taste calorie dense, high-fat / high sugar foods, your reward system drives your behaviour to make you consume more of them over other lower cal foods.
- This why a pain au raisin is so much more appealing than a plate of Brussels sprouts.
If your reward system wasn’t enough, there are a couple of other key ways your brain facilitates piling on the pounds. Not happy with simply making you want Calorie dense foods, your grey matter also makes you keep eating them.
- Ever eaten steak until you felt like you were going to burst, but somehow still found room for cheesecake afterwards? Your perception of fullness is taste specific. The greater the variety of flavours at a meal, the more food you’ll eat. Ever found yourself eating way more than normal at a buffet? This is why.
- How full you feel is less about the number of Calories you consume and more about the total volume of food. The yummiest foods tend to have less fibre, water, and general bulk. It’s way easier to eat a packet of biscuits than it is a kilogram of broccoli even though the number of Calories in the former is far greater.
If we truly allowed our intuition to guide our eating habits, we’d spend all day eating melted snickers bar sandwiches and drinking peanut butter and chocolate cream milkshakes.
As you can probably tell, I think the advice to eat “intuitively” is about as much use as a chocolate fireplace.
However, don’t think I’m explaining why I think it’s shit for no reason; knowing that your brain wants to drive you to eat a box of doughnuts is a good thing. Knowing why something happens means we can control that thing. The same as the people who are pushing this way of eating on you in the first place did, you need to spend time counting Calories until you’ve got it down. To eat intuitively, you’ve got to practice.
To make intuitive eating work, you need first need two key pieces of data.
- Your weight, ideally averaged from at least 3 weigh ins a week.
- The number of Calories you are consuming on average per week.
Over time, you’ll learn the number of Calories you can eat to maintain, lose, or gain weight with. Once you’ve tracked Calories consistently, you’ll be able to stop typing in your phone every time you eat something, and just keep track in your head. In time, you’ll learn to understand how different foods affect your hunger levels, and when to eat more or back off. If you keep taking your weight every week, you will always have feedback. If, for instance, your weight is going up when you don’t want it to, then you know it’s time to go back to tracking for a while.
- Intuitive eating is a learned skill
- You need to track Calories for a significant period of time to understand how many cals are in the foods you eat
- Once you get a handle on tracking, you can start to wing it, using your weight as feedback
- Finally, you’ll be able to recognise how different types of food affect your hunger signals, and how to manage that to not go overboard on your eating
Eating intuitively is what made you fat in the first place. In the modern, obesogenic world you live in, navigating 500 kcal cocktails, 2,000 kcal pizzas, and 1,000 kcal desserts takes practise, knowledge, and restraint.
Intuition is a learned skill, and time spent counting Calories is time well spent if you care about losing and maintaining your weight.
Want to lose weight while still going out to eat the foods you love? Get the eat out stay lean system and never worry about eating out again.