As a concept, I think intuitive eating is fantastic. I’d even go as far as to say that it should be the gold standard or the pinnacle of nutritional practices for a healthy lifestyle.
Here’s my issue with intuitive eating … in our current environment, we are almost set up to fail.
There are a number of reasons why I feel this way so let’s break them down …

The nature of our daily lives

First of all, the nature of our daily lives is that of more stressors than ever. So it’s not so easy to just listen to our bodies when we’re very rarely “in tune.” We’re usually running around, thinking about something that just happened, or worrying about something that might happen.
We’ve also become very good at ignoring our intuitive signals for the sake of just getting things done.

Food Abundance

Second, we live in an environment of food abundance.
Consider that our ancestors had to worry about starvation as a major threat to their lives. As a result, we evolved in an environment of food scarcity. So our physiology is such that we adapt to chronic stress as if there are no resources coming in.
However, nowadays most of our chronic stress is not starvation related. Our physiology really hasn’t changed much so we’re basically dealing with an adaptive machine in an environment of food abundance. Not a great combo.

Processed Diets

Third, we’re up against some really freakin smart food engineers.
There was a recent study that compared a highly processed diet vs an unprocessed diet.
It was a randomized controlled trial with a 2-week crossover and tightly conducted in a metabolic ward. Subjects were told to eat intuitively and each meal composition was matched by calories and macros.

The highly processed group ate over 500 calories more per day and gained approx .5 kg of body fat while the unprocessed group actually lost .3 kg of body fat.
It’s easy to overeat highly processed foods because they’ve literally been engineered to override our natural signals of satiety. They hit on specific reward triggers in the brain, as well as other senses like texture, sound, smells, etc.

This begs the question …
If I believe intuitive eating is the ultimate goal, how do we get there knowing that the odds are stacked against us?
Great question!

I believe intuitive eating needs to be earned.
The first step is awareness and education. Knowing about what’s in the food you consume, how it responds to your individual physiology, psychology, and personal preferences, and what allows you to effortlessly eat healthily is an important step.

The study mentioned above is a great example of that. It’s important that we have that information around highly processed foods so we can make informed decisions.
We also have to understand the human element. It doesn’t mean we never eat processed foods. We don’t live in a metabolic ward and food is much more than just calories. It’s social, it’s emotional, it’s celebratory, it’s fun, it’s an experience.

So we take the context of the situation and make the best decision based on our bodies, our goals, and of course, the long term sustainability factor.
The awareness and education piece is also why I believe everyone should track macros at some point in time.

As of now, it’s the best way to measure what you’re consuming on a daily basis and how certain food choices, meal timing strategies, etc make you feel.
It also gives you the ability to understand portion sizes if/when you graduate to intuitive eating.

If you do reach the point where you eat intuitively, tracking macros is almost like an audit – something you just do every now and then to make sure your intuition is still on point. Intuitive eating takes practice. It’s something that I recommend building up towards over time.

When you understand and connect to those internal signals, it makes it much easier to move to an intuitive approach.