Instinctual Eating, Thin People, and Appetite

Posted on 15 Jul 2010 17:20

This is a post that appeared in Gustrength's Blog in July 2009. I think it is a good post and that more people will read it here so I am moving it, along with many other past posts from that blog.

By Eric Troy

Once in a post about Micheal Pollan's ideas about "nutritionism" and instinctual eating I made the following statement:

“…nutritionists would never tell you that simply eating by your “instincts” is a magical ticket to health.”

Well, of course, I cannot speak for any and all nutritionists. I cannot speak for nutritionists at all for that matter. Many nutritionists, after all, say outlandish things. For instance, one "celebrity nutritionist" said that she believed all you needed during the day was sunshine and clean air. To that end she herself had hot water with ginger for breakfast, no lunch, and a big pile of fruit for dinner. She did state, however, that this diet was only for the "advanced" like she herself. Perhaps some "nutritionists" have eating disorders? The point is that putting all nutritionists into the same box is like trying to put water into a box…runs out all over the place.

So, many nutritionists might very well tell you that eating instinctively is just what healthier people do. It is a little absurd to speak of such a large and diverse group of professionals as if they are all of a similar mind. This is a case of countering the "other side" without a clear sense of what the other side is up to. This is exactly the kind of thing people like Pollan thrive on.

The truth is I don't just object to the concept, I object to the word. Instinct. Instinctual. Very muddy waters there. Many do not share my problem with the word, of course. And you could argue that it’s semantics. Look at this quote from Michelle May, for instance:

People who naturally follow instinctive eating or intuitive eating just seem to know when, what and how much food they need. When their body needs fuel they get hungry, triggering an urge to eat. They simply stop eating when their hunger is satisfied. Most of them really like to eat and seem to be able to eat whatever they want. However they’ll turn down even delicious food if they aren’t hungry and they are less likely to respond to stress with emotional eating.

Michelle May is right, of course. They’re are people like that, YOURS TRULY, for instance. That’s why you will never see me develop fat loss advice. I may talk about healthy eating and nutrition and fat loss in a general sense but fat loss advise? I leave that to the experts, like May.

But is it instinct or intuition? In psychological terms I would feel more comfortable with something that can be observed in science. Instinct is part of what is called the nominal fallacy. In fact, the word is so problematic that psychologists virtually banned it from psychological discussion for many years. And this is about psychology. The nominal fallacy is mistaking the naming something with explaining something. Saying that something is instinctual or instinct explains absolutely nothing. It simply reduces the concept down to something that cannot be reduced any further. Using this kind of logic, everything that we fail to understand can simply be labelled and so "explained." So let me tell you something about myself, as one of those “naturally thin” people. And about some of the people like me I’ve known and talked with.

And before you get too fed up with the “lucky” nature of this…remember that we all have our cross to bear.

Naturally thin people seem to be able to eat whatever they want.

The truth is that most lifelong thin people eat MUCH LESS than they are perceived to by others. The reason they seem to be able to eat “anything they want” is many times because when you observe them eating “anything they want” it’s the BULK of their calories for that day.

They simply take in LESS OVERALL ENERGY period. And in fact…they probably under-eat if they are like me and are very active.

Most thin people who want to gain weight or lean mass but have trouble doing it (so called hard-gainers) usually are taking in much fewer calories than they think and if asked they will over-report their food intake, quite the opposite of the overweight.

Thin is not automatically healthy.

The idea that lifelong thin people instinctively eat only healthy foods is erroneous. They just eat LESS. Again, I am not a fat loss expert but less energy in than out means less fat gain. Regardless of where the energy comes from. And when I say LESS, again, I mean MUCH less. There was a time when eating 900 to 1000 calories a day was a LOT for me. And I was NOT healthy. In was a period of the worst health of my life. Anecdotal though it is, it's the same observation I've made in many thin trainees. Add to this the paradox of "metabolically healthy obesity" and the problem of visceral or intraabdominal fat in apparently thin people, and "thin equals healthy" breaks down quickly into nonsense.

Thin people stop eating when they are full.

Most of the time probably. But not always. A thin person is likely to skip as many meals as they eat. Intermittent fasting is popular these days. Well…thin people do that simply because they forget to eat or don’t have time or are so absorbed in what they are doing…or for any of hundreds of possible reasons.

This is not instinct. This is about attitudes regarding food. Food is just fuel for the most part. As May says, many thin people really do enjoy eating. They eat slowly and savor their food. It probably takes them longer than their overweight friend to finish eating, in fact. Thus, further fueling the perception that they are eating more. When in fact they are simply eating slowly.

But while thin people do enjoy food, as I’m sure Michelle May would agree, it is not exactly about food as such. It is about the moment. In other words, food is something a thin person will enjoy, especially when given their favorite choices. But they don’t enjoy it more than anything else they enjoy. It is not a replacement for anything…in fact is is simply not that important or more important than anything else.

This is not meant as “thin people are so smart” kinda thing. That same thin person may have many destructive and unhealthy habits. When they are forgetting or not bothering to eat they may be downing coffee by the gallon, smoking, you name it. They may not exercise at all. They may have organs surrounded by fat. They may have high cholesterol and many other markers of deteriorating health. Don’t be fooled into thinking that no fat is synonymous with health.

Thin people always take in small meals with few calories

Bull baloney. This is related to the above. Thin people tend to skip more meals than their obese counterparts. This does not mean they have a problem with gorging themselves at certain hours of the day. Like at night, in front of the television, where they just might get the bulk of their calories each day.

Most "naturally" thin people disprove the notion that total calories in versus out is not the number one consideration for being "thin" and the people developing theories about "within day energy balance" and other such ill-defined concepts would do well to study thin people!

Thin people often turn down food when they are not hungry.

True. Thin people do not tend to eat, most of the time, when they are not hungry. That is not to say that they NEVER eat when they are not hungry. There are many psychological factors which determine why a certain person would turn down food in a certain circumstance. Many people feel uncomfortable eating in public. By the same token some people feel more comfortable having something to munch on. This is similar to social drinking and smoking.

Honestly, though, I think if you were to round up a bunch of thin people and try to map their eating patterns…you’d get a mess. An unpredictable, chaotic mess. Sort of like you’d get with obese people only with the leaning toward not eating and less food rather than eating more often and more food.

I Eat All The Time, I Eat Anything I Want, I Eat A Lot, Says the Skinny Guy

Pay no attention to this guy. This guy only thinks he eats a lot. He has most likely never actually tracked his caloric intake and if he did he would find that he eats like a…skinny person. How much we eat is as much a product of our perceptions than caloric reality. Naturally thin people are just as disorganized in their eating as anyone else.

If “instinct” means without any order, rhyme, or reason, than yes, thin people eat by instinct.

Yet, most all fat-loss advice involves ORGANIZING your eating. Becoming accountable for what you eat.

Instinct should facilitate survival and we evolved to store energy for lean times. I know, I know, getting into evolution is getting into more muddy waters. But it’s hard to deny the metabolic strategy involved in fat reserves. However, many fat loss writers seem to think that evolution is ALL biology and no psychology. Which, of course, can’t be. We’ve evolved many built in cognitive strategies and patterns through the ages.

To say that thin people “instinctively eat less” is like saying there were hunter gatherers who “instinctively” refused to fuel up for the lean winters. Or to eat more when there was more so that there would be fuel reserves for the times when there was less. Which is how it supposedly worked. When there was less overall food available and no such thing as a food surplus (at least a longstanding one) then this worked. But someone who was not able to store fat efficiently (like me) would have been in a bit of trouble in those times.

Face it, there was less food available and you had to expend more energy to get it. Now you just have to pick up your phone and order a pizza.

That’s all very simplistic and ignores about a million influences we have today. But I didn’t say that thin people were born to be thin anymore than fat people are born to be fat.

What’s the point of all this? Well, if there is a point it’s that there may be no point in striving to think like a thin person to get thin. I think a better goal is SELF-KNOWLEDGE. You will never be able to think like another person. You have to learn to think for yourself.

As Michelle May says, in the article the quote above was taken from, “The answer to weight management lies in YOU.”

Give up believing in the myth of the idealized thin person. He or she does not exist. There is no purpose in feeling guilty because you cannot be more like an ideal that is nothing more than a phantom by-product or our culture.

This page created 15 Jul 2010 17:20
Last updated 20 Jul 2016 05:57

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