Listen To Your Gut - A Guide to Nutritional Wisdom
We’ve all wrestled with food cravings. While our upper logical brain tells us to eat the salad, our lower caveman brain is telling us to eat the cookie. Fighting cravings may feel like a cruel form of torture but what if told you that cravings are actually important for keeping you healthy?
Cravings get a bad wrap when they destroy our diets, and for good reason. But cravings are in fact an important way the body communicates its needs to us.
You see, the body can't just say “Hey Steve, you should eat some broccoli". Instead, it has devised a series of passive aggressive ways to help nudge us into making the right decisions. Since the body can't talk it instead communicates with feeling. Whenever you eat a meal it makes you feel a certain way. If you listened to your bodies needs you'll feel good. If you didn't then you may have "upset" your stomach.
This relationship between the food you eat and how you feel afterward creates a feedback loop. This feedback teaches us what can be coined as nutritional wisdom. To be nutritionally wise is to be able to listen to the needs of your body and respond appropriately - It's how humans have survived for millennia without the nutritional guidance of Cosmopolitan magazine and Dr. OZ.
It wasn't until I read Mark Schatzker's The Dorito Effect that I began to realize that maybe the way we think about food and nutrition was wrong. Nutrition is science is built around a reductionist model which is to continually reduce a food phenomena to its smallest possible contributor. What we're left with is a society where food is thought of as the sum of its parts - carb, fat, protein, calorie, vitamin, mineral etc. Schatzker paints a persuasive argument that when we talk about food we leave out it's most important quality - flavor.
Flavor is a crucial component to how humans and animals chose what to eat or not to eat. You know immediately after taking a sip of sour milk to throw it out. Likewise, fruits are most delicious when they are ripe - which through no coincidence is when they are most nutritious. Schatzer demonstrates that flavor is a powerful factor in how we can build nutritional wisdom and make better food choices.
To start let's delve into how this all works, and afterward, I’ll discuss how learning to listen to your body can help you answer questions such as what, when and how you should eat.
At the heart of Schatzker's book is research performed by Dr. Fred Provenza and his goats. Provenza noticed that herding animals had peculiar grazing habits. They ate certain plants- at certain times - in certain quantities and even in a certain order. The goat's behavior was not random but deliberate. He set out to find out what these goats knew that he didn't and what he found was key insights that can help each of us make better food decisions.
He discovered that the goats developed food preferences based of what he coined as nutritional wisdom. This wisdom told each goat what and what not to eat when to eat it, how much to eat, and what to eat it with. These are all questions I'm asked daily by members of the master species. Yet here are a bunch of smelly goats that have figured it out all on their own. The take away from his studies was how the goats learned to make good food choices by listening to the feedback of their bodies. Humans have this same capacity to learn and I would argue that it is key if you want to be your healthiest self. First, we must learn how to listen to the feedback our bodies give us. Before we get there let's look at how you can learn to be nutritionally wise.
It Starts with The Flavor
The flavors we taste when we eat are determined by the chemical makeup of the food. Different chemical compounds found in food produce different flavors.
Primary compounds are the chemicals that are indispensable; often these compounds include carbs, fats, proteins and a few minerals and nutrients. Secondary compounds are the thousands of other chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Each of these secondary compounds contributes their own unique flavor to the foods that we eat. These are the same compounds you will come across in magazines touting incredible magical health benefits. Take flavonoids as an example.
Humans use both taste and smell to determine the flavor of a food. We are familiar with taste buds found on our tongues. Those taste buds can recognize taste such as sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami(savory). But we also use our nose and olfactory system to pick up on other differences in our food. The combination of our senses helps us create a rich and unique flavor profile for the foods we eat. It's how we determine the difference between apples and oranges. This flavor profile is key to developing nutritional wisdom.
Our senses help our brain pick up on the thousands of chemical compounds that make up what we eat. I already mentioned that these compounds create a depth of flavor in the foods we eat but they are also where our food derives its nutritional value from. This means that the foods that are most flavorful are also the ones that are the most nutritious. (Think store-bought blueberries vs wild blueberries)
The process of gaining nutritional wisdom begins in the mouth as our brain creates a flavor profile of the food we eat using our sense of smell and taste. After the food is swallowed and digested it is used by the body. The body then creates a nutritional profile based on how the food affected the body.
At this point, the brain links the food’s flavor profile with the food’s nutritional profile. This is where cravings come from. For example, when your body is low on potassium it can recall a food that was high in potassium and create a craving for that flavor such as a banana. When you are dehydrated you have a feeling of thirst. Once you satisfy the need the craving ceases. This is how humans managed up until the modern era.
Gone is the time when happy cows grazing on the pasture. Instead, men in lab coats have become the new staple in food production. Scientists have the technology to identify and imitate the same chemical compounds that produce flavor in natural foods and use this information to create artificial versions. Consequently, the scientist can engineer a gelatinous blob to taste like an an Orange, fortify it with nutrients and vitamins and call it “food”.
This process of food production creates problems. The relationships I mentioned above between flavor and nutrients become distorted. When the body needs nutrients, it can no longer draw a clear connection. Ideally, when the body requires Vitamin C It will cause you to crave a food high in vitamin C like an Orange. This is why 16th-century sailors reported having overwhelming cravings for citrus after a long voyage void of vitamin C. However, introducing artificial flavors distorts this relationship - instead of craving an orange you're left craving an orange-flavored candy.
The Second problem is that artificial flavors can make foods high in fat and sugar more appealing than they should be. On its own, a block of butter or a spoonful of sugar is not appetizing, but when combined with artificial flavors it can be made to taste irresistible. Junk food has become so addictive that studies have shown that it can light up the same reward centers in the brain as heroin.
The result is when our body makes a request, we are left unable to identify what it's asking for. So we feed it artificially flavored foods because they're cheap and delicious leaving our bodies deprived of the resources it needs. Fortunately, we can reprogram this cycle and get it working back in your best interest.
Solving The Problem
The first step to solving these problems begins with understanding that your body is trying to work with you, not against you. The key is communication; your ability to listen to what your body needs and to respond accordingly.
Achieving this requires being mindful of the feedback your body gives you and reducing the causes of interference that may get in the way.
To help with this is your ability to provide an environment where the messages can be heard clearly.
Your body is well adapted to survival and as I've described it will try to tell you what it needs. The key here is that you are aware and listening to its many signals. Eating is something that is felt, so you must start by being mindful of how you feel when you eat different foods. If you can learn to listen, you will know what to eat, when to eat, and how much of it to eat. Below I provide an example of how to answer these questions through being mindful.
Learning to Listen - Answering Common Questions
Let’s tackle this idea of listening to our bodies and interpreting feedback back by answering some of the most common questions I get about diet.
When should I eat?
You should eat when you are hungry. You should not eat when you are not hungry.
If you in the middle of a meal, then stop eating when you are no longer hungry. Note not hungry is different from me saying when you are full.
Often I’m asked how many meals should someone have a day?
It will depend on how much you eat. If you eat a larger meal, you will be full longer. That means you won't need to eat as many meals. If you eat small meals then you will get hungry more frequently and will need to eat more often. The common thread is listening to your body and eating when you're hungry.
This advice may seem like it should be intuitive, and it should be. However, we often eat for many reasons other than hunger. We eat because we are happy and are celebrating. We eat because we're sad and want to feel better, we eat because we're procrastinating from an assignment. We eat because momma will feel unloved if we don’t. It is important to remember that hunger is a physiological need, not an emotional one. A healthy relationship with food is built by recognizing the difference between the two. If you're having trouble deciphering whether your desire to eat is physiological or emotional ask yourself whether eating grilled chicken and broccoli would satisfy you. If a real meal doesn’t sound satisfying then it's likely your craving is being driven by something other than hunger.
Related to when should I eat is " Should I eat breakfast? and “should I eat at night?
Most people are better off not eating a large meal too close to bedtime. However, the issue for many is not when they eat but rather how much they eat over the course of a day. Again my advice is to listen to your body's hunger for when you should eat. If you listen to your body and don’t overeat, then your overall calories for the day should be fine.
If your overall caloric intake is reasonable for the day, then you will be fine - timing shouldn't play too much of role until those last few percent body fat.
If you're not hungry in the morning then don't eat breakfast. If you then eat breakfast. If you haven't eaten all day and you're hungry in the evening then eat, your body is telling you what it needs. Issues arise when people skip meals and then overcompensate by eating far too much or make poor food choices later in the day because they were hungry. As long as the overall daily intake and food choices are good then you shouldn’t have an issue.
Food timing has merits but It's not as important as getting quality foods in the right portions. I’m a fan of not complicating things too early on in the process. With that said, eating a larger meal in the morning, and eating your carbs around workout time are some simple timing tweaks that may help.
How much should I eat?
Again listen to hunger. Eat when you're hungry and stop eating when you're not.
I tell my clients to visualize a scale of 1 to 5; 1 being hungry, 5 being full. Eat until a 3 or 4. At a 3 or 4, you should feel comfortably full. Not stuffed, but satisfied. When you eat too much or too little, your body will let you know by making you feel bad. This is your body letting you know you messed up and failed to listen. If you listen to your body, it will reward you by feeling good. Listen to the feedback and learn from it.
Note the feeling of fullness can be delayed not kicking in till 10 or 15 minutes after you’ve started your meal. This is why I recommend you eat slowly, taking your time, enjoying the meal, and being mindful of your food. Eat like your French. Bon appetite.
What should I eat?
You should eat foods that make you feel energized and nourished. You want to eat whole natural foods such as fruits, veggies, lean meats and whole grains. Foods that are minimally processed and loaded with nutrients. A diet with quality ingredients will leave you feeling nourished.
You should avoid processed foods. Junk food might make you feel good in the moment but will leave you feeling unsatisfied afterward often suffering from crashes in energy, inflammation, bloating, and nausea. Take notice and be mindful of how you feel after your meals and use it to guide your decisions. Even foods that can be good for you such as milk should be avoided if your body can't tolerate it.
Reducing the noise
For most of us, listening to our body is like having a conversation in a noisy room. Despite how hard you try to listen, you can't make out what’s being said.Artificial flavors and modified foods create noise, disrupting the vital communication between you and your body. Cutting out the noise starts with cutting out the junk. Remove processed foods and replace them with whole natural foods. Commit to this for this for 2 weeks and not only will you feel years younger but you will be able to hear the feedback your body is trying to convey.
We eat so much junk that it becomes our normal. You can’t notice how bad processed foods junk food makes you feel until you cut it out. My clients tell me all the time after they’ve been eating clean that the cravings subside and junk foods they used to love now make them feel sick. That sick feeling was always there, you just couldn’t make it out because it became your normal. When you cut out the junk for a couple weeks, you too will notice how much better you feel. Without the interference, you'll be able to actually hear what your body is trying to tell you.
Eating is something that Is felt. Feelings such as thirst, hunger, or cravings are how the body conveys its needs. Feeling nourished or feeling lethargic after a meal is how your body lets you know whether you made the right choices or not. Listening to this feedback is key to learning what works best for your body. You too can be as intelligent as Dr. Provenza's smelly goat.
To save you learning time, we know that whole natural foods high in nutritional value will make you feel your best. When choosing foods aim for one's rich in flavor. Buy fresh and in season and buy from your local farmers market. Fresh flavorful foods are not only more nutritious but will leave you looking forward to your next meal. Eating is a process crucial for survival, and one we are already programmed to do. Your body will tell you what it needs - you just need to just listen. Nutrition shouldn't be more complicated than that.
Here is a link to one of the books I most recommend on nutrition and food. It’s a well-written account of how food has changed over the years and offers a change in how you view the foods you choose to eat.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, we will receive a small commission for it. This revenue is important for allowing the website to operate and continue to produce quality materials for you our reader. With that said all items listed in this article I have personally used and recommend because I feel they provide a real benefit for you.
Resources and References
The Dorito Effect
If you're interested in seeing some of Fred Provenza’s research for yourself on the concepts of Post-ingestive feedback, and nutritional Wisdom, and how food preferences are formed, then the two papers below are a nice introductory.
How Do Domestic Herbivores Select Nutritious Diets on Rangelands?
Postingestive feedback as an elementary determinant of food preference and intake in ruminants
Here are two nice interviews by vox interviewing Mark Schatzker and
Fred Provenza. Both are well worth a read.
The Dorito Effect: Healthy food is blander than ever — and it's making us fat
Your gut is telling you what to eat — and you're not listening
I mentioned that the effects of junk food affect the brain in ways similar to drugs. Below is a great article comparing the two and you will find a number of links to the peer-reviewed studies if you would like to read them yourself.
10 Similarities Between Sugar, Junk Food and Abusive Drugs
Here’s a TED talk titled Your Brain on Sugar