I was listening to a health podcast featuring Dr Will Cole recently. Dr Cole is a functional medicine doctor, meaning he is a licensed medical professional who has trained in the whole body, integrative and natural health philosophy of functional medicine. He was talking about encouraging his patients to eat and fast intuitively. This sounds so wonderfully wholesome and idyllic, where we tune in, listen to our bodies and then respond accordingly. But the reality for many people is really tough as we can be triggered to eat for very many reasons, rarely true need, true hunger. Dr Cole went on to make the important distinction between instinct and intuition when it comes to managing our food choices, and this is what really peaked my interest.
I work with very many people who tell me they are sugar addicts and endlessly berate themselves for their lack of ability to reduce or give up sugar. This is where instinct is the driving force. We, as newly civilized but innately, genetically hunter-gathering cave peoples, have a deeply programmed drive for sugar. Sugar provides fast fuel for our cells to perform well. Excess amounts or continuous amounts of consumed sugar is readily converted to body fat, providing stored fuel for times of famine and limited food availability, which would have been often, indeed the norm, for the vast majority of our evolution.
Our brains are hard wired to find, gorge and store sugar whenever possible. Sugar meant survival. Sugar, by the way, is not necessarily the sweet stuff, although a glut of wild berries late summer, or the rare thrill of finding a wild bees nest full of honey would have provided a prize bounty of sweetness back then. Starchy tubers, roots and grasses would also have provided a blood sugar surge as the body converts starch to sugar very readily, providing the same energy burn or fat storage mode as sweet sugars. So, we know why we crave sugars and starches. It gives us an energy boost and in fact, it often gives us a brief brain boost of happy chemicals too. So it’s easy to understand why the sense of being a sugar addict / bread addict / cereal addict is very prevalent and that it is a factual, biological, entirely explicable reality for many.
However, just because our primal brain wants, wants, wants, doesn’t mean it should get! Now that the chances of there being a lack of food for many of us is extremely remote, in fact the greatest danger to us today is not starvation but continuous excess, we have to respond not to the instinctive drive to eat while the opportunity is there, because the opportunity is there 24/7 if we choose. Too much sugar and starch, beyond the tiny amounts needed for our healthy physiology, is massively driving the obesity, diabetes and heart disease epidemics. There is also strong science to suggest the excessive consumption of sugar and excessive food intake in general is behind many cancers and neurological diseases like Alzhiemer’s.
So instinct is not an appropriate driver for what to eat and when to eat any longer and should not be informing our food choices and patterns of eating. What Dr Cole encourages and is something that I now realise I have learnt to do over the many years since I was a carb-monster, is to respond to our intuition not our instinct when it comes to our eating options.
Intuition is defined as a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and nonconscious parts of our mind. Being able to intuit our need to eat, when to stop, what foods help us feel good and which foods hijack our wellbeing is tough because we are often eating foods that have been engineered to drive instinct over intuition. Our supermarkets are jam-packed with hyper-palatable, highly processed, nutrient poor foods sold to us though sophisticated, stealth advertising by the food manufacturers, which leaves us incapable of knowing what we truly need and want. Hyper palatable, highly processed foods are specifically designed to make us want to eat more, way beyond need. From the crunch factor, to the shape, colour and mouthfeel of a food, to the intensely addictive nature of the combination of fat and sugar (which doesn’t exist in nature apart from mother’s milk, which is appropriately addictive to baby – what does that tell you?….), if we eat non-whole foods, we are always going to be at the mercy of our primal instinct to overeat whenever we can.
Intuition is where we rise above our primal urge and take charge of what we need not what we want. This is not about relying on your intellect to tell you what to eat, when. Intellect is biased, influenced by all kinds of dietary dogma that we get subjected to i.e. calories in, calories out; fat is bad; salt is bad; eat Paleo, Vegan, Carnivore, Fruitarian etc. These are rule-based ideologies that may not suit what your body needs. But equally, don’t give in to the primal urges of your hunter-gatherer brain thinking you need to stock up on fat stores to get you through the next famine – which will never come!
Intuition means pausing, tuning in to how you feel, not to what you think you want. Think about how you feel after a sugar hit. Yes, there may be the fleeting bliss of the taste and a brief high as your pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine surges in your brain, but what’s the long term consequence?… a physical and mental crash, a desperate drive for more,’ hypoglybitchiness’ (thank you Dave Asprey) or major ‘hangryness’. These are all signs of a body and brain in crisis. People often report hating their feelings of lack of resolve and weakness around certain foods, but feel at the mercy of their cravings. It’s about making a positive choice not to have it, rather than battling with your cravings. Let intuition inform your choices and you can regain control. Ask good questions: am I really hungry or am I bored, feeling blah, want a distraction etc. When you get the urge for the chocolate, dessert, cake, yet another piece of bread or bad crisps / chips, ask yourself “what am I going to feel like if I do eat this” and more critically “what am I going to feel like if I make a better choice?”
Allowing true hunger to be present before eating means you will get greater enjoyment when you do eat and receive far stronger biofeedback messaging telling you when to stop. If you chew, savour and notice what you eat, coupled with eating foods that nourish and heal rather than just empty calories, the battle ends and a happy, healthy relationship to food can emerge without all the angsty, hand-wringing frustration that so many people struggle with. Enjoy feeling light and empty, not drowning in a food coma; know that you can eat lots of lovely food, just not right now, if you’re not really hungry; and if the sugar monster rears its ugly head, understand it’s not a call to binge on highly processed, nutrient devoid food, it’s because something is going on with your biology and/or psychology driving you to get a fix, but you can choose not to feed the monster and fairly quickly the monster will go away. Better that you divert your attention with a hot drink, a hug, a little burst of activity or maybe a moments reflection where you sit and try to better understand “why do I want sugar right now?”.
This is where I, and Dr Cole, hugely rate 2 key principles: eat mostly, if not entirely, whole or minimally processed foods and practice some time restricted eating / intermittent fasting as a way to fine tune your intuition around eating to feed and nourish your body rather than to satisfy a craving. Start gently with a 12:12 protocol, meaning you eat within a 12 hour window and have nothing with calories for at least 12 hours, and gradually extend that fasting window to 14, maybe 16 and eventually 18 hours to allow your body to begin to experience a food deficit which will a trigger fat burning, cell rejuvenating, brain sorting reset. The more you can do this, the easier it gets. It’s also not about eating less, it’s about eating in a shorter time frame, to allow longer periods of recovery and renewal. But be intuitive! If some days not eating feels wrong, allow yourself to eat. So many variables are at play that some days a 16 hour fast will be a breeze and other days a real struggle. No need to struggle, do what you can, when you can, that has a net positive of you feeling more balanced, more in control, more energized. Let your body tell you what is working. This can be very freeing and instructive for those of you who believe your sugar-craving instinct will always win out. Not necessarily so.