How many times in your life have you heard a health professional say to you, solemnly, “just listen to your body”?
According to the conventional wisdom, your body knows best, and it will always inform you as to what it needs. When it needs water, you feel thirsty. When it need energy, you feel hungry. When you feel an unexplainable desire for a steak, it’s probably because your body needs protein, or some component of protein like zinc or iron. Makes sense, right?
Except it’s a “doughnut truth.”
I coined the word “doughnut truth” to refer to statements or beliefs that have a little bit of truth in them — or, as Steven Corbet would say, “truthiness”— but have a hole in the middle you could drive a Mac truck through. Sure, your body will tell you what you need, but only under the right conditions. When the conditions are wrong, your body will lie to you as effortlessly and effectively as Bernie Madoff selling you an investment plan.
Let’s use traditional, terrestrial radio as an example. When you tune in to the country station on your car’s AM dial, what you hear is Garth Brooks, or whoever happens to be playing on the station. But what about when there’s static? What about when that signal seems to be “in between” two stations and you hear a kind of annoying crosstalk—Garth Brooks interspersed with Bill O’Reilly? Or just plain white noise?
More often than not, that’s the position we find ourselves in these days when we try to “listen to our bodies.” It’s a great idea in theory — but the signal isn’t coming in clearly. In fact, sometimes it’s so distorted that we think we’re listening to Garth Brooks but what we’re really hearing is Lady Gaga.
Our cavemen ancestors had no such problem, largely because they didn’t have a lot of choices available. When they were hungry, they ate anything they could get their hands on, but that wasn’t a problem at all. Why? Because just about anything they could get their hands on— anything edible that is — was good for them. The selection was pretty limited: foods you could hunt, fish, gather or pluck. If you could magically time-travel a caveman and place him in the middle of the modern supermarket, he wouldn’t know what to make of it.
The ridiculous number of choices available to us to satisfy our every hunger and craving has acted like a huge dose of static on our appetite control centers. As a result there’s a huge disconnect between what we think we want and what our bodies actually need—and most of us can’t tell the difference.
Take our sweet tooth, for example. Most folks I know hate the fact they have a “sweet tooth” because it invariably leads to binging on exactly the foods that make us sick, fat, tired and depressed. But the fact is the human sweet tooth was originally a great survival mechanism. It caused us to seek out sweet tasting plants like fruits which we actually need because —unlike most animals—we humans don’t make our own vitamin C. In those days when your body told you “eat something sweet” it was actually directing you towards the only foods available that would provide a vitamin essential to human health. No thinking required… “eat something sweet” meant pick up a fruit.
Not any more.
The sweet tooth that once saved our lives has now become quite the liability. It causes us to roam the markets of the 24 hour supermarket looking for cookies and ice cream. These “foods” have become to us what the hard little fruits on the ground were to the cavemen — and when we search for them desperately, we tell ourselves we’re only “listening to our bodies” and giving them what they need.
Balderdash. All that’s happened is we can no longer tell the difference between cravings and hunger.
I’ve heard more than a few people justify their need to consume Hershey bars by saying, “Oh, my body must need magnesium.” Come on! While the finest dark chocolate bars do have some magnesium it’s about the same as what’s found in an equal amount of lima beans, and I’ve never heard anyone tell me they’re just going to die if they don’t eat a plate of beans!
Consuming the standard American Diet for any length of time can easily lead to a huge disconnect between what we think we want and what our bodies actually need. There’s even a big disconnect between our overall feelings of “hunger” and what is essentially nothing more than a craving. (If you want to distinguish real hunger from cravings, just try waiting for 15 minutes before satisfying it. If it’s a craving it’ll probably go away by then.)
The foods we’ve come to crave are almost invariably the ones that make us sick, fat, tired and depressed, and there’s a very good reason for this. Manufacturers “engineer” processed foods with just the right overlays of fat, sugar and salt as to make them high-nigh irresistible. (It’s no accident that the most successful food marketing slogan in history was “Betcha can’t eat just one.” They weren’t kidding!) And these foods are — you guessed it — almost always high carbohydrate foods.
Our foolproof appetite regulators — like Choleocystokinin (CCK), the hormone that is released in the small intestine when our stomachs are full and we’ve had enough food — responds to protein and fat. It doesn’t recognize carbohydrate well, which is why it’s so easy to down ten bowls of cereal while watching “Grey’s Anatomy.”
So “listening to our body” may not always be such a great idea as we can’t count on it to tell the truth, especially in the beginning of this new way of eating. It is often telling us what we want, which is a conditioned response, and confusing us by making us believe that it’s what we need.
Unless you’re a caveman —or you’ve been eating really really well for the last couple decades —those two things are not necessarily the same.
We need to reeducate our bodies to tell us the truth, and we do that the same way we teach our kids to be honest... by training.
Once our bodies have been reconditioned to respond to real food we can begin trusting them to give us reliable signals.
Right now, most of the signals we get are telling us what we “need” to eat is the biological equivalent of spam.
“Listening to your body” is a great piece of advice, but not until you’ve separated the junk mail from the real messages.