Throughout the evolution of all species, including humans, food intake has been governed primarily by the sensation of hunger. This may explain why obesity is seldom encountered in animals. Although records are obviously limited prior to the dawn of civilization, human obesity is likely also to have been rare. Thus it is likely that, when guided by the primordial sense of hunger, all bodies will likely respond with the attainment of a normal food intake and weight. Also, when combined with a large requirement of physical work through antiquity, humans were destined to keep food intake and caloric consumption in a delicate and proper balance.
For at least the past century, our dietary intake has been largely decoupled from hunger for a variety of reasons. We often adhere to regular “eating hours” such as noon for lunch, meals are often centered on social functions rather than hunger, snack foods are easily available when sitting to watch TV, with the addition of a “yummy” dessert, we often exceed eating requirements beyond the point of satiation, and the list goes on and on. Compounding this problem further, requirements for physical effort have been greatly reduced for obvious reasons.
So what am I trying to say? If our food intake were governed solely by hunger and limited by satiation, a large component of weight control would be in place, and any diet strategy would be more apt to succeed if this principle were observed.
This hypothesis has been recently tested by experimental data appearing in a 2016 study in the American Society for Nutrition entitled “Intuitive Eating Dimensions Were Differently Associated with Food Intake in the General Population.” The study compared the so-called “intuitive eating, i.e., eating in response to physiological hunger and satiety cues rather than emotional cues, termed “unconditional permission to eat”. Prior evidence had supported the idea that such intuitive eating was associated with lower body weights, but little was known about its association with food intake per se.
The study noted above included a total of 9581 men and 31,955 women aged ≥18 years. Eating patterns were assessed by using a validated version of a detailed intuitive eating scale derived from dietary records over a six year period. The associations were compared between intuitive eating and unconditional permission to eat, and food intakes were assessed by statistical analysis.
Results from this study were quite illuminating: In women, higher physical reasons scores were associated with lower caloric intakes. Also, a higher physical reasons score was associated with lower sweet- and fatty-food intake in both women and men, as well as lower intakes of dairy products, meat, fish, and eggs, and a higher whole-grain intake in women. In contrast, higher intuitive eating scores were generally associated with a higher caloric intake that contained lower fruit, vegetable, and whole-grain intakes.
The conclusion of the study: Physical hunger is associated with healthier dietary patterns with better weight control, whereas the so-called “unconditional permission to eat”, was associated with unhealthier diets. From a public health perspective, these findings suggest that we all should be eating primarily in response to hunger and satiety signals rather than the myriad of emotional/social signals. What remains to be proved, however, is, whether those individuals already controlled by emotional factors can be converted to a dominant pattern of food consumption in response to hunger