The Original “Body Wisdom” Study

What makes people fat are the two main factors that interfere with body wisdom:

  • Emotional Eating and Compulsive Overeating – Eating when you’re not hungry, to meet emotional needs and cravings.
  • Processed Food – Processed foods are engineered to pervert body wisdom so people eat more.

Body wisdom is an inborn attraction to the foods that our body needs for nutrition. It tells us exactly what, when, and how much to eat. We know that humans have this instinct, just as animals in the wild do, thanks to a study presented 70 years ago today.

On June 21, 1939, pediatrician Clara M. Davis read a paper at the annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association titled “Results of the Self-Selection of Diets by Young Children” [PDF]. The experiment she described, later published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), never could be done today. From a recap published in CMAJ in 2006:

Davis convinced unmarried teenage mothers and widows who could no longer support their families to place their infants in what amounted to an eating-experiment orphanage set up in Chicago. An eventual total of 15 children participated; the 2 boys who were studied the longest were followed over a 4 1/2-year period: that is to say, the amount of every single thing eaten or spilled at every single meal over the first 4 1/2 years of their eating life was assiduously recorded. To this was added records of changes in height and weight, the nature of bowel movements, and regular bone radiographs and blood tests. Davis reported that the experiment had generated somewhere between 36,000 and 37,500 (she was inconsistent on the figure) daily food records.

The 2006 article also describes the cultural context from which the study emerged:

In the early part of the 20th century, a nutritional battleground had opened up between science-infatuated pediatricians and remarkably recalcitrant and apparently unscientific children. Armed with growing evidence from the newly emerging field of nutrition, doctors began prescribing with bank teller-like precision what and when and how much a child should eat in order to be healthy.

Children quite often responded to doctor-ordered proper diets by shutting down and refusing to eat anything.

Davis suspected that children would eat exactly what they needed nutritionally if presented with a universe of healthy foods from which to choose. She set about to prove this, and she did. Her findings changed the advice of pediatricians across North America.

The original study is worth reading because of intriguing tidbits such as how children ate in response to sickness. It’s highly readable – much less formal than medical journal articles today. In fact, it’s a shame that there isn’t a more formal version anywhere, with raw data, charts, and statistical analysis. Again from the 2006 article:

Boxes, boxes, and ever more boxes must have piled up with food charts — and as they did, Davis must have thought she was drowning in a food-record ocean. Imagine trying to deal with all this information before the advent of the computer and the birth of the miraculous self-correcting spreadsheet; imagine, as well, being, not a university professor with graduate students at hand, but a working pediatrician in the middle of the Depression, and you see the data dilemma of Clara Davis.

Well, you might say, that was then; now is the age of data management, sifting and farming. Surely, one could take those records, enter them into a computer and ask a slew of the questions that Davis never did. Are there male/female differences, seasonal shifts reflecting food freshness, connections to growth spurts and, most importantly, an indication of how much choice a body really does have when it comes to choosing a nutritious diet?

That, regrettably, is never to be. As far as I have been able to determine, sometime between 1959 (when Davis died) and 2000, all of those boxes of data from her experiment were pitched.

The main criticism people make of the Davis study is, to my mind, irrelevant and misses the point. The children were allowed to select from a universe of foods that matched what humans evolved eating – the Paleolithic diet. Their options consisted only of 100% whole foods – nothing processed, nothing refined. Critics say that’s “cheating” – what if the children were offered refined and processed foods? Would they still eat according to body wisdom?

Davis didn’t do this experiment (thankfully). She planned to, but the Depression stopped her. I say “thankfully” because I doubt children would eat so nutritionally perfect a diet if presented with processed foods. Food scientists in labs fabricate processed foods specifically and deliberately to use our body wisdom against us with fat, sugar, and salt, tricking us into overeating lots and lots of empty calories. This fact is painfully demonstrated by the eating, health, and obesity trends in the U.S. over the last 30 years.

The important experiment is the one Davis did do. When we eat according to body wisdom, we’re golden. We only get in trouble when we stop eating according to body wisdom. There are two main reasons this happens: emotional eating and processed foods. These are linked since most emotional eating is of processed foods.

How do you stop emotional eating? That’s what the Normal Eating® method is all about. The details are in my book, Normal Eating® for Normal Weight.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

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6 Responses to The Original “Body Wisdom” Study

  1. avatar Andi says:

    Thanks so much for posting this, Sheryl. As you know, this subject is very close to my heart the moment and has, in fact, prevented my progress in every non-diet approach I’ve tried before NE. And that’s before the various gurus implied, either directly or indirectly, that I would know when I’m satisfied or full, regardless of what I was eating. And I would say, but when I eat processed sweets I never get full until I’m stuffed and feeling sick, and I’d think there was something wrong with me, everyone else can do this but me.

    But then I found myself back in NE, read Kessler’s book where he makes just the point you do about processed foods and how they’re manufactured to make us eat more, crave it when we don’t have it, and I found myself in this description finally with the tools to deal with it, or at least to observe it, gather information on how these foods feel in my body, and to make some changes that will allow me to feel better.

  2. Hi Andi,

    I’m planning to write more about the salt-fat-sugar issue in my next blog post. I think it trips up a lot of people with the non-diet approach.

    – Sheryl

  3. avatar Sara says:

    How important do you think the processed foods issue is to achieving Normal Eating? I know that for me, emotional eating seems to be the main issue, and I think I eat a balance of whole and processed food. I like to make a lot of our snack food, but it still includes refined sugar, whole wheat flour (still not in a “natural form”), and sometimes processed food like crushed cereal as an ingredient.

    I wonder how an experiment of eating only “whole” foods would work? Is there a good web resource for what can be considered a whole food? Seems a bit gray to me – e.g. packaged string cheese – cheese seems like a whole food, but in this form, is it really?

  4. Hi Sara,

    Your question requires a long answer. It’s addressed directly in my book in the chapter on Stage 4:

    http://normaleating.com/ne_book.php

    – Sheryl

  5. avatar Cathy Payne says:

    I consider whole foods to be those with little to no processing. Cheese can be minimally processed, but I consider pasteurized, homogenized milk to be highly processed so use raw milk cheeses only. I agree that dropping foods that are GMO, have additives and preservatives and neurotoxins such as aspartame can contribute to weight gain. Interestingly, my husband and I lost 20 pounds each on a whole foods diet including lard, grass-fed pork, raw butter, whole milk from goats, and lots of local pesticide free vegetables. We cover a lot on our podcast and blog. Our food tastes great, and our physician is pleased with bloodwork!

  6. avatar Lisa (Xanadu) says:

    I was just commenting to my husband that artificial flavors and flavor enhancers are also a big part of this puzzle. Crackers meant to taste like chicken; tortilla chips covered in artificial guacamole powder; ramen noodles with MSG– these especially trick my body into wanting more and more because of the combo of empty nutrition/tastebud trickery.

    I intuitively stay away from fake flavors these days.

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