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.