Are Your Instincts Making You Fat?

According to the book The Instinct Diet, the reason why we just got to have that extra helping of whatever food we enjoy is because of our instincts – and it renders our willpower well, powerless, and that that "what we eat is governed by five instincts developed by evolution and survival."

Regardless of the controversy surrounding her ideas, The Instinct Diet‘s author, Susan Roberts, PhD, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University, has fairly persuasive results backing up her research: 85% of dieters lost 10 to 50 pounds with 90% of them able to keep the pounds off for at least a year.

Roberts shares her ideas and recommendations on how you can make them work in your favor.


Theory: Food instincts are mostly controlled by the unconscious part of out brain. Like breathing, they are crucial to our survival that they ae "largely unconscious processes." Willpower is useless in controlling our food instincts because it is "the conscious control of the conscious process." Thus, psychologists’ attempts to motivate to become "tougher and put up with more hardship" are dealing with weight problems from the wrong end.

Strategy: To deal with weight problems from a different perspective, use willpower to make conscious decisions, such as choosing whether to dine at home or eat out. Roberts warns however, that after you have eaten the first piece of bread from the restaurant breadbasket, your instincts will take over and make you eat several pieces until you are satisfied.

Controlling brain signals

Roberts says if you want to change how and what you eat, you have to control the signals to your brain

Theory: Many weight-loss programs are designed to control food instincts after they have been activated (e.g. minding how much food we eat after the dopamine-addiction chemicals have been set off). Roberts opines that we need to reduce the need for willpower by avoiding activating our instincts in the wrong way in the first place.

Strategy: Start by becoming familiar with your five basic instincts regarding food. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • The Hunger Instinct: We need to feel full.
  • The Availability Instinct: If food’s there, we’re going to eat it.
  • The Calorie-Density Instinct: The more calories a food has, the more we like it.
  • The Familiarity Instinct: We’re driven to eat foods we already know, and we’re driven to eat similar foods in familiar emotional situations.
  • The Variety Instinct: The more choices we have, the more we eat.

Outsmarting your instincts

To give an example on how to "outsmart" your instincts, Roberts gives us the following.

The Variety Instinct basically means the more choices we have, the more we eat. It is essential to our survival because (from a practical and logical standpoint) no one food contains all the nutrients we nned to survive. Thus, we instinctively eat a wide variety of foods (consequently eating more process) because our instincts and our body are telling us to supply our nutrition needs.

However, Roberts says, when we’re faced with the wrong variety of food, we will overeat.

Eating a wide variety of foods doesn’t mean we have to eat more calories. To help us deal with this, Roberts recommends eating plenty of low-calorie, healthy foods like leafy greens, anti-oxidant rich foods like berries, and lowering your intake on other foods that are not as healthy and/or not as low-cal.

Exercise is not helpful

Theory: One of Roberts’s rather unusual ideas is the uselessness of exercise in weight loss. "The average results for exercise intervention are trivial. The changes in body fat are so tiny…" Roberts adds that, while exercise is important for health, and for keeping the weight off once you lost it, it does not help us lose weight that much.

Strategy: Roberts says, focus on the importance of food. "If someone exercises like crazy to lose weight and it doesn’t work, that person will blame herself. I’m trying to reduce the blame, because it’s not anybody’s fault."


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