“Your Body Can’t Tell Time!” and Other Non-Diet Nonsense

Human nutrition is fascinating and complex making it hard to distill into easily assimilated absolutes. Although well-intended, non-diet messaging is often reduced to cute, disarming phrases that amount to little more than platitudes aimed at calming fear and cognitive unease. Moreover, rather than offering a path to the truth, these phrases appeal to a dieter’s binary, or black-and-white, thinking and do little to challenge their real concerns and misperceptions of reality.

For example, imagine you’re going through a tough time and someone tells you, “Such is life,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Is that actually helpful? Or is it just putting a little temporary salve on the wound? Without a truly wise and empathetic follow-up, such trite expressions fall flat and can even make us feel worse.

The same goes with phrases like “Your body can’t tell time.” The anxious eater desperately wants to put it in a box by asking, “So, can our body tell time or not? It’s one or the other.” Actually, it’s far more nuanced than that.

The problem is that when we pretend to challenge distorted thinking by simply offering a similarly distorted opposite, the result is lazy and disingenuous. For example, if I firmly believe that something bad will happen to my body if I eat after 7 pm, and all I have to work with is “Your body can’t tell time,” have I really learned anything or am I now just believing something equally silly? What I really need to know is how metabolism works.

By providing such limiting views of bodily processes, we deprive ourselves of the wonder and, at times, mystery of inhabiting a human body. We are also placating our anxieties with the illusion of certainty and a false sense of security, ultimately taking ourselves even further from acceptance. 

Learning to sit with uncertainty is fundamental to giving up food rules and making peace with food. The ability to hold two statements as partially true, with the truth lying somewhere between, brings us closer to acceptance and relieves much of the guilt caused by the artificial rules in the first place.

Once we lay the groundwork for acceptance of how the body works and how much real influence we have over it, we can focus on what really matters to us. Rather than spending all our energy trying to control an uncontrollable system, we can divert our energy to the things we actually can influence.

So, can your body tell time or not? Well, it certainly can — to a degree. That’s why we have the terms “biological clock” and “circadian rhythm.” And anyone who has flown across time zones knows that it takes a couple of days to adjust to the new schedule. Does it know that it’s 7 pm and think you should stop eating before it turns everything you eat into fat? Hell no. That’s ridiculous. When we speak the truth about the amazing body, these crazy ideas become self-evident and fall away.

We also hear, “Your body can’t count calories.” Well, that’s cute and all, but if measuring is a form of counting and calories are a way to measure energy, then we’d have to agree that the body has a pretty good idea how much is coming in and going out day to day and that it works very hard to maintain homeostasis. Furthermore, energy balance, meaning calories in equal calories out, is absolutely true because of the laws of thermodynamics.

If I tell you simply, “Diets don’t work,” what does that even mean? Of course they work! The results may not last, and they may have some serious consequences, but again, the laws of thermodynamics dictate that a caloric deficit results in weight loss, even if the deficit is hard to detect. “Diets don’t work for sustained weight loss for the majority of people without a cost to mental or physical health,” isn’t very cute, but it’s more accurate.

Weight is just a number, right? Yes, it’s a number, but it’s a number that means something. It indicates your relationship to gravity at this point in time. And if we have a set of data points we can compare them. And from that comparison, we can use additional information to infer what is happening in someone’s body.

You see, knowledge is power. And wisdom is knowing how to use that power. A more important conversation starts with why you might want to lose weight in the first place. Why is it so important? Is it really about the body? Or is there some feeling that comes with it? Is changing your body the only way to get that feeling? And what are you giving up in order to have what you think the changes will bring you?

The whole point is to remove the delusion that we can actually control the body. If we remove the delusion, we remove the shame that comes with it. All we are really responsible for is creating the conditions under which the body will thrive. This paradigm shift leads to self-nourishment, kindness, and compassion. Then, we begin caring for the body as though for a loved one, appreciating all the work it does behind the scenes to keep us healthy and alive. After all, we cannot experience this world, with all its pain and beauty, without being in a human body. And rest assured, your body, along with everything else in the universe, is bound by the laws of physics.

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