Can You Trust Your Gut?

Intuitive Eating in an Age of Ultra-Processed Food

Manya Ronay
9 min readMay 29, 2022
Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash

I recently attended a class on Intuitive Eating, a “revolutionary anti-diet approach” helping people connect to their bodies and minds. The philosophy is appealing: honor your hunger, listen to your body and eat consciously.

The framework was developed by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch after they got fed up with diet culture. Intuitive Eating empowers individuals to make mindful, guilt-free food choices aligned with their bodies.

The rules are simple: eat what you want, whenever you want, and however much you want. It might sound crazy, but the point is for people to listen to their unique biological cues instead of external cues telling them what to eat.

I love the concept…but something felt off. After years of studying sugar and ultra-processed food, I know we can’t always rely on our internal cues to guide us in the right direction.

We might crave something because it has addictive properties, not because our body actually needs it. In fact, what if much of our food supply is specifically designed to keep us coming back for more?

To answer this question, let’s start by exploring something sweet: added sugar.

A Sweet Reward?

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Sugar is added to at least 74 percent of ultra-processed food products, including both sweet and savory foods. Cereal, packaged bread, frozen meals, protein bars, yogurt and salad dressing can all contain added sugar (even if they’re marketed as healthy)

Check the label to see if a product contains added sugar, but be careful: sugar is concealed in the marketplace by at least 300 different names. Rice syrup, cane crystals, glucose solids and fructose all mean added sugar. Thankfully, the FDA now requires companies to list the amount of added sugar on the Nutrition Facts.

Research shows that sugar activates the reward center in our brain and triggers the release of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone. Usually, dopamine is released when we consume new foods, and it subsides after repeated exposure. But sugar plays by different rules.

“Dopamine is released in response to a sugar binge even when sugar is no longer a novel food. It is as if the brain starts to treat sugar like a drug,” Dr. Nicole Avena writes in her book, “Why Diets Fail.”

We also build up tolerance to sugar as our dopamine receptors down-regulate, similar to other drugs. The more sugar we eat, the more we need to experience the same pleasure.

In its natural state (e.g. fruit), sugar is not addictive. Sugar cravings even helped us survive in ancient times when food was sparse.

But the food industry is now capitalizing on our biology by refining sugar and adding it to most of the food supply. In fact, ultra-processed food accounts for 90 percent of added sugar consumed in the United States.

High-Tech Food Products

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Sugar is not the only component of food with addictive properties. The ultra-processed food industry specializes in engineering products to optimize their “bliss point” and “crave-ability,” as described in the work of investigative journalist Michael Moss.

Food companies hire highly-trained scientists to mathematically determine the perfect amounts of sugar, salt, and fat (usually in the form of inflammatory seed oils). Next comes an array of food additives to enhance the taste, texture, color and shelf-life of products.

“[The] formulas are calculated and perfected by scientists who know very well what they are doing,” Moss writes in “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.”

Moss found that food companies even use brain scans to study people’s neurological responses to different foods, especially sugar. “They’ve discovered that the brain lights up for sugar the same way it does for cocaine,” he writes.

How can we possibly trust our cravings when trillions of dollars are invested into maximizing the “crave-ability” of unhealthy products?

We could say no to ultra-processed food, or at least take a break for a while to recalibrate our internal cues.

I didn’t realize how addicted I was to sugar and ultra-processed food until I cut them out of my diet. Once I allowed my taste buds and neural circuitry to normalize, my “sweetness” threshold went down. Now, eating more than one cookie isn’t a problem — just a bite is enough for me!

Eventually, I added some refined sugar back into my diet as an occasional treat. My cravings returned with it.

The day after I consume something with added sugar, I start tasting that food again and crave other sweet things. Occasionally, I’ll even crave products I haven’t eaten since childhood!

Food companies are experts at using memory and emotion to hook us. Combined with alluring advertising, packaging, celebrity endorsements — and don’t forget our biology — it can feel almost impossible to say “no.”

How can we possibly trust our cravings when trillions of dollars are invested into maximizing the “crave-ability” of unhealthy products?

Who Am I Feeding?

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Intuitive Eating says to eat as much you want and honor your fullness. They explain that food even stops tasting as good when you’re satisfied. This is a neat phenomena to tune into, and I encourage everyone to pay attention to subtle cues while eating. But the signals can get distorted because food companies use a variety of methods to interfere with the natural satiety process.

For one, ultra-processed food is notoriously low on fiber. Fiber slows the absorption of sugar molecules, which is critical for metabolic health. Fiber also helps us feel full. That’s why we can eat a whole bag of potato chips but only a handful or two of raw nuts. In the refining process, food loses both nutrients and fiber, so our brain keeps begging for more.

The food industry has many more tricks up their sleeve. For instance, they use the term “vanishing caloric density” to describe products that melt in your mouth, like cheese puffs. Moss explains that these products send a signal to the brain that the calories disappeared. How magical!

The problem is that the food didn’t actually disappear. It’s still affecting us. But our evolutionary brain doesn’t know that, so it tells us to reach in the bag again…and again…and again.

Let’s return to fiber because its importance cannot be overstated. Fiber also feeds the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut, collectively known as the gut microbiome. A healthy, diverse microbiome is crucial for both physical and mental health — many researchers even call the gut our “second brain.”

When the microbiome gets disrupted by, say, taking antibiotics or eating ultra-processed food, it results in a state called dysbiosis. Dysbiosis is characterized by a lack of microbial diversity or an overgrowth of bad bacteria. These bad bacteria can cause inflammation, chronic disease and even unhealthy food cravings.

Yup, you heard that right. Our microbes have food preferences of their own. A high-sugar, low-fiber diet drives the growth of bad bacteria. These bacteria then crave more unhealthy food, which drives the growth of more bad bacteria…and the cycle continues. I don’t like labeling these bacteria “bad” because they’re just trying to survive — but we don’t want them to take over!

The good news is that the microbiome is constantly changing. You can help the beneficial bacteria grow by eating low sugar, high fiber foods. These bacteria will then crave more healthy food, leading to more beneficial bacteria and onward. Not only will your gut be healthier and happier, it’ll also be easier to make healthy food choices when your bacteria aren’t screaming for sugar.

Intuitive Eating in a Real Food Framework

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Let’s recap: Intuitive Eating says to feed the body what it wants, but now we know it’s a little more complicated than that.

Perhaps we’re craving a protein bar that’s marketed as healthy (even though it contains added sugar). It must be okay, we think, our body is asking for it.

But which part of our body is asking for it? It could be the brain’s reward center seeking another dopamine hit. Or it could be our bad gut bacteria trying to dominate the microbiome. Or it could be a combination of various biological mechanisms orchestrated by the food industry to keep us buying their products.

How can we clear the clutter and arrive at our true inner voice?

The answer is surprisingly simple: eat real food. Real food is anything that came out of the ground or from animals that ate anything that came out of the ground, according to pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig.

Real food is naturally high in fiber and low in sugar. It has all of the nutrients and phytochemicals our bodies need. Real food also contains healthy fats, which are critical for building cell membranes and promoting brain health. Best of all — real food is not addictive.

When I crave an apple, I know my body is asking for glucose (packaged with fiber to slow absorption) and all of the antioxidants. When I crave nuts, I know my body is asking for fat and protein, along with the vitamins and minerals they contain. And I know I can eat as much as I want because my natural satiety signals are online.

By eating real food, we can truly “honor our hunger” and “feel our fullness,” in the language of Intuitive Eating. We can reclaim power over our biology and trust our cravings again.

We can reclaim power over our biology and trust our cravings again.

Wrap-Up and Action Steps

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At my Intuitive Eating class, the instructor said to listen to our internal voice and hush any external voices telling us what to eat. But what happens when the external voices get internalized — when food companies hijack our biology to make us crave their products?

It’s not just attractive advertising, pretty packaging and enticing health claims anymore. We now have many internal voices telling us what to eat, and we need to figure out who to trust.

I applaud the Intuitive Eating framework and utilize principles of mindfulness and intuition in my own practice. But I urge us to examine our cravings and ask where they come from.

It could truly be our intuition telling us to eat something. Or it could be the food industry, aided by our brain’s reward center, gut bacteria and any number of other biological mechanisms.

I recommend bringing curiosity to your food cravings. Kindly ask yourself, “Who is talking here?” before opening the fridge. This compassionate inquiry can yield surprising answers and help you make conscious food choices.

If you are up for it, consider taking a break from refined sugar and ultra-processed food. It’ll help recalibrate your body’s cues so you can trust them again (and improve health overall).

If you decide to add these foods back in, notice how you feel, think and behave after you eat them. Then make an informed choice about their presence in your life.

“Give yourself unconditional permission to eat,” declares the Intuitive Eating framework. I’d like to modify that statement: “Give yourself unconditional permission to eat real food.” Save sugar and ultra-processed food as rare treats, if you choose to consume them.

By eating real food, we can reclaim our freedom of choice and be true intuitive eaters.

Give yourself unconditional permission to eat real food.

To learn more about real food, check out this article:

To learn more about how the food industry designs products to addict us, check out Michael Moss’s latest book, “Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions.”

To inquire about personalized health coaching or freelance health writing, visit



Manya Ronay

Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES®) and Internal Family Systems (IFS) practitioner specializing in eating and mind-body healing.