Listen to Your Body: How Internal Awareness affects Weight

Have you ever tried to count your heartbeats without taking your pulse? It’s not like licking your elbow – you actually can do it! You have what’s called an interoceptive sense, or an awareness of the visceral signals that originate from inside your body. Your internal organs send nerves to the insula cortex of your brain, and this creates a kind of inner dashboard for your physiology – but what’s that got to do with your weight, or even your wellness?


A new study, published in Appetite, has found a link between interoceptive awareness (IA) and body mass index; the poorer your IA, the higher your BMI. Led by Doctor Beate Herbert, the researchers found that good IA allows you to eat intuitively, which means that you eat in response to your body’s physical cues, or when you’re hungry, rather than eating based on emotional cues. As you only eat when you actually need to, this helps you to keep the weight down.


However, it’s not so simple as just listening to your body; Dr Herbert also found that even though you may be able to perceive your visceral signals perfectly well, you may still choose to ignore them because you find them unnerving. According to Dr Herbert, ‘It’s not enough to perceive interoceptive signals adequately. Appraising these signals as positive or negative is a separate cognitive process, which also determines eating behaviour. One needs to allow oneself to act according to these perceived signals.’


Professor Manos Tsakiris at Royal Holloway, University of London, noted, ‘Studies have shown that interoception plays an important role in eating disorders. It’s linked to a deeper awareness of emotions in general, and anorexics – for emotional reasons – choose not to eat. But to date, we don’t know whether a deficit in interoceptive awareness is a cause or an effect of anorexia.’ Dr Rebecca Park, a clinical senior lecturer specialising in eating disorders, pointed out that Dr Herbert’s data was collected from a healthy population. This means that the results may not apply to patients with clinically diagnosed eating disorders, but she still believes in the potential of the results. ‘This mechanism could, if validated, be important in informing future interventions for eating disorders – and obesity, too,’ she commented. ‘The concept of “mindful eating,” to help those with binge eating, builds on this premise.’

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