You Might Be Better at Picking Nutritious Foods Than You Think

food selection

Yuliia Poliashenko / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A new study showed that humans have an innate ability to make food choices that offer an appropriate and balanced amount of micronutrients.
  • Experts say nutritional instinct also appears in certain cultural food practices.
  • This study may prompt more researchers to explore how to harness human instinct to optimize health.

A new study suggests that we can intuitively choose foods that meet our micronutrient needs with our innate “nutritional wisdom.” The study findings challenge the idea that human cravings are only driven by calories.

Mark Schatzker, a writer-in-residence at the Modern Diet and Physiology Research Center at Yale University, argued in The Dorito Effect that the health crisis in the United States is not a “nutrient problem,” but a behavioral problem caused by changing flavors in food.

Research has shown that some animals can select nutritious food based on taste. In Schatzker's book, he argued that synthetic flavoring in processed food could cause the human brain to falsely associate these flavors with nutrition.

Jeff Brunstrom, PhD, MSc, BSc, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Bristol, said he was intrigued by Schatzker’s ideas and wanted to put his theory to test. The two collaborated to study the effects of nutritional instinct by using images of food pairings.

The study participants selected their preferences from a variety of food combinations and they met choices were able to fulfill micronutrient requirements. “Vitamins and minerals do play a role in our preferences in the foods that we seek out and eat,” Schatzker said.

Interestingly, the participants also selected food combinations that offered just the right amount of vitamins and minerals. Brunstrom said he was thrilled to see that humans intuitively avoid nutrient excess.

The results suggest that humans are capable of making nuanced and efficient nutrition choices innately, Schatzker added. “It’s a smarter way to go about eating to make sure you get what you need—and all the little things you need,” he said.

Additional Evidence for Nutritional Instinct

While only a handful of dietary studies have focused on nutritional instinct, experts in other fields have also observed examples of this phenomenon in their own research.

“There is a lot of good anecdotal and evolutionary evidence that shows that humans get cravings for certain kinds of foods and things they need,” Morgan K. Hoke, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of biocultural anthropology at University of Pennsylvania, told Verywell.

Hoke explained that geophagia, the practice of eating clay or soil, may be driven by the need for certain nutrients.

Intuitive eating practices are also present in some cultural traditions, she added. Hoke works with a highland Quechua population in Peru who follows strict dietary habits during certain life stages—especially during pregnancy and postpartum. She said the Quechua tradition of eating very specific high protein grains and certain meats is intended to support the increased iron and calcium needs during this period.

Influences on Instinct

Despite evidence for innate nutritional wisdom, humans don’t always eat nutrient-dense foods because of different cultural, social, and evolutionary influences.

While humans do crave micronutrients, Hoke said, cravings for macronutrients—carbohydrates, fat, and protein—will always exist because our ancestors evolved during periods with unstable sources of calories. Instinct tells us to take advantage of these foods when we can get them.

“Things that are high in fat, sugar, and salt are always going to be appealing to us. And fast-food companies know that,” she said.

But understanding nutritional intuition can help humans make healthier food choices, according to Brunstrom.

“If you can address some of these big questions about the inheritance of this dietary wisdom and where it comes from, then the downstream implication would be that you might have the knowledge and wherewithal to think about how you change people’s food preferences and behaviors,” Brunstrom said.

What This Means For You

Humans don’t need to consume a lot of micronutrients to meet our needs, and generally we can get enough vitamins and minerals from our diet. However, even a minor deficiency can put us at risk for certain health conditions.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Brunstrom JM, Schatzker M. Micronutrients and food choice: a case of ‘nutritional wisdom’ in humans? Appetite. 2022;174:106055. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2022.106055

  2. Demi LM, Taylor BW, Reading BJ, Tordoff MG, Dunn RR. Understanding the evolution of nutritive taste in animals: Insights from biological stoichiometry and nutritional geometryEcol Evol. 2021;11(13):8441-8455. doi:10.1002/ece3.7745

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Micronutrient facts.