First, I lost 30 pounds the wrong way
I was going through an extremely stressful period of life, and instead of packing on more pounds (which is my tendency during turmoil), I lost my appetite altogether. I’d go far too long without a reasonable meal. I also was trying to bring my spending down to almost nothing, so I’d opt for 50-cent packages of ramen noodles or rice. Not fun!
The 30 pounds—which I’d gained over years of trying to numb sadness with food—disintegrated in a rapid 3 months. This put me in danger of boomeranging the other direction once I got back on my feet. Enter: intuitive eating, which has saved my relationship with food—and with myself.
DISCLAIMER: I am now recovering from a restrictive eating disorder. Read about that here and here, and then read on with caution. I no longer believe that Intuitive Eating is actually all that intuitive. It just turns into another set of rules to follow and can be incredibly triggering.
It’s not that I discovered Intuitive Eating. I’d actually read about it plenty of times prior. But I was finally ready to consciously put it into practice.
The concept, originally coined in its namesake book written by eating disorder specialists and counselors Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, is described as:
a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight, rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods.
Once the brunt of the stress had subsided and I’d gained back my hopeful outlook for the future, I realized that, while I’d lost pounds in an unhealthy fashion, I could keep the weight off in a healthy way.
While I’m skeptical about fasting, especially having struggled with disordered eating in my past, the period of unhealthy minimal eating did reboot my system in some ways. I felt more sensitive to hunger, fullness, and specific cravings. I was ready to slowly start listening to my body and incorporating flexibility and forgiveness into the foods I’d previously labeled as wrong, bad, or must-punish-myself-for-eating.
Self-love is at the core of intuitive eating
Corny, but true. Grace and forgiveness are acts of love, so when you give yourself permission to eat something you’d otherwise have anxiety over, you are loving yourself.
There’s a fine line here, as giving yourself permission to stress/binge-eat is not exactly self-love. It’s self-sabotage and self-punishment. It’s fear-based, and comes from a desperate attempt to quell a severe anxiety.
When you can 1.) listen to what your body needs, and 2.) look at the anxiety a particular food initially arouses, and say to it, “It’s okay. I trust myself to eat this in an intuitive and conscious way,” or even just “I trust myself to not beat myself up about this,” you are facing and then soothing your anxieties, instead of burying them with more actions that will, in turn, cause more anxiety.
It’s a subtle difference and requires more than becoming attuned to the body’s hunger signals; you must become more attuned to which thoughts are borne of anxiety and which thoughts are borne of love.
It’s all in the thinking
Thought patterns are a habit like anything else, and they take time, with gradual increases in exposure—like building muscle and endurance. There are no quantum leaps here. It’s exposure therapy at its finest: slowly incorporate opportunities to practice listening to your body, and to practice confronting the anxiety that causes disordered eating in the first place.
It’s not only an alternative to disordered eating
It’s also an alternative to all diets and any deliberate diet restriction. It’s a way of life, a philosophy, that quietly-yet-firmly says: I am trustworthy around food, and I know what is best for me.
Diets, even in healthy weight-loss programs, are dogmatic and require thinking about one’s daily intake like one would a financial budget. For someone with a disordered-eating past, this is a slippery slope to the scary restricting-bingeing-and/or-purging cycle. For someone with a healthy relationship with food, dieting starts to latch labels and rules to something that should be natural and instinctual.
It’s an ongoing process
This is all fine and dandy, but how do you actually do it? At the end of this blog post are the official 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. But before we get into those concepts, HERE ARE 3 OF MY OWN METHODS:
1. BE STILL AND LISTEN
I rolled my eyes at how often I read around the Internet “the importance of meditation.” Blah Blah. Who has the time to sit around and literally do nothing? Who has the ability to slow down the mind’s racing thoughts? What am I supposed to think about… and how am I supposed to not think at all?
My answer is simple: Think all the thoughts you normally think. Just do so in a quiet spot, with your eyes closed. Eventually, you want to strengthen the thought-habit of thinking about your body—how it feels, where the pains or discomforts are, how you physically manifest stress, etc.
The best way to hear what my body is communicating to me is by really focusing on my body. I recently read The Essential Ken Wilber, of which one chapter is dedicated to explaining the significance of identifying with your body during meditation, as opposed to trying to “transcend the physical.” I found this incredibly enlightening. Our spirits inhabit this body; why deny its ability communicate back?
Set a timer and sit for five minutes every day for a month. For each month after that, increase your time by another five minutes. You’ll start to really trust your body as an extension of your mind, and learn which foods you’re eating (or restricting) out of stress, and which foods you’re eating out of lovingly listening to your body.
2. FIND AN EXERCISE YOU LOVE
Love and exercise in the same sentence? Yes. I happen to love running, even when it’s tough. The challenge and the improvement I see each month keeps me going. I also love the sound of my feet hitting the road and the rhythmic breathing; it’s a different kind of meditative experience. It’s also a way of dealing with stress that doesn’t involve food.
You may not love running. Maybe you love dancing or tennis or walking or swimming. Figure it out by trying myriad activities.
Perhaps it’s something you do with a loved one or a good group of friends. Then hone in on the exercise that you most look forward to and enjoy.
3. START EXPERIMENTING IN THE KITCHEN!
I used to wish I was the type of girl who liked cooking, but I just could never become her. I wanted food when I wanted it and didn’t want to wait an hour for prep and cook times. This is because I was usually anxious at the thought of eating or preparing food, and all the calories along the way. Or I’d want something quick and cheap, despite all the calories.
Instead, I’ve learned that snacking every 2-3 hours keeps me satisfied enough to learn to enjoy cooking… and now I love it! It’s an activity I look forward to, and I make sure I eat enough to not feel ravenous and thus overeat by the time the meal is ready.
Also, seeing all the ingredients that go into your body, as well as noticing the care that goes into creating each meal, has really made food a more delicious experience. I savor tastes a lot more and eat more consciously overall. (And I’m eating like a queen almost every day!)
THE 10 INTUITIVE EATING PRINCIPLES
(Straight from the authors:)
1 . REJECT THE DIET MENTALITY
Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating.
2. HONOR YOUR HUNGER
Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food.
3. MAKE PEACE WITH FOOD
Call a truce; stop the food fight! Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing. When you finally “give in” to your forbidden food, eating will be experienced with such intensity, it usually results in Last Supper overeating—and overwhelming guilt.
4. CHALLENGE THE FOOD POLICE
Scream a loud “No!” to thoughts in your head that declare you’re “good” for eating under 1,000 calories or “bad” because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created . The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loud speaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in returning to Intuitive Eating.
5. RESPECT YOUR FULLNESS
Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full. Pause in the middle of a meal or food and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what your current fullness level is.
6. DISCOVER THE SATISFACTION FACTOR
Eat what you really want. The Japanese have the wisdom to promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy living. In our fury to be thin and healthy, we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence—the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes much less food to decide you’ve had “enough.”
7. HONOR YOUR FEELINGS WITHOUT USING FOOD
Find ways to comfort , nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.
8. RESPECT YOUR BODY
Accept your genetic blueprint. Just as a person with a shoe size of 8 would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size 6, it is equally as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size. But mostly, respect your body, so you can feel better about who you are. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.
9. EXERCISE; FEEL THE DIFFERENCE
Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie-burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm. If when you wake up, your only goal is to lose weight, it’s usually not a motivating factor in that moment of time.
10. HONOR YOUR HEALTH WITH GENTLE NUTRITION
Make food choices that honor your health and tastebuds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters—progress not perfection is what counts.
WAS THIS HELPFUL?
HAVE YOU GIVEN INTUITIVE EATING A GO?