My Journey to Intuitive Eating – How letting go of food rules and diet culture helped me feel less crazy around food, stop late night snacking, stop obsessing about what I ate, and ultimately made me feel energized, strong and beautiful in my body.
If I had my marketer’s hat on I would want to show you some kind of catchy before and after photo to get your attention and all the *cLiCkS* – but instead I’m putting my empathetic human hat on because there aren’t any sexy before and after pics. All there I’ve got to show is an abundance of happiness, peace and self-love.
I think that fact, the fact that my life is more full and magical than I could have ever expected, without some sexy “before and after,” says absolutely everything about intuitive eating. All I’ve got to show is everything I thought I would get if I had the “goal body”. It says everything about what drives me nuts around how we’re marketed to by diet (and pseudo diet) companies. They pray on our human nature. We all love a good before and after photo because humans are visual story tellers. Not all powerful transformations need a photo, nor do they have a perfectly crafted story arch.
I could go on a full rant about the diet industry, but that’s not the point of today’s post. Today I wanted to share how I discovered intuitive eating, and how it helped me live my damn life again.
I Was Stuck in Pseudo Eating Disorder Recovery for Years
I want to paint a picture of a pretty rough time in my life that, at the time, didn’t feel super rough because I was numb. I think there are some times when we know we’re going through hell because everything hurts and we’re drowning. Then there are other times when we’re kind of oblivious to our shit because we’ve successfully numbed it out. The second one is scarier to me, because we can waste years there without realizing it.
So let us rewind to 2015, when I was living in Boston. A typical day looked like waking up at 6am, meticulously putting together my lunch and breakfast, which were my primary, yet fleeting, sources of happiness and control. I headed to the gym where I ran on the treadmill for 30 minutes, which never felt good enough.
I sat in my car in the parking lot at work for at least two songs, procrastinating the inevitable. I rationed out my lunch and snacks throughout the day to give me something to look forward to. My stomach was always bloated even though I was trying so hard to eat perfectly. I had started using myFitnessPal (again) even though I knew that counting calories made me feel like shit.
I was starting to realize that my food control was really just a way to deal with my lack of control: as evidenced here. However, I still firmly followed food rules and believed there was a right and wrong way to eat. My life revolved around food. Whether it was not eating it, preparing it, blogging about it, counting it, there wasn’t a ton of space for other parts of myself.
This was my M.O. for a long time. I had recovered from anorexia, yet still kept so many of the disordered thoughts and allowed food to be my number one coping mechanism. I believed, whether I consciously acknowledged it or not, that being in a smaller body would bring me more happiness.
How I not totally on purpose discovered intuitive eating
So first before I dive into the steps I took (not totally consciously) I want to say that I have not read the intuitive eating book. I’m using the term “intuitive eating” to describe a rule free, hunger guided way of eating. I know there’s more detail than that in the book. I’ll also link some other wonderful resources at the end of the post.
I’m sharing the steps that I took, in hopes that you can see there’s many ways to get back in touch with your intuition around food. This is less of a “how to” post and more of a “this worked for me, take what resonates with you and leave the rest” kind of post.
In the spring of 2016, the perfect storm of intuition blew into my life. I have a hunch it all came at the right time. I had trusted my gut big time by moving home, so I think I was receptive to change, growth and a different way of being outside my super structured life.
I stopped measuring food in any way
Over the years since developing and eating disorder I’ve dabbled on and off with counting calories, measuring food, counting macros, taking photos, all of it. I knew that when I stopped counting, I felt less crazy around food, period. In my experience, food just tastes and feels better when you’re not obsessed with it’s every component. I’ve also learned that when you’re tracking everything you eat, as soon as you finish the food, you feel empty.
It took a long time to stop tracking food in my head. App or no app, once you’ve tracked for a while, you still remember how many calories everything has. This process can be really slow. I believe it’s crucial. Give yourself grace, like lots of it, as you let go of food being attached to numbers.
I took a break from any kind of structured exercise routine
For me this was pivotal. My relationship with fitness was never about pure movement, I think it was always about weight control. I didn’t realize how much baggage working out held for me until I slowed my roll. This is a really tough move for anyone who has been a chronic or over exerciser. I struggled a lot with taking a break, however I knew it was the right thing to do.
Taking a break was the best example for me to see that not working multiple times a week won’t make me unhealthy. In fact, I noticed that I had more energy once I had taken a break. I could prioritize sleep over running that extra mile. Looking back I’m sure my adrenals were fried and that this long period of rest was exactly what my body needed.
Taking the break really helped solidify that exercise doesn’t have to be about maintaining a certain body, it can be a source of joy. I finally felt the freedom to move however I wanted. I didn’t have to run just because that’s what I had always done. I could rollerblade because it felt good. Practice restorative yoga because it felt good.
I spent time outside the healthy living sphere and realized how good normal feels
I think one of the most healing things was spending time with people who were normal about their health. It’s important, but their world doesn’t revolve around it. I look up to my mom and sister as two of the best examples of intuitive eaters. They eat whole foods and prioritize health, but never talk negatively about “bad foods.” They celebrate occasions by enjoying the food without starving then binging. They’ve stayed the same shape for years because they aren’t constantly trying to lose weight then ending up gaining it back.
Spending time with normal eaters and folks who’s primary hobbies and passions don’t have to do with food and health was such a breath of fresh air. I also started consuming more content outside food, health and wellness. It got me excited about parts of myself that felt dormant for years. I also got rid of a lot of sources of conscious and subconscious diet culture in my on and offline feeds.
I Ate “Off-Limits Food” at Dinner
Dinners were always a source of stress for me. For so long, I would eat small, mostly vegetable, dinners. No surprise I always craved something sweet an hour later. Rather than have a small satisfying treat, I would overeat some combination of health food substitutes, usually while watching TV. I did this for years. It never felt satisfying or enjoyable.
Finally, and I will credit being in a relationship with a very normal eater, I started eating bigger dinners that included foods which used to be off limits. I started to eat pizza, pasta, cheese with my veggies. After these kinds meals, I didn’t really need anything else. I wasn’t hungry and I finally felt satisfied. Plus I could spend the evening doing something super fun with someone I loved. I wasn’t filling the void with endless amounts of granola anymore. Occasionally I’ll have some chocolate after dinner if I feel like it, however it actually does feel like a treat and I don’t feel empty when it’s done.
This was a huge turning point. After months of eating foods that used to be forbidden, I realized that my body actually didn’t change really. Or if it did, I was too happy to care. In fact, if anything I felt better. I wasn’t feeling bloated all the time. I wasn’t constantly thinking about what to eat.
Food Doesn’t Have to be Stressful
One of the biggest changes was the lack of stress around food. If I overate or ate something I kind of wish I hadn’t, I didn’t sweat it. I trusted that my body could handle it. I wasn’t breaking any rules so then next meal I didn’t go overboard. There was no “on” or “off” a plan. It was just life. It was just food.
Eating intuitively has shocked me sometimes. There’s no “normal” day anymore. Somedays I’m super hungry. Somedays I don’t get hungry until noon. Because food no longer rules my world, because I don’t have any “plan” to follow, I don’t fret when either situation happens. I don’t fret when I accidentally eat if I’m not hungry. I also don’t freak out if I’m hungry for an hour or two, but am too busy to eat. I know my body’s got my back.
I think ultimately the greatest gift eating intuitively gave me was a deep trust of my body. I trust that it knows what it needs. I trust that if I mess up, which I do, which I will, I’ll be just fine. And because I’ve seen how resilient and wonderful my body is, I appreciate it. I love it so much. I fill it up with yummy foods, with healthy foods, with fun foods and seasonal foods.
I think there’s this fear, I know I had it, with intuitive eating that we’ll “let ourselves go.” I get it. I really do. There’s so much pressure to be a certain shape in order to get love. You deserve love and have love right now, no matter what your gravitational pull on earth is. Right this second, you deserve all the love. So even if you have to face that deep fear of “letting yourself go” guess what? You’ll still be loved. And sometimes when you “let yourself go” life catches you in the best possible way.