I’ve been in eating disorder recovery since 2015, and over the past 3 years, I’ve been actively working towards eating intuitively – giving up all diet plans, calorie counting and food measuring to instead just eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. I tend to call it “eating like a normal person” and it’s a work in progress.
The last 4+ weeks of self-isolation have presented a few unexpected hiccups in my “eating like a normal person” journey. I’ll be reflecting on those in the third section of this blog, so if you already know what Intuitive Eating is and how I modify it slightly for myself, skip on down. If not:
What is Intuitive Eating?
This style of eating (when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full) is like I said earlier, just eating like a normal person. But of course there’s a fun term for that, which is Intuitive Eating (with caps, it’s a thing). Intuitive Eating, the formal practice put forth in a book of the same name by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, had always scared me. I read the book at the suggestion of a previous therapist, and it was probably too early in my recovery to take that step.
Tribole and Resch outline 10 principles to successfully quit chronic dieting and transition to eating intuitively. First, practitioners are asked to “reject the diet mentality,” which essentially translates to accepting that all the ‘miracle diets” and quick fixes we’re pitched are nonsense. Agreed. You are also meant to accept that dieting for the purpose of weight loss in any way is harmful. This is a sticking point for me, but we’ll come back to that.
Next, we’re challenged to “honor our hunger,” which means it’s time to eat. Eat whatever and however much you want. No matter what that means. Do I want to eat an entire bucket of salad? Cool. Do I want to eat a family sized package of Double-Stuf Oreos (yes I do)? Cool.
And so this is where I’d always get stuck. Step three, “make peace with food,” never came, because the idea of step two scared me to death. I was certain that if I “honored my hunger” that I’d really just honor myself right into a pre-diabetic state eating nothing but my usual binge foods. I just wasn’t ready to accept this ideology.
How I Made Eating Intuitively Work for Me
In my mind, Intuitive Eating was not possible for me. I work in health and fitness, I believe that intentional weight loss is both possible and positive, and I was not (and am not) prepared to throw those beliefs away. If you continue going through the 10 principles (and I’d really encourage you to do so or even read the book), you’ll see that once you reach the point of truly eating intuitively, weight loss is possible, though never intentional. It’s also possible the practitioner will NOT lose weight, and that’s also okay.
I couldn’t see this at the time, but that was exactly the mindset I needed. I eventually put together that my disordered eating really was based on habit (shout out to Kathryn Hansen’s book Brain Over Binge for helping me get there), and learning how to break that habit brought me back to Intuitive Eating. The “cue” that led to my binge eating behavior was caloric and life-style restriction brought on through strict weighing and measuring – or dieting.
Because of my training goals, I recognize that I sometimes need to prioritize foods that may not be exactly what my body is craving. The most obvious example is protein consumption. I don’t tend to naturally want to eat enough protein, so need to actively think about it when making meals. Additionally, I had my gall bladder removed 10 years ago, so need to consider my fat intake at meals as well. But that’s really all a part of intuitive eating – it’s not just about giving in to every craving, but giving your body what it needs to thrive.
Is this Intuitive Eating in the strictest sense? Maybe not. But in my opinion, the base of the program was intact – letting the idea of losing weight go and tuning in to hunger cues.
In the Time of Corona
Let me start out by saying that I’m extremely grateful to still have some money saved, a roof over my head, enough to eat, and friends and family willing to help when I need it. I recognize that waxing poetic about intuitive eating during a global pandemic is pretty much the definition of a first world problem. I still think examining the emotions around food in these unique times can be useful for others in recovery.
Before actually being in quarantine, I worried about boredom eating and weight gain (insert any of the thousands of “Quarantine 15” memes here). I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t buy any foods that I could easily binge on – an obvious sign that I still have a lot of work to do around my relationship with food. And predictably, not allowing those foods and not having the ability to get food whenever I wanted created some unexpected feelings of restriction. In this case, I was able to look at those anxious feelings objectively – I didn’t have the variety of food I’m used to, but still plenty of it. I had the ability to go to the store if absolutely necessary, but going just to satisfy a binge urge that’s popped up for no logical reason would be the definition of unnecessary travel.
Eating got a little more (or really, less) interesting when I moved into a more strict quarantine situation. I’m currently staying in someone else’s home, and brought only enough food to get me through these two weeks, supplemented by dinners prepared for me by others. Typically, the lack of control would be a huge trigger for me in times of stress. Control is an integral part of how my ED works, and I had voluntarily given up control of my a portion of my diet during this time.
In this situation, having a predictable, even repetitive, meal plan helped me regain feelings of autonomy. Since I only had two weeks worth of food, I couldn’t really give into any binge urges brought on my feeling restricted. So everyday I woke up, went through my morning routine, and ended it with the same exact bowl of protein oatmeal with banana, almonds, and honey. Every single day. And while that might sound awful to a lot of people, to me it was just part of the routine that I looked forward to every morning. It helped me feel grounded, and having a structure around the day helped take away some of the extreme weirdness of quarantine. I understand now why meal plans are pushed so hard early in the recovery process. Despite being a few years in, I feel this change has benefitted me.
So it’s not all bad. I’m looking at these realizations as being a part of my ongoing recovery. I can be grateful for quarantine on some level, for showing me that I’m capable of giving up a little control around the food I eat, that the anxiety of restriction is temporary and doesn’t need to be met with immediate response.
I’ve been missing cooking, and fresh fruits and veggies in copious amounts. I hope that when I do get settled in to a new home in a few days, I won’t take those things for granted anymore. I’ll continue making meal times part of my daily routine, while enjoying having a bit more flexibility in what I’m consuming. And honestly, I’m looking forward to having a night set aside to watch a movie and eat as much Oreo ice cream as I want, because while it may not be necessary for my body physiologically, food can sometimes be a great comfort, no strings attached.