A big part of my practice is devoted to helping people learn to use food intuitively – that is to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional need, and learn to feed their body according to those cues. It is about knowing the difference between gentle nutrition and strict, arbitrary rules that do more harm than good. When my clients are first contemplating the idea of giving up some of these food rules to follow a more intuitive approach, they can become overwhelmed at the thought of giving up control over food. And I get it, I was there once too. When I choose to give up my eating disordered behaviours to follow a more intuitive approach, I was afraid that if I gave myself permission to eat what my body wanted, I would surely only ever eat low nutrient-dense foods all the time and would never know when to stop. At to be honest, when I first allowed some of these ‘unsafe’ foods into my life, foods that had been strictly forbidden for years, I did eat more of them. And I thought of them more often. But it was really short-lived. Shortly thereafter, these foods started to lose appeal with me. I cared less about them. I obsessed less about food and body. Eating became a lot more of an instinctual reaction, much like breathing. When your body needs air, your lungs breath. You don’t obsess about how much air you will take in, or how long you can go without taking the next breath, you just breathe. And that’s what eating became for me. When I’m hungry, I eat, when I’m satisfied I move on to the next activity.
When my clients contemplate giving up their strict, arbitrary rules around food, they are hit with the fear that without rules, how will they ever know what or how much to eat? Surely, if they allow themselves to eat what they want, they will only ever eat chocolate and chips and never be able to stop. Well guess what, that’s actually not what the body does. Since my own recovery from an eating disorder 20 years ago, I have accompanied many clients through their intuitive eating journey and noticed that there are so many similarities to the process. The fears are almost always the same at the start and it often unfolds in a predictable fashion. So I asked some of my clients who have recently moved to an intuitive approach to share more about their experience. I asked them two questions.
1. What was/were your biggest fear(s) when you first started trying to eat intuitively?
2. Did those fears come true? What did you learn about your body?
Read below to see their responses:
AS: When I first starting thinking about eating intuitively, I thought for sure my body was different than anyone else who had succeeded at it. My body would definitely only ever want the foods I thought were unhealthy, and I would never stop eating. I was sure of this because anytime I did allow myself to eat a small portion of something outside my comfort zone, I would never want to stop eating it. It was like my appetite was insatiable.
When I finally decided that I was sick of living a life constantly obsessing about food and my body, I felt I had no choice but to give intuitive eating a try. And believe it or not, all those things I had heard about intuitive eating, that your body and appetite will naturally regulate, that you can live a life that is not all-consumed by food, and that your body will find a natural set-point, all those things actually came true. My body didn’t significantly change, but my life immeasurably improved. Looking back on it, I would NEVER go back to those days of restrictive eating. I convinced myself at the time that I wasn’t actually hungry, that I was more productive when I didn’t eat as much. That’s not true. Food and body consumed my every waking thought and I missed out on so much of life because I wanted to constantly be in control of my food and exercise. I can now focus on engaging in life, on connecting with others, first and foremost, as opposed to isolating myself and constantly trying to eat less and exercise more. I realized that that was the reason my appetite seemed insatiable, because I was constantly under-feeding it.
CM: It took me awhile to get up the nerve to try out intuitive eating. I had long tried to control my weight through strict dieting and over exercise. When my dietitian challenged me to give up some of this control, I thought she was crazy. Eat whatever I want? If I started that, I would never stop eating again!
But, no surprise to me now, that didn’t happen. I started slowly trying to give up control in one area of my eating and then another. First I started with increasing variety, started actually including things like dessert into my day. At first I would obsess about them. I started almost looking forward to when I was ‘allowed’ to have these foods, and I hated that I was so excited by them. But each time I did it, it got easier. After exposing myself to these foods several times, they actually lost their appeal. What was once something I constantly obsessed about but never let myself eat, was now something that could stay in my house without causing a second thought. Taking these foods off of a pedestal was essential to me being able to eat them without bingeing. Hunger is now not something I am afraid of, as I know it is always followed by satiety, if I listen to my body and eat intuitively.
JM: Before I began eating intuitively, my number one fear was weight gain. I was a calorie counter, so all I could see in food was calories. If I stopped counting, gave into my hunger, and all the food I was craving, I would lose control.
Initially I did gain weight and feel out of control around food. The easiest scape goat was intuitive eating. I could say, “see, I knew this would happen if I ate what I wanted”, and then go back to eating restrictively.
What I came to realize was that my fear of weight gain was holding me back. Moreover, it wasn’t really weight gain that I was fearing, it was judgement. Judgement from others, myself, loved ones, etc. As cliche as it sounds, I thought that if I gained weight, I would have nothing to defend myself from others seeing how I truly was. Sometimes things that we justify in the name of “health” can really be a veil for fears that are hard for us to name or put words to.
- “I will never find love at a larger size”
- “I will lose out on jobs at a larger size”
- “There’s no way that I can love and accept myself at a larger size”
If these are some fears that you have, I have some questions you might want to ponder. Are you happy now? Are you hungry all the time? Are you overthinking food? How much space does food, body, and exercise take up in your brain? Is what you’re doing actually healthy? Who told you it was? How long can you continue living this way? Will you continue living if you stay where you are?
As I continued to gain weight (which was necessary, for me) and challenge the foods that scared me, I began to think less and less about food over time. Slowly but surely, you stop counting down the minutes until the next snack or meal. You start to see food for its tastes, textures, and smells as opposed to calories, fat, carbs, preservatives, etc. The appeal in foods you previously labelled as ‘bad’ begins to wane. Now, to be clear, your appetite/cravings for these foods does not go away completely, but it takes on an ordered place in your life. One which is free from anxiety, shame, guilt, and pain.
This was by no means a simple task, but it is achievable. The greatest thing I’ve learnt throughout my recovery is that we all have tremendous resilience and tenacity. We are all capable of handling the ebbs and flows of life. More than just that, we can experience happiness, pleasure, love, and fulfillment regardless of our size.
If you feel trapped by chronic dieting, an eating disorder, or just struggle to love and accept your body, please know that there is a way out. Intuitive eating is a great tool to get you there. Plus, the counsel of a trusted dietitian, I know a girl if you need one.
JR: My biggest fear when I first started eating intuitively was the loss of control. I told Tristaca that deciding whether to eat intuitively felt like being balanced at the edge of a cliff and the decision to do it was like a free fall. I remember thinking, “what if I can’t stop eating?”, “what if I gain all the weight back that I worked so hard to lose?”, “what if my metabolism is ruined?” All of those “what if” questions spoke to the uncertainty I felt about the entire process. Calorie counting, restricting food intake and exercising obsessively ostensibly gave me a sense of control and certainly over myself, body and appearance. I believed that if I could just “properly” organize the way I was eating and exercising that I could achieve a sort of moral high ground as I began to look (and as a result, feel) more attractive. So, when I started considering intuitive eating, I thought I’d was essentially undoing all of that work and giving up.
Some fears came true and some didn’t, but somewhere in the process, I realized that those fears didn’t carry the same overwhelming salience in my life. I’ve gained weight, but realized that my body prior to starting intuitive eating isn’t where it was meant to be. In the bigger picture, the weight gain is such a small part of this process.
More importantly and, paradoxically, letting go of the control that I felt in calorie counting and embracing the uncertainty of intuitive eating has made me feel more in control of my well-being. Tristaca helped me recognize that I was counting calories and obsessively exercising as a way of coping with uncertainty in my life. “It’s about food, but it’s not about food,” she said. And it makes perfect sense to me now. Once I began to realize that, I understood that I was putting so much emotional and mental labour into the virtuousness of controlling my body and appearance that I wasn’t prioritizing doing the hard work of changing the dissatisfying, challenging things in my life. Those latter things are now what I’m focusing on.
I’m four months into intuitive eating now. I no longer obsess about food. Those food fears or fears of loss of control are much less present in my life. I enjoy what I eat without punishing myself for it later through food restriction and exercise. That hyper food focus is gone and I don’t fixate on the “bad” foods I have in my pantry anymore. I realized somewhere along the way in this process that intuitive eating was working because I stopped thinking about it. It was only as I started reflecting on where I had been at the start that I’d come a long way in such a short period of time.
So, have I gained weight? Yes. But does it matter? Nowhere near as much as I thought it would. How I perceive my body can be a struggle, but I realized that the goal I had of achieving the ideal body was an ever moving target. Even when I met my goal, I was never satisfied with the result. This to me, speaks so much more to the social expectations of idealized bodies and the burden of responsibility placed on individuals to achieve it. As though achieving it is demonstrative of being the best versions of ourselves, living the best lives we possibly can. Looking back on it now, I can see how swept up I was in that rhetoric and how much pressure so many of us feel to embody these social expectations.
LP: Biggest triumph though is that I’ve had 2 cycles! It took about 5 weeks from stopping the pill to get my first “real” period, and then about another 5 weeks for the second to roll around. Such a great feeling and I was so proud of this body for its hard work!
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A HUGE thank you to my clients for their thoughtfulness and openness with these responses.