Eating Right for E.D. Recovery: A Crash Course in Intuitive Eating

I have always been interested in nutrition – not as a career choice, but as a personal hobby of mine. Maybe I’m just a nerd, but I’ve always loved reading about different vitamins, minerals and supplements that help nourish your body and mind. I actually enjoy learning about how different foods affect my body, what the benefits of healthy substitutes are and why moderation is key to eating a balanced diet. In this sense, my fetish for nutritional science has served my body and mind well.

My interest in nutrition is also a double-edged sword. You probably saw this coming, but as a teenage girl growing up in a high school where cliques and gossip prevailed, I developed many unhealthy eating habits that I would now describe as disordered. More specifically, I suffered from a pattern of orthorexic, anorexic and binge-eating behavior: counting calories, being afraid to eat “the wrong” foods and eating sweets to the point of sickness on my “cheat” days because I just wasn’t used to allowing myself to give into my cravings.

I’ll never forget the day I tried on my junior prom dress in front of the mirror and started crying because it fit more snugly than when I’d bought it a year before. I was already trying to recover from my disordered eating patterns, trying to rid foods of mental labels like “good” and “bad” – and though it was a step in the right direction, I didn’t realize that weight gain was inevitable when recovering from disordered eating. I was uncomfortable in my new body and, more importantly, uncomfortable with myself.

Knowing what I know now about mental illness and my genetic predisposition to anorexia, I realize that I was most likely struggling with an eating disorder at that time in my life. Like many young women, I didn’t seek help because 1. I was afraid of what my parents would think, 2. didn’t feel comfortable opening up to them and 3. thought I could handle my illness on my own. Luckily, though I was struggling in secret, I found the book Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, which introduced me to intuitive eating for the first time in my life.

This book was a complete game-changer in my recovery from disordered eating. I completely credit intuitive eating with gifting me a better relationship with food, my body and myself. And now, I want to share that gift with you – not just because it helped me with disordered eating, but also because it allowed me the freedom to enjoy my life sans guilt, sans dieting.

Because I no longer have to plan my meals down to the minutiae, or check menus ahead of time to make sure they have something I’m “allowed” to eat, I have the flexibility to go to parties, eat out with my friends and enjoy traditional meals while traveling abroad without fear of consequence.

To me, eating has become a daily ritual I actually enjoy. Not only is it something I do to nourish and fuel my body, but it’s also fun to try new foods! (Since then, I’ve eaten paella in Spain, enjoyed gourmet chocolate in Switzerland and even tried lobster for the first time – meals that would have been unthinkable to me way back when!) And I want you to be able to enjoy food, and your life, the same way – because it truly is a precious gift to be able to share those dishes and moments with the people you love.

What is Intuitive Eating?

You probably won’t read about intuitive eating in your favorite beauty and lifestyle magazines. Instead, you’ll probably see headlines like “What to Eat for a Flat Tummy” or “The Ultimate Beach Body Diet.” Basically, intuitive (or sometimes “mindful”) eating is the complete antithesis to that style of dieting.

Instead, intuitive eating stresses being present in the moment, letting your intuition (hence “intuitive eating”) guide you toward the right foods and trusting your body to do what’s right for it. In other words, if you’re craving a giant Frappuccino and a blueberry scone, let yourself have the goddamn Starbucks! This is what we call normal eating, or returning back to the patterns of eating you had before society and the media taught you your body wasn’t good enough the way it is. This philosophy can be summed up in two basic principles of mindful eating: 1. eat when you’re hungry and 2. stop when you’re full.

Why People Don’t Eat Intuitively

Intuitive eaters choose to eat this way in part because intuitive eating is the “default” setting for the human body. Think of it this way: when you’re born, babies cry when they’re hungry. Then they drink milk until they’re full – and only until they’re full. Unlike many of us as adults, babies naturally know when to stop eating. So, why is it that a baby stops eating when it’s full, but I feel compelled to finish the entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s – no matter how hungry I actually am?

There are a couple important factors that play into satiety and fullness, and why we learn to continue eating even when we’re not hungry (or, in the case of anorexia, refuse to eat despite our body’s hunger cues):

  • Firstly, adults respond to media messaging that, through classical conditioning, basically teaches them to be hungry when advertising tells them to be hungry. In other words, anytime you see a Dunkin’ Donuts ad, you’re stomach is probably gonna growl – regardless of whether you ate a snack two hours ago or two minutes ago. (I used to be an ad major – I would know!)
  • Secondly, adults’ emotions are much more complex than babies’ – after all, you don’t see babies sobbing into a pizza box when they’ve just gotten dumped by their boyfriends. A baby’s life consists of eating, sleeping, crying and pooping, so of course they’re not going to have the same rich emotional lives that we do. However, as a result, they also don’t fall prey to the emotional eating habits that many of us develop as adults. Thanks to media messaging and cultural practices, we don’t eat just when we’re hungry anymore – we also eat when we’re happy, sad, bored or angry, too.
  • Last but not least, we in America eat some pretty sugary, unhealthy food. In fact, even foods we tend to assume are healthy often contain hidden sugars – and don’t even get me started on Sweet ‘n’ Low or Splenda. There’s pretty compelling evidence to show that sugars – and their substitutes – are everywhere. The thing is, the fact that sugar is everywhere makes us pretty much addicted – to the point where sweeter foods don’t actually make us full, and eating more sugar actually causes us to crave more and more sweets. And, as you can probably guess, that doesn’t exactly bode well for mindful eating.

Tips for Eating Intuitively

Thankfully, we can adopt specific skills to help us return to our roots as intuitive eaters. The problem is, now that we’ve learned these unhealthy habits, unlearning them is often frustratingly difficult! That’s where these tips come in: to make it easier for you to recover from disordered, emotional eating habits and start eating intuitively.

If you’re the kind of person (like me) who needs the rules spelled out for you before you dive into something like this, I go into further detail about the steps to intuitive eating below…

(Side note: if you’re interested in learning more about intuitive eating as a practice, I highly recommend this video by Becca Bristow – Becca is a YouTuber and Registered Dietitian whose channel is dedicated to healthy, intuitive eating. She’s also pregnant with her first child – congrats, Becca!)

  1. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. As I mentioned previously, this is truly the core of any intuitive eating practice. At first glance, you’re probably going to think, “Pssh, this is easy – I’ve got this!” Once you start eating intuitively, however, you’ll realize just how deeply your emotional and media-driven hunger cues have impacted your relationship with food.
  2. Learn your personal hunger cues. Accordingly, the greatest challenge to the “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full” mentality is learning to recognize what hunger actually is. This means something different for everyone: since hunger is biological (or, at least, the hunger we look to satisfy with intuitive eating is), your body gives off its own unique signs and symptoms when you need food. This can take the form of lightheadedness, stomachaches or growls, irritability, fatigue or even feeling more emotional than usual.
  3. Pay attention to emotional eating triggers. Likewise, also pay attention to times when you want to eat but don’t feel your biological hunger cues – these are what we call “emotional eating triggers,” and may include anything from a stressful day at work, to a Special K commercial, to downright boredom. Regardless, these are the times your body is tricking you into believing you’re hungry – and subsequently overeating – to compensate for some kind of emotion. And when you notice yourself reaching for a snack to satiate an emotional, rather than biological, hunger, I challenge you to reach for a coping strategy – like reading a favorite book, taking a hot bath or making yourself a steaming cup of coffee or tea – instead of the refrigerator handle. This is where progress is truly made toward intuitive eating!
  4. Don’t multitask during meals. This was the hardest intuitive eating practice for me to adopt, and is one I still struggle with every day. By definition, intuitive eating requires you to be fully present with your food – which means no Netflix-and-chill with your dinner, or munching on Cheez-Its while chilling in the library. When you’re busy, the idea of forfeiting an hour of your day to focus on food and food alone can be daunting, but it’s also incredibly important to pay full attention to your body and plate so you can be tuned in to your hunger cues and satiety.
  5. Last but not least, don’t ignore hunger cues. For those of us suffering from disordered eating – especially anorexia – learning to acknowledge and honor hunger cues, rather than ignoring them, is the fundamental baseline necessary for recovery. It can be difficult to rewire a brain that’s programmed to think of the calorie count and relative “good” or “badness” of the PB&J you’re about to eat, rather than your growling stomach or aching head. But I promise you, it is possible to recover from your eating disorder and achieve intuitive eating…and it all starts with the decision to listen to, and make peace with, your body – right here, right now.

 

Thinking of trying intuitive eating? Let us know how it goes in the comments below!

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