Note: throughout this piece, you’ll see words I’m actively trying to remove from my vocabulary, particularly words that cast moral judgment or define success in terms of thinness, italicized for emphasis and as a reminder that these are not objective or necessarily correct ways of viewing food and health.
Imagine that you’re at the supermarket and have an unlimited budget with which to buy any foods you’d like to eat. You can shop for the day, the week, even the next month if that’s your deal. Nothing is off-limits and you aren’t shopping for anyone but yourself.
Where do you start? Do you make a list or do you pick up whatever looks good? Are there aisles you skip? Are there shelves you ignore? Are there foods you hold in your hands while agonizing over their nutrition label before quietly putting them back?
I’ve spent much of the last year trying to recover from a lifetime of disordered eating, yo-yo dieting, and the aftermath of a decade on the binge-purge roller coaster. It started with a choice to prioritize my health in the wake of a profound personal loss. I knew that I had to walk away from an unhealthy relationship with food, diet, and weight loss that had haunted me for most of my life. But all that is far more easily said than done.
Where do you start when you need to relearn something as simple and natural as eating?
My relationship with food and weight loss was incredibly destructive when I first started this journey. I viewed myself as the forever fat girl (for me, an obviously bad thing) no matter how high or low the number on the scale became. My weight usually fell into a pretty wide range, but I couldn’t maintain any of those numbers for longer than a few months. Too high and I’d immediately sign up for Weight Watchers. Too low and I’d lack the energy and will power to keep up the diet and exercise routine that had brought me there. So for years, I swung between months-long binges and intensely restrictive diets. There was no in-between.
For most of that time, any food I really enjoyed would be off-limits because any food I enjoyed must be a bad food. I would only let myself eat things like pizza or ice cream on cheat days, which usually happened after I’d been restricting “successfully” for a few weeks. I’d see some progress, feel proud, and decide to give myself a day to relax a bit. I sometimes thought of this as fooling my metabolism, but I was very clearly only fooling myself. Thus, once I had that first bite of pizza or that first spoonful of ice cream, I’d completely lose control. I’d eat everything I could find, often making special trips to the grocery store for frozen pizzas, boxes of macaroni and cheese, pints of ice cream, and bags of potato chips. I’d stop at fast food drive-thrus on my way home and buy two or three meals at a time.
Then I’d feast.
I’d eat and eat until it physically hurt to move, until I hated myself for losing control and for being so weak.
Sometimes this would last for a day or two, and sometimes for months. Then the cycle would begin again. The foods that were part of the binge would have to be removed from my home so that they couldn’t trigger my bad habits anymore. I couldn’t trust myself with them, so they were discarded from my refrigerator and cabinets, even if it meant throwing it all in the trash. I felt like an addict, and I was honestly certain that if I just quit cold turkey and commit to not eating any of it ever again, then I’d be cured. I would be okay. The problem is, unlike most other addictions, we need food to live. We will always be hungry again, and the foods we hate to love will likely always be there as well.
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.
― Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and author of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works
Intuitive eating is a buzzword you may have heard a lot about in the last year, though it’s been around much longer than that. Intuitive eating is an evidence-based approach to health and wellness pioneered by dietitians/researchers Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who wrote the (literal) book on the subject.
Tribole and Resch designed the concept of intuitive eating to help people recovering from chronic dieting and disordered eating. The philosophy is based on ten principles meant to re-frame your relationship with food, exercise, and weight in general.
- Reject the Diet Mentality
- Honor Your Hunger
- Make Peace With Food
- Challenge the Food Police
- Respect Your Fullness
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor
- Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
- Respect Your Body
- Exercise — Feel the Difference
- Honor Your Health
These are not intended to be sequential, and this process is not meant to be linear. These are guiding principles for thinking about how we interact with food and our bodies, especially when we’ve been restricting or dieting for a long time.
They’re meant to help us be kinder to ourselves.
At different times in my own journey, I’ve struggled with one or more (usually more) of these concepts. It felt so impossibly hard to follow and the furthest thing from intuitive I could imagine because my intuition was so heavily influenced by all the rules I’d followed for so long.
I’ve been on a diet for most of my life, and if you’ve been actively trying to control your hunger and your caloric intake for over twenty years, in service of thinness, it is incredibly difficult to wake up one day and decide that you don’t have to.
The fact that we are all wondering how to get rid of hunger instead of just eating is insane. At this point, so many of us are so confused that we now think hunger is some kind of horrible problem that we need to heal with anything but food. But the answer is not tricking your brain by eating on a smaller plate, or filling up on water or caffeine, or trying the newest appetite suppressant herb. Eat. The answer is, eat.
― Caroline Dooner, author of The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy
Diet culture has given food a power it was never meant to possess. My thought process, my relationship to, and even my very vocabulary for food and health have been built around the need to impose control and manage consumption. I, like so many others, have so frequently assigned a moral value not only to food but to my behavior around it. Some foods are good and some are bad; sometimes we cheat and sometimes we’re perfect in following our plan.
This is, for an honest lack of a better word, bullshit.
Some foods are more nutritionally dense than others, and some have higher caloric values per serving. Some people cannot eat dairy, while others function best when they avoid gluten. But no food is inherently good or bad, and our own moral judgment should not be in question when we eat any of it. We are not weak or stupid or out of control or lacking willpower when we choose to eat the foods we want to eat.
Similarly, hunger is merely the way our bodies communicate the completely normal message that it needs food. If you feel hungry, it means your body is functioning normally, at least in that regard. We need food to provide the energy for all the other things we need and want to do, and hunger is our cue to provide our bodies with the foods they need and want.
But if you’ve thought about hunger as something that’s wrong with you for most of your life, as something that needs fixing and controlling, then how do you start to change that dynamic and “honor your hunger”? How do you make peace with something that has such enormous power over you for so long?
I’ve often described myself as “great at losing weight, but terrible at maintaining it.” At no point in any of my yo-yo cycles did I learn what it meant to eat normally, and I’m only now starting to understand why that is. For one thing, there is no normal in eating. Normal varies by person, by community, and by culture. What my normal is could not be taught by any book, program, or app. I had to learn what felt right for me and what I could manage within my day to day life.
For me, learning to let go of the rules I’d created around food and hunger felt impossible at first. I’d constantly find myself engaged in this internal dialogue where I’d bargain with myself over whether I could or should eat something. Then, if I allowed myself to eat it because it was a thing that my body wanted at that moment, how much of it should I really eat? Did I want that thing because I genuinely needed it, or because I was trying to satisfy a physical or emotional craving? If I was just eating to meet an emotional need, should I still allow myself to have it?
In so many ways, I still second guess my judgment about what I eat, but I’ve come to trust myself and my choices so much more. And along with that newfound trust in myself has come an additional gift I hadn’t been expecting: time. I’ve gained back all the time that used to be dedicated to thinking about food — food I had eaten, food I wanted to eat, food I should eat, ways to prepare food, ways to cut calories from food, ways to have alternate versions of the food I actually wanted.
Now, I can order lunch with my co-workers without spending precious time agonizing over menus to feel prepared when I had to give my order. I can make a date for pie and tea with my cousin without planning ahead for how I’ll make up for it in other meals. I can have a spontaneous date night with my partner without fretting about how much of our shared appetizers I consumed. The freedom that comes with this sort of blanket permission to eat what and when and how you want is probably difficult for non-dieters to appreciate fully. For me, it has been a powerful revelation.
All that time and worry and fear are in the past, and in their place are all the foods I loved and that make me feel good. And they’re pretty damn delicious, too.