Something I haven’t shared much is how I went from my eating disorder to eating intuitively. When I started recovery, I didn’t jump right into intuitive eating (I actually didn’t hear about intuitive eating until a couple years ago); I had a lot of groundwork that needed to happen before I could start eating intuitively. So I share this for anyone in the midst of recovery from an eating disorder, and for those who aren’t but want to learn more about intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is for everyone regardless of your weight, experiences, or health concerns. So let’s dive into my own journey.
First of all, what is intuitive eating? Evelyn Tribole puts it best here:
Intuitive Eating is a personal process of honoring health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs.
Intuitive eating has nothing to do with diets, meal plans, discipline or willpower. Instead it’s about getting back to your roots and learning to trust your body again. I will add that it is evidence based and has a great number of positive health outcomes.
For me, intuitive eating essentially means normal eating. There are no good or bad foods, specific amounts or times I need to eat/not eat, and no need to earn or make up for food. It also means honoring what my body needs and the natural ebbs and flows of weight and body changes. In my experience, when I focus on taking care of myself, my body will be where it needs to be and do what it needs to do. I can trust her.
Okay, so backing up a bit. You may be wondering how I went from controlling everything in my life, to letting go and trusting my body. You can read more about the story of my eating disorder and recovery here and here. When I first started my recovery journey, my focus was 1) getting to a stable weight, and 2) making sure I was eating enough. I was not at a point where I could start practicing intuitive eating, because I was completely out of touch with my hunger/fullness cues and I was not truly ready to let go of the diet mentality. I worked with a dietitian who developed a meal plan for me, which was exactly what I needed then. At a time where I couldn’t trust myself, I was able to trust my dietitian and the plan she made for me. For several years, I followed this plan (with some tweaks here and there), which did help me get to a healthy weight and learn my hunger/fullness cues again. A couple years into recovery, my dietitian would talk to me about eating more spontaneously and breaking away from the plan, but I could not imagine doing that. I did not trust that I my body would tell me what it needed, and I was still so afraid of gaining weight. While I was experiencing a lot more variety and freedom in food choices, I couldn’t fathom the thought of not following the meal plan, which had become my safety net.
The turning point for me in trusting my body was six years ago when I injured my knee. I was in so much pain, I could do no physical activity whatsoever. This went on for months (in fact, I still have pain), and at the beginning I was terrified of gaining weight, but thankfully I had the support of my dietitian and the resolve not to fall back into my eating disorder. I was forced to honor my body and trust that my body still needed food regardless of whether I exercise or not. This was the start of intuitive eating for me.
In the midst of fear and the urge to restrict food, I started tuning out diet culture and filling the space with non-diet messages. I began listening to Food Psych and reading blogs like The Real Life-RD and Immaeatthat, which opened my eyes to the whole world of intuitive eating and health-at-every-size. I literally created a non-diet bubble around myself to keep me going on the road of recovery. The more I learned about intuitive eating, the more it felt right. After living in restriction and rules (not just amount of food, but types of foods), the idea of following another diet theory did not seem right to me. Plus, I knew that if I followed food rules again, it would be a slippery slope back to disordered eating. I had had enough of all that, and wanted to once and for all be free! I wanted to feel confident with my food choices and calm and in control around food. I wanted to fully trust my body to lead when it comes to eating, exercise, and life. And, I wanted to make space for self-care and spending time with those I loved without worrying about food or my body.
I didn’t start following all the principles of intuitive eating right away. That’s honestly not very realistic because, intuitive eating is not another diet or food plan. There’s no pass or fail; rather, it’s a journey of self-discovery and connection to the needs of your mind and body. And that’s exactly what it’s looked like for me, a journey. One step at a time, I’ve let go of control, challenged fear, and learned to tune into my body. I will say that I am still learning intuitive eating; after years of tuning out my body, it’s been like learning how to eat all over again. What do I enjoy? What does hunger and fullness feel like? What does my body need right now? How do certain foods make me feel?
In a culture obsessed with thinness and health, it can be very challenging to stand your ground in honoring what your body needs not what you should be doing. Yet, the first principle of intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality, and for me this is what propelled me into intuitive eating. The Intuitive Eating website describes this concept well:
Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating.
Sound extreme? It is when diet culture is the norm, but I will argue that this is so very important to learning to trust your body again. When outside messages influence your judgement, it can be so hard to tune in. As I mentioned before, when I was faced with the urge to fall back into disordered eating, I filled my brain with positive messages encouraging me to trust my body. Rejecting the diet mentality has brought me so much gratitude for my body and peace around food.
Starting from this mindset, I began practicing the other principles of intuitive eating, meal by meal, day by day. When I was out to eat, I would ask myself what I really wanted, not what I should have. I started trying foods that I loved as a child to see if I still loved them. Instead of working out religiously, I learned to honor when I needed to rest and when I movement felt good. As my body continued to find it’s set point, I learned to trust the process and respect my body at every size. It has been a process that’s involved lots of grace and reorientation. Sometimes I feel like it would be so much easier to follow a diet plan, but then I think of how much happier I am now than when I was controlling my food and weight.
Everyone’s journey to intuitive eating will look different, and I hope that my story gives you hope that it is possible for you. What questions do you have about intuitive eating?
Are you interested in learning more about intuitive eating?
I work with clients virtually all over the U.S., helping women who are frustrated with dieting find freedom with food and peace with their bodies. You can also learn more about my intuitive eating coaching programs to see how you can find balance and develop long-term lifestyle habits, no diets required.