If my memory is correct, I was put on my first diet around the age of seven. Looking at pictures of myself back then, I see I may have been a little plump, but there was certainly no reason to restrict the food intake of a growing child, much less tell her there was something that needed fixing about her body. Feeling that something was wrong with my appearance so young set up a pretty destructive relationship with my body and food that I’ve had ever since.
I’m now 42 and recently gave up dieting for good. That’s 35 years of swinging around in a 60-pound-range and not being one ounce happier with myself when the scale was at its lowest. It hit me recently that if I kept at it for another 35 years, I’d have spent the majority of my life worried about my body, obsessing about food and calories, and never truly enjoying the things life has to offer beyond my superficial fixation with my appearance.
Awareness is the first step.
That realization was crushing – especially because I have a 10-year-old daughter watching my every move. I’ll be damned if she spends her life in the same body prison as I have. All the years of food-based support groups, therapy, nutritionists, diet books and apps, and coaches did not provide me with freedom from my disordered eating and body issues. So I didn’t really know how to even begin changing my thinking about all this. It’s not like I could just turn it all off like a light switch and give up dieting. But I heard others in the recovery community speak highly of something called Intuitive Eating (IE), so I tentatively began exploring if it could be something to help me with my decades-long restrict-binge-shame cycle.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Here are some of the main ideas behind Intuitive Eating. If we allow ourselves to eat what we want, when we want, and in the quantities we want (so, not restricting anything), our brains and bodies will eventually no longer feel deprived. We don’t want to feel deprived, because deprivation – even if it’s mental deprivation and not physical (more about that later) – leads to rebellion and bingeing.
For me, those binges often looked like “Last Supper” eating, because I knew I would have to eventually go back to being “good” again, starting tomorrow…or Monday. (Diets always start on Monday, right?) The bingeing would lead to a shame spiral I wouldn’t wish upon anybody. Also, IE says that eating for pleasure or emotional eating is okay, because food is more than just fuel. IE says if we allow ourselves to listen to what our bodies want and need, over time, the binging will decrease. No restriction = less need to binge.
The fear of giving up dieting.
To put it simply, moving toward Intuitive Eating was not easy. In fact, it was downright terrifying and awful at times. It often felt unnatural, and I was angry and scared and sad a lot at the beginning. And that makes sense, because it’d been quite a while since I’d had interest in listening to my body instead of telling it what to do. But now that I am (hopefully) over the initial learning curve of IE, I have some guidance and encouragement to share about this process. Below are some of my initial struggles with giving up dieting as well as tips for getting through them.
Tips from an IE Newbie
- I had to get honest about all the ways I “dieted.” One of the first tenants of IE is to let go of the diet mentality. At first, I thought this didn’t really apply to me, because I didn’t really diet anymore, per se. Rather, I ate the way I did under the guise “health.” But all those healthy rules still had one goal behind them – to control the scale. I avoided sugar and refined flour for six whole years because the 12-step support group I was in (Overeaters Anonymous) demonized them. The first time I took a bite of a cookie after those six years, I seriously looked around the room waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike me down into hell. That is not food freedom! I always considered myself a straight-up binge eater. It wasn’t until I got honest about how many rules I had around food did I see that I was actually a restrict-binge cycler.
- Don’t discount mental restriction. An interesting thing I learned was that our bodies and brains react to mental restriction (like thinking about weight loss, or planning exercise, or obsessing over what we will or won’t eat) with the same response, like a binge, as if we’d actually physically acted on them (like skipping a meal or over-exercising). Since I didn’t really consider myself a restrictor, it was often confusing to me when I binged. But learning how my obsessive thoughts alone could lead to a binge made perfect sense.
- Get ready to deal with “body love.” This was the hardest aspect of IE for me. There is an element of the IE movement that connects to the “body positivity” movement. I got very irritated at all these skinny people preaching to not fear the initial weight gain that often comes with IE. These tiny people didn’t have the same challenges as me, someone who’s already overweight. It seemed irresponsible to eat with wild abandon and not fear weight gain. It even sounded like an excuse to devolve into gluttony. However, I decided to trust those who’d tried it. I indeed ate with wild abandon for a couple of weeks and felt awful. The subsequent physical and emotional discomfort, as well as the threat of getting even bigger, made me all of a sudden appreciate my current body size. That’s something I’ve battled for through rules and restrictions for years! I don’t know if that’s the best way to accept a larger body, but that’s what worked for me.
- Let go of labels. Intuitive Eating is very clear that food is not inherently good or bad. Yes, some food has more nutrients than others. But letting go of labels helped me stop labeling myself good or bad for eating certain foods or successfully avoiding them. But accepting carbs after 20 years of thinking they’re bad takes time. I took the advice of a fellow IE-er and used a mantra of “ALL FOODS FIT” as a way to assure myself during this process.
- Take it slowly. This is my #1 lesson. My version of “tentatively exploring” anything is about as gentle as rubbing table salt into an open wound. I think most people with any sort of life-long obsession like mine probably also suffer from extreme thinking. We’re black or white, all or nothing, hyper-vigilantly active or paralyzed by fear. So when I decided to learn about IE, I went all in. I researched online, joined private Facebook groups, and signed up for free webinars. I interviewed multiple friends who used IE, read books, and pored over blogs. In essence, I transferred my obsession with my body to an obsession with learning about IE. I do not recommend this process. I didn’t know how to take care of my body in a way that wasn’t motivated by trying to be smaller, so I needed the education. But it was too much too fast, and I overwhelmed myself. Baby steps are the way to go here.
- Utilize resources. Okay, I just cautioned against overdoing the research. But it does help to have a few knowledgeable resources available for questions. My favorite ones are:
- Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works, by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. This is one of the original books to outline IE. Start here for the basics.
- She Recovers Foundation. She Recovers is the largest women’s recovery network in North America. They believe that as women, we are all recovering from something. I’ve been a She Recovers member for years now. Their retreats, coaches, and online gatherings have definitely enhanced my process around food freedom.
- Another great book that was recommended to me is Anti Diet by Christy Harrison. She also has a podcast called Food Psych. The Fuck It Diet, by Caroline Dooner, has great reviews, and I enjoy her podcast by the same name.
- And if you want the anti-diet industry’s straightest shooter, head over to Isabel Foxen Duke’s website. She has great blogs, courses, and other invaluable resources.
I wish I could tell you I’ve totally healed from my battle with my body. I’m not. I have good days and bad days. But with IE, my good days are starting to outnumber the bad ones. And that’s a hard-fought victory I will gladly take.