Do You Struggle with Food?Are you constantly thinking about food? Wondering what or when you'll next eat, afraid you'll go overboard for the day? Do you frequency try to ignore a nagging hunger? Do you find yourself reviewing your intake and planning ahead based on what you've already consumed? Do you think there's a "right way" and a "wrong way" to eat? Have you tried most diets out there, only to give up, defeated after days or weeks or months? Has your weight yo-yo'ed with each new diet attempt? Are you caught up in a cycle of monitoring your intake carefully and then emotional- or binge-eating when you're not? Is food a constant struggle?
It doesn't have to be.The fact is, if you're thinking or worrying about food a large part of your day, you're likely not eating enough. You're probably restricting your overall intake - or certain types of food - toward the goal of weight loss or weight control. This leaves you perpetually underfed and likely anxious and irritable at times.
Diet Culture and Disordered EatingMost of us are heavily schooled in diet culture. We're aware of what kinds of foods we "should" and "shouldn't" eat and we've likely internalized a number of food rules that impact when and how much we eat. Some of us might just dabble in diets from time to time. For others, the behaviors become more extreme, devolving into disordered eating and, in some cases, clinical eating disorders.
Diet culture is what separates you from your innate preferences and rhythms around food. It tells you that you shouldn't eat after a certain time at night and that you should limit your amount of certain types of foods. It tells you that your plate should be small and that you should stop eating at the first sign of hunger fading, never experiencing the physical and psychological sensation of being full. It values "honorable" food choices over comfort and satisfaction.
But these rules are not for you.
What Is Intuitive Eating?What if there was another way? There is.
Intuitive eating, as developed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (in their publications of the same name) encourages us to return to our innate ability to trust ourselves and our bodies with food. The 10 Principles of intuitive eating include (quoted directly from their site):
1. Reject the Diet Mentality 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.
2. Honor Your Hunger Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food.
3. Make Peace with Food Call a truce, stop the food fight! 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. When you finally “give-in” to your forbidden food, eating will be experienced with such intensity, it usually results in Last Supper overeating, and overwhelming guilt.
4. Challenge the Food Police Scream a loud “NO” to thoughts in your head that declare you’re “good” for eating minimal calories or “bad” because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created . The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loud speaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in returning to Intuitive Eating.
5. Respect Your Fullness Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full. Pause in the middle of a meal or food and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what is your current fullness level?
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor The Japanese have the wisdom to promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy living In our fury to be thin and healthy, we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence–the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes much less food to decide you’ve had “enough."
7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food Find ways to comfort , nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.
8. Respect Your Body Accept your genetic blueprint. Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size. But mostly, respect your body, so you can feel better about who you are. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.
9. Exercise–Feel the Difference Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm. If when you wake up, your only goal is to lose weight, it’s usually not a motivating factor in that moment of time.
10. Honor Your Health–Gentle Nutrition Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts.
Incorporating Intuitive Eating into Your LifeDespite how "intuitive" intuitive eating might sound, learning to practice these principles can present a significant challenge for many. Eating intuitively might create anxiety as you forsake your food rules in lieu of trusting your body, from which you've disconnected following years of dieting. Rejecting the diet mentality, and eating according to hunger and fullness cues, can feel like free-falling without a parachute. . . at first. You probably will struggle with making food choices and knowing how to trust when you're actually hungry and when you've eaten to satisfaction. You might try to turn intuitive eating into a diet, berating yourself for eating emotionally or eating past fullness on occasion.
If you experiment with intuitive eating, you might worry that your eating will be chaotic, that you'll never settle in to a balance of food preferences guided by "gentle nutrition," or that you'll gain a large (or for some, even a small) amount of weight. You might worry that if you loosen the reins on exercise, you'll never move your body again. You might fear that without food to cope, you won't be able to handle emotions like sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, or states like boredom, loneliness, or uncertainty.
These are all typical concerns when someone begins to eat intuitively.But, with time and consistent commitment to these principles, something will start to shift. You might notice that you're not thinking about food all day, every day. Sure, you might wonder what you'll eat later, check out the menu of a restaurant you hope to try, or indulge in a specific craving, but the food reel that once occupied your mind isn't playing front-and-center all the time. You might notice that you're more relaxed around food, especially when presented with large spreads, like buffets. You might notice your preferences starting to shift. You might realize that you're not constantly low-grade hungry and that your fullness and satisfaction last you a while. When you're full, you might be able to stop eating, even if there's still food on your plate, knowing that another eating opportunity is right around the corner and available as soon as you want it. You might realize, likely after the fact, that you were able to tolerate a difficult emotion or experience without turning to food. You might begin to think about food as an enjoyable part of your life, not the enemy.
These shifts will occur gradually, and you might not notice them at first, but you will notice them. You might even start to live more intuitively, honoring your preferences regarding how you spend your time and with whom and trusting your mind and body to guide you with wisdom and clarity. "No, that just doesn't feel right for me," you'll say.
Diet culture will try harder to reclaim you.At every turn, diet culture will try to suck you right back in. Your television and computer will beckon you with promises of a thinner you. Your friends and Facebook feed will share how the latest diet trend helped them drop 20% of their body weight. Your colleagues will share with pride how much better they feel now that they're avoiding whatever they're avoiding. You'll start to think, "Maybe just one more time." The "shoulds" will try to lasso you away from yourself. There's something so seductive about a plan.
But, then you'll realize that such seduction is an empty promise. Sure, dieting can result in weight-loss, but the majority of people who diet gain back the weight they lost (and often more). Dieting will follow through on some promises, though. What dieting once again will bring you is a hyperfocus on food. You'll lose time, energy, and bandwidth spent fixating on what you eat. You'll pass up opportunities to socialize with friends and family, afraid of the food they'll serve. You lose trust in your body's signals, alerting you to hunger and fullness as they naturally will. This is the diet guarantee.
How Gatewell Can HelpOur therapists and registered dietitian are trained in intuitive eating. We've helped countless people (including ourselves!) develop healthier relationships with food. We can help you understand how dieting has failed you (that's right, how dieting has failed you, not the other way around) and help you implement the principles of intuitive eating so that eating and food are returned to their rightful places in your life - opportunities for nourishment and pleasure, without all of the obsession, stress, and baggage you've accumulated along the way. At some point in your life, maybe childhood - or even infancy - you knew how to do this eating thing like a natural. That innate way of interacting with food can, with the right set of skills, be relearned. You can learn to respect your mind and body enough to trust them to guide your behavior, not some external, money-hungry source. You can learn to live according to what feels right for you.
If you're ready to get off the diet roller coaster, to say farewell to weight-loss gimmicks and yo-yo attempts at managing your weight, we're here to help. Food is simply food, and we want to help you live the rest of your life more peacefully and intuitively and without a constant struggle. Contact us to find out how.
*This piece was originally focused on the Gatewell Therapy Center blog.
You can find Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation's Fixation with Food and Weight on Amazon (as a paperback and Kindle) and at BarnesandNoble.com.