Intuitive Eating is Hard

(Warning: Some talk about diets and weight loss below.)

I don’t feel good.

It started last night with a belly ache, continued with a bad night of tossing, turning and crazy dreams, and has culminated this morning with that hung-over wrung-dry feeling.

I don’t feel good because yesterday I ate a roll of Mentos, a bag of cherry balls, three Wurther’s originals, a dozen salt water taffies and two servings of creme brulee.

Was it a binge? Not entirely. It took me a long time to get through all that sugar, and I was hungry when I ate it. In other words, when I was hungry, I ate candy instead of some other food starting after I got home from the grocery store at about 2 in the afternoon and lasting until I staggered to bed at about 10:30. When I was hungry, I asked myself what do I want? And the answer was candy–all afternoon and evening long. But it did have the feeling of a binge, as I continued to eat food that I knew would make me sick eventually.

Was it a smart idea? My body is pretty much screaming at me “NO!”

Did I know better? Yes. I knew that I needed some protein to counter the sugar that was quickly putting my body into imbalance. But I didn’t want protein. I wanted candy. Do I sound like a spoiled three-year-old? I felt like one, too. And last night I indulged that feeling.

Divorcing exercise from weight loss has been a joyful and not-to-difficult process for me. I have a history of identifying as an athlete. When I was a kid I was never bullied for a lack of athletic ability, I was never humiliated by a PE teacher, the word “athlete” was never stolen from me, so I started this with knowledge that I have the right to athleticism in tact. Some people don’t have that privilege. And I do recognize it as a privilege. They have to rebuild and it isn’t easy.

On the other hand, eating is a firestorm of problems for me. I have been on a nearly constant diet (or preparing for the next one) for decades, even though I’ve never lost more than a few pounds on any of them. I also have some–I don’t know, traumatic stress?–regarding food. I spent my teenage years worried about how my brothers and sisters and I were going to eat. Later I spent a lot of pretty lean years concerned about how I was going to feed my own kids and myself.

Now I can eat what and when I want. (Another privilege.) And there are certain things that are hard to the point of feeling traumatic for me. Leaving food on my plate is really difficult. Not putting “enough” food on my plate is not easy for me either.

When I was younger, I binged. I never purged, but I would go to different fast food restaurants and get my favorites from each. Or I would hole myself up in my house when my babies were visiting their dad and stuff crushing misery with French bread pizza and chocolate cake and whatever else I could find.

My life is more stable now, and I haven’t binged that way in a really long time. But I still have a hard time with certain things. I can tell when I’ve had enough to eat, but I have a hard time leaving food on my plate, for instance. The last bites sometimes have that manic binging quality to them. And I’m clearly struggling with balancing “eat what you want, when you want it, until you’re satisfied” with my health.

Because I was really sick last night, and I’m not feeling so hot this morning either.

This part is so much harder for me. I want to eat intuitively. I want it so bad. But I don’t know how. I don’t know if it’s okay to say “that candy sure looks good, and it’s what I want, but I think I’m going to eat a meal instead.” Is that going against HAES? Am I supposed to eat candy for eight solid hours if that’s what I want?

This probably sounds really stupid to some of you. Like–hello, obviously Health at Every Size doesn’t mean eating pure sugar until you’re drunk on it and actually have a hang over the next day.

There are things I’m really good at. Things that I’ve mastered. I’m over dieting, for instance. I don’t think about counting points or going to weekly weigh-in meetings. I’m done. In fact, reading or hearing about diets isn’t even a trigger for me.

I’m at the point where I have stopped obsessively trying to shave fat grams and calories off of every meal that I make, too.

But this intuitive eating thing is hard. It’s so damned hard. If I choose to eat foods that fuel my body a certain way or make me feel a certain way, is that a diet? How about if the thought that I want to eat something enters my brain, but I choose not to do it? Is it okay to write down what I eat, but not the calories or fat grams or anything, if that makes me feel more secure in making food choices right now? Isn’t that a diet, though? What about if I plan my whole day’s meals in the morning, in writing?

I’ve figured out how to move for reasons that have nothing to do with weight loss. I need to get a handle on learning how to eat for reasons other than weight loss, too.

Here’s another issue. I am a fat athlete. In fact, it is likely that I will always be a fat athlete. But I’m afraid I won’t ever be able to run a marathon or compete in an Ironman if I can’t get a handle on eating past the point of satiety. If I make choices based on how they affect my ability to perform athletically, is that the same as a diet?

It seems to me that there must be a way to choose not to make yourself sugar drunk, even though that is what your brain wants, while still eating intuitively and not dieting. I just need to figure out how.

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Intuitive Eating is Hard

  1. Dee

    The Fat Nutritionist on that very question: Food You Like is Food That Feels Good

  2. blessed

    I really think you are raising excellent questions about how to select food in a way that is healthy for the mind/spirit as well as the body. I think wanting to eat something we know is not great for us is perfectly fine. I love having “dessert” for breakfast–I rarely bake, but if the MIL leaves some rum cake or pumpkin pie I always want it with my tea in the morning. : ) And if I pair it with some sliced cheddar or some nuts, then it tastes even better (those can be excellent pairings) and the added protein keeps me from feeling gross. And I can eat a whole bag of white cheddar popcorn for dinner (and do occassionally, on purpose!). I honestly don’t think that is bad–I feel truly that those eating choices are morally neutral.

    But then there are the times I want to eat so much chocolate in one sitting that I know I’m going to get a stomach ache. I want to do it, I crave that chocolate. But I know how I’m going to feel physically (not psychologically, although I am not sure that is an important distinction) after I eat it all, and so I choose to limit myself.

    This is not being a slave to “diet” or to “rules” about food use–it is just plain wisdom. I think it is listening to our bodies (to the body memory of the last time we over-indulged). It is wisdom.

    • outrageandsprinkles

      I think it’s really important to keep these choices morally neutral like you are saying. I rarely have something like donuts or pancakes for breakfast because I know it will make me tired, not because it make me “bad”. There is a certain joy in recognizing that I can choose to eat something healthy because I know how it will make my body feel and not because I am trying to lose weight.

    • I think just sitting down and thinking for a minute about why I want to to do something like eat candy all day long (not even good candy either, I mean, come on…cherry balls?) is an important step for me. Instead of just saying–hey I want this…and I’m going to eat it all because I can.

  3. Shaunta, it IS hard! So hard! I’ve been working on the process since 2003, I kid you not, and I still struggle.

    What I’ve found is that convincing your body that you CAN have anything you want, even when it makes you feel sick, is sometimes a necessary part of the process – you do it, and you do it, until your body realizes that no, this isn’t a joke, you really AREN’T going to diet again, and then you can move on.

    I would really recommend a couple of books – the first is “Overcoming Overeating,” which talks about stocking up on all the foods you used to think were forbidden but now aren’t. It’s a really helpful way to move into body acceptance and intuitive eating (and isn’t about weight loss at all – it was my intro to FA, in fact). Its sequel, “When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies” is fantastic too.

    Because I have PCOS and have to be hyper-aware of how carbs can affect my body, I fight this battle a lot. It’s one I”m slowly, slowly winning, but it’s hard. :hugs:

  4. outrageandsprinkles

    I get what you’re saying. Sometimes I want something I know is not good for me so I try to find a compromise. Sometimes I eat in anyway, because it’s what I am craving. I have been cutting way back on my egg consumption lately in order to watch my cholesterol but today I was craving a breakfast sandwich so I got two egg, sausage and biscuit sandwiches from Jack in the Box. I knew they weren’t necessarily healthy, but I wanted them, I was really hungry and I needed something filling, and at least I got a lot of protein. Had I not really been hungry I may have tried to ignore the craving. If I want to make breakfast sandwiches at home I will use whole wheat english muffins and maybe cut out the egg yolk and add some spinach.

    With sweets, I really get what you’re saying. I have a huge sweet tooth, I always have. Since I started trying to embrace HAES, I have gotten better about eating sweets when I really want them and not just because they are there but I still struggle with it. Recently I had a lot of days when I came home tired and not wanting to make a real, solid meal, so I would eat popcorn or sweets. I would much rather eat something wholesome and delicious than just fill up on junk that I’m not even craving. It’s really just about trying to find the balance between listening to what your body wants but also giving it what you know will make it feel good.

  5. Of course IE is hard! Our entire society is built around the idea that we cannot ever trust our bodies at all. We’re encouraged constantly to ignore our bodies’ signals, to think of nutritionally dense foods as a penance and sugary sweets as sirens calling us to our doom. We are never taught how to eat well. We are taught that we must follow outside rules and never, ever listen to our internal cues.

    And that means that when we start trying to trust our bodies, they sometimes give us crap signals because they know that now all bets are off and they can finally have things they’ve wanted forever… but our bodies no longer trust us, in a way. They scream for all the sweet things at once because they never know when it will all be taken away. You know, like a small child who is never allowed to be loud will scream like a banshee long past the point where it actually satisfies because they may never be allowed to make noise again.

    That means that sometimes we have to stop and think for a minute – even when trying to eat intuitively – to consider the signals we’re getting and decide whether there will be serious consequences to following a particular random signal.

    Note that I’m not saying don’t listen, or even don’t follow the signals that might leave you feeling horrible later on. Just be aware of what different sorts of eating do for/to your body, and consider whether you wish to amend an impulse for something that might feel good right this minute, but leave you miserable later on. Think about whether you want to add some protein, as blessed suggests to help your body process the candy better. Think, too, about whether the desire for candy might be your body asking for something sweet in general, rather than candy in specific. If that’s the case, an apple or a plum might very well sate your sweet tooth in a way candy wouldn’t.

    I remember a couple years ago reading a comment in a thread on IE somewhere. The woman had started having a desperate craving for gasoline. She knew, of course, that would be a Very Bad Thing to consume. So she sat down and thought about what it meant. As it turned out, there was a certain kind of beef jerky she loved that she only found at the gas station. She went to the gas station, got the jerky, ate it, and stopped wanting gasoline.

    It can take time to learn your body’s language. Give yourself time to understand. Let yourself make mistakes without beating yourself up. We all go through it.

    Seriously, people who think IE is easy have never tried it. But you know what? I would never in a million years go back to restrictive eating plans. You keep trying. Sometimes you get it blissfully right, and sometimes you take a giant misstep. It happens. Feel better soon.

  6. Lili

    It is Hard Work ! Have you read Ellyn Satter ? She is a wonderful resource.
    I am gonna tell you what my therapist told me. Trust the process and trust yourself. You are not “broken” for wanting to eat nothing but candy, there is a reason for that ( most likely you have been deprived of it for a long time) and if you allow yourself to eat candy as much as you want to, It Will Pass.

    The first summer after I started ED therapy, I craved pizza, greasy, plain and comforting. my awesome therapist helped give myself permission and for a couple of month I ate a lot of pizza, and it would make me feel sick because my GI track can’t handle that much fat and I would go back again the next day and make myself sick again. I tried to concentrate on it while I was having it: Do I like the taste? the texture ? Is it better warm or cold? Do I find that satisfying? How do I feel now that I am done? And I did end up becoming a bit of a pizza snob. I like that particular pizza at that particular joint, and that particular pizza at another joint and that is it. And I am really wanting it once in a blue moon nowadays.

    On the other hand when you do feel secure about your food sometime it is hard to interpret what your body is telling you. We have spend years trying to cut that line of communication off and it is tough.. I crave sugar during my period, but I know from experience that it is not gonna be satisfying and that it is not good for me (PCOS here too) but I also know that for me when I get that particular sugar craving a nice big rare steak will hit the spot way better than candy will. If I still want the candy afterward then so be it, I wanted candy afterall !

    i still have a huge sour candy craving after dinner and after 4 years (!!) of trying every kind of sour candy I could lay my hands on without finding the one that was just right. I finally figured out that my body is actually craving something to help my stomach do its job and that coffee with soymilk was what I was craving. I hadn’t had coffee after dinner for , you guess, 4 years. the first sip of that coffee the first evening I tried was a revelation !

    It is a process not a quick shift in behavior, after a while it stops being about nourishing and it becomes more and more about nurturing.

    • I have not read Ellyn Satter, but she’s on my list.

      That’s amazing about the sour candy. The human body is crazy brilliant, isn’t it?

      I just realized that the reason I probably feel so out of it is because my period should start soon–and I don’t have the gluten-induced two-day flu to warn me ahead of time anymore. So maybe my other oddities are just more pronounced now?

  7. TropicalChrome

    Sometimes, when my body is wanting something that I know is going to make me feel not so good afterwards, it’s because that something is fulfilling a need that, at that time, is trumping the need not to feel not so good. For me, it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I’ve learned that the not so good I know is (probably) going to happen is not as bad as what ignoring/not fulfilling that bigger need would do.

    I’ve also worked hard at changing my thinking from “OMG, I failed!” to “Wow, that didn’t work so well. What went wrong, and what do I need to keep an eye out for in the future?”. Because I figure it’s less about what I did and more about what I’m going to keep doing – and this is the data that helps shape my behavior moving forward.

  8. “What I’ve found is that convincing your body that you CAN have anything you want, even when it makes you feel sick, is sometimes a necessary part of the process – you do it, and you do it, until your body realizes that no, this isn’t a joke, you really AREN’T going to diet again, and then you can move on.”

    This has been my experience, too. And that complete and utter permission to eat whatever I want has been profoundly important, and I think it has also been the missing piece in previous attempts to eat intuitively.

    As with (almost) everything, intuitive eating seems to get easier and easier with practice and thoughtfulness, and you’re getting in plenty of both. You’re getting there. (And so am I … slowly but surely.)

    • I am so in the midst of this.

      I’m so glad we’re moving slowly, but surely together, Emily. XOXOX

      • Likewise! It’s amazing–and somehow sanity-increasing, if that makes sense–to read about experiences so similar to my own. You have no idea how often I’m thinking “me too, me too, me too.”

  9. Risha

    I think that I’ve lucked out (am privileged?) in having an easier time with this then you guys, because I’ve never dieted in my life. That’s not to say that I’ve never denied myself something for “balanced-diet” reasons, and I sometimes have trouble not clearing my plate when I’m no longer hungry (I grew up poor). But no matter my weight, I’ve never made an effort to deliberately restrict my calories. So I think the signals come through a little clearer for me. But that doesn’t actually exempt me from the occasional weird signal.

    I had a craving for a burger from Wendy’s tonight, and it wasn’t until I was unpacking the bag that I realized that I had a burger for lunch today. And that I’ve eaten McDonald’s for dinner the last two days. I don’t have a clue why my body is craving fast food burgers right now, but obviously something is going on. I could really go for a hamburger right now, actually. But it’s also telling me that I’m not hungry. So I’m not going to get up and drive to McDonald’s, because my head knows that those conflicting signals mean that if I were to go get a snack, I should grab something high in fat and protein from the fridge instead of the ice cream or cookies. Probably some cheese. But I’m not going to do it, and don’t feel like I have to do it, because I don’t actually want it. I think of it as a body “FYI”, and I’m guessing that I’ll probably want extra sausage at breakfast tomorrow morning. In your case, I’d give even odds that at some point yesterday, you (subconsciously) went “you know, this candy really tastes good and I could stand to eat a million more pieces, but I don’t really need anymore. Maybe later,” but kept eating because the underlying craving for a specific food was still there.

    Note that this is not actually a conscious process to me – I’ve spent the last several minute picking it apart for the purposes of writing this comment. Which is why I’m saying that I have an advantage over you. I’ve never trained myself to actually think about it, instead of just grabbing a salad for dinner because I feel like having salad and it tastes good. I don’t even really think of it as body vs. brain like I’m breaking it down in this. They’re the same thing for me when it comes to food. I want it, I eat it, unless I don’t really want it.

    • Interesting, Risha.

      The only serious cravings I ever get are for sugar. I have no real idea why. I wasn’t denied it as a child, except where money was concerned. I do have this theory though. I come from a family where alcoholism is a serious problem. As a drug and alcohol counselor I know that when someone goes off alcohol, they crave sugar. I wonder if my sugar cravings aren’t some kind of mis-wired alcohol thing. I don’t actually believe that you can be addicted to food, but I do sometimes respond psychologically to sugar in a way that is not unlike how an alcoholic responds to alcohol. For instance, I don’t think about the consequences of eating too much (that I’ll be sick later) until it’s too late. I think I might write about this tomorrow.

      • Lili

        You just reminded me of something else. Dr Anita Jonson said something extremely interesting on the Body Love Revolutionary telesummit over at bodylovewellness.com. She said something to the effect of if you find yourself constantly craving sweets, you might ask yourself what is the sweet thing that has been missing in your life. I thought it was very illuminating but never got the chance to think about it more.
        Thanks for reminding me 😀

      • Risha

        That’s really interesting, and seems plausible. Sugar is something that our bodies really respond to, and it gives us pleasure at a very basic level.

  10. Pingback: Defiant Athlete: Week 9 | Live Once, Juicy

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