Eating when you’re hungry sounds so simple. After decades of dieting, it wasn’t.
Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
I’m a chronic dieter.
I first started restricting my calorie intake in junior high, and I’ve been on some kind of diet ever since. I’ve tried low-carb diets, calorie counting, tracking my macros, keto, and Whole30. I’ve committed to increasing my exercise and eating less more times than I can count.
After nearly two decades of basically nonstop restriction, I’ve learned that I almost always gain the weight back. Dieting also creates a lot of negativity in my life, damaging my relationship with my body and food.
I feel anxious about my body and anxious about what I eat. I often find myself overeating when presented with “off-limits” foods and feeling guilty about it far too often.
I’ve been familiar with intuitive eating for some time, but it wasn’t until I started following a registered dietitian on social media who’s an advocate for the practice that I realized it might be able to help me step away from diet culture.
Intuitive eating provides a framework for an emotionally and physically healthy way of life by asking people to listen to their body as they make decisions about what they eat and how much. Although intuitive eating is based in making personal choices about food, it’s a bit more complicated than eating whatever you want.
Intuitive eating also pushes for acceptance of body diversity, eating based on cues from the body instead of cues from diet culture, and movement for enjoyment instead of for the purpose of weight loss.
On their website, the founders of the practice outline ten guiding principles for intuitive eating that help shed light on his way of life. Here’s an overview:
- Break up with dieting with the understanding that years of following diet culture takes time to correct. This means no calorie counting and no off-limits foods. It also means you have permission to eat whatever you want.
- Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Trust your body and the cues it sends you instead of relying on external cues like a calorie count to tell you to stop eating.
- Eat for satisfaction. Place value in food tasting good, rather than food being low-calorie or low-carb.
- Honor your emotions. If food has been used to cover up, suppress, or comfort difficult emotions, it’s time to let in the discomfort of those emotions and focus on using food for its intended purposes — nourishment and satisfaction.
- Move because it makes you feel good and brings you joy, not as a formula for burning calories or making amends for eating high-calorie food.
- Gently follow basic nutrition guidelines such as eating more vegetables and eating whole grains.
I committed to 10 days of practicing intuitive eating with the hope that this practice would become a part of the rest of my life. Here’s a look at all the things I learned during my time with intuitive eating and how I hope to move forward.
1. I love rice
I’m a previous ketogenic dieter and rice has been off-limits for me multiple times throughout my life. Not anymore!
By lunchtime of the first day of this challenge, I wanted a bowl of rice loaded with sautéed veggies, a fried egg, and soy sauce. When day two rolled around, I wanted it again. Throughout the entire 10 days of eating intuitively, I was a little fixated on certain foods that used to be off-limits and it was honestly really fun to follow those cravings without guilt. I’m not sure if this is because my body really wanted rice, or if this was a side effect of so much restriction in the past.
2. Eating good food is fun
One pleasant surprise from days three and four were my cravings for some foods I normally associate with dieting. There’s a specific chocolate protein powder I love but have always included in a meal plan for a diet. A few days into living a diet-free life, I found myself wanting to have a smoothie because it sounded good, not because it was a part of my meal plan.
The important thing about gentle nutrition is that it doesn’t mean you remove other foods suddenly. You can make daily food choices that’re satisfying and feel right without getting extremely restrictive about other foods.
3. My hunger signals are a mess
By day two, one thing became very clear — years of restricting followed by overindulgence and overeating has completely jacked up my hunger signals. Eating food I like was fun, but knowing when I was actually hungry and when I was satisfied was incredibly challenging over the course of the entire 10 days.
Some days, I’d stop eating and realize ten minutes later I was still hungry. Other days, I wouldn’t realize I had overeaten until it was too late and I felt miserable. I think this is a learning process, so I kept trying to be gracious with myself. I’m choosing to believe that, with time, I’ll learn to listen to my body and feed it well.
4. I’m not ready for body acceptance yet
This might be the hardest lesson I’m learning during this experience with intuitive eating. Even though I can see the value of accepting my body as it is, it isn’t really sinking in for me yet. If I’m being perfectly honest, I still want to be thin.
On day five, I experienced a significant amount of anxiety about not weighing myself and had to hop on the scale before I went on with the rest of my day. I hope that with time being a specific size will be less of a priority to me.
On day six, I spent time writing in my journal about how I feel about the people I’m close to, noting that what I value about them has nothing to do with their size. My hope is that I’ll learn to feel the same way about myself soon.
5. Special days are triggering AF
During this 10-day experiment, I celebrated my anniversary with my husband and went on a weekend trip with my family. It was no surprise to me that I felt really vulnerable and anxious about food during these special days.
In the past, celebrating has always meant either denying myself of any “special” foods and feeling miserable or overindulging in special foods and feeling guilty.
Navigating special days on intuitive eating wasn’t easy. In fact, it went really poorly. I still overate and felt guilty about what I ate when it was all said and done.
I think this is one of those things that’s going to take time to figure out. Hopefully, once I really get a handle on giving myself unconditional permission to eat, these days will feel less anxiety-ridden.
6. I’m bored
Afternoons often become a time of mindless snacking for me. Committing to only eating when I’m hungry meant that I kept noticing I was bored and lonely during the afternoons. My kids were napping or having their screen time and I felt like I was just wandering the house looking for something to do.
I think that the solution to this is two-fold. I do think I need to learn to be more comfortable with not filling every moment with fun but I also believe I haven’t done a great job at making time for enjoyable, fulfilling activities. I’m working on picking up a book more often, listening to podcasts, and writing for fun during these lulls in my afternoon.
7. This is going to take time, and maybe even therapy
By days nine and ten, it was pretty obvious that this experiment is just the tip of the iceberg. Nearly 20 years entrenched in diet culture can’t be erased by 10 days of intuitive eating and that’s fine with me.
I’m also open to the idea that I might not be able to do this alone. It was a therapist who first mentioned intuitive eating to me and I might revisit this idea with her in the future. Overall, I’m prepared for this to take a lot of work and healing on my part — but freedom from the hamster wheel of dieting is worth it to me.
Mary is a writer living in the Midwest with her husband and three children. She writes about parenting, relationships, and health. You can find her on Twitter.