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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Intuitive Eating, Normal Eating

     One of the best things I did, back when I was beginning the recovery process for my eating disorder was to see a registered dietitian. At the time I thought it was pointless. Like a lot of people with disordered eating habits, I knew about nutrition. I knew what foods were healthy and which were full of empty calories. I knew the difference between so-called "simple" carbs and complex carbs and which vegetables had the highest amounts of which vitamins. I could have told you the exact calorie count of every thing on your plate and the saturated fat contents of every box of crackers on the shelf at the grocery story.

     It turned out that the benefits of seeing a dietitian, for me, had less to do with learning to eat healthfully than learning to eat normally. Some eating disorder treatment plans call this the "re-feeding process." I prefer to think of it as a re-learning process: re-learning how to eat like you did as a child, before fears of cellulite and white leotards and what people might say if you go ahead and eat that extra serving of mashed potatoes.

    On one of our first meetings, she asked me what I thought normal eating was. I can't remember what I said--most likely, I just stared at my feet defiantly as I was prone to do in early treatment--but I remember that she pulled out some piece of paper and read the following piece (which I learned later was written by Ellyn Sater: 

"Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it—not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is eating mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings." 

     I've carried this with me over the years, particularly, for whatever reason, the part about the cookies. Probably because I really like cookies. 
     What I like about this idea is that it allows room for all the different reasons we eat. In dance, we're often taught to think of food as fuel and nothing else. God forbid you enjoy food or choose what you eat based on taste or mood once in a while.  The whole approach in the dance and exercise world always seemed to me like, like, "it's really annoying, I know, but you need calories to get through this variation, so eat these chia seeds and raw nuts and drink an organic cold-pressed juice and you're good." (For the record: I like all of those thing but as we've discussed, I also like cookies.) 
     A few years later--after I'd moved to NYC perfectly "recovered" only to start a long cycle of bingeing and restricting--I attended a talk by Susan Berry of Evolved Eating. She talked about the concept of intuitive eating. My world changed. 
    Intuitive eating can be different things to different people. For me, fundamentally, is just means paying attention. Eating just what I want when I'm hungry (what I really want and not just what I think I should want) and stopping when I'm full or don't want it anymore. Some days this might mean I eat pretty much just fruits and vegetables, because that's what I feel like, then the next day eating lots of grains. Sometimes I take two bites of my sandwich before I'm full and other times I clean my plate. Sometimes I over eat--like holidays or special dinners or when I make something that's just really, really delicious--and I've learned that that's okay sometimes. It doesn't mean I have to restrict at the next meal or run five miles or cry or purge. It's just food. If I notice eating a certain food before I dance makes me feel sluggish or gives me a stomach ache, chances are I won't feel like eating it again the next time. Intuitive eating is a process of learning to be tuned in to your body, to trust yourself, to be still and listen.
   For various physiological and psychological reasons, this approach may not work for everyone, but for the most part I think intuitive eating is a wonderful, unfortunately radical approach in our diet obsessed world. Sometimes I still have bad days: days when I don't want to eat or I want to do nothing but eat. If I don't want to eat, I try to pay attention and ask myself why. If it's because I'm not hungry, I respect that and wait until I do. If it's because I'm stressed or tired or feeling fat or worried of eating in front of people, I work through that and try to feed myself. I'm not perfect and I don't have all the answers, but I'm trying. One day at a time.

  [P.S. How does vegan eating fit in with all of this? Pretty simple for me. I tell myself that if I really want something non-vegan I can have it. But because of my convictions and tastes, I rarely do.]


1 comment:

  1. In principle, it sounds so easy. I definitely eat what I want and when I want, but I don't always like it. I really love the way you wrote this!! I think this would be a great read for someone who is just starting the recovery process.