Tag Archives: intuitive eating

Is Intuitive Eating a Good Idea in Eating Disorder or Dieting Recovery?

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Intuitive eating is a concept that really resonates with me. In a society entrenched with diet culture, a huge percentage of people have lost the ability to trust their bodies, and instead opt for counting calories or macros, or eliminating food groups, or trying out various juice fasts, veggie cleanses, cabbage soup diets…the list of restrictive diets and ways to self starve is endless. The fact that we do not ignore other bodily signals: emptying our bladders or bowels; sneezing; coughing; itching; removing our fingers from a burning surface; blinking; but ignore our body’s signal for hunger and then call it a good thing is absurd. We have decided to stop trusting our biological body; a body built for survival, and instead listen to the multi-billion dollar diet and weight loss industry, our unhealthy thin-obsessed culture, and the media which panders to both (again, to make money). It is nonsensical. It is ridiculous. It is madness. And yet nearly all of us are guilty of listening and responding to it.

Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight, rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods.

This is why I love the idea of intuitive eating (although do remember when reading the above that a “healthy weight” is whatever your body needs to be at naturally, and has nothing to do with BMI). Reconnecting with your body; listening to it; honouring its cues and signals; respecting it and giving it the treatment it needs and deserves…this is exactly the right attitude to have, and exactly the right action to take. However, when it comes to recovering from the effects of dieting, or even more serious, an eating disorder, intuitive eating becomes a little trickier to throw yourself into.

Months or years of damages done to the body through restriction can cause huge issues with the way the body communicates with you, especially when it comes to hunger. Your hunger cues may have become suppressed, and therefore will be unreliable during the recovery process. When this is the case, it means that both hunger for the correct amount of energy and cravings for the right types of foods that the body needs won’t be felt by the person experiencing this, and so intuitive eating would be a disaster for them. It would mean that they would not get the energy that their body needs for daily energy requirements, and would not get the types of food that the body needs and nutrients that the body is lacking in. For these people, intuitive eating would not be something that they could jump into straight away, and would have to be a goal for later on in the recovery process. Those without reliable hunger cues would need to count calories to ensure that they are eating enough (I wrote about calorie counting in recovery here), and also keep an eye on the types of foods that they are eating to make sure that they are getting enough of each food group.

Those with reliable hunger cues will find that they are able to move to intuitive eating sooner, although I would always suggest counting at first whilst you establish if you have reliable hunger cues or not (and I have a video on when to know when you are able to eat intuitively here). Those with reliable hunger cues may find themselves ravenously hungry, or may be hungry for the amount that they need day to day, and then find themselves absolutely starving most of the time. This is normal and expected and in recovery is called “extreme hunger” (I have a video on this here). This is something those in recovery often experience, but not always. Those with reliable hunger cues find that they are hungry for the amount of energy that their body needs each day.

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Some people in recovery go through periods of both reliable and unreliable hunger cues, and during this time it is best to keep counting calories and keeping an eye on what you are eating until you are receiving consistently reliable hunger cues.

For both those who have reliable and unreliable hunger cues it is important to make sure that you are eating all food groups, as they are all important for health. It is important to note for both those with reliable hunger cues and those with unreliable hunger cues that it is normal in recovery from restrictive eating disorders or dieting to crave foods that are high in energy, especially foods with a high fat, sugar, or carbohydrate content. This is because processed food can be one of the best things for recovery, especially during the initial stages. Foods high in energy  help to fill the calorie deficit and repair the extensive damage done through starvation, as well as providing energy for the day. Foods high in fat help with regaining your period, aid bowel movements, and most importantly, the brain is made of at least 60% fat which requires eating fat in order to heal and maintain its health. Fat is also most easily processed by the body, which is quite essential to your damaged digestive system. Usually in recovery people crave “junk” food because this is just what their bodies need, and that is okay. If you are eating far more carbs than any other food group, that is okay. If you are eating far more sugary foods than any other food groups, that is okay. What is not okay is if you are only responding to these cravings and not having any other food group. Responding to the cravings is really important, but it is also important that you don’t go without an entire food group. Some people find that whilst their bodies are busy craving foods high in energy, it can end up not sending signals for fruit and vegetables. It is quite common for those with eating disorders or even dieting to have issues with filling up on fruit and veggies, and for these people, cutting down and thinking about it less is the goal, but for others, they can find that in recovery they can have reliable hunger cues for the energy that their body needs, but do not have the cravings for all the food types that it needs. The body, in this way, is being reliable in letting you know exactly what it needs in order to become energy-balanced (by craving foods high in energy), but has made this a priority and is not giving the right signals in order for the body to get all the nutrients that it needs. So if you realise that you are going days without fruit or veggies, make sure to incorporate some into your diet. Don’t become rigid or fixed upon a certain number, but just make sure you are having some throughout your day. The same applies to any other food group that you might find yourself not eating through lack of cravings.

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Whilst many people crave “junk” food, you may also experience cravings for dairy, cereal, and meat/fish. You can have cravings for anything! You may also find that you have cravings for odd combinations of food, and that is perfectly normal too. Just respond to what your body is asking for.

If you are experiencing extreme hunger and/or having intense cravings for only one food group or particular type on food – don’t panic. Appetite settles down when the body is healthier to include cravings for a massive variety of foods: chocolate, milk, fruit, cereal, doughnuts, pizza, pasta, vegetables, fish, steak, cake….EVERYTHING. No foods should ever be off limits, and your body will start giving you more and more reliable hunger cues as your body gets healthier and healthier, until you are able to really connect with it and trust it. Throw out your magazines. Forget the media. Forget diet culture and societies unhealthy obsession with thinness. Trust your body and work with it. There is no wrong way to have a body (and please please please check out weight set point theory, and health at every size under my resources section).

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For some people, intuitive eating can be something that they start doing fairly early on in recovery from an eating disorder or dieting, but for others, it can take time for their bodies to adjust and be able to communicate correctly. Whichever is the case, intuitive eating is a fantastic goal to work towards, but it is important to recognise that it can take time, patience, and perseverance. I would always suggest it be the goal, and would never want anyone to have to return to listening to diet culture – it’s what got a lot of people into a terrible place emotionally and physically in the first place (particularly those recovering from dieting as eating disorders are nearly always a lot more complex . However, recovery is certainly not helped along by diet culture). Listening to your natural, biological, earth-given body is the best thing to do for your mental and physical health when it comes to eating. Not concepts created by society. And always know that food is not just about nurture and nourishment, but about pleasure and enjoyment too. Do what makes you happy and healthy, both physically and mentally. You deserve it.

 

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Our Bodies and Us: The Disconnect.

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Our bodies are wonderfully constructed, complex, ingenious natural creations. They are fantastically clever, and work to keep us in the best of health. But we have been working against them. We have stopped listening to them. We have decided that they are the enemy and we have been treating them as such.

Our bodies are natural but our culture is man-made, and our culture has decided to wage war on women’s bodies (and to a lesser extent, men’s too). We are bombarded from every direction with the message that our bodies are not enough; that we are not enough; that we must mould and warp and change our bodies into something else to be satisfactory women. We are told that our bodies are not good enough as they were born to be; that they are not good enough in their natural forms. We are told that we must alter them, no matter what pain that means putting our minds and our bodies through. Low carb diets, low fat diets, high protein diets, Paleo diets, Atkins diet, cabbage soup diet (?!), 5:2 diet, raw till 4, weight watchers, slimming world, eating “clean” (because other foods must therefore be “dirty” right?)…it makes me want to scream. Instilling fear of sugar and fats and carbohydrates until there is nothing else that is “safe” to eat creates more and more anxiety around food and makes us try to restrict further and further. Equating certain foods with morality and superiority and “making the right choices” makes us turn on one another as if eating a certain way can make us better than someone else who chooses to eat differently. Food has become about being “good” and being “bad”. Food has become about being worthless or worthwhile. Food has become our means of exerting control over our bodies and our lives.

All the while, our bodies are being ignored. They give us a pang of hunger, and we focus on something else. We pass a bakery and saliva pools in our mouths, and we swallow and walk on. Our brains direct thoughts of food to our brains over and over, and we shut them down. Our bodies keep sending us signals, and we pretend that they are not there, and instead, we listen to the magazines and other media telling us to ignore our hunger…drink a glass of water instead…eat a celery stick. We have become so far removed from our bodies that we listen to an unnatural ideal rather than the natural being of our bodies. We are so disconnected that we read information on what we should do with our bodies in regards to food and exercise, instead of actually listening to them. Our society has made us so focused on our bodies: how they look, what we do with them, and what we put into them, that we are panicked by it, and in turn, it has become an obsession. Health; fitness; food…we follow other people’s advice on what to do with our bodies and pay no heed to what our bodies are communicating to us. We are out of touch with what we really need.

Breaking away from that is hard, but freeing. Your body will thank you, and so will your mind once you learn to reject dieting culture and embrace your natural weight, shape, and size. If you develop a healthy relationship with food and your body, eating intuitively will come effortless as you follow your hunger and cravings. Healing, and repairing that relationship between you and your body will allow you to reconnect and work with your body, rather than against it. This will, in time, lead you to naturally eating a balanced diet – this includes “junk” food too. We need to start viewing food as food, rather than something that is “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Food is fuel, and food is also part of our enjoyment in life. It has no place alongside morality. None of it should be demonised. None of it should be feared. None of it should be restricted. When you stop listening to outside noise, and start turning your focus inwards, that is when you will be able to be your healthiest. When you get back in touch with your body and start to really listen to it, that’s when you will start getting healthy again, both mentally and physically. If you fancy a fruit salad, eat a fruit salad. If you fancy a doughnut, eat a doughnut. No rules, no restriction, no foods that are off limits, and no foods that you “should” or “should not” eat. Shut out our dieting culture and embrace your body’s signals.

As a side note, it’s important to understand that if you have been dieting or restricting, that your hunger may be powerful and insistent, and your cravings may be strong for the foods that you have restricted (and therefore have fear and anxiety around). This is normal. If you don’t give your body enough energy, it will have an energy deficit, and will need more energy than usual until it is energy-balanced again. If you restrict certain things, your body will want them more, as it is often low on carbs and/or sugars and/or fats, and “forbidden” foods will also always be the ones you want most. If you respond to your body and work with it by providing it with the energy that it is asking for and the foods it is craving, it will settle down. It will become energy-balanced, and it will not be lacking in any food types, and when you stop viewing certain foods as forbidden, it will not want them as much. When all food is available to you, you don’t feel the need to eat certain foods as if it is the last time you will ever eat them (which you may have felt before when you let yourself have a “cheat” (I shudder at this word) snack/meal/day). When your body is energy and nutrient balanced, your eating will be balanced. When you are lacking in something, your body will give you signals in the form of hunger or cravings.

Listen to your body. It is cleverer than you, and it certainly cleverer than dieting culture and the media. Listen to your body, and embrace it.

Counting Calories and Recovery

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It seems like something that would be counter-productive to suggest, but counting calories is a really important part of recovery – especially during the initial stages. Counting calories is very likely a large part of you or your child’s (or partner’s/sibling’s/friend’s et) eating disorder, so it can seem like madness to say ‘continue doing this’, but hear me out.

Whilst counting calories was used as a way to restrict, it now needs to be used as a way to heal. So we are turning around a negative habit and using it to make sure that the person recovering gets enough energy into their body. Getting enough energy is essential for recovery, and it is likely to be something that proves impossible to do unless someone is counting the calories of the person recovering.

For most people it will be you; the recoverer, that counts. Sometimes it will be parents or partners. Either way, those calories need to be counted because after an eating disorder, people have unreliable hunger cues. The body has gone so long without food that it has repressed the signals, and so it can take a long time for reliable hunger cues to return again and for the body to learn to expect food and give signs as to when it needs it. This can mean that eating can feel like a chore to some. It could mean that you will have no appetite and feel too full, but it is important to ensure that you continue eating adequately regardless. It could mean that you feel really hungry sometimes, but other times have no appetite. Respond to any hunger or cravings that you have, and continue eating enough even when you don’t have an appetite. You may have reliable hunger cues straight away, which would be great and would lead you to eat what you need to eat in order to recover. Responding to mental hunger is also really important. Mental hunger is just another signal from the brain to tell you that you are hungry. All signals come from the brain, and it is crucial to listen. So if you don’t feel the physical signs of hunger but are wanting or craving food, then it is necessary to listen to that signal and respond to it – always.

So how are you going to count calories? I would advise staying away from apps such as MyFitnessPal, as they can be incredibly triggering due to the fact that they try to suggest restrictive amounts to eat, and they are an app focused on weight loss. You could just use a ‘notes’ app and count it up yourself and keep the number on record for the day there, or you could write ‘500’ as many times as adds up to how much you need to eat on a sheet of paper or on a notes app on your phone, and just cross it off every time you reach 500 calories. This can mean that you know you are getting closer to your goal but don’t need to count the number if not thinking of the number helps. If your parents or partner are very involved in your recovery, they could do the counting for you if this is possible and more beneficial for your recovery.

Calorie counting can be triggering for many people, but the alternative of under-eating is much more harmful. Under-eating – which many people in recovery will do due to unreliable hunger cues if they do not count calories or have them counted for them – will mean that the body cannot heal. Mental and physical recovery are interconnected, so if the body is not getting enough energy, this will also impact on mental recovery also. Under-eating means that neither mental nor physical recovery will be able to take place, so counting calories until your hunger is reliable is a necessity. This is one habit that will have to be saved until a bit later to break – which is okay, because there are many habits and thought processes to manage, change, and break, and there has to be something that is saved until last (or later on)!

So you’ve been counting calories for a while and making sure you that you get the energy that your body needs. How do you know when you can stop counting and start going by hunger? When you start feeling like your hunger is happening in a reliable way which is consistent with when you should be eating and how much you should be eating, you can start thinking about testing out that hunger to make sure that it is naturally bringing you to the amount you need. A good way to test how reliable your hunger is, is to write out everything you eat for a week (or two weeks), and then count it up for each day, add it all up to get the total amount, and divide it by seven (or fourteen). The average figure should come to around the amount that is suggested as the minimum for you to eat during your recovery (this is around the amount that you should need forever). If it is three hundred to four hundred calories below that total, then I would really suggest that you continue to count calories as your hunger signals are likely to be unreliable. Most people will naturally and intuitively eat the amount recommended for them, or close to it, as this is the amount that an energy-balanced body needs each and every day. Some people do have hunger that is below or above the average (for example, someone who is expected to need 3000 calories for their age, gender, height, and activity levels could find that they naturally eat 2400, or 3600), and that is absolutely okay. However, if you are eating more than three hundred to four hundred less than what is recommended as adequate, it is more than likely that it is your hunger cues that are unreliable and you still have a little way to go before they are back to normal. If, say, 2400 calories is your normal hunger, eating 3000 for while longer will not have a negative effect on your recovery process, and will not have an impact on your weight. Your body will adapt to deal with the excess energy by putting it to good use (e.g. to continue repairing your body) or the metabolism will speed up to burn it off. (As a side note, when you are adding up your calories for those tester seven days, if one day has a really low amount, and another a higher amount, for example, 1000 calories one day and 4500 the next, this is a sign of unreliable hunger cues, even if the average does come to around the amount suggested for you. As a second side note, if you are consistently eating well above and beyond the minimum you require for recovery, your hunger cues are working and you are experiencing extreme hunger or higher energy needs still, which is totally normal for recovery).

So let’s say your hunger cues seemed reliable, and testing this out has shown that they are, now what? You can start trying to eat intuitively, but you will need to keep reassessing yourself to make sure your eating disorder is not sneaking in and manipulating the situation. It is important that you eat what you want, when you want, and don’t let the anxiety of stopping calorie counting come out in other ways, such as restricting certain foods types or resisting eating something you want because you are worried you are eating more now you have stopped counting. It is going to make you feel more out of control, but it is important to continue onwards, and not use any other behaviours.

But how do you go about stopping counting calories? Calorie counting is a hard habit to break. It can become so ingrained in you that it can happen even without consciously thinking. There will be different things that work for different people, but here is a list I put together with some suggestions about how to stop counting:

  1. Get yourself and your family to put labels over the calorie amounts on packets etc. This can deter you from looking and also remind you when out of habit you try to check that your goal is to not look and not to count.
  2. Get your family to serve you at dinner time, to challenge skewed perceptions of portion sizes, and to learn to relinquish control over amounts.
  3. Stop measuring foods or liquids.
  4. Eat intuitively for one day (or even one meal). In a week or so, try doing it for two days (or meals). Work your way up until you can ditch the habit altogether.
  5. Visit cafes, restaurants, cinemas, and other places that are uncaloried to get you used to eating meals where you don’t know the calories to face that anxiety and start to overcome it. You can then start trying to do this at home and challenging yourself there.
  6. Listen to your body and its signals (this is also something you should start doing as soon as you get into recovery, even when you are counting calories). Follow your body and tune in to what it is telling you, rather than going by calories you’ve already eaten today or any other calorie “rules” you are sticking by. Start learning to listen to mental and physical hunger, and also learn that you can also eat when you are not hungry if you fancy it.

There are only six suggestions here, and there will be countless other things that can help. If you have any tips that helped you or someone you know, write them in the comments below so that others can benefit from it too!

Counting calories and not counting calories are both big parts of the recovery process, and both relevant at different stages in your journey. Again, make sure that you are not using compensatory behaviours when you start trying to eat intuitively and stop counting calories, such as eating smaller portions, cutting out calorie dense foods, or not drinking liquid calories, out of anxiety. Learning to eat intuitively without compensating due to anxiety is a big part of recovery. You need to learn to eat what you want, when you want, without letting your ED get on the stage with you. Make sure it is not running the show, or even making compromises with you. It doesn’t have a place in the life that you are creating for yourself. This life is yours, and yours only.