Intuitive Eating

So much has happened in my life over the past month; I have been experiencing so much chaos, confusion, frustration, and anxiety. In the moments of calm; however, I have not wasted the opportunities to reflect. As we have dealt with the rapidly failing health of a loved one, those reflections have often pertained to health and wellness, especially long-term health. In a roundabout way, that has led me to the concept of intuitive eating. 

Intuitive eating isn’t a new concept to me. Being a perpetual dieter and spending a lot of time online and offline in this space, I have some understanding of it. I have a half-finished book, “The Emotional Eaters Repair Manual” by Julie M. Simon on my nightstand that talks in great length about it. That book is unfinished largely because, while exhilarating, my knee-jerk emotional response to the concept is fear and mistrust of my own intuition.

I have endured an ever-evolving eating disorder for the past 30 years. I have sought and received professional treatment for bulimia and binge eating disorder. I find myself now questioning whether the past 10 years of dieting is nothing more than a restrictive, control-based counterpart of disordered behavior surrounding food. When I am counting calories, when I am pre-planning and preparing my weekly meals and weighing out portions on my little kitchen scale, I feel like I am being “good,” like I am being disciplined and healthy. But maybe this isn’t self-care – maybe this is just another extreme. I believe I fall short of orthorexia, but I also believe that the emotions I feel when I think about having this relationship with food for the rest of my life tells me this isn’t right, it isn’t sustainable, it isn’t what I want for myself. At the same time, giving that up feels like risking the weight loss and improved overall health I have achieved thus far.

It’s scary to imagine giving up control. It’s scary to imagine learning to trust my intuition. It’s scary to think I may not be able to tell the difference between my intuitive voice and the voice of my trauma. Yet, it is equally scary to imagine being 60 years old, my mobility limited by nearly a lifetime of being overweight, tugging my little food scale out of the cabinet to weigh out one ounce of chickpeas. 

When I think about a successful transition to intuitive eating, I feel this potential for liberation. What would that feel like? What if there are no more “good foods” and “bad foods?” What if there were no more counting calories, no more weighing foods, no more refrigerator full of little snack-sized zip top plastic bags of portioned grapes or carrot sticks? What if I never looked at others again with envy at their “normal” relationships with food, if I didn’t feel like there is something wrong with me?

I have been driven by my goals to where I am now – the incessant calorie-counter, the persistent dieter, constant “pinner” of online fitspo. My weight loss journey has been driven by the pursuit of a physical ideal I have imagined for myself, sculpting the body I see in my mind’s eye. I have paid some lip service to the idea of overall mind, body and spirit wellness but, honestly, those were superficial thoughts I invented to justify my quest for a certain type of body I saw as worthy of love and respect (something I have never felt I’ve had in my life). I find myself, today, in a head- and heart-space, of wanting something different from what I have wanted before: wanting true and lasting overall health and wellness. I find myself, today, wondering if adopting a practice of intuitive eating along with a more natural, intuitive and holistic approach to fitness, emotional health and mental wellbeing might be the path for me. It’s scary. It’s exciting. It’s enticing. I wonder…

Exploring My Relationship With Food

Why do I eat things that are bad for me, things that don’t support my efforts? Why do I eat so much? So often? What triggers me to switch to a sort of auto-pilot state of frenzied consumption, in which my conscious self truly doesn’t wish to participate?

I think everyone can agree that eating can be a corporeally pleasurable experience. A bite of something that tastes good is physically gratifying. Even anticipating that bite can cause physical reactions of salivation and tummy grumbling. That is universal. It’s a given. What happens when you live a predominantly unpleasurable existence, when you live with depression and anxiety? 

Depression has been a near-constant for most of my life. I had my first thoughts of self-harm and suicide at age 12. I have experienced depression in levels varying from disinterest and disengagement to debilitating apathy and suicidal fantasies. At some point (a very early point, I imagine), I subconsciously learned that the pleasurable sensation of eating something gave me a few moments of alleviation from the constant sadness or nothingness. Sure, the enjoyment only lasted as long as the food lasted but it was relief, a brief time of feeling pleasure; a brief time of not feeling pain. 

In writing this, I caught myself wanting to label the feeling “happiness” or “comfort” but happiness and comfort are soul-deep emotions. Food doesn’t and can’t provide those. It can only provide the pleasurable sensation we are physiologically hardwired to experience when eating calorie-dense foods. It is easy to mistake that sensation for happiness or comfort when you don’t know or remember what those things actually feel like. I truly believe that’s what happened with me, that I began to associate those experiences of something tasty on my tongue with happiness, emotional satisfaction, and comfort. My life had little actual happiness in it for many years – party due to my external circumstances and the trauma I was experiencing/had experienced and partly due to my as-yet-undiagnosed and untreated bipolar depression.

I began to associate those experiences of something tasty on my tongue with happiness, emotional satisfaction, and comfort.

I liken it to taking pain medicine for an injury. Pain medicine doesn’t mend the injury, it only provides temporary relief from the pain of that injury. The injury is still there. The injury could even be exacerbated by the use of pain medicine if the injury is compounded by further activity during the alleviation of pain. Food doesn’t cure depression, it only engages the mind elsewhere for brief respites. The effects of eating, particularly overeating or eating unhealthy foods, can actually compound the depression by adding excess weight to the body, in my case leading to morbid obesity.

When I had my success in 2010 I had two things working in my favor.

1.     My healthy diet and consistent moderate-to-vigorous exercise regimen altered my brain chemistry, releasing endorphins and dopamine, physically relieving my depression symptoms.

2.     The process of losing weight was a pleasurable experience. It made me actually happy to have support, to weigh-in and see progress, to shop for new clothes and see my body transformed in an exciting and gratifying way.

The urge to relieve sadness with food was gone during this time, making it easy to adhere to healthy meal plans and remain motivated to exercise. Then my world got turned upside down. My weight loss stalled when I reached the limits of what my current efforts could achieve. I lost my job and I lost my support system, leaving me feeling alone and insecure about my future. Depression and anxiety returned and, because I never addressed the emotional or psychological issues behind my previous behavior, I had no healthy coping mechanisms and I resumed using food to provide momentary relief from my mental health disorder. 

I feel like there are now two important tasks for me to begin work on. The first is to begin to identify pleasurable activities I can use to interrupt bouts of depression and disinterest. So far, I have considered jigsaw puzzles, online games, adult coloring books, physical activity, playing piano, window shopping, spa baths and mani-pedis.  The second task is to continue to explore the evolution of my relationship with food because there is more much still to be unpacked. For instance, the subconscious process of briefly alleviating depression by eating eventually became habit, a ritualized compulsion regardless of the level of depression or anxiety I was experiencing and that is something to explore and understand. Nevertheless, I feel like this was a significant realization today. It makes sense, it rings true, and that gives me hope of overcoming it. 

A Return to Blogging

From the beginning of my journey, I have been focused on my weight. I talked a good game about self-care, about fitness, about motivation, about all sorts of things but every ounce of my drive was measured in pounds on a bathroom scale. Turns out, this may not be the best way to go about this. 

I took time off from blogging – about 19 months – and I made the decision to do that for a number of reasons. The first reason was that I felt obligated to generate content on a regular basis, which put me in a position of trying to write when I had nothing meaningful to say. I read some of those posts now and have to refrain from rolling my eyes as a few range from pretentious to banal. The second reason I stepped away was a nagging case of imposter syndrome. Who am I to dole out weight loss advice when I have never actually reached my weight loss goals, when I struggle as much as I do? I felt like a fraud, like I was all self-righteous talk without the results to back that up. The third reason I stopped blogging was that this blog really doesn’t have a large readership and it often felt like I was screaming into the void. Seriously, my own family didn’t even read this. 

Why on earth would I come back now? Most simply put, things have changed. 

I have started, for the first time in my journey, to really start digging deep into my emotional issues. I recognize that this is not a weight loss journey but a transformative journey of body and soul. I recognize that, until they are addressed, the issues driving my behavior will continue to reemerge and hinder my progress. It isn’t enough to want to lose weight. My weight was never my problem, it was a symptom of my problems. I wear my trauma on my body, like an anchor tethering me to my past. 

I have been doing a lot of thinking, a lot of talking to myself aloud, a lot of journaling trying to learn about the roots of my behaviors. I have been examining my core traumas, looking back in time to identify when coping mechanisms were adopted and patterns emerged. Looking inward doesn’t feel like enough. I feel the need to engage in the cathartic practice of writing my discoveries down. This is the deep dive. The peeling of the onion. The unpacking of baggage. I am the cartographer of the roadmap of my life. I write when I have something to say. I write with brutal, painful, potentially embarrassing candor without any hope or expectation of inspiring anyone. Finally, I write for an audience of one: myself.