We’ve all been there: The food is calling to you, begging you to eat it. But you know that if you eat it, it’ll be one moment of heaven followed by heaping piles of guilt. On the other hand, if you don’t eat it, you’ll feel virtuous… but also deprived and pouty. There are only two choices, and both of them suck!
Whether you’re dealing with food intolerances, digestive issues, or just compulsive eating, you’ve probably wasted a lot of time wishing you could be the kind of person who only wants to eat foods that are good for them. You probably think those people were born that way, and you’re right! What you might not know is that you were born an intuitive eater, too, and you can get back to being one.
So, how can you get started?
- Stop lecturing yourself. We know from studies that kids are less inclined to eat foods when we tell them they are healthy, and more drawn to foods we label “unhealthy.” Guess what? Your inner child is alive and kicking and does not want to hear it either.
- Stop moralizing. When you think of foods or eating habits as “good” or “bad,” you see your eating choices as making you into a good or bad person. Food does not have this power unless you give it this power. No more shame, blame, or guilt!
- Stop stressing. One snack or meal will not make or break your health. The chronic stress of worrying about food, however, will certainly damage your health.
Putting aside all the distracting noise in your head about what/when/how to eat leaves you space to do the important work of tuning into your true cravings. Developing this skill requires practice and patience initially, but over time it allows you to make satisfying and nourishing eating choices with little thought or effort.
So, what does developing this kind of self-awareness look like, in practice?
- Acknowledge your desires: For example: You’re at a birthday party and the cake looks delicious. Unfortunately it’s not gluten free and you know that gluten doesn’t treat you well. You want to be able to enjoy eating the cake. You also want to avoid the headaches, stomach aches, and general badness that seems to result from eating gluten. Each of these desires is legitimate.
- Avoid the noise: If you find yourself having emotionally charged thoughts about what you should or shouldn’t do, or start getting mad at yourself for having legitimate wants, breathe deep and let it go. You might picture these thoughts as clouds that dissolve as the sun hits them and the breeze sweeps them away, or dirty water swirling down the drain. These thoughts are not worth your time.
- Dig deeper: The reasons we want to eat can be more complicated than we realize. For example: You might want to eat birthday cake just because it tastes good, but there’s probably more to it. We tend to associate birthday cake with good feelings of celebration, special indulgence, and belonging. The more you know about what you want out of an eating experience, the more you will be able to figure out how to get what you want in other ways, that don’t include the downsides.
- Honor your choice: Whether you choose to eat or not eat, acknowledge that you are doing your best to take care of your wants and needs. Make room to observe without judgement how you feel emotionally, energetically, and physically after you make your choice. This neutral observation will help you make better choices in the future.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to observe the effect that food has on you first hand. Nobody but you knows what it’s like to be in your body. When you are lost in thinking about how a food might or “should” make you feel, you deny yourself the opportunity to learn first hand how it really does make you feel. It’s seldom as black and white as the sensationalist nutrition world would have you believe.
How you feel about what you eat is surprisingly important. Scientists are just beginning to understand how feelings of anxiety and guilt actually affect the way that food is digested and absorbed into the body. What this means is that our beliefs are powerful and we are in danger of making our fears about eating food come true.
When I was struggling with orthorexia, I made a bold decision to buy myself a bag of Cheetos and see what would happen, trying my best to release judgement. Imagine my surprise when I ate the whole bag and didn’t implode! Since then I have done a lot of experimentation with the foods I was previously avoiding (or secretly binging on). I’ve developed a really strong ability to predict how I will feel after I eat a wide variety of foods. I find it easy to turn down foods that will make me feel bad because I am more committed to caring for myself than I am to following rules. When I do make a food choice that leaves me feeling less than awesome, I learn from the experience and feel grateful for the opportunity to learn.
As I always say: If what you’re doing right now isn’t working, what do you have to lose by trying something new? Try this method out and see what happens. Post your questions and concerns here or on the Facebook page, and I’ll do my best to get you some answers.