This is How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 3. And good news! Here’s the part where things start to get better, and where I finally started to truly leave disordered eating behind! 🙂 In case you missed them, though, here is the Intro, Part 1, and Part 2.
Newly pregnant and terrified that I would slide back into my old ways, I decided that nothing mattered more than figuring out what “healthy” really was and then fighting for it tooth and nail. One night, when I was about 8 weeks along with Aurora, I promised myself that I’d once and for all tackle all my food issues, and that I wouldn’t stop working until I’d figured it all out and truly gotten better.
I’m proud to say that I’ve kept that promise.
Trying Out Intuitive Eating
One of the first things I did that night was dig out the book my counselor from my freshman year had recommended. Intuitive Eating, it was called. The main tenets of intuitive eating (as I understood them) are as follows:
- If you simply listen to your body and eat when you are hungry and stop when you’re full, and allow yourself to eat whatever foods you feel like, you will settle into a pattern of feeding yourself exactly what your body needs and wants.
- Furthermore, your weight will stabilize at a healthy, happy place.
- Your body comes pre-programmed to be hungry when it needs nourishment, and if you listen to it, it will also tell you when it’s had enough.
- Reconnecting to internal cues is the ultimate key to normal, healthy eating and ultimately a healthy weight.
Aren’t those beautiful ideas? I read Intuitive Eating from cover to cover within the week, and I wanted what it offered. The lifestyle the book described of listening to your body, eating the foods you want without ever bingeing, and never following a diet again sounded like a dream come true. I wanted that. And I was determined to do whatever it took to become an intuitive eater.
I went online and found a list of dietitians and therapists who specialized in helping patients master intuitive eating. I signed myself up to see both a dietitian and a therapist in my area that very evening. I committed to seeing them both regularly for as long as it took to straighten out my eating.
The dietitian I went to see, Julie, was absolutely wonderful. Julie was a practicer of intuitive eating herself and was convinced that it was a wonderful way to live. And I truly believe that for her it was the answer. She seemed healthy, genuinely happy, and all-around what I wanted to one day be like.
I loved meeting with Julie. She was kind, compassionate, and a wonderful listener. Yet she was also willing to tell it to me straight and help me see where my thinking and eating simply wasn’t healthy or logical. She reacquainted me with basic nutritional information I’d learned once but forgotten thanks to so many diet books and magazines. I learned that many of my old ideals—1200, maybe 1500 calories a day tops, for example—were insanely low for someone of my age and height and activity level. I also learned that trying to stay under 100 grams of carbs a day (something I was trying at one point) was similarly nuts. No wonder I was grouchy so much of the time! Most importantly of all, she was able to convince me that I needed to eat much, much more than I had been eating, especially now that I was pregnant.
We talked a LOT about how restricting was never, ever going to be the answer to my problems. And for me, restricting took on two forms. I was limiting how much I ate, as I’ve described, but I was also very restrictive in what particular foods I deemed okay to eat.
We sat down and listed all the foods I thought were “bad.” Candy. Cookies. Cake. Doughnuts. Sugary cereal. Brownies. Ice cream. You get the idea. We grouped them into the “scariest” foods—the things I’d never dream of taking home and keeping in my kitchen for fear of bingeing—to things that were less tempting to me. One of my lower-tier “scary” foods happened to be Golden Grahams cereal. Julie challenged me to go and buy a box of Golden Grahams and have some. I was supposed to then keep them around the house and eat them whenever I wanted to, and when I ran out of them, go buy more.
I was terrified of this idea. Why on earth would I keep something like that close at hand? And then openly eat it whenever I wanted to? Well, as intuitive eating explains, the magic of forbidden foods wears off after a time once they’re no longer deemed forbidden. Sure, you are likely to overeat at first, but eventually the Golden Grahams would become nothing special as I granted myself true, full permission to eat them. The idea was to eventually reach this place with all foods. Nothing would be off-limits. All foods were mine for the taking whenever I was hungry.
So I dove in, doing everything I could to follow Julie’s instructions. I bought the Golden Grahams and kept buying them. I moved onto other favorites: sugar cookies, ice cream, Cadbury chocolate. I kept them around and ate them, doing as best I could to not feel bad or guilty for doing so. In a lot of ways, it felt so, so good. I was no longer a sinner, a loser, a joke every time I ate a brownie. Detaching moral wrongness and rightness from certain foods was a big deal for me in seeing myself in a more positive light.
Along with all this, of course, I was also focusing on another core principle of intuitive eating: figuring out when I was both hungry and full. I was trying to listen to my body for things like tummy rumblings and headaches that indicated that I was physically hungry (as opposed to just in the mood to eat). And when I did eat, I tried to really savor my food slowly and determine when I was full. I always had permission to eat again any time I felt hunger, but I was to try to stop once I was satisfied.
Changing My Disordered Thinking
As I mentioned before, I was also meeting with a therapist during this time. It was scary and embarrassing and humbling to call up a counselor and schedule myself that first appointment, but I’m so I chose to do it. If you think this is something that might help you, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help too.
Anyway. I’ll call my counselor Karen. Karen was a key figure in my getting better as well. I feel like Julie helped me untangle the knots in my disordered eating, and Karen helped me finally start to change the disordered thinking I’d had such a hard time shaking off before this point.
The major takeaways I had from Karen were this: I was so, so negative and mean and critical in my self-talk. I was outright cruel in the way I’d berate myself for even the tiniest of mistakes. Karen helped me see myself more clearly and appreciate that while I wasn’t yet where I wanted to be, I was doing a lot of things really well. I’d been practicing mean self talk and negative thinking for long enough that I think I needed an outside source of help to pull me out of my old patterns.
She also helped me “reframe” a lot of my thinking in general. I used to make a LOT of assumptions about others’ intentions and about what was true. For example, back in college, I was sure everyone thought I was fat and ugly. But had anyone actually SAID I was either? Ever? Once? No. Had anyone done anything to me that suggested they thought that? No! This was something I simply assumed everyone else thought, for all sorts of dumb reasons that didn’t hold up to logic when I wrote them down or said them out loud.
More Key Realizations
Another big assumption Karen helped me tear down was that being thinner would help me be happier. It’s sad to look back and see how fiercely I believed that. It’s true that our society puts a premium on appearance—remember how much attention I got for losing weight both in junior high and at the start of pregnancy #2—but Karen helped me reason through how in my day-to-day life, thin doesn’t really correlate with happy. Taking good care of you body does, yes. Being a good mom to my kids certainly does. Taking time to get back in touch with things I loved doing, like writing and playing the piano, could too. Running could as well if I kept it in its place and didn’t do it excessively. But would simply being thin make me happier? NO!
For the first time I questioned my erroneous assumption that weight loss was my ticket to everything I wanted to have and be. And once I’d kicked it off its false pedestal, it was much easier to relax in my eating. Eating a cookie was now eating a dang cookie, not making a choice that would take me away from the happy life I dreamed of and therefore something to feel extremely upset and guilty about.
Learning how to think logically about my thinking patterns was a huge, huge deal. I began to consider other possibilities than my own assumptions when it came to my outlook on life. I used to be so quick to conclude that others didn’t like me, or that qualities and problems I had automatically made me a bad person, and so on. Reframing my thinking finally gave me the ability to start changing my actions.
I slowly began to accept that maybe my body had looked just fine all along. This was the biggest breakthrough: my realization that although I had been absolutely convinced that I needed to lose weight, maybe I’d never needed to. Maybe all of my reasons for believing that were bizarre, illogical, overly negative assumptions. Finally kicking the stuffing out of my disordered thinking was a tremendous, important victory for me.
Internalizing those key ideas from Karen was a critical turning points for me. I’m grateful that she helped me so much in this way. After our first few months of meeting, though, I felt like our talks became meandering and odd. Karen didn’t seem to listen well anymore or understand the things I was trying to say. Sometimes things got so strange and irrelevant to me in our sessions that I wondered if she had me mixed up with somebody else. In retrospect, I should have kept trying to find a therapist that was a better fit instead. But I decided to keep on trying with Karen in the hopes that maybe all the random things we’d talk about at our appointments would eventually come together and make sense. But they didn’t. So once my baby Aurora arrived and getting to appointments became tricky and stressful anyway, I decided to call it quits with Karen and simply work with what we’d accomplished to that point.
Intuitive Eating: Not My Answer
I carried on with my meetings with Julie and efforts to eat intuitively, though, through, that entire pregnancy as well as for few months after my Aurora was born. I was diligent in noting my hunger and fullness. I sincerely tried to stop restricting food and thinking of it in terms of good and bad. I read and re-read the Intuitive Eating book, marking helpful sections in hot pink and orange highlighter. I did every last thing Julie urged me to . . . yet still didn’t see myself becoming the intuitive eater the book promised I eventually would.
I felt like many of the ideas and principles from Intuitive Eating were things I needed in my life. I needed to stop hating my body. I needed to allow myself to eat enough food to stay nourished and energized. I needed to stop allowing myself to eat so little from day-to-day and totally restricting certain types of foods, because all that ever led to was more bingeing. And my life’s mission was so, so much more than to simply hit a certain weight.
These are things I still strongly believe, and I’m grateful for the time I spent with intuitive eating because of what it taught me. I wholeheartedly recommend intuitive eating to anyone who thinks it may be helpful for them. But I couldn’t deny a few troubling things that I was seeing in my eating patterns throughout this time I spent trying to eat intuitively.
Maybe I was doing it wrong. Maybe that year I devoted to it wasn’t enough. Maybe I wasn’t really giving myself unconditional permission to eat. I don’t know what to say except that while I felt worlds better emotionally and was finally seeing myself in a more positive light, I was still overeating pretty regularly. I resisted thoughts of “you shouldn’t eat that” when it came to sugary treats, thinking that was my old diet thinking coming into play, and just plain ate a lot of indulgent and sugary foods. I’m sure the total number of calories I ate was dramatically lower than when I was full-on bingeing, but the quality of my day-to-day nutrition tanked. And I began to feel the effects physically after several months.
Saying Goodbye to Intuitive Eating
I started to long for my dieting days in one sense. I felt like committing myself to listen solely to my stomach to know when I could eat was simply restricting in another way. What if I wanted to eat lunch while my baby was sleeping simply for convenience, even if I wasn’t super hungry yet? Or what if I wasn’t really hungry but felt like having a cookie or two at a party? Or what if I was starting to feel uncomfortable with the amount of sugar I was eating? What if I truly wanted to go back to eating less of it so I’d feel better physically? I felt robbed of the ability to choose how I wanted to eat for fear that those choices were in fact “restrictive.”
More than anything, I felt like there was in fact some truth to sugar having an addictive component. Keeping treats around and getting habituated to them did take my overeating down a few notches, that’s true. But I feel like it meant I could now eat 10 Oreos at a time instead of a whole package. No matter how long I kept at it, if I had sugar in my house, I’d eat plenty of it. The “magic” of sugary foods never wore off like it was supposed to. Intuitive Eating promised that eventually I’d be satisfied with an Oreo or two, but that never happened for me.
About 6 months after my daughter Aurora was born, I decided I wanted to take back my power when it came to eating. I wanted to call the shots on what I ate and when I ate it, not rely on some book or the “hunger cues” that never did become particularly clear or consistent for me. Instead of assuming I was broken or stupid or doing things wrong, as I would have in the past, I reasoned that I had worked extremely hard at this and that it simply wasn’t the right approach for me personally. And I decided that while intuitive eating had been a helpful stepping stone in my journey, and likely was a great final destination for others out there, it wasn’t going to work long-term for me.
Takeaways from Intuitive Eating
So. In my year or so of experimenting with Intuitive Eating, I concluded that it wasn’t for me. In the end, I fundamentally disagreed with its logic. Would intuitive shopping work, for example? No—there’s no company on the planet that doesn’t operate on a budget, and for good reason. How about intuitive parenting? After the first time your child runs into oncoming traffic they’ll learn it’s a bad idea, right? Or intuitive piano playing? Just practice when you feel like it and you’ll be the next Mozart. Or intuitive living generally, from a moral standpoint? Just do whatever you want to in the moment and eventually you’ll end up happy and successful. All these scenarios seemed preposterous. So why was eating magically different from anything else in life? Why was discipline and structure such a key element of success in any other area I could think of, but an absolute no-no when it came to eating?
I decided that I believed that overly harsh restrictions on my eating were a bad plan that would only fuel my bingeing. Intuitive Eating was spot-on there. I made a firm decision that my endpoint healthy lifestyle was going to include lots of healthy, wholesome foods, but that it was also going to include brownies in moderation. Doing so would safeguard myself against bingeing. Also, brownies are good!
But back to my beef with intuitive eating. Is structure itself always a bad thing when it comes to eating, as the book suggests? Are all forms of discipline, rules, and guidelines inherently evil? I decided that the answer here was NO. I decided a healthy lifestyle, for me, would be a matter of finding a balance. What things in my eating were keeping me locked in a cage, and what things were acting as guardrails to keep me from careening off a cliff?
I believed I had the right to lay down some ground rules, some structure to my eating. I wanted to figure out how to eat in a healthy way that made me feel both emotionally AND physically good. Intuitive eating and counseling got me to where I was no longer terrified of food and no longer hated myself and my body, yes. But I couldn’t deny that eating as much junk food as I was during this time made me feel sluggish and generally blah. So armed with some great principles and beliefs from the two professionals I’d sought help from, but with some equally firm convictions of my very own, I decided to jump back into the fray solo. I would put my newfound experiences and realizations to work, yet allow myself to be the one to call the shots once more.
Coming Next: How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 4