This post is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of updates about what I’m learning about intuitive eating and how to best feed my body. I’m posting here not only to share what I’m learning with others who may find this information useful, but also to document this information for myself to refer back to as I work on building a better foundation of healthy eating for myself and my family.
Also, please note that I’m really, really new at this and still learning what it’s all about – baby steps.
Exploring intuitive eating makes me feel like a scientist. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been influenced by other people’s judgments about food — broccoli good, Twinkies bad; skinless grilled chicken good, fried chicken bad; spinach good, carrots bad (that one from when I did the Carb-Addict’s Diet); beans good, rice bad (South Beach); Triscuits good, Wheat Thins bad (Sugar Busters); fat-free sugar-free ice cream good, grapes bad (thanks, Weight Watchers). Intuitive eating means I wipe the slate clean with all of those judgments and I eat like a researcher: I’m observing the effects that different foods have on my body, making hypotheses, and then testing those hypotheses to see if they’re valid. It’s the scientific method, y’all!
For instance: I’ve long been a big diet soda drinker — Diet Coke with Lime, specifically. I got hooked on Diet Coke with Lime the last time I did Weight Watchers, and then I kept drinking it because (a.) I felt I could drink it without feeling guilty, and (b.) honestly, I liked the taste. (It’s the Lime.) But about a month ago I finished up my 12-pack and decided not to buy more, because I was trying to limit highly-processed foods so I could better tune into my body’s signals.
Then last week, Aaron brought a 12-pack home from the store, and I drank a can with lunch. That evening, after we got the kids to bed and collapsed on the couch to watch Criminal Minds reruns, I realized I was starving – despite eating a dinner that had left me feeling full only a few hours before, and despite eating normally all that day, I was ravenous. So I fixed myself a plate of leftovers from dinner and ate them…and it was like my hunger hadn’t even been touched. Even though I could feel that my belly was full, my brain was convinced that I was famished.
I wondered: Were the Diet Cokes with Lime affecting my hunger/satiety mechanism? So I went a few days with no soda, maintained my normal eating pattern, and then tried a Diet Coke with lunch again — and the same thing happened that evening: a feeling of starvation that I couldn’t shake, even though I knew I was full.
So I’ve concluded that artificial sweeteners may affect my body’s ability to feel satisfied by food, and it’s something I’m watching for now. That’s not to say Diet Coke with Lime is completely off-limits to me now; just that I’m aware of the likely effect it will have on my body if I do drink it, and so I’m making an informed choice. (And frankly, I’m far less likely to choose to drink one if I know I’m going to be feeling unsatisfiably hungry later, because it was not a good feeling.)
Other things –
1. Breakfast: For a couple months now my breakfast has been the same items, varying only in quantity based on how hungry I am that morning: whole wheat toast with peanut butter, a grapefruit, and a latte. It’s a good breakfast for me because it provides me with plenty of energy that lasts until lunchtime, and the foods are ones that I really enjoy. And eating the same thing for breakfast every morning gives me a feeling of security that I don’t have to be making food choices before I’m fully functional, and provides a morning ritual that I find soothing.
2. Salad: It turns out I really like salad! This is surprising! Salad has always been a staple of any diet plan I’ve been on (from the salad you’re required to eat every night at dinner on Carb Addict’s Diet, to the year I gave up everything except fruits and vegetables for Lent), but I never actually enjoyed it. But here’s what’s changed salad into something I look forward to eating instead of a chore: regular salad dressing. Also the occasional croutons or shredded cheese. Thanks to those couple of tablespoons of full-fat dressing, I’m eating plenty of leafy greens and raw vegetables, because I want to. It’s been revolutionary!
3. Lentils: I wasn’t a huge lentil fan until I took an Indian cooking class last week and learned to make dal. A few days later I made a batch of dal and brown basmati rice for lunch. It was yummy, but it didn’t necessarily seem like anything extraordinary — until the next day, when I realized that — well, when I realized that apparently I hadn’t been getting enough fiber in my diet before then. Because I went to the bathroom, is what I’m saying, and y’all, it was miraculous. So now that I know what the, ahem, results can be of an increased fiber intake, I’m more aware of finding other ways to incorporate it into my diet. (I just can’t go back to the way things were before. Once you’ve gone like that you you cannot go back, if you get what I am saying.)
So that’s where I am with intuitive eating so far. It’s hard for me to take a neutral approach to food, but practice, practice, practice, right?
Lately, since I’ve publicly renounced dieting, I’ve gotten a handful of concerned questions from friends who aren’t sure they’re understanding me correctly. Or they aren’t sure I’m understanding me correctly. The conversation usually goes something like,
Friend: So what are you saying – you’re not even going to try to lose weight anymore? Because [lots of sciencey things about how terribly unhealthy it is to be fat].
Friend: Well, sure, the ridiculous magazine diets are all bunk. What you really need is a lifestyle change that involves eating less and exercising more — have you thought of that?
Friend: I get that the human body isn’t designed to respond to caloric deficit by reducing weight long-term. But what if you just reduced your food intake and lost weight really really slowly so your metabolism had time to adjust to having less food?
Friend: If you just sorted out all the psychological reasons that made you fat in the first place, and all the negative emotions you have about food, I bet then you’d be able to lose weight.
Friend: [any other condescending suggestion that tries to find a loophole in the decision I've made, after a lot of thought and research, to stop trying to lose weight in favor of adopting behaviors - like intuitive/body-conscious eating and regular enjoyable exercise - that are proven to have a positive impact on my health]
I’m going to be as clear as I can: I am no longer trying to lose weight. Click the links above and you’ll see why I’m convinced that continued efforts at weight-loss are a losing (har!) proposition for me, based on loads of evidence that bodies are wired to want to stay the same size, that the process of losing and then regaining weight (which is the near-inevitable result of dieting) taxes the body more than maintaining an “overweight” size, and — most importantly — my own experience has taught me that trying to lose weight is detrimental to my mental and emotional well-being.
I’m choosing to be content with my weight instead of pitting myself against my body in attempt to somehow circumvent its genetically predisposed size. If science is able to come up with a proven method for permanent weight loss in a way that does not otherwise compromise my physical, mental, or emotional health, I’m sure I’ll revisit this choice. But until then, I know I’m a healthier person for living in a way that values and nurtures my body in the size and shape that it is.
I’m choosing to stop dieting. And before you ask, no, I’m not going to be doing [insert any other term that means "trying to lose weight"] either.
(This post is going to be rather rudimentary HAES 101, but I need to spell it out because I’m still trying to work out what a lot of this means for me. Apologies for the tl;dr.)
A friend told me she’s just started a group Bible study using the book Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food. I’ve been on a hunt for HAES-type books written from a Christian perspective, so I did some flipping through this one with the Look Inside! feature on Amazon and on the book’s website, but I ultimately rejected it as being somewhat problematic. Here’s why (and if you’ve read the book and find my interpretation to be off base, please let me know):
Foremost, it looks to me like the book emphasizes weight loss, even without saying so directly. Although it says it’s not a “diet book” but a “lifestyle book,” nearly all of the “success stories” featured on the website recount participants’ weight loss as a result of following the study. Weight loss in this case seems to be equated not only with physical health but also with spiritual closeness with God; the book jacket (at least in the online copy) even says, “Reach your healthy goals and grow closer to God through the process.” That’s fine if the “healthy goals” are simply to adopt healthier behaviors. But if the “healthy goals” the book is trying to help the reader reach are in any way weight-focused, then the writer is conflating spiritual maturity and weight, and that’s problematic.
Then there’s the whole issue of food cravings — which in this usage seems to be shorthand for “cravings for foods that have low nutritional value.” This sentence from Health at Every Size has really stuck with me: “If you’re treating your emotional needs with food, you don’t have a food problem, you have a self-care problem.” Everything I’ve believed up until this point was that if I’m craving foods as a way to fill (or more often, muffle) emotional needs, then it’s the eating that’s unhealthy; when in fact, I’m discovering it’s the opposite. If I’m doing a good job of caring for my emotional and spiritual needs in healthy ways, then I’m not likely to be using food to fill that role, and the problem of emotional eating pretty much solves itself.
(I’m not claiming that this is true for everyone’s experience with food cravings and emotional eating; my experience is only my own, and I can’t speak for anyone else.)
Sometimes, too, we tend to describe behaviors as “emotional eating” when in fact they aren’t based on emotional reasons at all. When we diet and deprive our bodies of the food intake it needs, we may be able to override our bodies’ drive to eat for a time; but there comes a point where, biologically, our body begins shouting so loudly for food that we can’t help but eat. We attribute it to a lack of willpower or to emotional eating, but in fact it’s a result of the rush of hormones our bodies release that are designed specifically to make us eat. What and how much we eat is not entirely under our conscious control.
Within the environment of intuitive eating, I can eat whatever I want, because those wants are based on mindfully gathering feedback from my body; I know that my cravings are biological, not emotional. My body is learning that I’ll give it the foods it asks for, so it responds by asking for the foods that it needs; and I’m honoring God by trusting Him to use the body He gave me, made in His image, to take care of me. When I divorce chocolate from the connotations of guilt and food-sneaking and forbiddenness, and I’m not using food to fulfill an emotional need, then the only cues telling me to eat chocolate are my body’s physical hunger needs for that specific food. And once I’ve had as much as I need, I can set it aside and go on with my day, not carrying guilt for eating the chocolate, and not thinking about the next time I’ll get to sneak away and eat more of it. My relationship with food is no longer obsessive, but simply to meet my needs.
When my cravings aren’t colored with scarcity or guilt, I find myself craving nourishing food much more often; because while the way a specific food tastes is desirable, what’s more desirable is the way a food makes me feel. We spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about what foods are best for us to eat, which ones are good and which ones are bad, but in the context of intuitive eating, this pretty much resolves itself. In the context of intuitive eating, the Food Guide Pyramid becomes not a prescription for how we’re *supposed* to be eat but a description of the foods our bodies are naturally craving, with individual variation for each unique body; the foods we crave are the foods we need to be healthy; the foods we choose are the foods we need, not because we have to, but because we want to.
(This is kind of an oversimplification of this whole process, which I hope to address in more detail later, but it’ll do for now.)
Food itself doesn’t have a moral value. The act of eating a Twinkie, in and of itself, isn’t sinful. Paul responded to the Corinthians’ question about the morality of certain foods by saying, “Everything is permissible — but I will not be mastered by anything.” With intuitive eating, I’m not being mastered by out-of-control cravings, but am able to mindfully respond to my body’s needs.
Because I know that eating releases serotonin and endorphins, I can recognize that it is intended to be a pleasurable activity and not feel guilty for enjoying food. When I’m eating only what I know my body needs, I can be satisfied that I’m not turning that pleasure into idolatry. Caring for our bodies is a moral issue, but I’m learning that caring for our bodies is incompatible with dieting — intentional weight loss defies too many of our biological processes and is contrary to how we were designed to function, and it decreases, not increases, our bodies’ health.
So, when a Christian book promises to teach me how to “Replace rationalization that leads to diet failure with wisdom that leads to victory,” I’m wary, because what it seems to be saying is that “rationalization,” not biochemistry, is what leads to diet failure and that there is Biblical “wisdom” that will result in diet victory — i.e., being able to maintain permanent weight loss. This sounds to me like it’s not only promising something it can’t deliver — because our bodies are designed not to achieve diet “victory” — but that it’s intertwining it with our relationship with God in a way that I believe could lead to further frustration and spiritual depression. For me to find a book about food cravings and Christianity useful, it would need to acknowledge that food cravings are, to an extent, valuable biological feedback from our bodies about what they need, and not impediments to a closer relationship with God.
Alane wrote a comment on my last post, and the reply I was writing grew into a full post of its own. I don’t mean to single her out by posting my response here; it’s just that the concerns she raises are, I think, pretty common among people who are unfamiliar with the Health at Every Size approach to weight. The comment is here; this is my response:
It’s wonderful that all those patients have been able to come off of their meds after losing weight. However, the problem is that without controlled testing, it’s impossible to determine whether their improved health is attributable to having smaller bodies or to adopting healthier behaviors, like increasing movement and eating more nutritious foods. Time and again, research has shown that it isn’t weighing less that improves health, but healthier behaviors, particularly increased movement — which are behaviors that can also result in weight loss. But, adopting healthy behaviors leads to better health even when it doesn’t coincide with weight loss.
The problem with conflating weight loss with improved health is that it leads people to believe that they are healthy only so long as their weight is down. When people regain the weight they’ve lost — as they almost inevitably do; research* shows that the vast majority of dieters regain whatever weight they lose — it often leads to their dieting again using increasingly unhealthy means, or to abandoning their prior healthy behaviors because they’re fat again so what’s the point. In other words, when people believe that exercise and healthy eating are only beneficial so long as they lead to weight loss, then there’s no motivation to continue doing these behaviors if they aren’t resulting in weight loss. This sense of failure can cause other unhealthy results, too, like stress, depression, and binge eating.
(*Sources: This is a link to a journal article that talks about all this and more, and which has links to a lot of other journal articles.)
It sounds like this information about depression isn’t news to you, though, and I’m so sorry for that. I really, truly understand the limitations you feel and for the guilt you’re carrying because of your weight, and I have so much compassion for you because I was so recently there.
I too believe God gave me this body and that I’m responsible for caring for it. And I know that for most of my life I have done a really rotten job of that. So I came into this process (of reexamining health and weight) with a LOT of guilt for how I had abused myself, both physically and emotionally. I really honestly didn’t see how I could make a shift toward better self-care and away from self-loathing, because all the poor choices I’d made were insurmountable.
But with a lot of prayer and seeking, I was reminded that the foundation of my relationship with God is forgiveness and grace, and that He wipes away my sins. Even if my sins include eating crap and not exercising. So I had a time of prayer and confession, and I sought His forgiveness for all the ways I’ve failed to take care of myself — and since then, I’ve let go of my guilt for my past treatment of my body, because I know He has wiped my past clean — He’s over it, and if He’s over it, there’s no point in my holding onto it on my own. I’m not saying I’m free of the consequences of my poor behavior – I still have to deal with a body that lacks stamina and strength and flexibility, that gets tired and out of breath too easily, that doesn’t like to take the stairs. But I can’t change my past actions; all I can do is choose better future ones.
And honestly, I don’t think I’d be able to make the lifestyle changes that I’m making now if I didn’t have that absolution to depend on. Every day I can choose to exercise, to eat intuitively, to play with my kids even when it leads to being out of breath. I can choose to take my fat body out in public and not be ashamed of it, to treat it with care and respect, to give that same respect to others. I can choose to listen to my body’s cues as a way of honoring God who made this body. And when I mess up, as I inevitably do, I can be forgiven for that, too, and I can move on. It’s so freeing.
I pray you can get there, too.
Other HAES readers: Am I missing anything? What information would you add to this? And non-HAES readers: are there other concerns you have about this approach?
One of the things I still haven’t figured out is how to teach this concept of intuitive eating to my children (especially since I only have a tenuous grasp on it myself). Already my kids are bombarded — from school, from PBS Kids, all over the place — with this dichotomy of “good food” and “bad food.” This seems wrong to me, for them to be taught to make moral judgments about food in their preschool classrooms; but on the other hand, their teachers are right, that candy bar isn’t good for their teeth.
But putting intuitive eating into kid-terms for children who are already programmed to think of food as either good or bad is eluding me. For that matter, I’m still trying to defeat my own knee-jerk reaction to classify food as such: broccoli good, pasta bad. But my goal for my kids is for food to be just not that big a deal, and that’s going to mean a rejection, to an extent, of the things they’re being taught about food outside the home — and in the home, a more intense focus on modeling healthy attitudes toward food.
This post on the blog Spilt Milk provides a good framework for shifting my kids’ beliefs about food, although her daughter hasn’t already been taught the conflicting messages about food that my kids have learned. I’m having trouble finding much about this topic of shaping kids’ attitudes about food from a HAES perspective, though.
What do you think? What do you teach your kids (or what would you teach your kids, if you had them) about food? Or, have you found others writing about this topic that I’ve missed?
That last post I wrote sparked a lot of dialog this week – with my parents, my husband, my friends. Although I didn’t think about it before I posted, I cross-link my blog posts here with my facebook page, which means that a handful of the people who read what I wrote about my childhood experiences were people who actually knew me back then, and some of it was eye-opening. I feel the need to clarify some things here, now, to tie up some loose ends. So:
First, I want to say that I discussed the post with my dad before I put it up – to check for inaccuracies, but mostly to make sure he didn’t feel demonized by the post, and was okay with being publicly written about that way. I’m still not certain I did a good enough job of stating, My dad was doing the best he knew how at the time, as a single parent of a pubescent daughter, with the resources and information that he had. He parented me with love through a difficult time in his own life as well as mine. And so while there were disordered messages about food and eating and size, they were mostly well-intentioned ones. In the past few years, he and I have been able to have very candid discussions about where things broke down in our relationship, and we’ve been successful at mending a lot of the issues we’ve had – I respect him for his humility and openness in these conversations, and I’m so grateful to have had them. So, to sum up, Dad: not a villain.
Another loose end – one of the rudimentary things I feel the need to restate as I’m writing: HEALTH is not equal to WEIGHT. Despite all the misinformation we’re fed to the contrary, there isn’t a link between a person’s size and their level of health — correlation, perhaps, but not causation. You can be thin and healthy, you can be thin and unhealthy, you can be fat and healthy, you can be fat and unhealthy, you can be anywhere in between. Body size is related to healthfulness about as much as height or shoe size are. This fact is fundamental to everything else I write on this blog, and if you want more information, this interview of author Linda Bacon, Ph.D. (author of the book Health at Every Size) is a good place to start: part 1, part 2.
As I’m reading and learning more about Health at Every Size, I’m realizing that it is, by definition, a countercultural movement, and that being part of it means being rebellious against society. I’m reading blogs (this is a really excellent one) that are written by Fat Activists, people who are really putting a lot of thought into this movement of fat people who are refusing to be marginalized because of their body shapes, who are standing up and activating for better treatment, better information – for not being made into the dehumanized, caricatured, homogenous embodiment of The Obesity Epidemic.
It’s fascinating and awesome to me, and I love it, this community, these people who are saying, You cannot treat us like this anymore. And I recognize that just by existing in this fat body, by saying publicly that I love it, that I’m not trying to change it, that I’m going to dress it in pretty clothes that don’t hide its shape and feed it the food that it wants — that this in itself is political.
But for now, I’m not ready to do much more than dip my toe into the social-paradigm-subverting waters, and that’s not what I envision for this blog, at least not yet. I’m still too much of a health-at-every-size n00b, still trying to figure out what this all means for me, not ready yet to think about all the rest of the fatties out there. Still coming to terms with the notion that this body of mine can be healthy even if it’s fat, that I can exercise because it feels good and not to burn calories. Still trying to get used to relying on internal feedback, not external, about what my body needs. So I’m writing here as I figure these things out, and it all probably seems very rudimentary for people who have been immersed in this world of fat activism for a while — it’s still very new to me.
Thanks for being part of this process with me. And – as I know you’re reading this – would you mind commenting with where you are in your own health and body-image journey? It’s so helpful to me to see others’ paths – it’s helping me draw up my own road map.
This is a new blog for me. I write a personal blog about a little bit of everything, Closet Narcissist, but lately wrote several posts in a row about my new perspectives about size and weight loss and health and food, and I decided to give myself a separate outlet for this topic. I think I’ll have a lot more to say about it, and this is a better place, away from the posts about my preschoolers and my husband and the rest of my life. Partly, I wanted to give myself some distance from some earlier body-shaming posts I’d written (and since removed). Having a whole new blog on which to do so is symbolic of the new start I’m giving myself with food and my body.
Here’s more about me, from my shiny new About page:
I’m Abi. I’m nearly 30 years old, and I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think something was wrong with my body.
I’ve been dieting in one form or another — monitoring my weight, measuring and limiting my portion size, counting calories and Points, eliminating entire food groups, or just straight up eliminating food altogether — since preadolescence. I’ve hated myself, my body, my shape, my size. I’ve felt guilt and anger and regret over my lack of willpower.
I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about food, trying not to eat food, exercising off food, obsessing about food. I’ve believed that nothing tastes as good as being thin feels. I’ve bought clothes that were too small because I knew I was going to lose weight, and then they’d fit perfectly. I’ve donated the same unworn clothes to Goodwill.
I’ve spent excessive amounts of energy trying not to be fat. And I’m still fat.
So I’m beginning to recognize that the problem isn’t with my willpower — it’s with the goal. Through the amazing community of Fat Acceptance writers online, I’m learning about how my body is designed, and I’m discovering that what it isn’t designed for is shrinking.
So I’m working on this. I’m practicing loving myself as I am, as a creation of God — instead of assuming He created me to be thin, and blaming myself for destroying His creation. I’m practicing listening to my body for what it needs, instead of trying to eat according to a system of external regulations that aren’t designed for my body. I’m learning to trust that God made me in a fearful, wonderful way that’s as capable of regulating food as it is of regulating my breathing and heartbeat.
I’m learning that being thin or fat doesn’t have to feel like anything, any more than being tall or short does. And I’m learning that sometimes, food tastes really good.
I believe that a thin body is not necessarily a healthy body, and a fat body is not necessarily an unhealthy — that a person’s health cannot be determined by just their size. I believe that a person can be healthy in any size body, and that intentionally trying to lose weight is nearly always unsuccessful, and leads to a less healthy body, not a healthier one. And most importantly, I believe that hating one’s body is completely antithetical to improving one’s health. I’m writing this blog as I try to integrate these beliefs — which I believe are validated by scientific research — into my lifestyle.
For more information and the science behind these beliefs, please read:
Thank you for being here, reading this. I hope we can get to know each other a little better.
This was originally posted on my other blog, Closet Narcissist, on March 7, 2011.
I spent the last of my Christmas money buying the book Health at Every Size (and also a Tai Chi dvd; more about that later). The book is by the ironically-named Linda Bacon, Ph.D., and she writes about the myths surrounding our culture’s obsession with dieting and weight loss and our equation of thinness with healthiness. I’ve only barely started the book — midterms are this week and reading for fun is out of the question — but this bit from the introduction especially resonated with me:
Food is simple now. I appreciate the sensuality and pleasure of eating. When I am full, I typically lose interest in food. After a few magical bites of chocolate, I am satisfied and the drive to eat dissipates. When I finish eating, I rarely think about food until I am hungry again. I don’t feel guilty afterward.
And I take pleasure in my body. I move because it feels good. I enjoy being touched. I dress in clothes that I like and don’t consider whether or not they hide my fat.
As wonderful as food is, it is only one of many pleasures in my life. I am no longer waiting to lose weight before I live my life fully. Having freed up all the energy and time that I spent on dieting or obsessing about my weight or food and having let go of my shame about these, I have greater depth and fulfillment in my life, including deeper intimacy with others.
These few paragraphs have become an ideal for me, the goal I’m longing for but almost afraid to hope for. Not obsess about food? Not feel guilt and stress and shame about eating? That’s so completely outside my experience of food as to be in another zip code – no, on another continent. I almost cannot even imagine ever feeling that way.
And yet. The more I tell myself I’m abandoning dieting and efforts at weight-control, the more I practice listening to my body to know when and what and how much to eat, the more I try to focus on my beauty and okay-ness, right-ness as a creation of a perfect God instead of my wrongness according to the narrow social ideals of beauty — the less foreign it gets. The more I choose to love and nurture my body instead of abusing and depriving it, the more natural it feels. The more I practice believing that it is okay to wear clothes I love, to dress up in ’50s pearls and liquid eyeliner and Bettie Page bangs (self-cut at 2am, after drinking — perhaps not the wisest method for hairstyling but I do love the result) instead of doing my best to disappear in boring neutral clothes and makeup, the more I find myself being honestly, truly happy with the me in the mirror. Or is it the other way around?
Maybe so. I don’t think I’m over my obsession with food. But it’s shrinking. And as food lessens its grip on my emotions, as I discover more and more that my body manages my eating choices quite well when left to its own devices, I’m becoming happier with my body — the wonderful biology of it, and its appearance too. It’s easier to love the way my body looks when I can trust the way it works.
Which is why, when I was trying on bathing suits this week (my old suit is hideous and saggy and worn through, so I ordered several different styles and sizes to try on, hoping to find one that I could live with) I ended up having difficulty choosing between two bathing suits, one to keep and one to return, and being frustrated because I love them both — the cut, the fit, the way they enhance my curves; they way they make me look at my body and think sexy, not dumpy.
In fact, given how staggeringly awful it used to feel to put on a bathing suit, and given how fully, couch-jumpingly in love I am with how these two bathing suits make me look, I think it’s not the bathing suit at all that’s making me feel beautiful. So maybe I’m already closer to my faraway goal than I thought.