When people find out that I am a health coach specializing in intuitive eating, they often want to know about my eating habits. I usually reply that there is a difference between knowing and doing, and that sometimes a lot of knowledge is actually more of a hinderance than a help, especially when it comes to intuitive eating. Our innate sense of what nourishes us does not come from a nutrition textbook, and trying to eat according to someone else’s idea of what is best for us doesn’t create health in the long run.
I am on my own personal journey towards becoming an intuitive eater. While I feel like I am pretty far along my path, I think of it as more of an ongoing process, than it is something I strive to perfect. Some of the 10 principles have come to me easily, and others have been more of a challenge. Due to a lot of luck/circumstance with genetic makeup and upbringing, I haven’t felt compelled to go on a diet to lose weight. However, I have followed restrictive diets to improve my mental and physical health, and I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process.
My first diet change came when I moved away from home to go to college. I wanted to become a vegetarian for a variety of reasons, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. However, I knew nothing about nutrition, didn’t realize how much food costs, no longer had access to a real kitchen, and realized that cooking only for myself felt depressing. I had been responsible for cooking for my family from 12-18 years of age, but this experience was useless under the circumstances.
Over the course of my late teens and early twenties I learned some nutrition basics and found people to cook and eat with. However, the nutrition knowledge resulted in a mixture of good and bad consequences. The good was that I realized I needed more protein and a balanced variety of foods in order to feel decent. The bad was that I cultivated a sense of “good foods” and “bad foods.” When I ate “bad foods” I’d feel guilty, which of course lowered my self-esteem and ironically led me to eat these foods more often.
Despite my knowledge, I didn’t feel very well most of the time. I was depressed and anxious. Desperate to see a change, and already tired of medications, I decided to see an acupuncturist/TCM practitioner. She immediately pinpointed my diet as a source of my depression. She strongly suggested that I should start eating meat again (despite the fact that I was also depressed as a meat eater), and should focus on high Qi vegetarian foods like sprouts (which caused me bowel discomfort). She suggested regular consumption of apple cider vinegar and a variety of other diet changes that I found impossible to follow. Of course, I did not fail to follow her advice in peace. I did it with a heavy load of guilt.
Over the rest of my twenties, my diet continued to change according to whether I was living alone or with others, my mental state, my budget, my workload, and the latest piece of nutritional knowledge. I was essentially adrift and highly susceptible to external influences, until my late twenties when some new and more helpful influences came in.
One key influence was mindfulness meditation. If you’ve attended any of my workshops or been following my posts, you know that I think mindfulness is the essential core of intuitive eating. You can’t access your intuition if you’re not present. So, meditation guided me to be present more frequently, which increased my awareness of the influence that food was having on my well being. When I was stressed and/or depressed, I became numb to my hunger signals, and the more I failed to eat, the worse I felt, creating a downward spiral. I realized that when I thought to myself “I can’t eat,” I was really saying, “I need to eat.” I chose one food that was easy to get and would make me feel better in a hurry, to be my “depression food.” Committing to eating that food when I felt like I needed to eat but couldn’t was my way out of the downward spiral.
Mindfulness also helped me gain a sense of what, how, and when it felt best to eat. I didn’t instantly become an intuitive eater, but I was well on my way until a surprising influence came along in my early thirties. When I started taking nutrition classes, they threw me off balance. I had already done so much research on nutrition, I thought I already knew most of what there was to know. (I didn’t yet know that every tenet of nutrition has scientific evidence both for and against it.) Suddenly, feelings of guilt around food were back, and stronger than ever. I needed to eat meat! I couldn’t eat gluten! No sugar! No refined carbs!
Next thing I knew, I was craving cookies and bread like crazy, even though I could take them or leave them before. I thought it was just a sign that I was in withdrawal from sugar and gluten, but now I know it’s a classic example of the guilt/deprivation seesaw (expect a blog on this topic soon). I started eating meat again, but did not feel the benefits I was promised, like increased energy and less frequent hunger. I was a new and lactating mom at the time, so my lack of energy and frequent hunger probably had nothing to do with meat, but I wanted results! Finally, I discovered the philosophy of intuitive eating, and became more self-aware of the influence that restricted eating was having on me.
While I am committed to intuitive eating, I still struggle sometimes with the influence of my nutrition training. A few months ago, when my only choice for food seemed to be a fast food joint, I nearly cried. That was a wake up call, and my inner intuitive eating coach quickly pointed out this opportunity for growth. Most of the time, though, my challenges are more subtle. Do I buy the cookies that look good or do I buy some “false promise” cookies that seem healthier?
When I’m connected to my inner coach, the answers are simple. “Buy the cookies you want and see how it feels to eat them whenever you want. Use your findings to inform your future decisions.” The more I follow the 10 principles, the less my life is dominated by food choices. Eating is a part of life, and it can nourish us both physically and mentally, but it’s not the sole determinant of health. Now I know that if eating “healthy” causes me stress, then I’m not supporting my health at all. Knowing this, I can make peace with my choices, whether I choose a salad or a cupcake (or both!).