Eating My Way to the Other Side

A bowl of yogurt seems like a strange adversary, but yogurt and I have been at war for years.

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My friend, my foe.

I like yogurt. I really do! It’s sweet, fruity, you can put fun things in it like granola and blueberries and even chocolate chips, it doesn’t require preparation, and it’s a decently filling and convenient breakfast or snack. It’s versatile, too. If you’ve got a little extra time on a Sunday morning, you can get fancy and cut up fresh fruit and add a little honey and enjoy a nice big bowl of yogurt. You can also buy it pre-packaged and grab it as you’re running out the door to work.

But yogurt is one of those foods I ate constantly while I was dieting. So, we have a weird relationship.

When I was dieting, yogurt was one of those foods I classified as “good” and would use to replace “bad” foods I craved. If I was craving ice cream, instead I’d force myself to eat yogurt. Maybe I’d throw in a carefully measured tablespoon of chocolate chips or sprinkles if I really wanted to replicate the ice cream experience. But yogurt is not ice cream. It’s a very poor substitute for ice cream. Sometimes I’d want candy or something sweet. And I’d eat yogurt instead. And I don’t like Greek yogurt but forced myself to eat it because it has a higher protein content.

Over time, I began to really resent yogurt. Dieting had turned a food I had once genuinely enjoyed into a food I loathed, feared, felt anxious about. Yogurt had gone from just being food to being a symbol of how chronically unsatisfied I’d been when I was dieting. It no longer tasted good, because when I’d eat it, it was with the hope that it would taste like something else, like the food I really wanted.

And, for a very long time after I started dieting, I just didn’t eat it.

Usually, once a month, I’d try to make up with yogurt. I’d see it in the store, staring at me from the shelves, like an old friend I’d had a falling out with. I’d pick up some yogurt, bring it home, store it in the fridge, and never eat it. It would get pushed to the back of the fridge, and it would spoil. Then, I’d throw it out.

But we’ve begun to make up.

From Total Restriction to a Free-for-All

When I first embraced Intuitive Eating, it was scary and exhilarating. I ate with no restrictions. I ate all the foods I had deemed “bad,” I ate pizza every week, I bought donuts and potato chips and candy bars and kept full gallons of real ice cream in the freezer instead of Halo Top. I never, ever turned down dessert. I really swung from the chandeliers. I ate with wild, reckless abandon.

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All cakes are good cakes.

I honestly had to go through this period. It was a process of unlearning restriction.

I had been dieting for so long that I no longer knew how to feed myself without rules to follow, Points to count, macronutrients to consider, calories to plug into an app. And the love I had for certain foods, the “bad” foods, had turned into obsession. Ice cream was no longer just ice cream, it was a forbidden fruit, and my desire for it only increased when I didn’t allow myself to have it. Pizza was not just cheese and sauce on dough; it was a lover I fantasized about constantly, more desirable with every second we spent apart. I thought of little but food when I was dieting. I’d obsessively plan and track every single bite of food, and also find myself consumed with thoughts of the “bad” foods I had sworn off. My whole day, week, month and life revolved around food. I thought about food from the moment I woke up and it was the last thing I thought about before going to sleep.

This is what dieting does to the brain. If you’re not obsessive about certain foods and eating in general before you start dieting, you sure as hell will be when you’re in the thick of it.

This period of wild abandon did something important for me: it normalized food. Like exposure therapy, it allowed me to overcome my fears and obsessions about certain foods. I learned that I can eat pizza and nothing bad would happen. I learned that a candy bar would not kill me. I learned that eating a donut for breakfast did not ruin my day. And it did something else, too: it allowed the magical, mystical allure of the “bad” foods I’d been denying myself to fade away.

It took me by surprise, little by little. I’d find that a package of Oreos I’d bought had gone stale, because I hadn’t eaten them. I’d open a gallon of ice cream and realize it was freezer-burned because I hadn’t eaten it. I’d order a pizza on a Friday night, eat one slice, and be done with the pizza. My husband would suggest ordering subs and I’d realize I didn’t really want a greasy sub and fries. My husband would bring home peanut M&Ms from his trip to the gas station, because he knew I had a hard day and he wanted to cheer me up, and I would eat a few then hand the rest to him to finish.

This wasn’t like me at all.

I was confused about what was happening.

But, really, what was happening was normal. Because I had incorporated foods I’d once forbidden myself to eat into my normal, everyday life, they weren’t magical anymore. It was all just food. Pizza was just pizza. (And still delicious. But now just cheese and sauce on dough instead of Romeo to my Juliet.) Ice cream was just ice cream. (Also still delicious. But no longer a forbidden delight.)

It was weird. Largely because a lot of those foods I had once swooned over no longer held much joy for me. Eating a slice of pizza didn’t feel any different, emotionally, than eating a salad. And I started noticing that after one slice, it made me feel weighed down and heavy, creating a weight underneath my sternum. A big bowl of pasta was tasty, sure, but it also gave me acid reflux and created that same weight in torso. They no longer gave me a rush. I didn’t get the thrill of being “bad,” I didn’t get to experience the dopamine hit of eating something I’d been denying myself. I felt, well, rather neutral toward these foods I had once loved so much I literally fantasized about them and looked at pictures of them online when I was craving them.

I didn’t realize it, but I had eaten my way to the other side.

The Other Side

After I mourned the magic of pizza, I realized that I’d finally gotten to the place Intuitive Eating had aimed to get me: a healed relationship with food. I had achieved food neutrality. And I started to be able to hear what my body was telling me, after so many years of never being sure if I was hungry or full. I was getting reacquainted with the cues decades of dieting had robbed me of. I started feeling more in tune with what my body wanted, instead of what my head and diet culture were telling me.

When I started Intuitive Eating, I honestly hadn’t anticipated this. I thought: food with no restrictions! Think of all the things I can eat! I was dizzy with the possibilities. I wanted to make reservations at every restaurant I’d been wanting to try, eat everything I had been denying myself. And, sure, I wanted to heal my relationship with food, but mostly … I was fucking hungry. I wanted to eat. I wanted to eat whatever I wanted, for the first time in years. I wanted to live my life without food and my weight being the centerpiece of my existence.

I think that’s the lure that draws a lot of people frustrated with dieting, guilt, and shame into Intuitive Eating. Not improving their relationship with food, but just the promise of never needing to be hungry again and the possibility of not having weight loss be the predominant force in their lives.

I stumbled onto the actual point of Intuitive Eating more or less by total accident.

And I’ll be honest: I still have no fucking clue how to feed myself. Sometimes I still struggle with wanting to fall back on rules about how to eat, because human beings crave structure, and I crave it more than most. But I’m getting there.

A lot of what I’ve been doing is reacquainting myself with foods I had stopped eating when I was in the reckless abandon phase. Yogurt, for instance.

Last Sunday, I picked up a container of Stonyfield strawberry yogurt at Wegmans. I debated about whether to buy it. But I did. I bought some fresh blueberries, some of that fancy granola from the “organic” side of the store with a goddess lady on the label, some strawberries. And on Monday morning, I got up a little early, went into the kitchen, and made myself breakfast. I washed and sliced the strawberries, put a few handfuls of blueberries in the bowl, scooped out some of the hippie granola and spooned in the strawberry yogurt. And I sat down and ate it. You know what? It was delicious. It felt like a small present to myself, getting up a little earlier and taking a few moments to prepare a nice breakfast before sitting down at my computer to start working.

This was a meal I’d had before, in fact, it was one of my “go-to” meals when I was dieting. Only instead of just dumping the ingredients into a bowl based on how much I wanted, I’d carefully weight and measure every single thing that went into the bowl. I was stingy with the granola, because as I’d read and seen for myself plugging the nutritional content into my little Weight Watchers calculator, granola was one of those “seemingly healthy” foods that actually had a lot of fat and calories so it needed to be consumed in moderation. And I bought the low-fat yogurt, not the full fat yogurt, because higher fat content meant using up more Points. But the big difference was that I never really wanted this meal. I wanted other things, but settled for this meal, because it meant I’d get in my dairy for the day and my servings of fruit.

This time it was totally different, though. I wanted this meal, and I prepared it based on how hungry I was and how much I wanted of each ingredient. And I enjoyed it, because at that moment, it was exactly what I wanted.

Slowly, I have been adding new foods into my diet, even trying new ones. I even bought a fucking mango. This was new and exotic and I had to watch a YouTube video to learn how to slice it properly. I’ve been trying new fruits and new vegetables, things I had stayed away from when I was eating with reckless abandon. I am not trying them to substitute them for a candy bar or chips. I still eat candy bars and chips if I want them, because I know that a mango is a shitty substitute if what I want is a Snickers and baby carrots are not going to satisfy me if I what I want is a Dorito. I’m trying them because I am curious. Some things I have found I love, some things I’m neutral about.

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But I’m noticing how they make me feel. Does this make me feel full? Does this trigger my acid reflux? Does it make me feel bloated and gassy? Do I like the texture, is it satisfying to chew? Do I feel energized after I eat it, or does it make me sluggish, or does it not have any noticeable effect on me at all?

The cool thing is, though, I don’t feel like a slave to any of this food. I don’t think about it beyond the thought it takes to realize I’m hungry, figure out what I want to eat, prepare it and consume it. My whole day doesn’t revolve around my food choices.

Grocery shopping gives me considerably less anxiety. (For awhile it was the bane of my existence — so many food choices in such a short period of time!) The last time I checked out at the grocery store, I giggled at the strange array of food on the belt as the cashier moved it forward. There was colorful fresh produce, frozen and canned vegetables, cookies, muffins, ice cream, vitamins, La Croix, Lara Bars, hippie granola, organic yogurt, chips. Before, my grocery shopping was black and white. It was either “healthy,” or it was “junk” food and “convenience” food. But now, on my belt, all these different “types” of food were present, integrated, equal.

Looking at the food being scanned, I realized: I did it. I’ve reached a place where all of these foods have a place in my life, all of them are just fine to eat, and they are all equal. I didn’t buy the produce to be “healthy,” I bought it because I wanted to eat those things and try new recipes with them. I didn’t buy the cookies because they called to me from the aisles like sirens, but because I knew that at some point, I’d want a cookie or two or three. And I didn’t buy the fresh fruit to make up for the cookies, I bought it because I wanted it.

It took me decades, but I’m finally here.

Letting Go of Diet Culture

Now, this is where this can get controversial in Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size circles. It’s hard to write about this without being accused of food moralizing. And I get it: if you’re still in the process of unlearning restriction and moving away from dieting, you’ll probably want to scream, “BUT DORITOS AND SALADS AND ICE CREAM AND CAKE AND PIZZA AND FRUIT ARE ALL EQUAL!” I used to want to scream that at people too.

And I don’t want to make Intuitive Eating to be a sneaky weight loss tool. “Try Intuitive Eating and the cookies will no longer control you so you can lose weight!” No, it’s not that at all. I gained some weight when I stopped restricting, and I am pretty much that same weight. I’ll probably remain this weight for a long time, and stay in this range for the rest of my life.

But here’s the point: Doritos and salads and ice cream and cake and pizza and fruit are all equal. They are all foods. And they are “real” foods. None is more or less than the other, and all of them can have a place in people’s diets and lives, if they want them. But Doritos and salads and ice cream and cake and pizza and fruit are not equal in terms of how they make me feel.

Take salads. Salads are, in most people’s minds, “healthy.” But salads generally make me feel awful. Why? I don’t have a gallbladder and I have gastric issues and when I sit down and eat a big bowl of roughage, well, let’s just say it’s not pretty. Sometimes I crave them — sometimes I want nothing more than some bright, crunchy, green vegetables. But I know that eating a salad comes with consequences. Usually, those consequences involve spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom shortly after eating them.

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This is what doom looks like for me.

And eggs. Eggs are “healthy,” right? And there’s little in the world that I love more than a nice runny egg. I find them downright sexy. A poached egg with hollandaise with a side of fried potatoes? Yes, please. But eggs make me feel terrible. Just last weekend, I went out to breakfast at a local diner with my husband. I ordered two over-easy eggs, a short stack of pancakes, hash browns, and toast. And I was sick all day. Like, lay-on-the-coach-and-moan sick. Those two over-easy eggs ruined my Sunday.

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More doom.

So, if I want a salad, I usually just eat a small portion and counter it with some more stomach-friendly items like grains or potatoes or bread. If I want an egg, I just don’t do it, because I know it will fuck up my day. And other foods have similar impact on me. Pasta is delicious, but makes me uncomfortably full and zaps me of energy, and if it’s in red sauce, I can expect some wicked acid reflux. I still eat it. It’s not “bad.” I’ve just had to learn how to incorporate it into my life in a way that works for me.

One thing I have now that I didn’t when I was dieting or when I was eating like a wrecking ball is the ability to evaluate food in a neutral way. And I’m starting to feel more balanced, physically. I know which foods make me feel like hell, and I am able to avoid them. (Surprise — some of those foods are ones I’d force myself to eat because they were diet-friendly.) I am able to consume more foods that make me feel good, physically, in a sense that is totally separate from how they make anyone else feel, my weight, my emotional connection to the food, that diet voice in my head (we’ll call her Susan). So, for the first time in maybe a decade, I am feeling good.

The Next Steps

I’m in a good place, food-wise. And now I’m moving into the area that’s even more psychologically loaded for me: movement.

I have a hard time with exercise. As a kid, exercise was punishment — it was something I was forced into because my mother and the adults around me were terrified of my weight. So movement, for me, is very much tied up in shame, guilt and anxiety around my weight. And so it went for me as an adult, exercising until I was exhausted and in pain, in pursuit of finally unlocking the achievement of being thin and finally being worthy. It took years of conditioning for that to develop, and it’s not an easy thing to turn around.

It’s scary for me, but I am dipping my toe in.

I have a home gym — which was really just because my in-laws wanted to unload some equipment they never used before a move. We have an elliptical machine, a treadmill and a stationary bike. I have used them a few times, but going to a room in my house and using a treadmill with a blank stare was awful. We have a little TV down there, but it’s not hooked up to anything, so working out meant using these machines in bored silence. Every fucked up experience I’ve had at the gym, the ache in my knees and back, the mixed feelings I have about exercise, were amplified in the silence and boredom. So our gym has mainly sat neglected.

My husband wanted to get back into the habit of working out more so he went out and bought a little DVD player for the gym, which also could log you into Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. He started working out to DVDs of Looney Tunes.

I finally decided to give it a try.

I turned on “The Great British Baking Show” (my moment of Zen) and hopped on the elliptical. I promised myself I’d stop if it was awful, or I got tired, or it felt too weird. But it didn’t. I used the elliptical (slowly, mind you) through the Signature Challenge, then took a little break during the Technical Challenge where my dog and I sat on the couch in the gym together, and then hopped onto the treadmill for the Showstopper Challenge. I was so wrapped up in the episode that I walked for 30 minutes and the show ended.

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Me too, Benjamina. Me too.

And after the workout, I noticed that my mood lifted. I had more energy. I went upstairs and did the dishes. I played with the dog. I had a lively chat with my husband when he got home. And the biggest impact was in my joints. They felt looser, lighter. I didn’t have as much pain.

I felt … good.

So I’m trying to balance exercising in a positive, enjoyable way for me (which usually involves watching whatever show I’m caught up in on Netflix) without going overboard and into punishment territory. If it hurts, I stop. If I’m not feeling it, I give myself permission to quit without guilt. If my husband suggests working out together, and I’m not into it, he knows not to push. I’m making notes about how it makes me feel physically and emotionally. It turns out that 30 minutes or so a few times a week makes a huge difference in my mood, my energy level, and the pain in my joints and legs. I am figuring out how to do this is a way that doesn’t set rules or expectations for myself.

It’s not easy, but I’m doing it. Figuring out and healing my relationship with movement is the next stop on this journey. So far, it’s feeling good.

I feel like I’m on the road to somewhere new and exciting, where I don’t have to feel like a disembodied brain, where my body and mind are finally connected the way they once were, where I can do things like eat yogurt and walk on a treadmill without being plunged into Dietland again. It’s liberating to just be able to feel my body moving without Susan ringing in my ear talking about my weight and being “good” and congratulating me for “making healthy changes.” I feel like I’m finally forging my own path, as a whole, integrated person, based on what’s best for my life and health and feels good for me.

Why I’m Sharing This

I struggled a lot with whether I should write about this. And here’s why I did.

  1. A lot of people, when they start embracing Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size, go through the phase where they eat with wild abandon. And it worries them. I want them to know that it’s part of the process. There is a point to it. It’s about normalizing food and getting to a place where everything has a place in your diet and your life.
  2. I want people to know that, if you commit yourself to divorcing food and your body from diet culture, if you commit to interrogating your own thought patterns and conditioning about food and your body, if you dig deep and untangle all the ugly thoughts about yourself and food, if you do the work, you will eventually see rewards. And you’ll be a little closer to reintegrating your mind and body and be able to care for both at the same time. It’s not really a Promised Land; it’s just more work, but life and eating and exercise and how it feels to live in your body will get easier. I promise. Don’t give up.
  3. This journey has been surprising to me in so many ways, and I am certain I’ll continue to be surprised. Surrender to the journey. You will question yourself, and feel doubt, and want to avoid going to those painful places in your mind and your body and your life and your history you don’t want to go, but do it. Surrender. It’s all part of the process.
  4. It’s taken me over a year of learning about Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size to get to a point where I’m really and truly starting to feel like I’m making progress. And I’m still actively working on it, still learning, still reading, still writing, still exploring. I may be on this road for the rest of my life. And that’s okay. So you will probably get frustrated with yourself along the way (I certainly did), but stick with it. We’ve been conditioned, by diet culture, and our culture of instant gratification in general, to look for quick wins and quick results. You won’t find those here. But what you may find, if you persevere, is peace with your body, your mind and your health. You may rediscover things you didn’t even know you lost. So, don’t get caught up in, Am I there yet? Am I doing it right? How about now? There’s no scale you’re being measured on, and you control your journey. There may not be an end point. The “wins” will probably be small, personal, and hard to describe to others. So don’t measure yourself against others, or think there’s a magic amount of time it’ll take. This journey, and the mile markers along the way, look different for everyone.

And I do want to add that I have a great deal of privilege. I am a white, married, straight cis lady in a double-income, middle class household with access to lots of different types of food, and a freaking home gym. I have my own home and a nice big kitchen to store food, cook and prepare meals in. I have a stable job, work from home and have pretty good health insurance. I am not Gwyneth Paltrow, but I know that a lot of what I’m writing about here is not accessible to others. So, don’t measure yourself and your journey against mine, because I am privileged as hell, and have several huge advantages that have allowed me the time, space, and money I’ve needed to figure some of this shit out. Like I said, everyone’s journey is different. Everyone has their own challenges. And this is just a record of my journey.

One thought on “Eating My Way to the Other Side

  1. Thank you for sharing that.
    I spent many years in disordered eating/starving. It’s been almost 5 years since I threw my scale away.
    I am behind you. I still struggle with good and bad food, even though I say I don’t.
    It’s hard to let go of.
    I like a lot of what you wrote and it has inspired me to perhaps try to relax around food just a bit more.
    Anne

    Like

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