Intuitive Eating – The Diet That Worked

I started working through an intuitive eating workbook this week. The workbook is actually fairly consumable, though some of the tasks don’t tie into explanations. My OCD wants to know what it means when I write about or mark things down. That said, the first chapter had a few great insights. The first one that totally changed my perspective was thinking about a diet or diets that worked. Then the workbook challenges whether it actually did if you gained the weight back. There was even an exercise where you write down all of your diets you’ve ever done, and the results. I was surprised how challenging this was, even considering I was late to the dieting game. I didn’t go on my first diet until AFTER college. Many women started dieting before they were even teenagers!

At first, I thought a calorie in, calorie out diet was the one “that worked.” But as I worked through my dieting timeline, I lost weight and gained it back surprisingly quickly (in the big scheme of things). I was actually in a good routine in 2004-2005 before I let work take over my life. I think I’d lost and kept of weight for about 2 years at that point, and I remember struggling when I HAD to give up working out because work and school (mostly work, school was doable before this point) meant it was either workout or sleep. Quite literally. I was working around 100 hours a week and going to school. I was working seven days a week. I also stopped bringing lunches to work and making dinners at the same time. I remember how stressful it was to give up that workout time, and how much I felt like I was wasting money at that time, eating out so much. I’d never eaten out that much in my life.

Unfortunately, that set a new standard. Now I eat out that much without much thought. And I still think it’s a waste of money, but for some reason care far less. The future me who would like to retire early is annoyed by current me! :)

That said, at that point, I was only about two years into working out fairly regularly. I was in a good routine. I’d found workouts at home I liked, workouts at the Y I’d do by myself or with a few friends, and I was going for short runs a few times a week when nothing else sounded fun or I wanted a quick workout.

My food was mostly what sounded good, but I was cooking most of it. I did count up calories, but at that point, I was dabbling in figuring out how to reduce calories in a portion while being as satisfied (or more satisfied!), but still enjoying the foods I really liked occasionally: pizza, Mexican and Italian food, etc. I was also enjoying my 20s, having plenty of social drinks. In other words, I was preparing foods I liked because I liked them better than frozen meals. I would dink around with alternatives in ingredients to eat more vegetables IF the meal was still enjoyable (if it wasn’t, I didn’t force it). For example, I might add some finely chopped cauliflower tops. But I wouldn’t add the stems. I might julienne some spinach, but I wasn’t trying to shove a whole container of spinach in a dish. I was learning I really loved tomatoes and bell peppers in dishes. And that one potato or one serving of rice was as satisfying in a pot of soup as four potatoes or three servings of rice.

It was more of a fact finding mission – what do I like? What don’t I miss? What do I miss? If I missed it, I went back to it. For example, I never minded 2% cheese or lean meats. But I didn’t like MOST thin soups (so I needed a flour thickener). I could add some cauliflower or broccoli if I used just the tops and diced it finely. Adding huge chunks of either wasn’t my thing. Adding a little bit of sour cream, cream cheese or even Velveeta made a dish that was just OK, delicious. I needed about 1/4th of the sauce many dishes called for. But liked double the cheese. I loved a hint (or more than a hint) of spice in most things. I disliked a hint of sweet in most things. I liked to have meat in most dishes, but actually preferred about 1/2 of the amount most recipes called for. These were all simply preferences, and I didn’t really mark them as good or bad. They were more attempts to figure out what I REALLY liked. Where I could compromise without feeling like I was, and where a compromise was really forcing myself to eat things I didn’t care for, and therefore weren’t satisfying.

The problem is, once I got into Paleo, many of the things I used to do were now no-nos. I not only couldn’t use 98% fat free cream of chicken anymore, I couldn’t use that or ANY canned foods anymore. And the homemade items were a lot of work, often weren’t as good, and were SUPER caloric. Same thing with Velveeta or American cheese. Such great items I used to add a small amount to a large dish for some creaminess that melted like magic, and now I had to use full fat cheese that didn’t melt as well, and the result was gloopy or gloppy or grainy or stringy. I used to eat a few pieces of peanut butter toast and a grapefruit with a sprinkle of cheese for breakfast. Now ALL of these things were EVIL. Peanuts were a legume, gluten was the devil’s work, and a sprinkle of sugar meant insta-cancer.

And, unfortunately, I feel like it’s impossible to flip that switch back. I went down the Paleo rabbit hole, and it’s hard to escape that mindset. The Internet compounds this. So many Judgmental Joes and Judys out there. Using terms like ‘chemical shitstorm” or “cancer causer” or “inflammation nightmare.” And, even now that I avoid EVERYTHING Paleo or even tangentially connected to Paleo, “those people” are now everywhere. I’m convinced I’m surrounded by Orthorexia, only most people haven’t come to terms with their issues. Generally you’d think avoiding a general comments section of a news story or recipe would be enough to avoid people acting like this, but there are also posts and comments by “friends” or friends of “friends.” It’s tough to navigate. Do I need to avoid this pervasive culture? Or need to live in it, and be impervious to it?

Part of the OCD stuff I’ve been reading says to get immersed in it and become less sensitive to it. So I’m considering immersing myself in Paleo “stuff.” Reading their rhetoric and all of the comments, even joining Paleo groups on Facebook. Reading the messages everyday, and not responding at all. Not only reading and not typing a response, but reading, and not FEELING a reaction. Right now, that feels nearly impossible. But why do I need others to know they’re wrong? Part of OCD is a need to be reassured. Either by another person or through doing things. So in theory, could I really immerse myself in this stuff and keep telling myself, “That’s diet rhetoric?” It’s scary but makes me feel like it might help. Get in there, don’t try to fix it, but lean into the feelings until they aren’t triggering anymore. (Right now, I read Paleo sludge and it makes me feel anxious, my  heart races, I feel defensive, and my instinct is to comment or turn away entirely and look for reassurance from someone. It feels scary to intentionally immerse myself in that toxic culture again. But maybe the fear is the reason I need to do it.)

The other thing I do now is I pre-eat to avoid being too hungry and over-eating. Or being too hungry to get done what needs to get done. For example, if I’m off work for a week, just hanging out at home, I tend to eat whenever I feel like it. I might get up and do stuff around the house for a few hours, then eat when I’m hungry, and eat what sounds good. Then maybe not eat again until mid afternoon, or have a few small things throughout the day. And then end the day with whatever sounds good. During the week, I feel super structured. I tend to try to “meal plan” which works for many people because they can plan their calories or carbs or overall macros. But, for me, this sort of planning makes me eat when I’m not hungry, and eat things that don’t sound good or aren’t satisfying, leaving me to want to over-eat (or even eat again) later. During time off work, I just eat when I’m hungry, whatever sounds satisfying. At work, I eat sometimes when I’m not hungry or because the meal meets a schedule. Or even as an excuse to take a break.

The other thing I do is wrap a lot of emotion in ordering food at a restaurant. Either I’m “on” or “off.” For example, if I’m “watching what I eat” I’ll put a large portion of the menu off limits. If I’m “off” I’ll hone in on the things that were formerly off the table as options. In both cases, I’m ordering based on emotion, rather than based on what truly sounds like it’s interesting or will satisfy me. I often eat thinking i want to stay full the rest of the day, or I don’t want to take a risk that something won’t be good.

Over this weekend, I’ve tried to be more mindful when I eat. What do I really want? Am I trying to over-fill so I stay full? Am I trying to eat the lowest calorie thing to try to come in short on calories and lose more faster? Am I feeling shame for what sounds good? If so, why? Are those feelings founded or diet rhetoric? Are they leftover Paleo guilt that isn’t grounded in anything worth listening to? I want to truly confront the FEELINGS around food. The shame, guilt, and nonsense. I have no idea how many calories I’m eating, even when my brain wants to automatically count calories. I’m also trying to allow myself to try new foods.

Foods from cultures I’m interested in. Or foods with flavor combinations I’m intrigued by. In some instances making things from scratch is worth it because of the resulting food. In other cases, that’s my Paleo obsessive behavior getting out. So if I want to make a new recipe, do I feel the compulsive need to make EVERYTHING from scratch? Or will it truly result in a better meal? For example, Mary Berry said she won’t ever make her own strudel dough. And often opts for premade puff pastry. Likewise, people from Asian cultures say they sometimes make their own dumpling or eggroll wrappers, but they don’t taste different than the premade ones, to they opt for the convenience. Why make things unnecessarily complicated?

I also really love soups and stews. I found through obsessive dieting that soups and stew CAN BE a way to stay full for fewer calories. So when I want to make a soup, is it an attempt to cut calories? If so, will that soup really satisfy me? Or, if I truly want the soup, then make the soup!

Some of the voices are loud, pervasive, and overwhelming. But the ones I know will be the hardest to confront and change will be the quieter voices I’m almost not aware of. Similar to body positive movement where you don’t even feel yourself picking apart tiny things.

I’ve also tried to watch food ads and ask how it makes me FEEL emotionally, and if I’ve had the food, how the food tastes. I’ve found some commercials for sweet foods, which admittedly,  aren’t usually my thing, trigger some sort of rebellious happiness as I see them. But when I think about eating the food, they’re cloyingly sweet. For example, ice cream filled with candy bars, they always SOUND enticing, but when I think about actually eating them, they’re super-sweet. Yet, somehow when I purchase those foods, they taste sweet and I keep eating them. On the other hand, strawberry, lemon or some sort of spice ice cream? It looks good, tastes good, sounds good. And I don’t need a lot to be satisfied by it. But the overly sweet stuff, I eat a lot more, and it never quite hits the spot. It makes sense when it’s something you really like, you feel satisfied. But why, when it’s something I like far less, am I both not satisfied by it, and also can’t walk away from it? I guess because I’m never satisfied, it’s never enough to satisfy me, but I think eventually it will? Maybe it’s like dating the wrong person but never leaving.

These are all wrapped in diets of the past. And there are so many things to unwind. The first was realizing I’ve NEVER been on a diet that “works” as I’ve never had any sort of long-term success. I was often restricting and eating things I didn’t care for and didn’t satisfy me. Or limiting foods that would satisfy me. Or forcing myself to eat foods that not only aren’t satisfying, but I just plain don’t like.

The first step was accepting diets haven’t done me ANY good. The second step is realizing how much diet rhetoric is around me and controlling me (or making me feel guilt or shame). And the third step is starting to eat more intuitively. Stop judging or limiting foods. And, for me, stop eating on a controlled schedule or a controlled plan. Stop pre-eating to not be hungry at an inconvenient time, or becoming over-hungry and losing control. Eat when I’m hungry, eat to feel satisfied, and be aware of what I’m doing to try to game the system.

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