How do I eat? I still ask myself this question all the time. And there’s still just no simple answer to it.
I eat a lot, sometimes. But sometimes, I eat a little. Sometimes I eat whole foods. Other times I eat processed foods. It just depends.
I tell people I eat intuitively, but it’s pretty unclear what exactly that means. By definition intuitively means “without conscious reasoning; or instinctively”. And that’s partly true. But the thing is, there are many steps that occur for me when figuring out if I’m hungry, decoding my hunger, deciding what to eat, and knowing when I’m full.
I am not a nutritionist, however, every other non-human animal on this planet is also not a nutritionist, and they’ve got this eating thing down, so I’m pretty sure there must be something intuitive and instinctive to it. Keeping that in mind, I am in no way trying to delve out nutrition advice. I’m simply wanting to share what has helped me heal my relationship with food and my body in hopes that it might help someone else out there.
For many years I did not acknowledge my hunger. Instead, I did my best to ignore and suppress it, which eventually led to bouts of binge-eating followed by more extreme dieting. This was no way to live. I was trapped in a cycle of restriction and binging, which ultimately led me to develop binge-purge type anorexia nervosa.
In recovery, it took me months to relearn how to identify my hunger cues. I had completely lost sense of this instinctive ability to tell when my body needed food and it was extremely difficult to get back after years of disordered eating.
So, the first step in relearning how to eat involved learning to acknowledge my hunger. I made many mistakes in this process. I remember constantly questioning whether or not the sensations I felt meant I was hungry, or if I was overreacting to my body’s cues. I remember times when my mouth would start watering and I’d think about food but didn’t notice typical hunger sensations in my stomach. Was this true hunger or something else?
Over time it became easier to identify. I began to notice varying degrees of hunger, some that felt mild like food cravings and others that left me irritable and snappy. Acknowledging and honoring my hunger cues as signs of my body’s needs has always been the first step in eating for me.
Sitting with Hunger and Decoding It
Next, I had to figure out what type of hunger I was experiencing: physical or emotional? This part has not always been so easy. It involves pausing and taking the time to sit with hunger. I had to my hunger and ask my body, “what are you hungry for?”
Sometimes the answer would be obvious. “Food, I’m hungry for food,” my stomach would growl back. Those moments are still the easiest for me. I am able to clearly acknowledge and pangs of physical hunger, and I know how to address the situation.
Other times when I sit with my hunger, I discover that it’s not physical at all but rather emotional. It might be boredom, loneliness, anger, sadness, or excitement. You see, all eating has some emotional component to it because simply put, food is pleasurable and pleasure is an emotional experience.
I had to learn that it is okay to emotionally eat, I just have to be conscious of those moments and what I am doing by feeding my emotions with food. And yes, sometimes I do emotionally eat. I’ll have a cookie when I’m bored at the office or I’ll eat a bit extra of something simply because it tasted good and I wanted the excitement.
But sometimes I choose not to eat when I have the emotional urge to. Instead, I’ll sit with this emotional hunger and ask if something else might feed it more appropriately. And I’ll wait for the answer. If I’m sad, this hunger may lead me to talk to a friend. If I’m bored, this hunger might lead me to read or knit. If I’m anxious, this hunger might lead me to take a moment to pause, breath, and pet my cat.
I constantly ask myself the question: What are you hungry for?
What to Eat?
When I’m physically hungry, the next step for me is figuring out what to eat. At the beginning of my recovery, I purely ate based on cravings and what I wanted. I had to throw out all concepts of nutrition in order to get to a place where I could stop obsessing about “good” food and “bad” food. This meant that no food was off limits, and I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted at any time.
This was a much-needed period of time for me to heal my relationship with food. And it worked. After some time, I found myself in a peaceful place where food was just food. I felt comfortable eating foods that once filled me with guilt, and I stopped fixating on food. I was able to enjoy the sensations and experience of eating one cookie without the crazy urges to eat ten more. This was something I never thought possible and taking the time to feed my cravings was a necessary step.
Now that it’s been a while, I have shifted to try and balance honoring my food cravings with my nutritional needs. I get joy from feeding my body nutrient-dense foods. But I also get joy from pop tarts and cheesecake. It’s an endless strive for balance. The thing is though, I had to first heal my relationship with food before I could even begin to think about nutrition and health.
I currently have no format for how I eat. I was trying to think of some percentage like 70% nutrition-focussed and 30% fun/craving-focussed, but my food just doesn’t work that way. I still eat what I want, but I get pleasure from knowing that I am nourishing my body with food choices that fuel my physical health. I also know that I am nourishing my mind with other choices (ahem, dessert). Overall, I try to eat a variety of foods while also trusting my body to inform me of what it needs.
When to Stop Eating?
Discovering fullness was a journey similar to learning my hunger cues. In fact, it has often been more difficult for me to figure out my fullness level than my hunger level. Like hunger, it took a lot of trial and error to learn to listen to my fullness.
I discovered that I had two types of “full”: physical fullness and satisfaction. I found out that I could feel physically full but unsatisfied with a meal. This usually happens when I eat enough food but not the food I actually want. For instance, if I chose to eat a salad when I really want a sandwich. The salad may physically fill me up but I might notice continued food thoughts and a desire to keep eating afterward. Additionally, I noticed times when I would eat exactly what I wanted and become full and satisfied after eating only a third of my meal.
I discovered that, for me, being pleasantly full means being both satisfied and physically satiated. But I had to relearn my body’s cues for fullness. I learned that being mindful while eating allowed me to be more in touch with the way my food felt in my body. I learned that pausing and checking in helped me tune into the subtle sensations of fullness. I learned that it would sometimes take 15+ minutes after a meal for me to feel the presence of food in my stomach.
There were also many times when I just couldn’t figure out my satiety level and would end up eating past fullness. This left me with discomfort, both physical and emotional. But I learned that the discomfort would pass and that the only real consequence was that it would take me longer to once again become hungry.
What is Normal Eating?
I want to end this post with one of my favorite quotes about the subject of eating, which pretty much sums up my philosophy.
“Normal eating is being able to eat when you are hungry and continue eating until you are satisfied. Normal eating is being able to use some moderate constraint in your food selection to get the right food, but not being so restrictive that you miss out on pleasurable foods.
Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you’re happy, sad, or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is three meals a day, most of the time, but it can also be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some tomorrow, or it is eating them now because they taste so good when they’re fresh.
Normal eating is overeating sometimes and feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. It is also undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes and eating.
Normal eating takes up some of your attention, but it keeps its place as only one important area in your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your emotions, your schedule, your hunger, and your proximity to food.”