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Q & A Friday – Intuitive Eating is Making Me Fat

I’m So Scared that Intuitive Eating Is Making Me Fat

Over the past few months I’ve been getting a similar question over and over again in both my private practice and from my readers. “I’m so afraid that Intuitive Eating is making me fat…”  They tell me that they really think that they should be on a weight loss diet again because they believe that they have been gaining an unacceptable amount of weight with intuitive eating protocol.  Here is the most recent email I received:

Dear Leora, 

 I read a comment on another Facebook support page, where intuitive eating is promoted, and some steps have been very helpful, but this particular comment really upset me…Someone wrote that with intuitive eating she gained weight and she has to bring some of her old clothes  back from storage and someone else replied that she was going through the same thing due to intuitive eating.   Since I am trying so hard to implement intuitive eating and I feel better physically, I got a panic attack thinking that I am going to put on more weight and had the urge to weigh myself, but I didn’t, but my head is still messed up 🙁 I am trying to make sense of it all that it is probably different for different people. If someone had just stopped a very restrictive diet and started intuitive eating, chances are that she will regain some weight! If on the other hand, someone has been eating mindlessly (until the plate is finished, irrespective if full or not), emotional eating, habitual eating and sometimes binge eating (like me!) Then chances in that case are weight loss. I am not turning intuitive eating into yet another diet, I am very aware of that, I am not aspiring to be mega thin, I want my body to find it’s natural weight on it’s own by guiding me, when what and how much to eat. I feel heavy, sometimes very out of breath when climbing stairs and the last thing I want is to get heavier. 

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Although the email above assumes many different outcomes and looks at different angles of the situation, there is something underneath it, which is what lays underneath this question consistently. 

The fear underneath is due to the following beliefs:

1. I don’t trust my body to do what it needs to do. I must control it brutally in order to keep it in line. 

2. I don’t want to gain weight. 

3. Weight gain is bad. 

4. I am afraid of being out of control. 

5. A diet is the only way to control me. 

6. I can control what other people think of me by being skinny. 

7. Controlling what other people think of me is extremely important to my well-being.  (Read How to Stop Worrying about What Other People Think About My Body.)

Let’s start by discussing what intuitive eating is and what intuitive eating is not. Intuitive eating is what happens when you are allowed to eat what your body needs and wants to keep it vital, healthy and peaceful without you having to think about it.  Intuitive eating is not a diet. However, because of both the diet industry and the food industry, most of us have lost our internal cues for eating what our bodies need. We are told that we need to be skinny and thus we shouldn’t eat carbs or fat or only eat fat or we should eat like a caveman or we should never eat fruit or we should only eat fruit or we should never eat meat or we should only eat meat or we should put butter and coconut oil in our morning coffee because we aren’t eating enough fat. At the same time, we are being advertised to by unethical food companies with never-ending pasta bowls and packaged food with so many chemicals preservatives in them that our bodies have completely lost their abilities to correctly process food and figure out what nutrients they need.   

The food and the diet industry are both out for their bottom line. They don’t care about you. They want you to spend your money. And the only way they can get you to spend money is to completely distort your relationship with food and your body.  SCREW THEM!!!!

This is actually the way I quit smoking. I got real, real mad at RJ Reynolds, the tobacco company that made my beloved Camel Lights that I smoked regularly from the time I was fourteen until I was thirty! Anyway, I realized one day that this horrific company was getting rich off of people like me who were tragically addicted to cigarettes. And they did what they needed to in order to keep us in their clutches. I just didn’t want to contribute to that and I didn’t want those evil conglomerates having power over me.  My anger is what caused me to quit a habit that I’d done for more than half my life. 

Now most people in my general eating disorder milieu would argue that there is no such thing as food addiction. Fair enough (we all argue a lot over semantics in this field). However, what is true is that there is a distinct addiction to the process of both dieting, binge eating, feeling guilt over eating, and the way our mind tells us that once we start a diet and get skinny, our lives will be perfect.  So once we start to incorporate intuitive eating, we don’t just do away with diets– we do away with a whole way of thinking, behaving, and we get rid of specific ways of behaving cognitively (letting our mind obsess about food, diets, controlling what people think when they see us, believing that being skinny is the answer to all our lives troubles, etc.) Intuitive eating isn’t just giving up dieting and eating whatever you want whenever you want it, it’s rejecting the dominant paradigm about food, our bodies and control. 

The problem is, intuitive eating has been co-opted as another weight loss method. And if you are still focused on losing weight, your stress about diets, weight loss and changing your body are going to continue to nag at you. As long as you continue to obsess about your body and weight loss, intuitive eating ceases to be what it is meant to be, intuitive.

Don’t blame yourself. As I said before, your environment has set you up for this. You are controlled by the environment to be obsessed with both food and with weight loss. You are being controlled by a nasty industry that makes money off your desire to lose weight and your survivalist desire to eat food. 

If you want to know the truth, in both my private practice and in my five week binge eating progra I don’t have people start with intuitive eating. For the reasons I mention above, I think it’s too difficult. I start by having them track their emotional and physical sensations around food. Some people notice that beans give them energy, strawberries makes them anxious, steak makes them happy, bread makes them tired… etc etc… this is just an example. But the truth is, only you and your body know what happens for you emotionally and physically when you eat a certain food. It’s true that there are certain foods that might cause anxiety because they were previously thought of as “bad foods” like grains or bread or dairy or whatever they’re saying is bad right now… so it’s important to distinguish if these emotions are due to the food that you’re eating or due to the conditioning you’ve gotten from the diet industry. 

I also ask people to take the emphasis off of losing weight. The more weight focused you are, the more likely that your weight won’t normalize. Instead, focus on doing things that your body enjoys and helps you to feel strong. For example, of course moving your body is a good self-care ritual, but so are things like getting a papsmear, paying your bills, flossing your teeth, washing your sheets, donating old clothes, working through your laundry pile, getting rid of stacked up papers around your house, and generally just lightening your load, the things that make you feel heavy and overwrought. 

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to people around you. Be kind to the food that you’re eating. Send love and gratitude to food that you consumer.  When you thank your cream for being rich and creamy and delicious, your greens for being crunchy and life affirming and keeping you regular, your chocolate for being soothing and sensual, your coffee for being dark, hearty and the best part of your morning, you are more likely to eat it with love and thoughtfulness rather than to eat it quickly and without regard for the food and for your body. Be kind to your body. Thank it for digesting your food, for carrying you, for keeping you alive, for giving you freedom or for whatever your body does for you. 

The emphasis on weight and weight gain and doing things like calling intuitive eating the “intuitive eating diet” (I swear that’s a thing) completely undoes any positive effects that intuitive eating has. Intuitive eating is also intuitive body-ing. It’s letting your body do what it does when you are moving it and eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re feeling satiated. When you try to control your body, you come back to the position where you were when all of your food issues began. 

I hope that this was helpful for you. 

Do you have a question about binge eating, bulimia, anorexia, or anything associated with eating? Send an email to leora at bingeeatingtherapy  dot com. All questions will be kept confidential. Include your first name or the name you want to be referred to as and your location. Are you interested in individual therapy or online coaching sessions  to deal with your binge eating? Please contact me to discuss getting started.

Intuitive Eating Will Make You Skinny and Other Myths

can you really lose weight with intuitive eating?This was a guest post that I originally wrote for the wonderful and supportive blog from the  BingeBehavior Community.

He stood on the scale with wide, nervous eyes as the doctor shook her head and tsk tsked.

“He’s overweight,” she told me, “you need to put your cat on a diet.”

“But I don’t believe in diets,” I told her.

“Well how much do you feed him?”

“I don’t know, I just put food in his bowl. He eats it when he’s hungry and walks away from it when he’s satisfied… we believe in intuitive eating in my house, my cat practices it too.”

“No,” she told me, “you can’t do that, he gets a set amount and a set time to eat, he can’t just graze all day, obesity is no good for a cat.”

I know that what she was saying was true.  My brother, a veterinarian warned and warned and warned my parents about overfeeding their cats and he is now lassoed with their insulin dependent cat Creamsicle when they couldn’t manage his diabetes.  Let’s move past the irony of a diabetic cat named Creamsicle.

I thought about it for a while.  Cats are natural hunters.  They spend their days outside looking for small birds and rodents and then they kill and eat them.  A domestic lifestyle, though lovely, is not their physiologically natural state, so it would make sense that their bodies tend not to do as well on a steady diet of processed food at their beck and call.

So what does my cat’s woes have to do with the price of wine in Napa? Well, a lot.

See, I’ve been seeing a lot of people out there promising you that when you learn intuitive eating and mindful eating, that you will lose weight or even some people make the promise that you will be like your “naturally skinny friends”.

Let’s dissect Intuitive eating and Mindful eating for a moment. Intuitive eating is following the natural instincts of your body to eat when you are hungry and to stop when you are satisfied. It is about listening to your body and giving it what it needs. Mindful eating is the practice that you take on to become an intuitive eater.  However, eating is a survival mechanism.

Let’s go back to caveman times, as they like to discuss in certain food cult circles, and acknowledge that our instincts are designed to grab as much food as we can when it is scarce.  Cavemen didn’t have pantries or supermarkets so they spent much of their days hunting and gathering in case there was a famine or a long winter or disease killing off the food supply.  The instinct would be to grab onto and eat as much food as they possibly could in a sitting, lest it be eaten by someone else or another animal.

So here is where things get confusing, our intuitive eating also follows a pattern of bingeing.  Yes. Binge eating is intuitive but, as I stated above, the bingeing happened when the food supply was greatly diminished; it was a survival mechanism.

We have evolved greatly past the days of hunter/gatherer societies.  Cavemen didn’t have apps on their iPhones to order dinner and cavemen didn’t have mothers telling them to go on diets. They lived in a completely alternate reality and so we can’t expect to live or eat like them.

So let’s talk about intuitive eating.

You probably started out as an intuitive eater, you ate what you wanted when you wanted without too much thought on the matter – until the first time someone called attention to your weight.

Maybe you were 14, maybe you were 4, but someone said you were chubby or you could stand to lose a few and so you went on your first diet, or someone put you on your first diet.  Your intuitive sense told you that you would be deprived of food and so you binged in secret and this became a perpetuating cycle of bingeing and restricting.

What would have happened if you never went on that first diet? What would happen if you ate when you were hungry and stopped when you were satisfied. Would you be skinny?  Maybe or maybe not.  You would probably be a weight that was right for you, and that perhaps is not skinny. Your natural weight might just be a little thicker, or little softer, or a little rounder.

That’s why it makes me crazy when I hear, “Your naturally skinny friends can eat whatever they want whenever they want because they are intuitive eaters.   They eat when they are hungry and stop when they are satisfied.”

It’s not true. My naturally skinny friends can eat whatever they want because they are naturally skinny. It’s just their body type.

I remember my friend Pam visiting me for long weekends when we were in our 20s. She was always so much thinner than I, yet she was always hungry and ate so much more than me.  To my spinach salad with chopped eggs and chicken with a light vinaigrette, she’d order a giant falafel with french fries stuffed in it. Later in the afternoon, she would bring out chocolate and red wine to snack on.  She’d never been on a diet.  She loved food and indulged in it and it didn’t make her fat.

So what does any of this have to do with intuitive eating? I think we have to reacquaint ourselves with true intuitive eating.

Remember, intuitive eating is the practice of eating what your body needs as informed by your practice of mindful eating.  Mindful eating is noticing your body’s need for foods, your hunger and satiety and your body’s physical reactions to certain types of food.  As you become more mindful and understanding about your needs, you hone your intuition about food.

It’s a practice.  It’s not easy because we are born with an internalized instinct to binge when food becomes scarce.  But food is no longer scarce, so we are teaching ourselves to evolve with the world around us.

But make no mistake, mindfulness and intuitive eating won’t make you skinny– unless you are naturally skinny, and we are not all naturally skinny.

Maybe French women don’t get fat because they are French.  My roots are mostly Austrian and Russian and most of the women in my family are shaped in the same way.  We’re short and petite with wide hips.; close to the ground so we can squat down and birth those babies, then get back to work on the farm.

My friend Pam, remember her, the one who eats falafel and wine and chocolate all day?  She’s all Italian. Have you ever been to Rome? Most of the women there are petite and they eat spaghetti and gelato and wine all day!

We’ve discussed what mindfulness and intuitive eating won’t do for you, so what will it do for you? 

The very first thing it will do is inform you to stop any restrictive diet that you’ve been on.  You will then begin the practice of mindful eating.

You will begin to slow down and check in with your body, a lot.  And this doesn’t come naturally.  It’s a practice, just like meditation.  You begin to learn what your body likes and what your body reacts poorly to and you maintain the practice of honoring your body with those pieces of information. That’s how intuitive eating becomes part of your makeup. You remember that food is plentiful and that you can make choices based on what your body actually needs, not choices based on what other people tell you your body needs.

When you are eating intuitively, your body will most likely settle into a place that is healthy for your body.

This might be different than what the BMI says is healthy but you know when you are healthy. Can you sleep? Do you have energy? Can you find enjoyable movement? Can you enjoy your life? Are you happy?

What you can really gain by practicing mindful eating and learning intuitive eating is a deep sense of emotional peace around food and your body. 

Imagine what it would be like to feel at ease in that way. No fighting, no debates in your head, no stress about what you are eating.

Wouldn’t it be nice to feed your body in a way that feels nourishing and a way where you feel comfortable in your body?  That’s where the mindfulness comes in.  This is where we honor our bodies, no matter what size, what shape, we lavish our bodies with attention and affection. Then we ask our bodies what they need.

We eat some tomatoes and then we have a bellyache.  Notice it.  Make a mental note that “tomatoes might be too acidic on my belly for awhile”. Your unconscious takes that note and you notice that you are intuitively avoiding the tomatoes in your salad.

Intuitive eating will not make you skinny, nor will it make you taller because skinny is a body type. Some of us are skinny; in America most of us are not.   Unfortunately, not being skinny because it is the American ideal has pushed us into a world of dieting and bingeing (because that’s the instinctual result of dieting).

Mindfulness practice will give you the awareness of your body’s needs, it will not fulfill what the world around you says your body should look like. Integrate mindfulness to help yourself become more intuitive about what you need.

Intuitive eating will make your body feel better because you will be more aware of what you need and what you don’t need. It will give you the sense that you don’t need to grab food and run away. You can be present for yourself and for the world around you.  It will help you find a place of calm that you hadn’t had before.