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My transition from anorexia to intuitive eating

My transition from anorexia to intuitive eating

When I was a child, even if I didn’t know the term back then, I ate intuitively. I consumed the amounts my body needed to grow, have energy and feel good, and not because I knew them by some mathematical equation, but because I didn’t question the cues I received. I also consumed the foods I liked and —although looking back there were probably too many ultra-processed foods because I belong to that generation whose parents thought chocolate milk with sugary cereal was the best breakfast ever— I used to eat a wide variety of foods, I liked vegetables and I was never addicted to sweets even if I enjoyed them.

All that changed drastically when I was 9 and I got started with anorexia, the eating disorder that would mark my life since then. The fear of gaining weight and ending up like obese people led me to severely restrict my food intake both in quantity and in variety. In my adolescence, my wrong understanding of religion made me see obsessive food control as something virtuous, so everything that sounded like eating following your instincts seemed to me worldly and despicable.

Even though I started my anorexia recovery when I was 20 (at the end of 2016), I didn’t jump directly into intuitive eating. Not at all! I don’t think that would have been the right thing at that moment, either. When one is starting to get out of an eating disorder, specially if she’s been a long time trapped in it, it’s better to first eat with a structure because of several reasons:

  1. You’ve become so used to ignoring your hunger and satiety cues that they aren’t reliable anymore. Your body has learnt that you’re not going to listen to them and little by little has ceased to send them. Moreover, you have accustomed it to working with much less than it needs. As you give it more quantity and keep it fed all day long, the mechanisms are going to get back to work and your body will trust you again.
  2. In many cases, weight gain is urgent and unfortunately you don’t have time to follow a gentle and slow process. You need to be alive to eat intuitively.
  3. When the eating disorder governs your mind, it’s almost impossible to distinguish the lies it tells you to make you restrict from the true cues of your body. Once you renourish yourself and your brain heals a bit more, it’s easier to know who’s talking.

Nevertheless, what I have to admit is that there’s no point in taking 4 whole years to transition from anorexia to intuitive eating. Many fears paralyzed me and slowed me down. That’s why here I’ll tell you everything I went through, so you can go through these steps with more determination and confidence, and reach the way of eating that feels best to your body.

Allowing myself more food variety

Anorexia only allowed me to eat a handful of “safe” foods, whose nutritional values I had under control and which I knew allowed me to maintain the weight I wanted. In addition, I ate them in the most boring ways I could, both for avoiding extra “hidden” calories and because I thought I was doing a bigger sacrifice that way. Expanding food variety brought three significant benefits:

  1. Falling in love with food again. Facing the recovery journey with curiosity for new flavours. Realizing everything I had been missing.
  2. Separating myself from strict calorie counting. When I mixed several foods, which in addition were new for me, in the same meal, I was no longer able to immediately know the calorie content.

Facing fear foods

Although with anorexia I didn’t eat most of the foods that exist, there were selected ones that I was particularly scared of, because I considered them as inherently fattening. As “what fat people eat and what makes those people fat”.

I started to allow myself to eat not only a variety of vegetables, grains, meat and fish types, but also, from time to time, things like chocolate, ice cream, pizza, cake… and I saw they didn’t have any immediate effect on my weight.

This point is important; one can’t hope to recover from an eating disorder or to practice intuitive eating while running away from certain foods because they’re sugary or fatty or processed. Then, those foods will still have control over you, and you’ll never feel completely free. And, even if you eat the required calories, your body will still send to your brain a feeling of deprivation. When you allow yourself to eat those foods whenever you want, they lose their power, they become like normal foods, and you don’t place them in hell or on a pedestal anymore. Therefore, the fear of not being able to stop eating them and become addicted disappears as well.

Learning about nutrition

This is a controversial point and many medical treatments for recovery advise against it. However, it helped me a lot because my beliefs about food weren’t just obsessive and exaggerated, but in many cases directly false. I was able to debunk myths about foods that supposedly were (according to the disorder and also to society) fattening or unhealthy. I learnt the myriad of good effects that each food group has in our body and how important their functions are. Carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and even calories per se!

I felt empowered to make my own decisions with knowledge, I didn’t have to rely on the voice of my disorder anymore to guide my eating rules. Now I had the right tools to give my body what it needed. And, when I was eating, I could think of the good effects that meal was having inside me.

The problem of staying in this step is that it’s your head that’s guiding all the decisions, and it may ignore your body’s input, which in the end is fundamental, because we’re not machines and not everyone that shares age, sex and similar physical features needs the same amount, kind of food, meal distribution throughout the day, etc. Neither do we need the same every day.

Not compensating after eating out

With time, I was able to establish a meal plan at home that allowed me to progressively gain weight and feel generally satisfied. It included a lot of variety and didn’t exclude food groups. And following it didn’t give me anxiety anymore, since I could see I was doing well with it, my weight wasn’t shooting up overnight and it was bringing good things to my life such as being more focused for my studies.

Nevertheless, my system collapsed every time I went out to eat or have a snack. Due to the fact that I hadn’t internalized the amounts I needed, neither did I trust the hunger and satiety cues of my body yet, my references were external: what other people were eating. I didn’t allow myself to eat more than the person who was eating the most but, in addition, I usually compared myself to the person who was eating the least. I sometimes noticed that I was still hungry, but I didn’t dare to act consequently; I thought I shouldn’t need more than other people. And, moreover, my head started to think about “hidden calories”, such as the possibility of the cook using too much oil, which amplified the concerns about what I had eaten. Therefore, once I was at home, I compensated in the following meals.

I consider that just being able to eat out with people and order something different than a garden salad was great progress. And compensating was worth it if that meant I could dare to eat new things and be more present in social events. But one can’t let the ED control even the slightest part of her brain.

Little by little, I was able to reduce and finally quit the restriction during those meals and the compensation afterwards. Order what I really want at the restaurant, even if someone else orders something lighter; eat the amount I need to be satiated, even if someone else leaves half of the food on the plate; and at home, only reducing the amount of food at the next meal if I really feel overly full. And, very important, not judging my hunger!

Allowing myself to make changes between meals, compensating the same day

I realized there was a big flaw in my meal plan. At some meals —specially breakfast and snacks— I was still hungry after eating, while at some other meals —specially lunch and dinner—sometimes I ended up uncomfortably full. Therefore, I decreased the rigidity of the plan, considering the sum of all the planned meals for that day as a total I could consume as I fancied throughout the day.

This step, that might seem like “cheating” since it didn’t contemplate the possibility of eating more than what was established for that day, was key in my journey to food freedom. It allowed me to reconnect with my hunger and satiety cues and start to honor them: being able to eat more when I was still hungry, and less when I felt full. And in a way that didn’t generate so much anxiety, since it was “risk free” for my body. It also provided me with more stable energy levels throughout the day. And, anyway, it meant breaking an old self-imposed rule, and it’s always helpful to get rid of eating disorders’ obsessive patterns.

I was stuck here for quite a lot of time, more or less the first half of 2019; my weight was around the minimal BMI classified as healthy and I was comfortable with how the plan was working. But it was just an illusion of freedom.

Allowing myself to make changes between days, compensating

Following the previously described system, I realized a key aspect: my hunger levels did not only fluctuate throughout the day, but also between days! This might seem obvious to someone who hasn’t had disordered eating, but for me was new. And for anyone who’s into the diet world, where diets are prescribed as “eating x calories per day”.

Therefore, I extended the flexibility I had started to practice in the previous step by allowing myself to eat something more or something less one day; but I’d take that difference into account the next day. I didn’t have to compensate that same next day, but I had to make sure that in the medium term all the amounts were “balanced out”.

I was stuck here for a long time too, more than a year. My weight had stabilized in the minimum “healthy” BMI, I’d got my period back, and consequently I determined that I had to eat what I was eating, no more. I must admit I thought that were how things were going to be forever, although now I see that would have meant settling for quasi-recovery.

Eating intuitively… depending on my weight

This was a transition period, a little trick I invented to be able to touch the water with the point of my toes without jumping into the pool. I realized I longed for a greater freedom than I had, my rebel side wasn’t satisfied with the status quo, but at the same time I still lacked trust in my body and I didn’t want my weight to shoot. So I made a deal (in the end, a deal with the disorder, that’s always there latent, lurking). I was going to allow myself to eat intuitively, without thinking about how to compensate it later in the day or any other day, but with one condition: if I saw my weight going up and didn’t feel comfortable with the number or the speed of the gaining, I’d go back to the previous step until it was stable again.

The paradoxical thing about the issue is that I knew there was nothing bad about gaining weight. That the whole “minimum healthy BMI” thing is a fallacy, that the true healthy weight range depends on the individual, that listening to my body and respecting it needs is how one reaches that set weight and maintains it. Even following the “official BMI guidelines” I still had a lot of margin! 

But what really scared me was the lack of control feeling; not knowing an x number I had to reach and plan how to do so, but letting my body decide it. When the truth is that the being-in-control feeling that you get when you try to manipulate your weight through restricting your intake is false, and one’s really free when she chooses to delegate in whom truly knows what it needs and biologically tends to a healthy and happy set range: the body. The role of the mind is not to interfere with false diet culture beliefs, emotional hunger, anxiety, etc., and acquiring basic knowledge about nutrition to know how to choose healthy options for daily life.

Intuitive eating

This might surprise you, but it was only at the end of September 2020 that I began what can be properly called intuitive eating. Even though I had been gathering a lot of information about the issue through different formats, what encouraged me to take the final jump was watching Stephanie Buttermore’s “all in” videos. She inspired me to finally dare to do something as revolutionary and radical these days as listening to and respecting your body.

It’s been a great liberation, the step I was lacking to be able to call myself recovered with all the letters. Perhaps that’s why the disorder was, for some weeks, more aggressive than what it had been in a long time.

And here’s where I am today and where I always want to be, and the goal I’d want everyone to reach. What happens if I’ve finished eating what I had served myself and I’m still hungry? I can eat more. And if this happens in every meal of the day? That’s fine. What happens if there’s food left in my plate but I already feel full? I can let it there and eat it later. What happens if I fancy something more processed than usual? I can can eat it guilt-free. What happens if no one else is eating but I’m hungry? I can eat regardless. What happens if we’re going to eat out? I can focus on my menu and my plate and not on others’.

Do I always do everything “perfect”? No. But that’s one of the beauties of intuitive eating: contrary to what happens with diets or eating disorders, it’s not black and white, you don’t do things well or fail. It’s a discovery journey in which every situation that implies food and/or your body is a learning opportunity. One doesn’t have to beat herself up if she doesn’t get to eat intuitively at a certain moment, nor has she failed at it. On the contrary, she’s learnt valuable information for next time, and the best she can do is let it go and keep living normal life.

And, what has happened to my weight? It’s gone up… only slightly, a little bit, imperceptible for anyone else. Frankly, I was expecting a lot more. It seems like, for now and in this specific moment of my life, this is my ideal weight. It may change in the future. But now I’m much more calm, because I’ve learnt to let my body self-regulate it. In this way, if in the future I need more or less food than now to be in what’s my healthy weight range at that moment, I know that —except if I get some exceptional illness— the only thing I have to do to make sure I’m there and I’m nourishing my body well is to listen to its cues, to trust them and to honor them.

Since our energy needs change throughout the different stages of life due to multiple circumstances, this is another reason why it’s fundamental to learn to eat intuitively and consciously, without either feeling the need to follow a particular diet or eating mechanically guided by external impulses such as the clock, boredom, emotions or the fact that you have x food in the house.

Useful resources

  • The key resource par excellence is the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
  • Stephanie Buttermore’s videos provide both inspiration and scientific data of the process of going “all in”, which is very similar to jumping into intuitive eating.
  • This video series by dietitian Abbey Sharp about the principles of intuitive eating is also, as the title of the series says, enlightening.
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