When I decided to stop dieting, it felt like the biggest relief ever. I was so tired of trying to trick my body into thinking it didn’t need food, ignoring gnawing hunger pangs, coming up with ideas for meals that tasted great but had next to no calories in it, counting “points,” and acting like the worst thing that could happen to me would be to get fat again (it wasn’t), that the final decision felt easy. But the process of learning to eat normally? Not always so easy.
Eating without restriction at first felt scary. This was before I’d even heard of intuitive eating or eating competence, and I just thought eating normally would happen naturally. I wasn’t prepared for the lingering sense of manufactured food insecurity that drove me to eat quickly and voraciously of portions that were bigger than I was hungry for. I felt way out of control at times.
So I totally get that people can have a hard time with learning to eat normally after dieting. The posts I see in the various groups I belong to on Facebook tell of people struggling with “getting it right” or listening to their bodies with any degree of accuracy. I hear a lot of frustration. Years of dieting can totally fuck with your head and your stomach, and can make this whole process a lot harder.
There are two things that can make this process even harder: Perfectionism and Judgment.
Let’s start with Perfectionism. When I hear people talk about learning to eat more intuitively, so many are beating themselves up for “slipping up” and eating too much, or not “getting it right.” As former dieters, we may have felt our “success” depended so much on being perfect, getting the diet right, and never falling off the proverbial wagon. Isn’t that why everyone blames people for diet failure? They didn’t stick to the diet, they weren’t perfect enough, and therefore they didn’t achieve the results. Even though we know this isn’t a personal failure – that the state of dieting is a completely unnatural one, that nearly everyone fails at weight loss over the long term, and that it has nothing to do with willpower – we often persist in this idea that if we had just done it perfectly enough, it would have worked out differently. So even when we give up dieting, I think we suffer from residual perfectionism. Normal eating is just a new thing to perfect. But really, it isn’t. Ellyn Satter’s definition of what normal eating looks like:
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it – not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.
Notice she didn’t say anything about normal eating requiring perfection? There is room here for a lot of mistake-making. So make those mistakes and learn from all of them!
That leaves Judgment. It begins with wishful thinking. It’s like somehow even though dieting didn’t work to make us thin, we hope normal eating might. We are dismayed that when we start to listen to our bodies, they actually start to gain weight (for some, at least). I went through this myself. I felt betrayed that normal eating meant I might gain weight –that wasn’t right, was it?!? Intellectually, I knew that I had been suppressing my weight with dieting, and that weight gain might be natural – but emotionally I felt destroyed. Surely if I just learned to eat “normally,” I would have a “normal” sized body? (Those were early days and my ideas about what constituted a normal body were still dictated by crappy, oppressive cultural ideals.)
So we look at our bodies that seem out of control and decide that it probably has something to do with our new way of eating, which also feels completely out of control. We start to apply the brakes to our eating here and there. We try to eat a bit less, or eat more healthful foods than we want, or we go the other way and binge because we’re so stressed out or starving again. All of this behavior stems from the judgment we’re putting on our bodies and what we think they should or shouldn’t be doing. Next thing you know, eating normally doesn’t feel good at all, and it’s now not any easier than dieting was. Thanks judgment, you judgey asshole!
Despite being freaked the hell out, I decided to roll with the wisdom of my body, if only for one simple, driving reason: I could NOT go back to dieting. The mere thought of more restriction made me want to cry. And I wanted to be authentically me, not someone who lived in fear of what my body actually was when I satisfied my hunger in a totally normal way.
That decision was the key to me finally clicking with normal eating. I decided to not worry about nutrition (a challenge when you’re in the middle of a dietetics program), eat foods I felt like eating as much as possible, experiment when I wanted, and just tune into what my gut was telling me without stressing about whether I got it right or not. That last part was key – it didn’t matter if I wasn’t getting it right. And then one day, after a lot of reading* on the subject and experimentation, it felt like I was getting it right more often than I was wasn’t. And yeah, I still make lots of mistakes. Sometimes I eat too much, sometimes not enough. Whatever. I’ll get it right the next day. Or the day after that. I trust my body to make up for the mistakes.
If you’re in the middle of this process, have a stern talk with Judgment and Perfectionism. Thank them for whatever they’ve given you, and then kiss them goodbye. They don’t have a place in your diet-free life anymore.
*My favorite non-diet how-to-eat resources are:
Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch
Any book by Ellyn Satter
The Diet Survivor’s Handbook by Matz and Frankel
Overcoming Overeating by Hirschmann and Munter
Dietitians Unplugged podcast – episode 6 available now!
Episode 6 is called “Clean Eating or Toxic Ideas?” and we had so much fun talking about this subject.
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