I recently read an article about intuitive eating. Although I was struck by several topics covered in the article, what was most intriguing was one of the main tenants of intuitive eating, which was the encouragement to eat whatever you feel like. No good foods, no bad, no ideal amounts, no calorie counting, no daily weight checks. So, ice cream for breakfast, right? Well, yes! The idea is that decriminalizing all foods reduces their irresistible allure, mediating the cycle of binging and guilt, binging and guilt. It thus follows that intuitively diving into Cherry Garcia before 9 am would leave one free of regret, and one more ice cream lover can go to work freed from the bondages of food shame.
I have been enjoying intuitive eating for over two years now. The releasing of food shame has been the most significant mental shift I’ve ever experienced. Starting in early college, I began to be aware that I had a body that could attract men (well, boys, really, at that point in time). In an attempt to secure their attention, I lost quite a bit of weight over freshman and sophomore years thanks to a vegan diet and tight caloric control. I was constantly worried that I was eating too much or not the right things. Almost every time I looked in the mirror I checked my stomach to assess the level of roundness (it was always too round). This food obsession and shame continued unabated for ten years. If you had spoken to me during that decade and asked if I ever thought it possible to me free from food obsession, I would have confidently said no. I thought it would be my burden to bear for the rest of my life.
Although I started bringing many positive influences into my life near the end of those ten years (empowered female friends, more yoga, deeper meditation practice, etc.), I didn’t really shift into intuitive eating until I understood that it was body-specific shame that was keeping me stuck. I read nearly all of Brené Brown’s work and started chipping away at my palace of shame. It was this guided introspection that finally toppled the tower. Since the summer of 2016, I haven’t felt shame about what I’ve eaten, or how much I’ve eaten (note: I will say that I’ve felt some regret after eating an enormous meal, or too many sweet treats, but slight regret at feeling physically uncomfortable or being high on sugar is nothing compared to grinding, continual shame). Every day I reflect on this transition and feel deeply, wholly grateful.
So, what do I eat now? Literally whatever I want. But the clincher is that I naturally want to eat healthy foods. Jason, Cole and I make meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We focus on whole grains, as many fresh veggies as is possible in Fairbanks, fermented foods, wild meats, and homemade sourdough bread…
But we also eat LOTS of butter. Like, a pound a week at least. We also welcome candy, ice cream, cake, cookies, bacon, pizza, and pancakes with lots of syrup (and sometimes chocolate chips, and sometimes M&Ms, right in the batter). But what drives the three of us is feeling good, feeling nourished, feeling healthy. We eat to support our high activity levels and our grad student brains. The treats have their place as treats, and they are enjoyed wholeheartedly.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Well, that might all be true for Sara, but I know I could never allow myself to eat whatever I want,” then think again. I had that mindset for my entire twenties and am now in the freedom of my thirties. It’s possible!
But, I don’t want this post to be just about intuitive eating. I think it’s a fascinating idea, and it’s enjoyable for me to reflect on the past and feel satisfied with where I’ve come. What I really want to write about is how this article inspired me to think about intuitive working. I don’t know if this is a “thing,” but I want to make it one for myself.
At work/school, I often feel shame when I distract myself or when I lack focus. I’m not sure how to break out of this cycle. I feel like I have to be a “perfect” grad student, one who is always reading appropriate papers or going above and beyond in every draft I produce for my thesis chapters. I was reflecting on this after reading the intuitive eating article and thought, “Well, why don’t I try working however I want?” Is that concept so different from eating however I want? Could releasing myself from the expectations of no distractions and inefficient work styles actually help me work less distractedly and more efficiently? I think it’s worth a shot. For the next week and a half (until spring break) I’m going to fully allow myself to work (or not work) however I’d like. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Below are some quotes I pulled from the article, in case you just want to read some juicy bits instead of the whole thing:
If you’re going to eat clean, you need to pay careful attention to any food’s place on a continuum of purity, and eat only the things that meet the strictest standards of unprocessed freshness. “Eating today has become this idea that the food on your fork can either kill you or cure you,” Tribole [developer of the formal concept of intuitive eating] says. “It’s gotten to a point of almost religious fervor.”
Instead, they [the “inventors” of intuitive eating] say they want to help people who have struggled with eating understand how food makes their body feel when the act is untangled from stress or shame.
The theory is that if you can have pizza whenever you want, it feels less essential to eat it until you’re uncomfortable when the opportunity presents itself, or to seek out the opportunity at all. Telling yourself you can’t have something, meanwhile, gives it undue power and allure.
In the past, research has indicated that American women internalize the importance of restricting food intake as young as age 5, making it almost impossible to test how people would act toward food if they weren’t shackled by a culture of dieting.
According to a 2008 survey by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 75 percent of American women participate in some kind of disordered-eating behavior, even if their problems aren’t severe enough to constitute a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder.
Suggesting that a healthy relationship with food is possible without any rules or restrictions sounds risky to many people, especially when it’s misconstrued as a call to indulge destructive impulses rather than to understand and quiet them. Intuitive eating has a seductive sound of ease and change that is used to market many types of diets. That has likely helped it catch fire on social media, where similar messages of positivity and future happiness are used to hawk all kinds of restrictive-eating practices and appetite suppressants.
“If any health professional or coach or Instagram influencer says you can lose weight with intuitive eating, run away,” Tribole says.
Dieting and food restriction are such ingrained parts of American culture that even doctors can have a hard time delineating between healthy and harmful practices, which is where intuitive eating’s potential power lies, and why Main [a journalist-turned-dietician after learning about and practicing intuitive eating] felt drawn to change her profession.