Life with ED: when intuitive eating doesn’t work

“The hardest part of recovery is even knowing what normal eating looks like,” I said to my therapist a few months into my first round of treatment. “I can’t even remember what hunger feels like.”

It took me years to really understand my hunger cues – and especially normal fullness cues – were again. I didn’t understand how to eat more than a tiny portion without assuming I was bingeing again. I didn’t understand how going more than 4 or 5 hours without eating silenced my hunger cues, put my body in starvation mode and normally cued a stomach ache. I didn’t understand how to sit with the discomfort of an overly full stomach without doing anything about it.

Me and my mom – somehow after 9 months of running together Tara and I still don’t have any photos.

This morning on a run with my friend Tara I was reminded of how hard it can be to relearn how our body’s internal communication works.

She told me how – now that she is bringing her lunch to work – she feels like she has to pack SO MUCH to keep up with how often she gets hungry. Full disclosure, Tara was the first guest on Life with ED, the podcast and struggled with anorexia for her teenage years. I asked her if she eats meal. Her answer – like so many of the patients I work with who are in recovery from an eating disorder – was no. She snacks. She stops eating when she’s “no longer hungry” and eats again when she is.

While on the surface that sounds like a great thing – and is reminiscent of Intuitive eating – it is actually what some dietitians refer to as the Hunger Fullness Diet and it is INCREDIBLY common. Instead if eating until she is truly full and satisfied (that’s the key), Tara is eating until she can’t sense any hunger.

Intuitive eating sounds like a beautiful thing, but when bingeing and purging followed by days of restriction are your norm how are you supposed to understand what “no longer being hungry” means. When Rebekah Bardwell Doweyko came on Life with ED, the podcast she said it best, “you can’t do intuitive eating right away.”

I don’t know if I wasn’t hungry anymore half way through this breakfast, but I do know I was satisfied at the end.

You just can’t.

Intuitive eating, as defined by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch who wrote the original book Intuitive Eating, is when satisfaction is the focal point in eating and exercise is done for the sake of feeling good. Intuitive eating rejects the idea that dieting can effectively change your body and make you “healthier” and respects every body regardless of shape. Intuitive eating is about satisfaction, it is about feeling full and being happy about it, it is about eating when you are hungry instead of eating only when a diet or friend tells you it is acceptable to do so. Intuitive eating is NOT about continually sensing if you are hungry or if you are full. It should not occupy so much brain power.

Recovering from an eating disorder takes time. It can be frustrating, it can be so aggravating to hear and see others easily eat a doughnut or bag of carrots without thinking about it. It can be equally annoying to be told about a way of eating that can solve your reliance on dieting, restriction and body hatred, only to realize that you’re not ready for it. Only to realize that an eating disorder is about so much more than just food.

If it was as easy to solve as just eating when you felt hungry and stopping when you felt full then nobody would need a full team of therapists, dietitians, doctors and loving friends and family in order to make a recovery.

As Dr. Laurie Grunebaum put it, “these are disorders of deprivation, not just about food itself.” So if you’re in recovery, if you’ve had an eating disorder or disordered eating it’s okay to use a plan to help you relearn how to eat. It’s okay to work with a dietitian and not be able to cure yourself from a book. It’s okay to not know when you’re hungry or full and it’s okay to eat more than you think you should. It takes a lot of time to teach reform a relationship with food where your body – not your brain or social media or any diet – can actually communicate that it’s hungry and it’s time for a meal!

If you’re interested in working with me 1:1 on reforming your relationship with food contact me at werthyourwhilenutrition@gmail.com

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