Making peace with food

When I was dieting, I had a relentless drive to try to feel full and very often did not. My hunger signals were numbed though. I just felt stretched and under pressure. That’s because my body was stressed by the calorie restriction. The disappearance of that stretched feeling is lovely.

Food had a lot of power over me. If I broke the rules that I had made, the main one was going over my set number of calories which was logged in an app on my phone, then I felt completely out of control. I would think, “fuck it, I’ve ruined everything” and then I’d binge badly, usually thousands of calories. While I was binging, I couldn’t stop and would have overwhelming feelings that I had to eat while I could, while I was ‘allowed’. That would reinforce to me that I was out of control and that it definitely was imperative that I never went over my calories in the future. I would restart restricting my calories and that would cause that relentless drive to eat so round I’d go again.

The Tribole and Resch Intuitive Eating book and workbook talk in detail about this cycle happening to their patients. It’s a common experience. I’ve seen a lot of talk about it on weight loss and dieting/wellness/’healthy eating’ forums. There are a few things going on at the same time.

First of all, if you don’t satisfy your hunger drive then the “hunger increases and sets off a biological cascade, both physically and psychologically – ‘primal hunger’, an urgent and intense desire to eat – which often results in overeating”. If you are in a state of chronic undernourishment (some people talk about dieting as being a form of semistarvation) then your hunger drive will be very active. Physical deprivation affects people differently. For me, I didn’t have much ill effect for the first year or so and lost weight steadily. Then I started binging again. Infrequently and small amounts at first but it escalated rapidly. Eventually, after a further year, I was utterly out of control, on the road to regaining my weight back and had intense suicidal thoughts for days every time I binged.

Secondly, there is some dodgy thinking going on, otherwise known as cognitive distortions. In this case, it is dichotomous thinking (also called all-or-nothing thinking or black-and-white thinking). My eating was either rigidly ‘perfect’ or ‘good’ and fully in control and planned or the exact opposite meaning wildly out of control or ‘bad’ and binging. I talked to folk online about how I couldn’t have a single meal of mild overeating and then just carry on as normal. It always flipped into a binge. So of course I avoided those meals which were usually social occasions. And my world shrunk a bit more. In the month before I committed to trying intuitive eating, I had actually started to make progress with this and was able to have a range of calories that I was okay or okay-ish landing in. But it was still very rigid and limiting.

The last thing driving my restrict-binge cycle was the psychological effects of deprivation. I did not appreciate that this was happening at the time at all. I still don’t fully understand what was going on. I see the effects of it now though with my reaction to when I start to feel full when eating. At first, when I started intuitive eating, I could not bear to leave any food from a meal or snack. It wasn’t just ‘clean your plate’ habit. It felt like a desperate imperative that I wasn’t safe until I got all this food inside me. I knew I was full but that wasn’t enough. When I binged this month, I had thoughts that I had to ‘make the most of it’ and eat as much as possible while I was ‘allowed’. Also, I have been feeling a strong push to keep my kitchen packed with food. I feel like it’s essential that anything my body wants to eat is there waiting for it at a moment’s notice. I have spent nearly £300 on groceries this month! A lot of that is sitting in my cupboards simply there to make me feel better. With intuitive eating, if you genuinely give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want, when you want, then these drives disappear because your body (or mind or whatever it is of you that isn’t part of your rational thoughts – instincts? emotions?) actually believes that it is safe and will be fed when it needs to be.

I started having moments of peace with food when I started mindful eating (being as aware as possible of the experience of eating and eating without distraction; it’s a key part of intuitive eating) before I really started intuitive eating. They were very strange little calm, cool raindrops in my mind. Just quietness and stillness and a surprised feeling of “oh, I’m okay” when I had satisfied my hunger and my body. Something unclenched in my mind. The oppositive of the frenetic, overwhelming drives to eat that were so intense that they were painful, though also exhilarating to be fair.

Beautiful, perfect raindrop hanging from a green leaf.

These moments of peace are what have kept me going through all the confusion and uncertainty (intuitive eating is really fucking hard at times) and the sense of loss from losing the benefits of dieting like feeling in control, like I was achieving something and like I was doing something right that other people approved of (which have turned out to be illusions). I had hoped that once I started following intuitive eating properly then I would have this peace more frequently and for longer and that’s not turned out to be the case so far. They are still there but sometimes I go days without them and sometimes I feel peace a few times in a single day.

I suppose I have to not just pay lip service to the idea that these are early days but actually work on being patient. Maybe after another month, I will be writing about how these moments have increased. Hope is heady stuff when you’re not used to it.

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