Intuitive eating, HAES, body neutrality: how many buzzwords can I fit into this title, and what have I learned from Konmari-ing my approach to health and fitness?
CW: This post will talk about weight loss and disordered eating habits/thoughts. If that might be triggering to you, please proceed with caution or opt out of reading this entirely <3
For the past few months, I've been seeing a nutrition coach who specializes in Intuitive Eating, and it has been helping me a LOT, and I wanted to share a little bit about my experience so far, what it looks like in practice for me, and what Intuitive Eating even IS, in case it's something that could help you.
But first: a little talk about disordered eating
|@moriahcolbyrhn on IG|
I shared the above post to my Instagram stories, with a text caption that basically said, "I have suffered from disordered eating my whole life, and didn't realize it because it was encouraged." And I suspect this is probably true for MANY people--obsessively counting calories or macros or limiting entire food groups; severe restriction and then bingeing, exercising to "make up" for the food that you ate, taking on a moralistic view of food ("good food," "bad food," etc.). No one ever calls it disordered eating--it's just dieting, and dieting is OKAY (read that sarcastically) because losing weight equals getting healthy, and how could that be a bad thing????? OF COURSE we should do those things.
And I've been a participant in diet culture and disordered eating my whole life. I remember it being prom season in high school, and seeing a bunch of girls with Slim Fast cans. (I did it as well!). I was GUNG HO about Paleo (you can still find those posts on this blog). I even did intermittent fasting for a couple of months as recently as a year and a half ago. (Did I successfully lose weight enough to get pregnant? Yes. But did I spend the entire time going back and forth about "Okay, what actually makes this different from an eating disorder?" Also yes.) In my more desperate moments, I would browse the thermogenics aisle at GNC, feeling a bit ashamed of myself the way some people probably browse adult entertainment.
For some people, maybe a diet is JUST a diet. Maybe for them, it's extremely simple, emotionless, and matter-of-fact. For me, though, dieting is so tied up in my self-esteem and mental health. Add to that, the fact that I'm a "perfectionist Honors-student Asian kid," and dieting becomes even more of a toxic force because not only is my self-worth dependent on my body size (ESPECIALLY in Asian cultures!), but also, the very notion of "not doing it right" and failing at dieting is also a blow to my self-esteem.
That's why, even when I'm following a diet for a sound medical reason (gestational diabetes), I become completely obsessive, and what to the rest of the world are minutes, to me become "minutes I'm waiting for my next meal/snack" and "minutes I have to prep my next meal/snack" and "minutes I need to plan my upcoming meals and snacks."
It's exhausting. It's not how I want to live. Over the years, I have made vast strides in moving towards a more of a body-neutral perspective (meaning, I don't always have to LOVE my body, but I have to respect it and not try to beat it into submission), and I genuinely believe in the concept of Health At Every Size (HAES), but I gotta tell you, it is a constant, DAILY fight against diet culture. There is no such thing as being "cured" or "past it" while society continues to equate thinness with beauty.
I've always felt like it was a little easier to love how my body looks if I can be happy with how it's functioning. A friend told me once, "Why care about being thin when you can squat a HOUSE?" and it's true--the moments when I worry about thinness the least are the moments when I'm working towards my latest athletic achievement.
Which means that, after having Benny, I was NOT in a good place body-wise. I had put on weight, I wasn't sleeping well, I was relying on take-out even more than usual, I was under-hydrated, and thanks to a double-teaming of carpal tunnel and tendonitis, barbell work was painful and joyless. (Oh, and let's throw in that fantastic feeling of MOMMY GUILT over the fact that I fully intended to nurse Benny, but then could never really make it work, and then had to switch to formula. Yeah, that too.)
I needed a major change. But what could I do? My brain immediately went to dieting options, but in truth, I was feeling really loath to go back to any of them. Upon some further reflection, I realized that what I REALLY wanted was balance: I wanted to be able to eat healthily but also enjoy my life and participate in the world instead of having to exclude myself from things because "my diet doesn't allow that." I didn't want to put myself on a diet and then have to also worry about prepping "regular" meals for the rest of my family. I wanted to know if there was any way I could just... eat. Just fuel my body and not attach any moralistic feelings to it.
Enter: Intuitive Eating
While I was pregnant, I had discovered a podcast from Female Strength Academy. I wasn't lifting while I was pregnant, but I wanted to maintain some kind of connection to the strength world because I was planning to get back to it eventually, and listening to Drs. Kristin Lander and Mary Morton talk about mindset, nutrition, and strength training was helping me keep my brain in the game.
They're both strength athletes and nutrition coaches--Kristin Lander is a powerlifter and coaches a macros approach, and Mary Morton is an Oly lifter and Intuitive Eating specialist. I didn't think I could handle counting macros without having it trigger some obsessive thoughts and habits, but I was intrigued by the idea of Intuitive Eating, and I felt like it could work for me.
So, what actually IS Intuitive Eating? The way I understand it, it is listening to your body and feeding it accordingly. (That's a very simplified explanation.)
Maybe you're thinking, "But Thu, what if my body wants to eat an entire package of Oreos?"
To that, I would say: "Go ahead and try. I bet your body does not actually want to eat the ENTIRE package of Oreos." (This is why I am not a nutrition coach.)
I think that diet culture has really destroyed our relationship with food and our ability to listen to our bodies, but I don't think all is lost. I know that I have had times where, after eating too many meals that are rich/greasy/processed/whatever, my body just starts craving SALAD, as if to say, "HEY YOU, GIVE ME SOME FRESH PRODUCE." I wanted to be able to tap into that inner voice on a more consistent basis and give my body what it needs BEFORE it starts issuing cries for help.
I saw that Mary was taking clients, so I contacted her and explained basically everything I've said in this post so far, and we set to work: daily check-ins through an app, weekly check-ins over Zoom.
Put me in, coach! I'm ready to play!
Athletes have sport-specific coaches to help them train more efficiently and achieve their athletic goals. I'd had a lifting coach since 2013 (I'm currently coachless by the way! I would love recs!), but I've never had a nutrition coach, and I felt like it was time to shift my focus there. That was the more urgent area of need for me.
I loved that, right off the bat, Mary stated that this was a judgement-free zone, and that if I ever have moments of bingeing, thoughts of restriction, any of that, that didn't mean that I had failed or that I was weak, or anything like that. She's very good at listening, and very encouraging and positive.
Every week, there's a particular focus area for me to work on, and we either build upon it or we repeat it, depending on how it went. I'm not going to give away all her trade secrets, but we have worked on things like listening to the body's hunger cues (you would THINK it's so simple to eat when you're hungry and stop when you're not, but again, our relationships with food have gotten so messed up!), making sure that I'm getting enough sleep, and sports nutrition (pre- and post- workout).
And I was never told to stop eating this food group or that food group. And I track what I eat anyway, for allergy/gut health/etc. issues, but it was never a requirement. There were a couple times where I just needed to write down meals for a couple days out of the week, to give Mary an overall sense of what my daily meals look like, but no counting calories or macros or anything. I did not have to give up things that I loved eating; instead, we discussed balance, or at least trying to find a way to add something to make those meals healthy, instead of taking them away entirely.
We made small, incremental changes week-by-week, repeating weeks as necessary, because even though it sounds exciting to give your life a complete overhaul, the truth is that small, manageable changes, gradually implemented, were what I needed.
Where I am now
I started meeting with Mary at the end of December, and now it's the middle of April, and I can definitely say that she HAS totally changed my life, but as I said above, it was such a gradual, incremental change. I don't feel like I'm a different person, but also, I kinda do? And those changes aren't really tangible--I haven't lost weight (I'm not trying to lose weight), but I am learning a lot about myself and how I want to manage my own health and fitness, and I feel like I have a better picture of myself than I did when I was following any sort of special diet.
I guess you can say that the weight I lost was not body weight, but the weight of my guilt. I don't feel good or bad about my food choices anymore, and that's extremely freeing. I find I'm more deliberate in my decisions to eat ("Am I actually hungry, or am I mad/sad/bored? If the latter, will eating actually help?), but I also find that I'm not missing out on anything either.
The other piece of all this is training/working out, and I have a whole separate set of issues regarding powerlifting and barbell work at the moment--part of it is the aforementioned carpal tunnel and tendonitis (which especially affects my deadlifts), but also, I'm not planning to compete anytime soon, and also, I don't have a coach, and also, there's only so much I can do in my home gym. AND I have a bunch of mental hang-ups around powerlifting because, again, "perfectionist Honors-student Asian kid" here, and when people tell me I'm strong, they may intend it as a compliment, but what I hear is "Do better. Do more. We expect better. We expect more." So, that's a whole separate thing from my diet issues. And I've always done powerlifting with other people (in a gym), and I've always gone to competitions with other people (a coach and my team), so I have no idea what to do or how to do it on my own.
However, one sport I have always done on my own is running. I mean, yes, I have had friends who have trained for races with me, but running itself doesn't require people. And I haven't run since before I moved up here, so I miss it. While I was pregnant, I made all sorts of plans to run, and with the last couple of weeks being absolutely lovely and sunny outside, I couldn't not put on my shoes and GO. I'm not running much (in terms of my interval), but it's just enough to feel the breeze, to breathe just a little harder (I'm distancing extra when I pass by other people, by the way), and to get that lovely joy of movement.
And this is where I am now: I'm chasing that feeling of joy. I can pay for all the best coaches and training plans and whatever, but if I don't feel happy, then there's no point. Right now, this is working for me, and it's getting me up and moving (I've actually had two weeks IN A ROW of working out 3 or more times!), and I know I will return to barbell work at some point, when I feel the time is right.
Small, incremental changes. Listening to my body. Balance. Contentment. I feel positive about myself and my life in a way that I haven't felt in a really long time, and working with Mary on Intuitive Eating has played a HUGE role in that.
Again, there's no such thing as being totally free of diet culture, but I feel like, at least right now, I'm in a good place. I feel even-keeled in a way that I haven't felt in a long time, if ever.
Intuitive eating may be for you, or it may not, but I wanted to share some links just in case you're interested, because I am not an expert or a professional. I am someone who is trying a thing, and the thing seems to be working, and it could work for you too, maybe.
- Female Strength Academy podcast episode: Disordered Eating & The Female Strength Athlete
- This was the episode that made me go "OMG IT ME." I felt really SEEN.
- Female Strength Academy podcast episode: Intuitive Eating and the Strength Athlete
- Find Mary on Instagram and at Intuitive Athlete Nutrition. I'm not sure if she's taking new clients or not, but at least give her a follow.