From calorie tracking to intuitive eating
How I developed a healthy relationship with food and how you can start with four simple steps.
A summary in four sentences: My unhealthy relationship with food started in 2011. Forcing myself to create a calorie deficit resulted in binge eating and significant weight fluctuations (up to +/- 13% of bodyweight). That, in turn, made my life joyless and stressful. When I discovered intuitive eating, my relationship with food changed. Since I trust my body, my fears vanished, and I’m gravitating towards my ideal weight while feeling happy and alive.
The reason I share my story is that I feel many people are going through a similar struggle I went through. Intuitive eating can be a way out of a downward spiral for others as well. I’m neither an eating coach, nor am I selling any online course. Also, I respect all other forms of “eating behaviors” there are, as long as the eating behavior does not take energy from the eater — enough pretalk. Let’s dive into the journey.
Chasing a beauty ideal and a calorie-deficit
I was 18 when I had my first critical thought on my diet and weight. By the time, my weight and body were, what I’d call it in retrospect, healthy average. But “healthy average body” wasn’t enough in the mind of a teenager with prom night around the corner. Probably, you already guessed the decisions I made based on my craving for being more beautiful: creating a calorie deficit by eating less and exercising more.
With my gym membership and a calorie tracker (which equals paper +pen in the times of 2011), I entered the world of dieting. My relation to food changed from one day to another. Suddenly Nutella, my standard breakfast for the previous five years, was my enemy. When someone asked me to share a Pain au Chocolat my impromptu reaction was: NO, get out of my sight with that sweet stuff! How could a person ever say yes to calorie-dense sweets if it takes you 30 mins on a treadmill to burn those calories?
As you can imagine, the years following that mindset shift have neither been full of joy nor successful in terms of keeping my ideal body weight. Our human brain is simply wired to crave for all things that we forbid ourselves (put scientifically: forbidden fruit hypothesis). Nutella and Pain au Chocolat followed me in my dreams. Every day, I used most of my willpower for saying no to calorie-dense food. But as you can imagine, and as science suggests, my self-restriction backfired. On days, where I utilized my willpower for other activities as food restrictions, I started with binge eating. In the chart below, you can see how restrictions and binge eating impacted my body weight from 2011 to 2016.
How weight devalued the way I experienced life
The graph shows my weight fluctuated by up to 13% of my bodyweight. What the figure doesn’t show is the negative self chatter that accompanied these ups and downs. I was blaming myself in ways I’m afraid to put into writing. You’re the dumbest and most undisciplined person that has ever existed on this planet, was my natural reaction when looking at the scales. Even in June 2013, when I finally reached “the ultimate goal” of weighing less than 60kg, my omnipresent fear was that I’m never going to keep this weight. I felt like I was trapped in a vicious circle with no escape plan.
When calorie deficits and weighing scales determine your perception of life, life itself can become joyless and feel like a burden. At the same time studies show, that I was not alone in this. A plural of studies (page 104–115) demonstrate that, in the long term, almost all dieting plans fail.
A two-week surf & road trip with the love of my life through the Algarve? Overshadowed by destructive self-chatter. Two months of education volunteering in Buenos Aires? Guess what: I was hitting the gym every morning motivated by my fear of gaining weight. You can guess how much fun I had during those workouts: not much.
The four pillars of intuitive eating
I remember the day in May 2016 when I first read about intuitive eating in the German startup magazine “Gründerszene.” My feeling of being trapped in a vicious circle with no escape plan? Now I felt I could see the possibility of an exit way shimmering afar. Based on four books, countless podcasts and >100 hours online training, here’s what I’d call the quintessence of intuitive eating:
- Eat when you feel physical hunger.
Physical hunger is your friend and guide. Physical hunger sends body signals. For me, those signals are stomach growls and a subtle headache. It feels different for everyone, so listen to your body. When you feel physical hunger, it’s time to eat.
- Allow yourself to eat everything that makes your body feel good.
No calorie based food evaluation anymore. Try any food you’d like to eat and test how it makes you feel. There’s no right or wrong, good or bad food. Not. For me, an Apple with chocolate cream has become a regular snack.
- Be present with the food you eat while you eat.
Eating is a single-tasking activity. Try to feel, smell, and taste. Put yourself in the mindset of a gourmet who is rating a new plate. Make eating a mindfulness practice. If you manage to have five conscious bites at every meal, that’s a good start. I’m sometimes struggling with the mindfulness I describe, but life is learning, right? :)
- Stop when your hunger is gone.
This only works when you followed steps 1, 2, and 3. If you don’t eat what you want to eat, you’ll have cravings. If I eat while reading the news, I’m unaware of my body signals. But when I let myself guide by physical hunger and eat food consciously, it is easy to stop when my hunger stops. As a reminder, I always told myself: “You can continue eating the food you love anytime you feel physically hungry.”
This is very condensed information and much to digest (haha). A last valuable insight, before I reveal the happier part of my journey: The counterpart to physical hunger is emotional hunger. Emotional hunger can not be satisfied with food. When I feel emotionally hungry, I look for other alternative ways to satisfy my emotions. Like doing a headspace meditation, shaking, calling a friend, taking a 5 min walk, dancing, or singing to my favorite song, and the options are endless. I’d be happy to share a step by step guide on how to get into intuitive eating and ways to satisfy emotional hunger. If you’d read this insight, let me know, and I’ll write a second article (by the way: you are reading my first medium article, and I’m grateful for any feedback). But anyway, let’s continue with the happy — no end.
How I experience life as an intuitive eater
In the graph, the span from May 2016 (the month I discovered intuitive eating) until today, simply looks less volatile. In the way I experience life, the change is tremendous. My thoughts changed from very toxic and self-destructive to the ultimate freedom of weight concerning thoughts. Since I eat intuitively, I am a real explosion of inner energy. I feel proud when I say that I genuinely enjoy and appreciate the food I eat. I trust my body signals again. I do not live for food anymore, but the food is there for me. Eating is a source of energy and fuels my body. Food does not take strength or willpower away from me anymore. My intuitive relationship with food still gives me inner peace and banishes the most substantial portion of my worrying thoughts.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m still on a journey. But in stark contrast to the energy taking calorie deficit journey from 2011–2016, I’m now on a journey I enjoy making. A journey that feels so natural, so aligned with my bodily needs. This journey has no end, as there is no end to reading and listening to one’s body signals.
Intuitive eating has solved one of the biggest challenges of my life so far — living by my body signals while keeping a weight that allows me to experience life to the fullest. I would be lying if I denied that it is nice to see my weight gravitating towards my initial ultimate goal of 60kg. But I do not measure my life against a number on the scales anymore. My focus has shifted towards my body awareness — its the feeling of aliveness in my body that guides me in making intuitive eating decisions. And my body feels so alive and so healthy as it has never before.
Please share with me if anything remains unclear. Today is the perfect day to start making more intuitive, body-centric decisions.
What’s the first step you will take on your journey?