Think about the eating-related thoughts that go through your mind on any given day:
“You shouldn’t eat that, it’s too high in sugar.”
“You can’t be hungry already, it’s not time to eat for another 2 hours.”
“That has waaaaay too many calories in it. You don’t deserve to eat it.”
Notice a common theme among them?
It’s the overall distrust of your body and your appetite. The eating disorder makes you believe that your own body is working against you and that if you listened to its signals you’d be fat, unhealthy, and completely unworthy of love. Ouch, pretty harsh, huh?
As Geneen Roth, author of multiple books on compulsive overeating, dieting and body image, has said:
"Your body is the vehicle for your spirit and your soul. It is the piece of the universe you've been given to tend, to care, to cherish. Without it, you couldn't sense or taste or touch or feel."
Why do so many of us distrust our appetites? We’ve been taught to believe that if we ate what we wanted we’d eat ourselves into oblivion. We’ve been taught to fear food and to fear our appetite. The “war on obesity” has become a war on our bodies. Fear of becoming fat has made us afraid of food and afraid of our desire for food.
Sarah’s story (name and details changed for privacy)
Sarah is a client who I first encountered well into her recovery. She was no longer starving herself or abusing her body with purging or excessive exercise. Yet she was still plagued by food and her body. “I never feel full when I try to eat normally. It’s as if I could just keep eating and eating,” she told me. “The only time I feel full is when I’ve binged and am stuffed, and then I feel so ashamed and guilty and disgusting that I want to purge. Those urges still come up sometimes.”
Sarah was still disconnected from her body. Sure, she was eating at regular intervals throughout the day, but it still had very little to do with her actual appetite cues. It was more of a prescribed regimen for eating. Thus, she ate pretty much the same thing every day because she knew how it would make her feel, and she trusted that it was the “right” amount for her body to maintain its current weight. Any deviation from this made her anxious and uncomfortable, which made holidays and social gatherings hard. It was also hard when she had a food craving for something out of the norm.
The rupture of trust
How does this distrust of the body happen? Usually, it starts in childhood or adolescence. We are born with a natural trust of our appetite - babies cry when they are hungry, and stop when they’ve had enough milk. Toddlers and small children tend to do the same with food.
We can learn a lot from children when it comes to eating. They will eat when they are hungry, and will stop when they aren’t. The amount they eat will vary from day to day - some days they eat a ton, and other days hardly at all. That’s because they are tuned into their bodies and trust their body’s signals.
At some point, however, well-meaning adults interfere. They start trying to control and dictate the child’s eating by saying things like, “Eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert,” or, “You don’t need all that sugar, it’s bad for you.”
Yes, the adult is trying to help the child eat a balanced diet and to be healthy, but it’s backfiring. Because the underlying, unspoken message is that the child shouldn’t trust what their body has said. The appetite cues should be ignored and suppressed. Wanting something sweet is seen as bad, and the dessert must be “earned” through the holy grail of vegetables.
Then look at the broader culture we live in, with terms like portion control, detox, gluten-free, dairy-free, fat-free, sugar-free…we’re afraid of food and afraid of our appetites for it.
Fear-based eating is taking the joy out of food. We need to stop being so afraid of things like sugar, fat and salt. Reality is, they make food taste good. AND foods with sugar, fat and salt do still make a nutritional contribution to our diet. By definition, nutrients are something that the body must have, and sugar is just a carbohydrate, which is a macronutrient along with fat, and salt is an essential micronutrient. That’s how your body sees it when the food is digested and absorbed into your blood stream.
Rebuilding trust with our body
It’s time to love food again, and to enjoy foods that taste good. Eating is a sensory experience, from the sight to the smell to the texture to the taste of the food. We experience eating with our whole body. And the food is literally the fuel that keeps us alive. Not something to be afraid of - something to be cherished!
The wise Ellyn Satter, a fellow dietitian and eating expert, has said:
"Go to the table hungry, pay attention while eating, and stop when you are satisfied, knowing that you can come back and eat again when you are hungry later. Eating is meant to be enjoyable."
It takes time to repair and rebuild trust with ourselves. The eating disorder is invested in you distrusting your body and will continue to try and convince you of the ways in which you can’t trust yourself.
As your True Self gets stronger and you gather more and more attuned eating experiences, you’ll start to see “proof” that your appetite can be trusted. As for Sarah, the client I mentioned earlier, she was able to do this. It took time, patience and persistence. Every eating experience was an opportunity to take a leap of faith that her body knew what it was doing and would guide her appropriately. Sure, sometimes she made mistakes, and sometimes she questioned if she really could trust her body, but over time she was able to see that her appetite was truly calibrated to her body’s needs.
Some tips for rebuilding trust:
- Have regular, consistent eating times throughout the day. Your body needs to know and trust that it will get fed again in a few hours.
- Keep snacks on hand in case you get hungry sooner than anticipated. Your body also needs to trust that you will feed it during those unexpected times that it gets hungry.
- Include a wide variety of foods. Keeping food interesting and varied will help your body get all of its nutritional needs met, and it will help you feel satisfied by the variety of flavors and textures of the food.
- Eat without distractions. Pay attention to your food, like a toddler intently eating and savoring the food off her plate. Paying attention to your food will also foster paying attention to your appetite, and you’ll more readily notice when you are feeling satisfied.
- Treat your body with compassion. You will make mistakes with eating. It’s a fact of life. Even normal eaters do it. You’ll sometimes under eat, and sometimes overeat. Notice this sensation without judgment, and give yourself compassion for the discomfort you are experiencing. Let your body guide you on what and when to eat again.
Process, not perfection
There’s no such thing as perfect eating, so don’t even bother trying. Disappointing for you perfectionists out there, I know! But also potentially freeing? It allows you to experiment with your eating without judgment or fear of failure. Most importantly, it allows you to experience the joy of eating again while trusting that your body will guide you.
Katy Harvey, RD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) from Kansas City. She has an outpatient private practice where she helps individuals heal their relationship with food, exercise and their body. She also blogs at Katy’s Blog.