My Journey to Intuitive Eating
By Elyssa Toomey
In the summer between 8th grade and freshman year of high school, I began to obsess over my body. It was my last summer at sleep away camp and I remember comparing the size of my stomach and thighs with the other girls in my bunk. I was conventionally pretty and had the right mix of Benetton and Esprit clothes, but could not stop worrying about my developing curves and soft shape. This worry led me to the thought that if I did sit-ups every time I ate, perhaps I could control my changing physique.
My high school experience was thankfully positive. I had a great group of friends, academics came easily, but I was not a star athlete. So when a friend asked me if I wanted to walk on to the cross-country team, I jumped at the chance. Now I could run off all the calories I indulged in at lunch under the guise of practice. My house was the one all my friends liked to come to since my mom stocked the pantry with all the fun foods the minute they hit the supermarket shelves. We would enjoy every chip and cookie the early 90s had to offer. With friends around, this behavior was acceptable, but looking back it was clear that I did not trust myself to be around all that food if I was alone.
This is how my relationship with food and my body remained for all of high school. I would carefully construct what I ate during meals, “indulge” with my friends and run to control my size and shape. Not much changed in college except that running was replaced by swimming and my “indulgent” times increased to include late night cereal or Chinese food extravaganzas with my friends.
After college my desire to maintain my body shape and size, combined with an activist spirit, led me to charitable biking and walking events. Around this time, my best friend and roommate was encouraged to change her diet after being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. In an effort to be supportive and with an underground motive to lose weight, I changed my diet too. I recall feeling powerful, like controlling my food and exercise could make up for the lack of a boyfriend and my low-paying non-profit job.
When I met my now husband, my journey took a slightly different path. As volunteer rape crisis counselor, I developed a love of baking as a way to pass the time when I was on call. But all the cupcakes required an increased commitment to the gym, especially as our wedding approached. I met with a trainer who gave me a strict meal plan and I recall being starving every morning even immediately after breakfast! I lost so much weight that I needed my dress taken in days before my wedding. Eventually I regained that weight and what I thought was an equilibrium of eating “healthy” during the week, enjoying Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch and exercising daily.
Looking for a career change, I ended up back in school for nutrition and in a yoga teacher training. Unfortunately, both cultures endorsed a way of eating that was rigid and obsessive. It was not long before I was eating “clean”, doing juice cleanses and elimination diets all under the pretext of being healthy. I became fanatical about my meals, making sure my plate looked the way I thought a dietitian and yogis should. While I truly like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fish, I also really like bread and my kick ass triple chocolate brownies, so unbeknownst to me, I was entrenched in a restrict – binge cycle: rigidly controlling what I consumed all week and then “letting loose” on the weekends. Of course, that letting loose began to include nighty spoonful’s of peanut butter and dark chocolate chips after my husband went to bed. I can not tell you how many times I would fill my plate with salad and 1 slice of pizza, spending the rest of the evening half distracted due to the incessant thoughts of the pizza calling my name from the kitchen.
By the grace of God, my yoga practice deepened to extend beyond the physical practice at around the same time I discovered intuitive eating. I began diving into the principles to help develop a more neutral relationship with food and my body. Slowly I began releasing the self-imposed food and exercise rules and created opportunities to get quiet so I could listen to and honor my body’s sensations and needs. For the first time in years I learned to honor hunger rather than be afraid of it.I began to move my body for joy rather than to compensate for what I had eaten. I began to challenge the diet mentality and quickly my activist spirit was amazed and angry at the recognition that I had been sucked in to the diet mentality telling me I was not good enough just as I am. I have always loved food. I love to bake, I love to cook, I love to eat, and I love to share food with the people I love. So I challenged the idea that food is more than just fuel and something to be carefully controlled. I embraced the idea that food is a source of pleasure and connection. This combination has been my path to peace.
Now six years later, I could not imagine any other way of being. During this journey I gained some weight. My favorite red pants – the ones that were the barometer of whether I was at the “right” weight- haven’t fit for a long time and while there are occasional moments when I wish they did, what I really gained is freedom: Freedom to eat what I want, when I want. Freedom from those obsessive thoughts. Freedom to nourish myself from a place of pleasure not punishment. And those red pants, they remain in my closet as a gentle reminder of how rich and vibrant my life is now.
Jennifer is a Registered Dietitian and the owner of Eat With Knowledge in Nyack, NY. She is on a mission to help people heal from diets, and find peace and balance with their food choices. She leads a team of dietitians who support the philosophy, “Feel Fabulous about Food!”