When someone hears “eat whatever you want” they might assume it means downing pizzas and ice cream on the daily, or eating burgers and fries for lunch every day. This may be the case if you’re totally deprived and have been on a strict diet for too long, or use food as a coping mechanism, as many of us sometimes do, but when you eat truly intuitively, you don’t want burgers and fries every day. You don’t want pizza for every meal. When no foods are “off limits” and you are free to add butter, cheese, and delicious sauces to veggies, whole grains, and protein, you’ll actually crave healthy food more often.
Some people hear “intuitive eating” and they think, I can’t do that. It’s too scary. I’ll come unhinged and probably gain thirty pounds. I need structure. A plan. Discipline. The fact of the matter is, though, intuitive eating can be learned. It can also involve planning if that’s what you like.
It’s usually not something we master overnight, especially if we have a long history of dieting.
Why Diets Don’t Work
Every year, usually alongside a couple weeks of holiday indulgences and excessive alcohol consumption, millions of Americans start their year vowing to lose weight. There’s no shortage of options to choose from on your weight loss journey, or people promising to have the solution to help you do it, if you’re willing to pay, subscribe, or swear off entire food groups.
But what if these new diet and fitnesss regimes were actually holding us back from living optimally, and actually, making us fatter in the long run?
The times in my life where I overdid it on food and had all out binges were the result of extreme deprivation. I battled my weight, up and down, through puberty and all through my teens. Things took a turn for the worse when I went vegan (for all the wrong reasons, as I was hoping I’d lose weight. I still eat a lot of vegan food and love, respect and practice plant based living, but I don’t personally restrict entire food groups) and then the binging got pretty bad, and I was falling into some dark, unhealthy habits.
Many of us, though, will face the consequences of overindulging if we go on strict diets. This is especially true if you have a history of any sort of disordered eating– which doesn’t just mean anorexia or bulimia. Disordered eating can be food obsession, calorie restriction, over-exercising to “make up for” calories, fear of food, labeling food as “good” and “bad” and so on and so on.
Part of having a healthy relationship with food is getting rid of the fear of food, and diets are fear based. Diets say, explicitly or outright that certain foods are bad. Foods are not good or evil, however. Food just is. Too much of anything can be bad for you.
You Can Have Your Cake and Eat it, Too
So how do you lose weight, and keep it off for good, while eating whatever you want? You learn moderation, and intuitive eating. You break up with quick fixes, yoyo dieting, and figure out how you can eat in a way that satisfies you, your nutritional needs, and lifestyle, and you eat whatever you like, in moderation, for the rest of your life.
You let go of the idea that you have to, should, or even can look like a fitness model, and instead opt to look healthy and fit.
Intuitive eating is a commitment, and it’s scary, but the alternatives are stressful, less enjoyable, and don’t work in the long run.
I’ve now maintained the same weight for over a decade, give or take 5 lbs, and I’m only ten lbs up from my lowest weight through intuitive eating, varied exercise, and generally learning to chill the fuck out about food and exercise.
I don’t work out for hours on end (unless I’m doing something really fun) I don’t restrict any food groups. I eat dessert almost every day, and fill up on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, proteins, and use cheese, butter, sauce, and salt to make shit taste good.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with eating vegan, or low carb, or gluten free if that’s truly what your body wants and needs, and you don’t feel a sense of deprivation from it.
Part of intuitive eating, or eating whatever you want, is knowing that SINCE you can have whatever you want to eat, whenever you want it, you’re less likely, and less tempted to overindulge. It’s like anything– if you went to Disneyland every single day, it wouldn’t be as special.
Intuitive eating, and eating whatever you want, means listening to your body and how it feels after eating certain foods. If eating McDonalds three meals a day gives you a stomach ache, and you have more energy when you eat plant based tacos or a salad, you eventually learn to choose and crave the salad or the tacos.
On that same note, when no foods are “off limits” and you can add a little cheese, guacamole, and buffalo sauce to your salads and tacos, they become much more appealing. Perfect is the enemy of good, and perfect eating is impossible to sustain and causes us to overindulge.
Have McDonalds if that’s your thing. Enjoy the heck out of it. Then move on. Don’t starve, or run yourself into the ground exercising it “off,” just eat nutritious foods most of the time and don’t worry about it. The stress from overthinking about our food choices has the potential to do more harm than the actual food.
If ranch helps you eat your vegetables, have the freaking ranch dressing.
Trust is Earned, and You Can Learn to Trust Yourself
The scary part, especially when you’ve been dieting for many years, is learning to trust yourself with food and with your choices. You may be scared you’ll overdo it, gain 50lbs, and never look back.
To be honest with you, I did initially over indulge and gain some weight when I was first learning to eat intuitively. At first, everything was great, but then I began to use ice cream and wine (yep, together, almost every night) as medicine for my unhappy relationship. We lived together, had moved across the country together, and even went to couples therapy, and still, both of us were miserable.
So besides that blip where I used food as nightly medicine, I’m right back to where I was before. Am I a few pounds from where I’d like to be? Yes. Am I the same weight I was when I was rigidly dieting, counting calories, and exercising for hours a day? Also yes. Am I free from debilitating fear surrounding food, and able to enjoy food, and life, and social events with ease and while having fun? Yes again, and that is worth so much more than being the smallest I can be.
So, eat whatever you want. I promise you won’t die. Unless you’re allergic to peanuts and you decide to eat peanuts– I don’t recommend that.
Here’s how you can start:
1.) Practice having your favorite foods and savor them.
If it’s been years since you’ve had your favorite doughnut or a proper cheeseburger because you’re “not allowed” I implore you to make a date with your favorite foods. Savor them. Enjoy them. Notice how you feel after. Then move on. Don’t starve yourself leading up to or after your indulgence. Don’t wallow in guilt. Just practice having a serving once in a while and then continuing on with your life.
2.) Pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after eating certain foods.
With some of our favorite foods, we might get a little “high” leading up to eating them. Pay attention to this. With other foods, we might eat them so quickly because we’re ashamed, or we’re just trying to “get through” our meal.
After, too, our bodies react differently to different foods, and it won’t always be the same on the same day. Some days, I feel great after frozen yogurt. Other times, I get gassy and sluggish. Most of the time, frozen yogurt doesn’t make me feel like a million bucks, but I enjoy it and it’s worth it to me to indulge once in a while, even if there’s a small price to pay.
3.) Make whole foods delicious and the bulk of your diet– Gone are the days of lemon juice salads. If ranch, cheese, butter and salt helps you enjoy vegetables, salads, whole grains and protein, then by all means add them to your meals! I’m not saying you should put a brick of cheese on your salads, but a serving size is ok. Life, and food, are meant to be enjoyed, not suffered through.
4) Learn about portion sizes. Get some measuring tools, or do some research on what typical portion sizes look like, so you’re less likely to overeat.
5.) Savor and enjoy your food. Eat it slowly. Eat it with your eyes first. Allow yourself to be excited. Enjoy each bite.
6.) Remember you will die. Do you want to look back on your life and think about all the time you spent stressing out about bagels? Or do you want to look back on a life well lived?