My Journey with Intuitive Eating & Exercise
This is a post that I’ve wanted to write and upload for a while, but I haven’t until now because opening up about it feels pretty scary. As I’m writing this, I’m feeling a little (okay, a lot) worried about how people might perceive this, especially if I can’t convey my message the same way I can when talking out loud. But I’m hoping that by talking about this topic I can help someone in some way, just as others who talked about their own experiences helped me a ton.
I would also like to say that I am not an expert of any sort on the topic of intuitive eating and exercise. I am still learning every day about how to listen and trust my body when it comes to food and movement. Because I’m not an expert on this topic, I will be sharing resources within this post that you can access if you’d like (I highly suggest it!). I hope that by the end of this post, you will get a good grasp on what led me to the practices of intuitive eating and exercise as well as ideas for how you can begin living intuitively! (:
I’d also like to give everyone a warning that if reading about disordered eating triggers you in any way, you probably don’t want to read any further. I don’t go into great detail, but I do mention certain thoughts/feelings/etc. that I experienced when I was in the middle of my disordered eating habits. And one more thing – just as a reminder – eating disorders/disordered eating/unhealthy relationships with food and your body are usually not easy to see from the outside. Not everyone who suffers from this kind of issue looks a certain way, and the behaviors associated with these habits are often praised and looked highly upon. That being said, you shouldn’t feel guilty for not knowing someone (close to you or not) was going through this, but it is still important and beneficial for as many people as possible to learn about these things, how the unhealthy behaviors are encouraged by society, and how we can work to make the world a more welcoming, loving, and safe space for everybody. In doing so, we will be able to help more individuals who are going through this as well as prevent others in the future from having the same experiences.
Before intuitive eating…
I was what’s known as a “careful eater,” a label coined by the authors of Intuitive Eating. Basically, I was very aware of the nutritional contents of every food I ate. Sounds smart and healthy, right? Not exactly. Sure, I was eating mostly “healthy” foods, but I was not healthy; in fact, I was eating in a completely disordered way (different from an eating disorder). If I didn’t eat something that passed my nutritional standards, I would feel super guilty and beat myself up for it. It’s hard for me to pinpoint when this started happening because every once in a while I’ll remember random memories that point to this problem starting earlier than I originally thought, so I’m going to mostly focus on the times I remember the most.
In seventh and eighth grade, I ran cross country and ate a lot of “healthy” foods – salads, fruits, veggies, whole grains, you get it. I don’t remember what my motivation was for doing that; I think I just honestly wanted to be healthier. I felt great when I ate nutritious meals, and I loved how those foods tasted. I also loved running and staying active, not because of the calories I was burning but because I really enjoyed the sports I was participating in. But I still remember wanting to lose weight at some points during middle school – mostly during eighth grade. However, weight loss was still mostly just a thought in the back of my mind until high school.
During my first couple years of high school, I don’t remember being too consumed by diet culture thoughts, but I know they were still there. I remember having to count calories at one point for cross country (to make sure we were eating enough), and everyone was talking about and comparing the calories in a specific meal they ate or their total calories. I would also calorie count on my own accord at times, but not religiously or anything. It was at this time that I also got super into all things health, and because of that, I wanted to become a healthier version of myself (didn’t exactly work out the way I expected).
During my junior year of high school, I started my first “real” diet. It wasn’t super extreme or obviously unhealthy, so I thought it would be safe. I would give it a try, and even if I didn’t lose weight or inches, at least I would be eating more nutritious foods, which would help improve my health. Pretty much totally wrong about that… I don’t think I was even eating much healthier than I was before the diet (restricting “treats” made me want them more than ever before), but I was also so stressed out on this diet; my anxiety around food was something I had never really experienced (at least to that degree) ever before. I continued this diet for a while before eventually stopping because 1) It didn’t really change anything about my body and 2) I was tired of tracking every single thing I ate.
At the beginning of my senior year, I wanted to get healthier (smaller). I noticed I had gained some weight and grew a little bit in places I didn’t want to grow, so I decided to start counting my calories again. I researched and decided on a number that was “healthy” for me; I looked at health and fitness accounts on Instagram (they basically filled my Explore page), and I was determined to become a healthier version of myself. Surprisingly, I have really fond memories of my senior year. I was getting back into running, doing well in school, having fun on the cheer team (which was something brand new to me), working in a place I really liked, and I was excited to be heading off to college within the next year. I was happy, grateful, and overall doing really well – even with my calorie counting going on behind the scenes.
Once everything shut down that spring, though, it started to go downhill. Because I wasn’t at school or work or practice, I was a lot less active and had less control over what I ate. Being home for every meal meant that I could eat whatever I wanted instead of packing something “healthy” the night before. I was also hanging out with Nick and a couple other people a lot more at that time, which was fun but also anxiety-inducing because I could only eat whatever their family made for dinner. I can remember one time I went to get ice cream with a few friends, and I felt so anxious, guilty, sad, and hateful toward myself after eating it. Those feelings surfaced whenever I ate things like white pasta, white bread, cookies, brownies, chips – anything with a lot of saturated fats, added sugars, sodium, all of those things that are often labeled as “bad.”
The summer after graduation, Nick and I went with one of our best friends on a road trip to stay at an Airbnb in Colorado for the month of July. (This time is one of the most prominent in my memories because of how bad I felt about myself and how disordered my eating was, but it was also at this time that I was starting to be exposed to intuitive eating.) During this trip, I remember counting calories in my head (no longer on an app) and continuing to restrict myself. I continued to feel incredibly guilty if I ate anything “bad,” and it was during that month that I realized this is not how I wanted to live forever; I just wanted to feel confident in myself and my relationship with food.
I started following Instagram accounts that really spoke to me and took in all the information they were providing. I realized what I was doing was disordered eating and therefore, not healthy at all. From then on, my goal was to become an intuitive eater. I wanted to stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” stop feeling bad about myself every time I ate something less nutritious, stop talking down to myself, stop looking in the mirror and not liking what I saw. I wanted to feel confident, happy, free, and healthy in every sense of the word.
During my freshman year of college, I underwent a huge amount of change (as many do). At the beginning of the year, I was definitely improving my relationship with food and my body, but it still wasn’t great. Eventually, though, I found myself in what I considered to be a pretty good place. I wasn’t stressed around food, but I was still pretty hyperaware of what I was eating and how “good” or “bad” it was. Because of this, my anxiety quickly came back. Sometime in the winter, I realized I was so tired of constantly fighting with my brain and body. I decided to tell Nick what had been going on (he was aware of my stress around food but not the extent of the issue), and immediately felt so much weight lifted off my chest. It was after telling him that I started to notice a big shift in my mindset around food and my body. (:
Since then, it hasn’t been easy to overcome my disordered eating habits and poor body image, but I can very confidently say I am in a much better place now than I was a year ago – even 6 months ago. Some days are harder than others, but when I think about how much easier my hard days are now than they were last year, I know I’ve made huge leaps in my mental health. And you can too! If you’re struggling with poor body image or disordered eating – or you know someone who is – keep reading for some more information on what intuitive eating and exercise really is and ideas on how to incorporate these practices into your life. (:
So what is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is a practice that emphasizes listening to and trusting your body to determine when and what to eat at any moment in time. When practicing intuitive eating, you should take your hunger, cravings, and health into account, as well as give yourself permission to eat whatever you’d like whenever you’d like. Basically, all the rules you’ve been listening to surrounding food go out the window!
How did I begin to incorporate intuitive eating into my life?
As I mentioned earlier, it was the summer after my senior year that I began to follow people on Instagram that preached intuitive eating and anti-diet culture practices. I was immediately interested and wanted to learn more about this new approach I had never heard of. Eventually, I learned more about what this practice really was and how to incorporate it into my life. There are SO many ways to do this, and I would definitely suggest reading from and listening to experts on the subject (I’ll list some resources below), but here are some of the strategies I used to become a more intuitive eater.
Stop labeling foods
Don’t call foods “good” or “bad” or anything of the sort. Food is just food. Some foods might be more nutritious than others, but that doesn’t make everything else “bad.” This was a tough one for me – still is – but it helps a lot.
Give yourself permission to eat – whenever and whatever
Your body knows when it’s hungry, so don’t be afraid to give it what it needs!
Don’t listen to diet culture
All of the food rules people have are a product of diet culture, so don’t listen to those! Listen to your body and ignore the diet culture voices that are probably all around you.
Identify your triggers
If talking about or participating in certain things make you feel bad, avoid them at all costs! Don’t weigh or measure yourself; don’t engage in conversations about diets, calories, weight, etc…. don’t do what makes you feel bad! And if it’s hard to avoid these things, change your environment. Get rid of the scale or tape measure; stop talking to people that are always talking about eating or exercising in unhealthy ways, or inform them of your boundaries surrounding these topics and hopefully they will respect that.
What’s intuitive exercise?
Intuitive exercise is very much like intuitive eating – in fact, it’s one of the 10 principles of intuitive eating. Basically, you listen to and learn to trust your body while getting rid of all the influence that toxic fitness culture has on you. The ways in which you exercise should be fun, enjoyable, and something you do because you LIKE it – not because it burns a lot of calories.
How do I practice intuitive exercise in my life?
Pretty recently, I decided to take a break from my regular workout routine. My routine hadn’t been intense or depleting or anything like that, but I had noticed that I wasn’t enjoying myself as much as I used to. I wasn’t excited to go outside and run, and I honestly was totally lacking in the motivation department. Since taking a break, I’ve felt a lot less stressed about exercise, and I just do what I want when I want. So far, I’ve mostly been leaning into lighter forms of movement – mostly walking and biking – but some days, I go for a more intense strength training workout. And some days, I don’t even get much of a sweat in… and I’m okay with that! I used to stress myself out SO much whenever I missed a workout; I would feel incredibly bad about myself, but there’s no need for that. Now, I am free to do whatever form of movement I choose whenever I want to do it. Here are some tips if you’re thinking about trying intuitive exercise. (:
Don’t be scared to not work out
If you weren’t able to get your workout in (for any reason), don’t stress about it! Just remind yourself that it’s not the end of the world, and you can get back on it tomorrow (or whenever you want to, of course).
Listen to your body
If you need a rest day, take it. If you need to take a break in the middle of your workout, do it. If your body is itching for an intense workout, go for it. Bottom line: trust your body.
Try new forms of exercise
Trying new things can be SO fun – especially when there are countless options to choose from. Lately, I’ve been taking a break from running (something I have been doing for years) and getting back into strength training, biking, hiking, and walking.
check out these resources! (:
- Intuitive Eating – Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
I’ve been reading this book recently, and while I’m not done with it yet, I have learned SO much! Definitely a great read if you’re interested in learning more about intuitive eating.
- Train Happy – Tally Rye
I also just started reading this book, and it’s amazing! If you want to start practicing intuitive exercise, go buy this right now!
- Anti Diet – Christy Harrison
I have not read this yet, but it is high on my list! I’ve also heard many great reviews on this book, so go check it out to learn more about anti-diet lifestyles.
- Real Pod – Victoria Garrick (@VictoriaGarrick on Instagram!)
One of my favorite podcasts and also a wonderful person to follow on Instagram!! Victoria talks all about SO many different aspects of mental health, so I 110% recommend checking her content out. (:
I hope reading about my journey with intuitive eating & exercise helped you in some way! If you’re struggling with your relationship with food and/or your body, don’t be afraid to seek out help. You’re not alone, and it does get better! (: