Many people hear the term Natural Eating and immediately assume it’s about eating whole grains and non-processed foods or has something to do with organics or locally grown produce, etc. Well, those are all great ideas and your body will love you for eating as unprocessed as possible, but….that’s not what we mean when we say “natural eating.”
Natural Eating, also more recently dubbed “Intuitive Eating,” refers to the simple process of eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. As a natural eater you are conscious of your body’s signals of hunger, fullness, lightness, energy, or bloating, lethargy, fatigue and heaviness. These are your cues about what your body likes and needs vs. what it doesn’t. In a natural eating approach, you honor those cues and are drawn to choose foods that allow you to feel light, full, and energized after eating rather than heavy, bloated, and pooped out.
When your food choices are determined by how your body feels when it eats certain foods and your inner trust to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full, you are a natural eater: That means you’re one of those “annoying” people who don’t think much about food, and seem to be able to eat anything and still not gain weight even though they’re not at the gym all day.
However, if you use food to cope, you will have a difficult time honoring the signals from your body. You’ll find yourself eating things you know make you feel heavy, bloated, or tired or that give you headaches or rashes or diarrhea or constipation, etc. because you want the texture or the taste and the chemical release these processed, refined, fatty, and sugary foods bring. You’ll make choices from a sense of urgency instead of what’s best for you. The immediate sense of gratification helps fill the emptiness within and soothes you – for the moment.
Other people choose drugs and alcohol, you chose food. Whatever we use to lean on is a coping strategy, and until you’re willing to ask the million dollar question, the best you can do is to maintain a white-knuckle grip on your binging and restricting while trying to put on a happy face. The million dollar question? Why?
“Why, am I so desperate to numb out, to fill the void, that I will eat foods that don’t serve me?” “Why do I eat more than I’m hungry for?” “Why don’t I allow myself to eat when I’m hungry but will instead force myself to wait until the time that someone or some external program outside of my body tells me is the acceptable time for me to eat?” “Why do I feel the need to use food to cope?”
When the “why” question is answered, it will lead you to true freedom from food and body image focus and to a happy and peaceful and fulfilling life on all levels.
My own life experience has proven this in spades. I was immersed in the diet mentality from the age of 10 onwards due to messages from parents, peers and society about what was ideal vs. what was me. I was, in hindsight, a healthy natural weight for my body. But I wasn’t thin by society’s standards. I have a medium frame and I have curves. I will never be ‘thin’ – that’s not my frame. I will never be an ‘athletic’ frame either – that’s not me. Even though I exercise and really enjoy it and am quite a tomboy at heart, I will always have curves and be more on the voluptuous side than thin or athletic. The point I’m belaboring here is that there are many different body shapes and sizes that are healthy and fit other than just “thin” and/or “athletic” ones, though you’d never know it if you follow mass media marketing and Hollywood. We must realize there is a big difference between media messages and reality.
I spent many, many years trying to be thin; trying not to have hips and a belly and to have no fat at all. I restricted types of foods and quantities of foods; I forced myself to go to the gym no matter how tired I was, no matter how my body felt or what else was going on that should have been a bigger priority. I had internalized my parents’ and society’s messages that told me unless I was thin I couldn’t possibly be happy or loved or accepted for who I was. Everything hinged on being thin because only then could I relax and life could begin.
This all-out obsession with “thin” took over my life. I tried every available diet program, diet book, diet supplement in my frantic search for the cure for my fatness. Now keep in mind that for most of this frenetic time I was 5’4″ and 130-140 lbs. I am now 5’4″ and about 130lbs. The irony is not lost on me, neither is the fundamental message that it was not my body, but my head that needed tweaking. At that time I believed I was the fattest, ugliest, most disgusting thing on the planet. Now I believe I am beautiful and feminine, and I frequently get feedback from men and women that they agree. I’m almost exactly the same weight I was back then but now in a phenomenally different head space and enjoying a much better quality of life.
The beginning of the end of my eating disorder came when I lost my tenuous grip on food and subsequently my weight. I wasn’t able to keep up with the cycle of restricting binging and exercising I had engaged in for over a decade. Suddenly, the binging I’d always done (to cope with stress and anxiety and to “sneak” in those foods that I wouldn’t otherwise allow) had no counterbalance. I gained 40 lbs. in a few short months and topped the scales at 170 lbs. I was panicked. I felt so incredibly depressed and anxious and out of control. I didn’t know what to do.
I had completely lost connection with my body from the years of dieting and supplements and self-loathing that I had no idea if I really felt hungry or was just trying to trick myself into eating or was perhaps suffering from indigestion. I had no idea what comfortably full felt like because I was so familiar with overeating. It scared me to think about not feeling that overfull feeling because that was the hungry feeling that led me to binge so often. I was stuck. Panicked, depressed, fat, and stuck. Not good.
I thought about suicide. I thought about running away. I thought about each of those things many times each day. I couldn’t imagine feeling happy and peaceful in my body, and unless I could feel happy and peaceful in my body I was going to feel panicked, depressed, fat, stuck and suicidal. What was the point? Why keep on trying to keep it together? Why flippin’ bother if the best I was going to be was overweight, alone, unloved?
Yes it was a dark time, and my Drill Sgt. with his all-or-nothing thinking was on a rampage night and day. All the diet programs I had tried had deeply imprinted the message in me that my inability to stick to a diet meant that I had no willpower, that I was weak and that I just didn’t really care enough about myself to try hard enough to be successful. I was weak. I was bad. I would never be acceptable. It was hard to get myself out the door in the morning because I felt so gross and was afraid of people seeing me, and especially of anyone saying anything about how fat I was.
During this time it never occurred to me that there was any reason other than laziness and lack of willpower that I might be eating when I wasn’t hungry. I had bought so fully into that diet centre message that I didn’t even consider that another explanation existed. And in fact, even when I was blessed to stumble upon a counselor who could offer me another explanation, I wouldn’t allow myself to accept it or embrace it for some months because it felt like a cop-out and like I was just making excuses for my weak disposition. Can you believe it? Yes, you, of all people, probably can. Here I was, being handed a golden ticket out of the hell that I lived 24/7, and I was pushing it away because it conflicted with the messages that had put me in that hellish state to begin with. Not at all logical but then the use of harmful coping strategies isn’t at all a rational pursuit. It’s a desperate one. And desperate people do silly, short-sighted things, even with the best of intentions.
Little by little I began to experiment with some of the new behaviours and thoughts my counselor suggested, and little by little, I saw that things started to make sense in a completely new and rational way. I saw the connection between my being stressed about something and desperately wanting to eat something carby and sugary. I saw the connection between my feeling insecure about a situation and immediately berating my body as bad and wrong and fat and unacceptable. I began to see how the stories I carried in my head from my past made me feel unacceptable and anxious, which drove me to behave in ways that reinforced those old stories.
And, most significantly, I began to see that it wasn’t food itself but the reasons behind why I chose to eat when I wasn’t hungry or restrict myself from eating when I was that was the problem. The more energy I focused on identifying and resolving the “why” the less I thought about eating to cope. I began to come to a natural weight for my body with no dieting and even without exercising (I went a little to the extreme and took 2 years off any formal exercise because I didn’t trust myself not to get hooked into body image focus and calorie-counting again – this isn’t at all necessary or even recommended but taking a little break until you can trust yourself to approach exercise from a self-care perspective rather than a self-harm perspective is a valuable consideration).
Thoughts on Natural Eating
Now I focused on recovering from the use of food to cope, a.k.a. “The Diet Mentality.” I encouraged myself to honor the guidelines of natural eating as best I could; to eat when I was hungry, stop when I was full, and not engage in guilt or shame for what I was eating as long as I kept on the right path. And if I found myself wanting to eat when I wasn’t hungry or wanting to overeat or restrict, I would encourage myself to ask a short series of questions to find out what was really troubling me and what I could do to resolve that rather than harm myself with food and bury my head in the sand.
If any of my story resonates with where you are today, I urge you to take steps now to answer the question “why?” Stop spinning your wheels trying to change your diet or increase your exercise regime and instead figure out asap why you use food to cope in the first place. Ask yourself what prevents you from being a natural eater?
Within just a few sessions, my clients uncover the answer to this question for themselves and start using the tools necessary to change their approach to food. Then it’s simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and continuing to walk down the path of natural eating and self-confidence. When I said before that natural eating is simple – I meant it – what can be simpler than eating when hungry and stopping when full? Nothing really. Where it gets complicated is when you have a mindset that tells you that you can’t trust your body to know what and how much it needs and that you must put your faith in some externally-imposed diet-mentality message or you’ll lose your grip and everything will fall apart.
That inner voice by the way, is your precious Drill Sgt. with his lovely message of fear and doom, designed to keep you in check. Don’t let the cycle continue. Natural eating is super simple. Re-educate your Drill Sgt. on what is truly a healthy and lasting approach to your food and body image stress. It takes time, but no worries, you can do it! And we’re only talking months here, not years. If I can do it, you can, too.
For now, start with the basics:
- When you reach for food or think about eating, ask yourself, “Am I physically hungry right now?” (By the way, if you’re not sure you’re almost certainly not hungry and instead you’re wanting to use food to cope.)
- If the answer is “Yes, I’m hungry,” ask yourself, “What could I choose to eat that would allow me to feel fulfilled and peaceful when I’ve finished?” Then have whatever that is.
- If the answer is “No, I’m not physically hungry right now” your response for now needs to sound something like this: “I want to use food to cope. I’m going to allow myself to eat if I want to and I’m going to also ask myself, “What was I just thinking or what just happened that might have made me feel unsettled or like I need to distance myself from life right now?”
These questions will help you in each and every moment you reach for something to eat. If you can identify why you’re eating and prove to yourself that your desire to eat when not hungry or to restrict when you are is coming from a confused attempt to cope with stress, and doesn’t have anything to do with food or body image, then it’s a hop, skip and a jump to freedom.
For those of you who are interested in being free, I’ve put together a program to guide you through the key steps in figuring out why you do what you do with food; how to resolve the causes of your use of food to cope, and how to enjoy natural eating in your day-to-day life. You can take part in this program through the use of my book “Food is not the Problem: Deal With What Is” and the CDs, DVDs and workbooks that accompany it. Any or all of them will benefit you. You can also move through this process with some individual counseling or by attending one of our transformative weekend workshops.
There is no reason for you to continue to feel stuck or to continue to settle for anything less than a peaceful and easy relationship with food and a natural weight for your body. The CEDRIC Centre exists to guide you to that place as quickly and easily as possible. Let us help you to step to freedom from the food power struggle.