Like it or not, we live in a world that has made skinniness a virtue, and that means what we eat becomes a moral choice. Ironically, it’s the people we think of as having “lost” the food game — chronic dieters — who know best that trying to feed a psychological hunger rather than a physical one will never satisfy either.
“As with many people, food very early on became the outlet for everything else,” recalls Kelsey Miller, who chronicled her breakup with dieting in Refinery29’s The Anti-Diet Project column. “Distraction in general was a big problem for me, and food was the easiest, most accessible and immediate, visceral escape.”
Miller had tried to manage her weight with various diets and rigorous exercise routines from childhood until age 29, when she collapsed during a Spartan run. Instead of continuing to torture herself into wellness, she decided to try intuitive eating, which is as simple as it is daunting: She gave up letting anyone else tell her what to eat and started listening to what her body wanted.
Three years later, that journey is now her first book,Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life. If the idea of a healthier relationship with food — and maybe even your own body — appeals to you, here’s what Miller discovered about eating from having to learn how to do it all over again.
The enjoyment that food provided before Miller began eating intuitively had little to do with actual hunger. The satisfaction was emotional: the thrill of “being bad,” bingeing or using a special occasion to eat whatever she wanted.
Enjoying food now means asking herself “What do I want to eat right now?” instead of letting occasions set the rules; “Is it good?” instead of eating whatever is available; and “Am I enjoying this?” instead of bingeing being its own reward.
Many foods may as well have one-word labels depending on the shifting sands of nutrition fads and diet trends. “Whenever you have that sense of forbidden fruit around something, especially from that very early age, that’s when you start to act a little crazy around it, that’s when it becomes something more than food,” Miller says.
Where dieting is about restrictions, intuitive eating is “much more about curiosity and exploring and figuring it all out. When you take that element of judgment away, that’s when you learn what works for you and that’s when food gets to be a little more neutral.”
Intuitive eating is empowering — instead of letting a diet control your body, you acknowledge and satisfy what it wants. This may not sound like a great idea at first, however, and Miller freely admits to thinking she would “overdose on pizza” when she started.
But she rode it out, and everything shifted once it clicked that these foods would always be available: “The carb cravings normalized and then went away.” She also learned that the “protein hit” of having an egg for breakfast helped her function better, as did eating more vegetables.
Intuitive eating shifts the focus from what you eat to how you eat — think of it as mindfulness for the stomach. Miller makes sure to eat at least one meal daily without distractions: no screens, no headphones, not even another person. She says it’s helped her taste the food better, feel the beginnings of fullness and get ahead of future cravings by having her fill of a particular flavor.
“It makes you engage with your food,” she says. “That ritual, even if it’s just one meal, bleeds into the rest of the day.”
“I try not to make food the center of my social life,” Miller says. “I had to admit to myself when I started doing this that most of the time when I get together with friends, it’s usually over a plate of something. That’s not a bad thing, that’s not a disordered behavior, but I would like to be able to do something else with friends.” Find a bar with an air hockey table, go bowling or see a play — there are lots of ways to share experiences that don’t involve shared plates.