Counterintuitive Eating

Last week Thursday, I got a huge craving for P. Diddy’s Mac and Cheese. In his attempt to brand everything, yes, P. Diddy has his own Mac And Cheese.

It is delightful dairy goodness. It is rich, it involves pounds of cheese and cream and it’s cooked and baked and it’s absolutely wonderful.

I adore cheese.

And I rarely get actual cravings for food, because I’m on Topamax, which is an appetite destroyer. That’s fine with me, it’s helped curb the outright desire to binge, and it helps me feel sated after what I perceive to be, “regular” portion sizes. I had no concept of satiety prior to Topamax. So when I get a craving for something, I really try to honor it.  Because I believe in the concept of intuitive eating; it’s how I came to work out of some of the issues I had with bulimia.

Boy, did I fuck up.

That mac and cheese has had me sick for four days now. Between the IBS flare up and the perpetual migraine, I am really regretting listening to my intuition.

And that’s kind of where I am at with intuitive eating these days. I can’t make heads nor tails of it. I have destroyed my digestive system with the bulimia and the childhood binge eating disorder and the dieting. Intuitive eating is like counterintuitive eating to my body. When my body tells me: I want cookies, it may actually be cuing me to binge. When my body tells me: I want sweet dairy, I have to tell it: Sorry, you can’t have it. You’ll be sick as hell for a week. When my appetite screams for sugar, I have to remind myself I probably need protein, so I don’t end up with a chronic migraine a couple of days later.

I’m really thrown for a loop with all of this.

When I came to intuitive eating in 2002-4, I really liked the notion that I should be able to just trust my body. I was working on overcoming the notion that I would be able to force my body to take on another shape. No more shapeshifting for me, I finally realized. Fat was who I was. What that meant for me, in terms of my eating disorder and my food choices, was that if I had a craving, I should just be able to honor it. If I wanted a brownie, even if it was at midnight, I should just go get a fucking brownie, because denying my appetite was shutting down my link with my body, and I so desperately needed to reconnect with it. I had to learn to be somewhat of an infant again; following basic, infantile impulses.

Because of the years of disordered eating, this was emotionally terrifying: If I ate that fucking brownie, what would happen to my body? Would it expand exponentially? Would it rebel? Who would tame this body? Who would keep it under control? I mean, without the body as my own personal project, what else would I actually do? Where would I put my energy? If I fed my body when it wanted to be fed what it wanted to be fed, what would that really mean for me as a human being? And as a woman in a culture that really doesn’t want women to just give in to their basic bodily impulses? I had visions of falling off of a cliff into a vast unknown, of running into the night through unnamed streets blindfolded. It was an immense, labyrinthine undertaking. Trusting others is much easier than trusting one’s self.

Physically, my body rebelled a bit. My weight did interesting things. I got put on psych meds around the same time, and so I never did and never will know what my weight and shape would be if I didn’t have the extra cushioning that crazy pills add. It’s a lot; I imagine they give me a good 30-40 pounds extra. I got hungry at all sorts of weird times, and I worked hard to honor the hunger and connect with it. Was it emotional, was it physical. What was it I needed and wanted? Where in my body did I feel it?

Part of the problem with intuitive eating, if you are a recovering builimic or binge eater, or both, as I am, is that it can sometimes be an excuse to binge. At least for me it was. I never was the type of person who ate 10,000 calories in one sitting; you know the stories you always hear about the extreme cases: Bulimic spends $300 a day on food; eats 25,000 calories in one binge.

No, there are those of us who just start out the day normally, and then eat a cookie, and think: Well, I fucked up already, now the day is shot. And then we graze and graze the day away until by the end of the day we’ve probably eaten about 7,000 calories. It lulls us. Soothes us. It becomes ritualistic. There’s an alternating way of eating: Something sweet, then something salty, then something sweet again. Under intuitive eating, I could justify that these were things my body wanted, without calling myself out on the fact that I had mentally checked out. It’s a notion that can be helpful to eating disordered folks, but can also provide an excuse to do whatever you want with your food choices.

And while I like the concept of intuitive eating, I am really struggling with it now, especially since the havoc that I wreaked health-wise because of the bulimia and binging and dieting is really starting to show systemically. It used to be limited to my intestines. I could handle the IBS. I limited intake of dairy. I started figuring out what foods to avoid, learned to drink massive amounts of water with dinner. Figured out if I was going to eat out, I’d better be near a bathroom at all times. But the older I’ve gotten, the effects of my eating have spread to causing migraines, likely my mood, potentially joint issues. It’s completely affected my well-being.

And so now I’ve had to go back to limiting what I can eat. If I crave something, it likely might be bad for me. It likely might cause me to feel like shit for half of the month. I can’t eat intuitively anymore, because my intuition is failing me. I’m not exactly sure what to do about this: It’s thrown a wrench into the whole philosophy of trusting my body. How can I trust my body when my body tells me I want P. Diddy’s mac and cheese, so I listen to it, and then it becomes sick as a result? Am I to believe my body wants to become ill? Because I don’t believe that. But I also don’t know how to reframe what my body tells me it wants into something positive when I tell it no, without making it sound like a whole bunch of dieting talk revisited.

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13 Comments

  1. Rachel said,

    March 24, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Part of the problem with intuitive eating, if you are a recovering builimic or binge eater, or both, as I am, is that it can sometimes be an excuse to binge.

    Absolutely, and this is what I fear with the recent oversimplification of intuitive eating I see discussed on other blogs by people who do not have past eating disorder histories and experiences. I absolutely support and promote intuitive eating, but I urge those with eating disordered pasts to take precautions when “listening” to their bodies. For people like us, the connection between mind and body, body and mind, can be a thin one to separate.

  2. Lindsay said,

    March 24, 2008 at 11:28 am

    Way back inna day, i knew a woman who was, at the time, pregnant. She knew it was normal to have odd cravings during pregnancy, and most of the time she just went along with it. Except for the times when she wanted nothing more than to go to the nearest gas station to pump herself a nice cold glass of iced petrol. Needless to say, she did NOT do this. But she couldn’t figure it out.

    Turns out she was actually craving some kind of snack food (i think it was beefy jerky? i can’t recall) that she only ever got at gas stations – where she was usually the one to refill her car’s tank, and therefore more likely to associate the smell of petrol with that food.

    So sometimes those cravings need to be decoded. What sort of ingredients are IN P. Diddy’s Mac & Cheese? Chances are, there’s something IN there that your body needs/wants and it’s not something that would hurt you. It’s just unfortunately packaged with something that DOES hurt you.

    I’m not sure if i’m lucky or weird (well, i know i’m weird), but whenever there’s a food that’s bad for me, i don’t like the taste of it. I used to love shrimp. At one point i noticed that shrimp tasted gross. Thinking maybe it was just a bad batch, i figured i’d go to a sushi place that would have sushi-grade fish, which would presumably be of a better quality. One bite and my tongue was itching and had started to swell. Now i can’t eat them because my throat closes up.

    There are other foods i can’t/shouldn’t eat, and if i ever find myself craving them, i have to try to figure out why – is it that my body thinks that this particular food is the only/best source for whatever it is that i need? Or is it that i used to eat this food with something else that my body really wants? What’s the connection?

    As far as how to think about it – refraining from eating rat poison is HARDLY what i’d call “dieting”. It’s not a matter of good-food/bad-food, it’s a matter of food/not-foot. Rat poison is not food.

    Next time you crave PD’S M&C, tell your body, “No, you can not have that – last time it made you really sick and that sucked like whoa. But tell you what: if you work with me to figure out WHY you want this? We’ll find a compromise that will satiate the craving and NOT make us feel like death on a stick. Deal?”

  3. Meowser said,

    March 24, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    As someone who has made one of those posts Rachel is talking about regarding IE of late, I definitely agree that there are some people who will need a lot more help healing their relationship to food than just reading a blog or a book can give them. That’s why I qualified, in my last post, that some people might need the help of a support group or a good therapist, and I think “support group” can certainly include a group of people on the Net to help each other with those issues. Good help with those issues in meatspace is sometimes difficult to find.

    And yeah, I can identify with what you said about craving something that absolutely did NOT agree with me when I ate it. Like Lindsay said, sometimes the stuff your body does actually need is mixed with stuff that it flat-out rejects. And sometimes the amount matters too. For me, one piece of fried chicken is great; two pieces will make me feel a little greasy; three will make my gallbladder shriek in agony.

  4. thoughtracer said,

    March 24, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Yeah, Meowser. I have definitely become more in tune with that — like: Okay, 1 piece of this is good, 2 pieces, a little too much for my stomach. It took a long time to really learn how my body felt while eating, during eating and after eating. And to know that hey, if I wanted more, I could just go BUY MORE. If I didn’t eat it all right then, it wasn’t going to go away permanently.

    I came to intuitive eating through books. I was in therapy for other issues at the time; my therapist was not qualified to do ED stuff and referred me out for a 1-time assessment, and pretty much I needed help not killing myself, so I decided, well, I think I will stick with you and forgo the ED stuff for now in formal therapy and work on it on my own.

    And Lindsay, I do think that is a good way to look at it: Like am I just craving cheese and could I get it some other way than with the PD M&C? I should ask myself questions like that.

  5. beckduer said,

    March 24, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Lindsay, what you’re saying makes perfect sense to me. It’s something my mom has been trying to tell me for years!

    I’m allergic to tomatoes, but sometimes I really crave ketchup (sp? that looks odd!). My mom finally convinced me that I’m probably craving salt, since I usually only ever eat ketchup with fries. And I definitely wasn’t craving potatoes!

  6. March 24, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    I think Lindsay has it – unfortunately, the signals that bodies send are sometimes in a non-intuitive code. And it’s not always easy to figure them out. To offer a personal data point, many times when my body is hungry I won’t FEEL hungry, I’ll feel angry. It took years to figure out what was going on because you know, I expected my body to send me hungry signals when it wanted to eat.

    That’s the hard part of intuitive eating – figuring out how it works in your individual case. I think it was a very wise move to take a step back while you’re thinking about new approaches. The idealized intuitive eating is simple – the reality often isn’t. Kind of like most of life.

  7. Bobette said,

    March 24, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    I think crap is addictive, just like heroin or tobacco. Cheese literally has morphine-like compounds in it (milk has this to keep baby happy at the breast, in cheese it is concentrated). So it tricks your body, just like other things you can take in that are addictive (especially if you happen to be more sensitive to addiction to that substance–for genetic reasons, perhaps).

    I don’t fault my body for thinking it “needs” something that is addictive–that’s what my brain is for. To avoid what I know will cause trouble. To work *with* my body.

  8. Marste said,

    March 24, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    You know, this is going to sound totally bizarre, but here’s something else to think about. Speaking personally, I divide my “Intuition” into 4 “voices:”
    What I eat purely out of habit
    What I want when I’m feeling victimized in some way
    What my inner brat wants NOWNOWNOW
    What my body wants

    For instance:

    Habit:
    Mayo on deli-style sandwiches. I really don’t give a shit about the mayo – but I’ve always put mayo on those sandwiches and now I do it without thinking about it. That’s different from say, an egg salad sandwich, where part of what I WANT is that creamy, mayonnaise-y goodness. I could leave it off the deli sandwiches without a second thought, though.

    Victimized:
    I feel bad. I deserve ice cream because I feel bad. End of story.

    Inner brat:
    I want some potato chips! I waaaaaaaaant sommmmmmme!! What? I know there’s just potatoes, oil and salt in there, but NO I DON’T want some roasted potatoes!! I want chiiiiiiiiips! Nowwwwwwww!! I want, I want, I want!!!

    My body:
    Hm. Potatoes. With some oil. And maybe salt. Roasted would be good; chips will do in a pinch, but they smell weird. Do we have mashed? Just potatoes and some butter? That would be good.

    As odd as it sounds, I actually FEEL the cravings in different places in my body, depending on where they’re coming from. And I’ve noticed that my Body does not generally crave junk food. Or dairy, which is not very good for my particular system. But my Brat and my Victim are ALL ABOUT the cheese. So of late I find myself sort of modifying the intuitive eating – always listening to my body, but only occasionally listening to the kid or the victim, and being aware of my habits where I can.

    Does that make sense in a weird way? So far it’s kept me from bingeing, so it works for me. 🙂

  9. Piffle said,

    March 24, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    On a mild tangent, my husband had IBS for years; then his gallbladder developed a chronic inflammation and after arguing with the docs for a few months they finally took it out (the usual gallbladder tests look for stones, not inflammation, so they couldn’t find anything wrong via the usual tests). Taking it out not only relieved the intense chronic pain he was in, but also the IBS.

    One of the difficult parts of intuitive eating is learning the full signals. I still find it very easy to just munch out of boredom, I have to stop and think, am I full? If I’m full, and have a craving for something then I tell myself that when I’m hungry I’ll have some of that. Usually that works for me. I’ve never considered myself a binge eater though, so my experience may not work for those who are/have been.

    I also agree that sometimes what you want from a particular food may be packaged with something else that disagrees with you. I like corn chips a lot, but they send my blood sugar soaring and make me logy and grumpy, which I don’t like. So I really try to figure out other things instead, toast with butter often works just fine for instance. Has to be whole grain though, white bread won’t substitute for chips–though I do love fresh white bread with butter when I’m in the mood for them.

  10. Colin said,

    March 24, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    On the exact opposite end of the spectrum (which is, of course, pretty close to you), I’ve been using my eating disorder as an excuse to eat like crap. “I’m malnourished,” I gloat, “So I don’t have to worry about whole grains, veggies, whatever. I can eat whatever the fuck I want!” IE gone wrong. Without realizing that, malnourished or no, a dinner of spaghetti noodles with margarine isn’t the best idea. I feel like a kid who’s just gone off to college for the first time–making bad decisions because mom’n’dad aren’t there to tell me not to, not realizing that, as always, I’m only fucking over myself.

  11. March 24, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    I think eating healthy should be part of intuitive eating. You should try different types of fruits, vegetable, whole grains. I’m vegetarian and been so many years. Occasionally, I have this craving for tuna fish or smoked salmon. I just let them pass. I also started to let my ice cream cravings pass since I’m lactose intolerant. I wrote a blog on my website about being vegetarian called ‘more is less.”

    On addictive foods, I believe HFCS is addictive. My honey and I have some weird craving due to it. Craving food that taste bad. No HFCS no craving of tasteless junk containing it. Remove the HFCS from your diet and see if you have less cravings. By the way, I recall ever craving cheese. Then, again, it hasn’t been a regular part of my diet for many years. Go luck sorting it out.

  12. Carol said,

    March 24, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Having some experience with the merciless torment of food cravings, I want to share that for myself I found that cravings cannot be resisted–we only struggle and try to redefine them somehow and maybe win the battle but lose the war with them in the end. I learned that my cravings came from eating foods to which I was sensitive/allergic. The craving and pleasure that eating them brought me was some kind of off-kilter reaction the body had developed through years of adapting to foods it actually wanted to reject. I don’t say this very well I know.
    Anyway, what helped me was going on a hypoallergenic simple meat and vegetable diet–for just a couple of weeks–under the supervision of a nutritional counselor, to give my body time to begin to heal from the damage and give my appetite and reactions a chance to begin to return to simple, trustable responses. (For some people it takes six to eight weeks. And the cleansing diet I was on is often called a variant of the hunter-gatherer or paleolithic diet: especially no grains!)
    It was hard to stay on it, but the longer I was on it, the calmer my food responses got. And then when I was ready, I challenged my body with adding one food, every week or two, from the list of likely allergens. This way, my allergic response was obvious if it happened, within two or three days after eating the food. For some this may all be hogwash, but I felt intuitively that this was working for me after a few days. Eventually the cravings went away. That’s not the same thing as the emotional need to eat going away, but dealing with my emotional need to eat became a lot more manageable once the cravings were mostly gone. They do come back when I go off my usual food, but not as the constant, irresistible force they once were! And which I gather they are now for you.
    Out of ignorance I had been mistreating my system for decades, and I paid quite a price for it. I hope my experience may be of use to you.

  13. Linda said,

    March 24, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    I suspect that what screws up intuitive eating, besides eating disorders, is that we have evolved to crave fat, sweets and salt, because we had to burn a lot more calories to survive, and hugely concentrated forms of these 3 things were not developed by human societies until recently. The high concentration of these things in food drives our intuitive eating haywire–we want more and more, rather than being satiated. I think you can eat intuitively if you are not eating highly processed foods. Your body will just do a better job of telling you if you are full.


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