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Semi-Intuitive Eating: What It Is and Why It Keeps Me Sane

It’s been one of those weeks. One of those weeks where it’s Wednesday (as I’m writing) and I feel like it’s Friday and Monday at the same time: Friday because the weekend seems ages ago and Monday because there’s still so much to do before the week is out. The kind of week where all you want is a Mom hug and a cat on your lap.

In the absence of Mom hugs, I’ve gotten a lot of great hugs from friends. One of the things I love about my graduate program: When you say you’re feeling down, the first thing friends say is, “Do you need a hug?”tumblr_mqxnuaIxhU1r19909o1_500Partly it’s just stress. As I mentioned on Monday, I’ve kinda been letting some things slip academically, which means I need to catch back up with myself. I’ve graded 19 papers, which is awesome…and means I have 17 still to go…in the next 36 hours or so. I also struggle with trichotillomania, if you know what that is, and even though I’ve being seeing a specialist, it’s been getting worse, not better. And my IBS has been terrible, which means I feel like my torso’s been converted into a rack of bowling balls, and someone keeps coming and re-arranging them, taking a few off, adding a few on.

Thank God for friends and swing dance…the two things in my life that keep me keepin’ on with weeks like this.

282359_10151433013488149_1686496520_nStressful times can be tough for us with histories of eating disorder. When my IBS symptoms flare up and my anxiety gets high, I find myself pondering what I’ve eaten, how much I’ve eaten, wanting to not eat…the physical discomfort I feel after eating a meal alone is enough to make me think, “Damn, I wish I hadn’t eaten that,” even if it weren’t for that vanquished-but-not-completely-eliminated part of myself that wants to place moral value on what I do or don’t eat.

I have a confession: the whole “intuitive eating” thing–I never quite got it down. Like, I honor my hunger and I also honor when I don’t have much of an appetite. But here’s the thing about IBS and intuitive eating: it’s really, really hard. Like, my tummy definitely feels something uncomfortable, but I don’t know if that’s hunger or nausea or bloating or cramping or if I’m still full from my last meal.

My dad is color-blind and has to use context clues to figure out whether something is green or redl. I think IBS is kind of like the color-blindness of hunger and fullness signals. Sometimes the signals are clear, but sometimes they’re just confusing. Sometimes I think I’m full but when I finally sit down to eat I’m starving, and sometimes I’m really hungry but then I’ll eat a few bites and feel stuffed.DSCN0463So that’s one reason I started doing what I call “semi-intuitive” eating.

Here’s the other reason: while I think intuitive eating, or eating according to your hunger and fullness signals, is a great thing to learn about and definitely a worthy goal, it need not be treated as a set of absolute rules. If you eat something scrumptious even though you’re not that hungry, or if you’re pretty hungry but it’s not convenient to eat and so you hold out maybe a little longer than ideal, that’s totally okay. It doesn’t mean you’re going to suddenly gain weight or die of a heart attack.df5c504d10c538e4c5b88e308206a324ed6c0fcff9e54a3e131fc3c17aff7464But sometimes when we’re in eating disorder recovery, we tend to overthink things a little.

When I was transitioning out of my meal-planning/weight-gain mode and into my weight-maintenance, intuitive-eating mode, I kind of developed my own set of guidelines. They’re a little different than the 10 principles of intuitive eating. But they worked for me. And heck, I still follow them.

8 Guidelines for Semi-Intuitive Eating:
  1. Get a sense of what a normal-ish amount of food looks like for you on an average day. If needed, work with a dietitian to develop a meal plan and follow it for a week or two. Figure out an eating schedule that works for you on an average day and about the right number and size of meals and snacks for you. (Don’t count this out in calories or macros or anything. You can get a sense of how much you eat without those stupid numbers.)DSCN0486
  2. Figure out what it feels like to be hungry and what it feels like to be full. Make a habit of eating when you are moderately hungry and stopping when you are comfortably full.
  3. If you’re not sure if you’re hungry or full or not–sounds odd, but it’s very common with IBS–feel free to defer to what’s normal-ish for you (what you figured out in step 1). So, like, if it’s suppertime and you think you might be hungry but you’re not exactly sure, go ahead and eat.
  4. Don’t make any rules about what you can or can’t have. If you follow a special diet or really like to eat healthy, then great. And if you don’t worry too much about all that stuff, great.DSCN0506
  5. Don’t freak out if you get more full or more hungry than normal. If you’re super-stuffed after a meal, defer to your normal-ish. Did you really eat that much? Nah. Not really. (Or maybe you did. And that’s okay too.)
  6. Also, don’t freak out if one day you eat in a way that looks nothing like your normal-ish. Just in general, with semi-intuitive eating, don’t freak out. It’s a low-stakes game.DSCN0465
  7. Figure out what’s not normal (like pain, intense discomfort, waking up in the middle of the night starving) and take that into consideration. If something’s weird, try to figure out what’s up. Like, “I feel super-stuffed right now even though I only ate a banana. It must be my IBS. Probably doesn’t mean I ate too much, though.” Or “Dang, I’m super hungry! Maybe I need to make a habit of eating a snack between breakfast and lunch.” Or whatever.
  8. When you decide whether/what to eat, don’t aggravate over making the “right” decision–because there is no “right” decision.DSCN0112 (2)

My semi-intuitive eating approach gave me a happy medium between the comfort of a meal plan (the comfort of knowing what’s coming; not having to stress over whether or not to eat; not having to constantly pay attention to how hungry or full you are) and the flexibility of intuitive eating (“I don’t really feel like eating dinner yet” or “I’m super hungry; I guess I’m gonna have another piece.”)

In other words, semi-intuitive eating is me trying to articulate how normal (non-disordered) eaters actually eat.DSCN0404Probably a lot of y’all have seen the lovely quote from Ellyn Satter about normal eating, but in case you haven’t, it’s really lovely.

Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.251889_10150937528338149_460429614_n

Thanks to Amanda for her Thursday Thinking Out Loud linkup!



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  1. That was interesting. What you described as semi-intuitive eating is very close to the Intuitive Eating approach as described in the book but with IBS making it more difficult to “hear” your inner signals. I’ve heard about IBS many times before but never got a real idea of its causes and symptoms so you gave me some more insight here.

  2. Cora says:

    Gosh. Figuring out hunger cues during or after recovery/weight restoration is hard enough in itself, I really can’t imagine adding ibs symptoms and discomfort to it.
    I know my metabolism is very scewed and my hunger ques are extremely off whack/non existent. Which makes “intuitive eating” both frustrating and dangerous. I think intuitive eating varies per person and simply means to listen to your body and give yourself what both your stomach and your soul wants.

    1. Joyce says:

      Cora–that’s so tough. It takes so long for those hunger cues to get back to a healthy, normal place. It’s good that you know that about yourself. These are the “guidelines” that work for me, but I don’t by any means mean to suggest that it’s what everyone should follow. (I also love what you’ve said here about “both your stomach and your soul”–the soul part is important too!)

  3. I love your semi-intuitive strategy! I like the IDEA of intuitive eating, but you know sometimes is 9PM and I’m not hungry but I want a cookie. I shouldn’t have to feel guilty because of that!

    1. Joyce says:

      No–you shouldn’t! Yay for cookies!

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