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“To Eat or Not to Eat?” Is Not a High-Stakes Question

To clarify, I’m not talking about the question of whether or not you should eat, period. Like, in general. Ever. The answer to that question is “yes.” If you think the answer is no, please seek immediate assistance.

No, I’m talking about the question, “Should I eat something now?” That is not (I repeat, not) a high-stakes question.

Imagine this scenario.

You encounter a brownie. You weren’t expecting the brownie. Say a coworker brings them to your office, or maybe your instructor is passing them around your classroom. Maybe your friend offered you one when you stopped by to pick her up. Whatever, doesn’t really matter how it found you, just an unexpected brownie.

Maybe it’s an easy decision for you. Maybe you’re either like, “Brownie!? Nom!” or “Nah, not hungry right now,” or, “Ah, shucks, I’m gluten-intolerant,” and you walk away.

But maybe it’s not such an easy decision for you. Maybe you debate and debate and debate about whether or not to eat the brownie. There are so many reasons you might. Maybe you are on a restrictive diet, like low-calorie or low-carb or low-sugar, and you want the brownie, but you tell yourself that you shouldn’t. Maybe you’re not actually on a restrictive diet, but you still worry about the calories and the carbs and the sugar. Maybe you’re trying to learn to eat more intuitively and have to ask yourself how hungry you are. Maybe you’re recovering from an eating disorder and worry that turning down a treat will send you back into relapse. Maybe you’re worried about spoiling your supper. Maybe…you get the idea.

That’s often how it goes for me. I think and I think and I think and I think about whether or not to eat. It’s been for different reasons throughout the years. For a while because I was afraid of eating too much. For a while because I was trying very hard to eat enough. For a while because of my IBS and the confusing discomfort it can cause.

And honestly, still today, I spend more time debating about whether or not to eat than I’d like to, for a little bit of all three of these reasons.

But if you, like me, overthink whether or not to eat, I’m here to tell you a secret: it doesn’t really matter all that much.

Yep, you read me right. It doesn’t matter.

Like, yeah, if you consistently decide not to eat even though you’re hungry, that’s not good, and if you constantly eat even when you’re not hungry, that’s not so good either. Most of us know that.

What a lot of us with food- and body-related anxiety know but sometimes forget is that one orange, one granola bar, one sandwich, one slice of cheesecake more or less is not going to make any significant difference in the long run. The worst consequences you might face: an uncomfortably full tummy on the one hand and a spell of hangry low blood sugar on the other. That’s it. Really.

I’ve become more and more certain of this fact as I’ve become more and more comfortable with semi-intuitive eating, my low-stakes approach to approximate normal eating. “Semi-intuitive” (rather than completely intuitive) eating is especially important for me on crummy tummy days like this past Monday, the feature of today’s What I Ate Wednesday. Thanks to Jenn, Arman, and Laura for hosting!WHAT-I-ATE-WEDNESDAY-NEW-BUTTON-PEAS-AND-CRAYONSI woke up early for work on Monday not particularly hungry, but I don’t skip meals, especially not breakfast, so I went down to the dining hall for some peanut butter oatmeal and pineapple.

DSCN1552The morning was spent running errands, delivering box fans, magnets, and paper towel holders to cabins. We found a lot of goodies guests had left behind in cabins, like chocolate chip cookies, popcorn, eggs, bacon, a big bag of oranges, and even Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. (I’ll tell you another secret. If you leave food behind in your cabin after you’ve checked out of YMCA of the Rockies, the housekeeping staff will totally take it and eat it. Everything else goes to lost and found, but food and consumables like shampoo and lotion are fair game. Just fyi.)

This left me with a number of “decisions.” My tummy was a bit uncomfortable, and I couldn’t tell if I was hungry or just bloated or nauseous or what. Should I eat? Should I not eat? Is it “disordered” if I turn down free food? Will I be hungry for lunch if I eat now? The familiar questions arose again.

I ate. At about 9, I nommed up the almonds I’d packed in my bag.DSCN1557Was I a bit uncomfortably full after the almonds? Yeah. Did I survive? Yep. In fact, I was pretty hungry for lunch by 11:30, I picked up lots of goodies from the salad bar, including my personal favorite…DSCN1560potato salad! I love me some potato salad. Also egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, and macaroni salad. I think it’s the mayonnaise. I have a thing for mayonnaise.

In the afternoon, I did not feel good. In fact, I felt like I’d eaten a small horse for lunch. That’s what IBS is sometimes like for m. So I was left with yet another decision: do I go ahead and eat my afternoon snack because my intuitive eating signals are clearly off, or do I just yield to the discomfort and hold out until supper?

I held out until supper. The banana I had packed just kept me company. ?Ring ring ring ring ring ring ring, banana phone!?DSCN1558Did I survive? Yep. I was really hungry when I got to supper, but it was okay. It didn’t mean I’d suddenly relapsed back into anorexia.

Supper was pork carnitas (they make it really good here at the Y), Spanish rice, and fajita veggies (I picked out the IBS-symptom inducing onions), and a generous drizzle of Cholula all over the top. Best hot sauce, hands down.DSCN1563I felt very full again after supper, but lo and behold, I was hungry again by 7:00! Finished off the night with some caramel crunch ice cream and strawberries alongside a good book. (I’m really liking The Chaperone so far!)DSCN1565

I was again really full and a bit bloated that evening after the ice cream. Did it mean I made the wrong decision? No. There was no “wrong” decision to be made.

There are a lot of factors to consider when we decide whether or not we eat, and for those of us who have anxiety about our bodies, that can be stressful. I get it. I’m as guilty of it as the next person. And it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But I also want to reassure you, from my own practice, that it’s not a high-stakes decision at all. You’re not going to gain or lose significant body fat from one snack or meal. You’re not going to develop diabetes from an ice cream cone. You’re not going to get a cavity from a bar of chocolate. You’re not going to get cancer from a single serving of bacon. And you’re not going to relapse because you turned down a brownie.

Sometimes you will eat when you’re not that hungry. Not a big deal. Sometimes you’ll wait too long before you eat and get overly hungry. Not a big deal. The key is simply to be eating, and eating enough.

Do you ever overthink whether or not to eat something, and if so, why?

What’s your favorite kind of hot sauce?

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  1. I love your post. I feel like I do this a lot wondering “should I eat this” or “if I eat this now when will my next meal be/will I be hungry for dinner at dinner time?”. I think one of the best aspects about having celiac disease is that at least when it comes to those surprised baked goods I have an automatic “NO” and I don’t even have to think twice about it!

    1. Joyce says:

      Ha! I hear you! It’s frustrating, but it does make life simple in some ways.

  2. I love your take on this! I’ve never had to live with an ED, thankfully, but it’s definitely hard sometimes to not think of EVERYTHING in this sense. For the most part, one small action is never the end all be all of something. Important to remember!

  3. Emily says:

    I LOVE THIS. You reduced it to the simplicity of just eating like God made us to eat. Eating icecream is just eating icecream. It’s a gift from God, not to be overthought, but to just be enjoyed and then you can move on because life isn’t food. šŸ™‚

    1. Joyce says:

      Exactly. That’s the thing. When we overthink what we eat and how we’re eating, we’re missing out on life.

  4. Ellie says:

    Yesterday I ate some bad avocado and felt really crampy and sick. It was hard to tell if I needed something else to eat or was just in pain. I just tried to eat normally…and avoid the avocado today =P Having IBS must be really inconvenient.
    I am a huge fan of potato salad too! I like the vinaigrette ones though because I loathe mayo

    1. Joyce says:

      Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear about your bad avocado–that sucks. It is a very confusing feeling. Am I hungry, or am I stuffed, or am I just bloated? I have no idea. It’s interesting–some people really, really don’t like mayo, and it’s like my favorite food. I think vinaigrette potato salads can be really good too, especially the ones with lots of green onions šŸ™‚

  5. Cora says:

    That is one glorious blob of potato salad. Give me all the mayo salads. Especially in the summer. We can be mayonnaise-salad soul sisters. Actually that is what I’m going to miss most about my previous job – they had the BEST egg and tuna and chicken salads and I was addicted to them for my sandwiches.
    Okay so now that I just wrote a paragraph on my love for mayonnaise salads….
    All these inner thoughts and questions are far far far too familiar. It’s getting better I am happy to say, but they still enter my head nearly every day. Somedays it is quite tormenting. Especially recently that I’ve been experiencing super weird bloating and “full” feelings, the question of whether I actually want to eat has so many new factors to it and is making it that much more difficult to make a decision.
    So this is a really great reminder. It is really hard when I feel like I’ve “messed up” by eating too much, or not enough, but it happens so frequently that I should know by now that it never is a very big deal and I always survive and there is always a new day.

    1. Joyce says:

      Cora: You haven’t messed up at all. The weird bloated and full feelings are not a sign that you’ve eaten too much–they’re a sign that your digestive system is simply got whacked out by living in eating disorder land for so long, and it’s having trouble getting back to “normal.” I truly believe that my IBS was aggravated if not caused by undereating for so long. Think of it like a muscle that’s really out of shape–it’s super-sore. It took me well over a year to learn that those bloated uncomfortable feelings are misleading. and I agree–it’s super confusing and it sucks.
      And yes, the anxious thoughts still enter my head every day too.
      Hang in there! You can do it, Cora!

  6. Kate says:

    I love tuna salad! The other mayo salads are pretty delicious too… except macaroni salad. I don’t dig that one. I love having a salad bar option, especially when there are filling options like potato salad.
    I love everything you said here. It’s a lot simpler sometimes than we make it.

  7. Chelsea says:

    Unfortunately you sound just like me. The whole IBS annoyance is something I face every day. You get so bloated and gassy from something you regularly eat for no apparent reason and then feel like skimping or just flat out skipping. I’m working so hard on that because I’m gaining right now and with my training I cannot afford to loose anything. It’s tough, IBS sucks hard but we are stuck with it in all it’s temper tantrum ways. Stay strong and do the best you can, the important part is just that you’re getting enough šŸ™‚

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