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When Planned Eating Helps, and When It Doesn’t

I feel like my posts have been getting a bit “fluffy” lately, in the sense of not very substantive: just haphazard thoughts about my grad school life, with a few low-FODMAP recipes thrown in here and there. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with light-hearted blogging; it’s just that I never intended this blog to be that light-hearted. Starting in the New Year, I think I’d like to put more focus on more serious posts with thoughts about normal vs. disordered eating and managing IBS.

I think partly I avoid writing about these subjects because I feel a bit melodramatic when I do. Even just saying straight-out, “I had anorexia,” kind of makes me feel like a whiny drama queen, especially now that I have the distance of several years between me and the days when I was way too skinny and could hardly think straight. And I don’t want to be a whiny drama queen.

But I do want to be a help to those who, like me, have struggled with IBS, disordered eating, or both-that is why I started this blog in the first place, almost one year ago today. And one way I’d like to be a help today is by sharing some thoughts about the pros and cons of following a meal plan as part of the recovery process.

On the one hand, I often feel that the meal plan was not the right thing for me. I very precociously came up with my own meal plan in recovery, which the dietitian I was seeing later approved, and it involved counting calories up to a certain minimum each and every day. I gained weight at a steady rate, which of course was a good thing, but there was a downside: I got very stuck on calorie counting and eating a very specific number of calories with each and every meal and snack.

It’s ironic that I got so stuck on calories, since, even though I was aware of the calorie content of foods when I had disordered eating, I didn’t feel the need to obsessively count up my daily total until I was supposedly “recovering” from anorexia.

I really wish I had never started counting calories like this, because it still to this day makes me anxious to know how many calories are in everything and to exceed the certain set amount for a meal or snack that I arbitrarily deemed “normal” two years ago. Sometimes I wish I’d jumped more quickly into an intuitive eating recovery approach.

But on the other hand, I’ve also, within the last year or so, come to recognize some of the advantages of what I’ll call “planned eating.” Because of my IBS, my intuitive eating signals are often obscured by bloating, constipation, and stomach cramps. It’s nice to have a sense of what’s a “normal” amount of food to eat in a day and follow that when my tummy feels crummy.

I also know that planned eating in the early stages of my recovery helped give me a more realistic sense of how much food an active young woman like myself needs. When I was an undergraduate, I had in my head that 1200-1500 cals per day was “plenty”; now, I know that anywhere from about 1800 to 2500 calories is much more appropriate.

So for this What I Ate Wednesday, I’d like to give you a sense of how the planned eating I did early on in recovery helps, and hurts, my efforts to overcome anxiety over the course of a day of eats: in this case, Christmas day. Thanks to our lovely hosts Jenn, Laura, and Arman for the ever-popular WIAW linkup.

Planned eating helps with: being sure to eat breakfast

Some mornings, I get up and I’m really hungry right off. Other mornings, not so much. However, I always feel better if I eat within about 30 minutes–an hour at most–of getting up. If I wait too long or eat too little, I get over-hungry and often overeat, leading to IBS flare-ups. So planned eating is helpful in making sure I get a good, filling breakfast each morning. Christmas morning, it was Kashi gluten-free waffles, peanut butter, and fresh raspberries.

Planned eating helps with: not feeling too anxious when I snack

It’s a tradition in my family to go out for a Christmas day hike. By the time mom and I went out about 11, though, I was starting to get very hungry. I knew we’d have lunch within a couple of hours, but I also knew that I should eat when I’m hungry, and that snacking between breakfast and lunch is nothing to be anxious about, since it was part of my recovery meal plan.

I grabbed a handful of chopped dates and some gluten-free crackers.

Planned eating helps with: eating at meal times

I felt very bloated after mom and I got back from the hike. But I like to share meals with my family, and I knew I should eat some lunch before my brother and his wife arrived. I didn’t eat a lot, but I had a couple of scoops of the chicken salad I’d made for my parents on sourdough bread, plus a few baby carrots.

Planned eating can hurt when: you don’t feel like eating

Although I was glad I’d eaten lunch, I felt very strange after lunch. Both bloated and simultaneously sort of still hungry. Very confusing. My brother and his wife arrived, and while we chatted, worked on a puzzle, and opened presents, all of my family members nibbled on Christmas cookies and candy. Technically, the meal plan I once followed said that I should have a snack between lunch and dinner, but I didn’t want a snack to cause an IBS flare-up that would make me not want to eat the lovely Christmas dinner we had planned. So I opted to hold out, even though my stomach did get a bit grumbly by late afternoon.

I did, however, pour myself a glass of wine to enjoy while the soup was simmering and the biscuits were baking.

Planned eating can hurt when: you eat more than usual (such as for special occasions)

It’s okay to eat more than normal, and even “normal” to eat more than normal on special occasions like Christmas dinner. So if you choose to follow a meal plan, don’t let that stop you from deviating because you’re hungrier than normal, because it’s a special day of celebration, or even just because someone offers you a spontaneous treat and you want to enjoy it.

For our Christmas dinner, my brother, his wife, and I made a fancy Zuppa Italiano with Italian sausage, potatoes, kale, bacon, and a cream broth. Mom made homemade biscuits, and I finished my glass of wine.

Not only was this meal richer than my normal (albeit delicious), my brother and his wife also brought out their homemade French silk chocolate-mint pie to serve right after the meal; I almost never eat dessert immediately after a meal, so this was definitely a deviation from my planned eating norm.

I can’t say that this meal was not a challenge for my anxiety. I felt not only anxious afterward, but also very bloated. (No surprise, since my IBS had been acting up on and off all day.) Nonetheless, I felt proud of myself that I had allowed myself to deviate from my planned eating in order to celebrate a beautiful holiday that only comes once a year. Not only that, but…

Planned eating helps with: having a realistic idea of your total daily intake

Although I regret my once-obsessive calorie counting, one advantage of knowing calorie counts is that I have a pretty good sense of a “normal” intake over the course of one day. And, although I ate this one larger-than-normal meal, I guesstimate that I probably didn’t eat much more than I do over the course of most days. I don’t need to freak out over this one single meal, because over the course of the day, let alone the week, month, and year, I know that it balances out. And the planned eating of my past is one tool that helps me know this.

In fact, I was even feeling a bit hungry before bed, so I snagged an orange.

And, as usual, this post has gone on far to long. Kudos if you made it to the end, and I hope these thoughts help give you a sense of whether planned eating might be right for you or your loved ones.

Looking for more thoughts about recovery and IBS? Check out these posts:Semi-Intuitive Eating: What It Is and Why It Keeps Me Sane

Causes, Effects, and Which Is Which

Not Much of an Intuitive Eater


Do you, or have you ever, followed a meal plan? Did you find it helpful?

What did you enjoy for your Christmas dinner?

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  1. You sound a lot like me several years ago after I lost 80 pounds. It was really hard to let go of the calorie counting mentality and trust in my healthy habits that I wouldn’t gain the weight back. It was hard, but I eventually got myself out of that and it was incredibly freeing once I did! Guess what? I didn’t gain the weight back either.

    1. Joyce says:

      Intuitive eating is such an amazing thing! Glad you were able to feel free from calorie counting. 🙂

  2. Cora says:

    Oh for all the nodding in agreement….
    I hear you on everything here. You know my struggles and frustrations with letting go of the once-learned calorie counting. I hate it. Its funny though, like you, I don’t actually remember obsessively counting numbers when I was in the thick of my disorder. It wasn’t until I started recovery that the obsessive micro managing got stronger. In the hospital, I needed to learn a meal plan to learn what “normal” eating was, but the repercussion was that I still, to this day, feel married to that plan and the numbers that were associated with it. So planning has its necessities but also its downfalls. I definitely agree that just knowing you should eat at a certain-ish time – even if you aren’t hungry – is a positive aspect especially when still in the recovery boat. But I still wish my mind worked more intuitively like other peoples’.

    1. Joyce says:

      I hadn’t realized that you had felt similarly about about recovery and following a meal plan in recovery also makes the micromanaging urge stronger. I had forgotten that you were hospitalized, as well. You are so brave, Cora. Urgh with the calorie counting! But yes, it also has some advantages; I think you’ve done awesome learning to eat normally, if not totally intuitively.

  3. Alyssa says:

    I really like this, because there definitely ARE pros and cons with both. I have found that finding a balanced with planned and unplanned eating has really helped me. I need to plan sometimes but relinquish that control other times!

    1. Joyce says:

      Thanks, Lyss. I find a balanced approach works best for me, too.

  4. Chelsea says:

    I have also mentioned some pros and cons about meal plans on my blog and I totally get your situation. While I don’t think anyone should have to be on a meal plan there are often many circumstances where people do. Like myself for example, ED and IBS too, I would definitely not eat enough for my 2.5 hour training sessions if I didn’t just have a schedule because sometimes I have those days where there is no hunger what so ever because your stomach decides to rear it’s ugly head for no reason. So if following a 2 hour heavy leg day session and there is no hunger…well you eat anyways.

    1. Chelsea says:

      sorry hit enter too quick, you eat because it’s necessary and you know that although you don’t feel hunger for whatever reason, you body needs that for so you just eat it.

      1. Joyce says:

        I totally know what you mean–exercise is a great example. It often takes me a while to feel hunger after a workout, but I still need to eat!

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