“You Must Eat Intuitively … But, Actually, Eat At Exactly 8am, 12pm, 3pm, and 6pm”: The Truth About ‘Intuitive Eating’ In Recovery

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This post has taken me a long time to write.

(What’s new? Generally speaking, everything I write takes me till the next half moon … but I think I like starting posts off by saying something declarative to build anticipation … probably some public relations gimmick. I’m a fraud.)

ANYWAY, this post is hard because I don’t have a solution.

Usually, if I’m going to blabber on about a topic, I like to have an end in sight – but this one is different because I’m not an intuitive eating coach.

I’m just a girl with an eating disorder that feels confused by ‘intuitive eating’ methods – vs reality.

It’s not that intuitive eating shouldn’t be an end goal, it should. In my humble opinion, we all deserve to chow down on Pecan Pie at 4pm on Thanksgiving and move on with our lives.

But, I still feel like 4 years into recovery – and I’m often asking myself “what the hell is intuitive eating?”

It feels, sometimes, like the mythical pot of gold at the end of a rainbow… which apparently costs like $1000s to ‘discover’ and can only be taught by hot, white mid-20 or 30 year old thin women. (Sorry, not baggin’ on any of you out there teaching intuitive eating… but it does start to feel that way.)

Disclaimer: I say this as a late-20s white women writing about the ‘flexible recovery’ life so I understand that that statement could come off as a little “rawr” cat-claw. It’s not.

It’s just this whole notion of ‘intuitive eating’ is conflicting (and expensive) for people like me who have either done a program, been in rehab, or are struggling on their own with a counselor to figure out the mythical ‘intuitive’ tummy.

I get this question a lot from readers. “How did you learn how to intuitively eat without a clock?”

I don’t know, frankly, that I have.

In rehab, it went something like the following:

“Lindsey, how do you feel about breakfast?”

“I feel like I’m not ready to eat it.”

“You are.”

“I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Nope.”

3 hours later – and 2 mandatory journal entries about how we’re ‘feeling’ regarding our ‘hunger levels’:

“Lindsey, it’s time to eat again! Line up with the rest of the cattle… er, patients.”

“I’m not hungry yet.”

“You are.”

“I’m not, no. I’m not hungry.”

“You are. Your eating disorder is just talking to you.”

*Lifts Middle Finger*

**Herded into the cattle trot with the rest of the other females**

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Okay … so I’m a little bitter. But, this far into recovery and I’d tell you if I really thought it was my eating disorder or not. I’m self-aware (enough) to know when my ED ticks and I let it manipulate – and wise enough to understand the forced bureaucracy of treatment centers in America.

At the end of the day, 3 counselors, 3 therapists and a few bored-looking assistants can’t control a gaggle of eating disorder women – so what resulted is that we all had mandatory eating times, including snack.

Basically, we were told to admire the idea of ‘intuitive eating’ like a little kid at Christmas peering into window shops – but we were never really allowed to hold the concept in our hands … or, forks.

Look, I get that all systems are flawed.

I’m not blaming the system when obviously this is an issue within me.

But, how the hell were we expected to learn how to eat when we were literally forced into single-file lines outside of a meticulously decorated barnyard-themed lunchroom (#interiordesign irony for the win) –

And told: “Eat little chickens, eat.”

We didn’t have a choice. So there was no true method of ‘connecting’ to the stomach. It was simply the treatment’s logic of “well, this is a predetermined eating time … so eat.”

(… “Also, Sally’s shift is almost over and she wants to go home and not deal with y’all for another 24 hours so God, just eat the food and fuck off.”)

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I remember being generally uncomfortable in rehab. That was the predominant feeling outside of annoyance, fear, boredom, and intensely-uncovered-emotions-rising-to-surface.

I always felt full as well. And unpleasantly full, which made every forthcoming meal a huge psychological pain in the ass.

I rarely felt hunger outside of breakfast, which would make sense if I was some emaciated anorexic who had lived off a grape and a banana for a year and didn’t have any appetite.

But, I wasn’t in that state at that point in my history. I was technically a ‘normal’ weight, so I wasn’t your classic on-an-IV-sick case.

I was medically sound and to this day, completely unsure how my badass dad talked his insurance company into letting me finally get help.

And so I feel like I have a right to state the misgivings of this ‘intuitive eating’ methods that treatment centers manifest.

There was very little ‘intuitive feeling’ about our eating in rehab. We just simply had to eat. 100% or we had ‘boost drink’ and that was that.

You didn’t eat your whole plate – you got shot up with disgusting, chalky milk.

Here’s an argument I know I’ll get: “what about the ‘just do it’ approach?”

I understand that. It’s fair. There are a lot of people who have completely disconnected from eating, and therefore don’t necessarily question ‘not hungry’ and question ‘hungry.’ There is something to be said there about forcing ones self to eat anyway, especially if they’re in an environment like a treatment center.

If not, they just likely won’t.

But, for the rest of us, where is the ‘intuitive’ learning when everything you’re told to do is literally mapped out, implemented, and controlled in sync. And there is PUNISHMENT for not completing.

I’m not going to blame the people working there. But, I will blame the system.

Recovery corporations are making a killing streamlining all us anorexics and bulimics. They thrive financially off our shit.

Back in 2010, New York Times reported that the average cost of treatment is $30,000 per patient.

Yes, you read that correctly. $30,000 buckaroos.

And I can attest that in 2014, it was still the same… if not more.

Rich old dudes are profiting off others suffering – what’s new? Not to mention the incredibly high recidivism rate of people returning to treatment (here’s a 2017 Chicago Tribune article reporting on the anorexia recidivism rates). So, why change the system?

At the end of the day, I wonder if we are truly holding treatment centers accountable – and if not, is it because we don’t have any better idea how to get people to maintain that ‘flexible recovery’ life?

Lemme put it less negatively: they’re doing the best they can. And I’m being harsh. I’ve met with tons of treatment center staff, and counselors in general, who really care about their jobs and helping people like us.

But, you have to look at it from their point of view too. You get 50+ women in a treatment facility with a staff of only 10+ at any given time, it’s like trying to stack a babysitter with 6 kids.

You can’t watch all of them. So, you have to be uniform.

And uniformity shined in our eating schedules.

We all ate together. We all ate around each other. We all abided by the same damn rules.

The problem is that that only works to a certain extent.

I could go on but basically, you know what I’m saying. Humans are different. We feel hunger at different times just like we feel horny or sick or sad.

You can’t lop a group of people into a room and be like ‘PICK UP THE FORK AND EAT ANYWAY.’

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Brunch with family over Thanksgiving

It’s taken me a long time to grapple with that acceptance though.

I tend to still hold a lot of ‘ED rules’ around the times I can eat – when it’s acceptable to have breakfast , lunch, dinner etc. – and I’m realizing I have never truly broken free of the ‘timing myth’ of eating.

It’s frustrating as I continue to work on it now.

Today, for example, I knew I was hungry. I felt it early. I had a granola bar and banana  in the car on the way to my Monday Morning Meeting instead of waiting till after the meeting like I usually do.

Then, I felt hungry again at around 10:45am and it bugged me.

“Damnit, I should’ve eaten ALL my breakfast after the meeting so I wouldn’t already be hungry,” I whined privately.

I ate some hummus.

Then, I ate some other granola.

Then, I felt weird when at 2pm I wasn’t hungry and hadn’t had lunch.

Fuck, I don’t know when to eat, I thought.

I’ll just wait till dinner…

But, wait, what if I eat dinner too early and then I’m hungry again by 9?

Head smack.

It’s a beating – this eating disorder brain.

Instead of listening to my stomach, I just look at the clock – and that’s not the way it should be … but to many of us, it’s all we know.

We get so freaked out of being hungry “more than 3x times a day” and eating ”too much” that we feel this misguided ‘safety’ when it comes to eating “only past noon” or “breakfast at 9:30.”

Whatever your little tick is, I relate.

We feel hunger at the “wrong time” like, say, 4:00pm and we’re all like “WAIT WHAT. NO. NOOOO. THIS ISN’T RIGHT.”

I ATE 2 HOURS AGO – WHY AM I HUNGRY AGAIN BODY?!

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Look, at the end of the day, I don’t bloody know what the answer is. I don’t wanna spew out some annoying inspiration quote or ‘guidelines’ to intuitively eat because frankly, you’re gonna feel what you’re gonna feel.

That’s just life with an eating disorder.

But I suppose it always comes down to the same reality:

You have to challenge the bullshit.

And also, learn to live with it – in that forever ‘flexible okay’ of recovery.

We can’t change treatment centers. We can’t change the ridiculous standards people have placed on our culture about eating.

We can’t change diet culture talk that tells us we should eat every XX hours, and all that nonsense – as though ANYONE can truly tell us what OUR bodies should and shouldn’t do when we’re all different.

We all have different eating habits. We all eat at different times. Hell, my grandparents eat at 5pm and I’m all like ”HOW?”

But, they probably would think the same when I eat at 8pm.

Tis’ life. And life navigating ED.

As someone commented below: Maybe there’s a middle ground between rigid, time-structured eating and “intuitive eating.” Maybe the definition of “intuitive eating” is also flexible and individual. Maybe the idea of intuitive eating isn’t as useful idea for my recovery.

I exist in a world where I felt hunger a few minutes ago, and scarfed down some green beans and ranch style Texas beans and sweet potatoes.

I was craving it, man. I really wanted beans and green beans and a sweet potato.

How fun it can be – to crave anything these days – when for years I was completely disconnected from any food group or craving.

Suppose I should be thankful – reframe this post a bit.

I’m thankful to have lost hunger cues, and thankful that I am finding them.

I’m thankful that I can acknowledge what happens with the clock, and thankful I am aware enough to see past it.

Forgive and reframe. Be gentle and flexible.

We’re all roaming for the same truth – but that truth manifests differently for each person.

Tgiving2
Thanksgiving Hike ❤
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4 thoughts on ““You Must Eat Intuitively … But, Actually, Eat At Exactly 8am, 12pm, 3pm, and 6pm”: The Truth About ‘Intuitive Eating’ In Recovery

  1. mm

    I don’t necessarily agree that “intuitive eating” is the rainbow-goal, but especially not in the inpatient/residential setting. You are re-setting your body and restoring nutrition, whether emaciated or not. That idea of “intuitive eating” is more of a psychological balm for the anxious who worry they are eating too much, and it’s just another rules-trap. If it’s intuitive, you aren’t thinking about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s “right.” There are plenty of people who feel like they are eating intuitively but may eat too little, too much or an imbalanced selection of food and drink items.

    Along with that flexible recovery idea is the idea of “good enough.” If you aren’t restricting and maintaining low weights; maintaining sub-optimal nutrition; bingeing, purging or both; over-exercising or other compensatory behaviors, then, whether you eat breakfast “early” and are hungry a couple of hours later is more about your thoughts, not your body’s hunger pangs. That’s where the “just do it” practice in treatment comes in – because you don’t have the natural ability to allow yourself to listen to the later-hunger or break the “time of day” rules.

    I think ED people tend to question hunger but don’t question “not hungry,” so there might be something to examine in that. There’s also some room for compassion for self and the idea that it’s a process, possibly a lifelong process. If you over-think other parts of your life, which you have said that you do, then it’s likely an enduring trait that is going to extend to food. Maybe there’s a middle ground between rigid, time-structured eating and “intuitive eating.” Maybe the definition of “intuitive eating” is also flexible and individual. Maybe the idea of intuitive eating isn’t a useful idea for you and your recovery.

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  2. Laura M.

    Thank you so, so much for this article. I completely agree with treatment often failing to accurately reflect real life, and how it sometimes only replaces various controlling mechanisms around food rather than teaching how to drop that control. After having a less-than-positive treatment experience myself, I came out feeling guilty for my negative feelings about the conditions/attitudes presented within the recovery center. I felt that if I criticized the treatments, it was my ED trying to justify behaviors or a sneaky way to get out of receiving treatment at all. But I’ve realized, with the help of this article, how that’s not true. If I know that recovery means feeling as free and uninhibited about food and my body as possible, then treatment should help me build towards that goal rather than distance myself from it. Thank you for sharing your own enlightenment on this topic 🙂

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  3. I’m so glad to see someone write about this because it’s a concept I’ve been struggling with as well. My treatment center was the same way. Eat at this time, eat 100% or get a supplement. I was in a PHP program, not residential, that only lasted for 5 hours, in which we had to fit in 2 meals and 2 snacks, which is a lot. I constantly felt overly full until I got to a ‘fix-own’ stage, in which I chose my own meals and decided how much to eat. Intuitive eating was always this goal I felt I’d be able to reach outside of treatment, but I agree that it still revolves around time. I’m in high school, and lunch is always at 12:15, and breakfast is always in the car ride to school, etc. Unless you have a free schedule, and even then it can be tough, intuitive eating is still ribbed by time and when it’s expected of you to eat.

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  4. First, hugs. Second as a fellow recovering skinny chick I could not afford inpatient treatment. Being poor and anorexic is a bummer combination that almost killed me, a couple of times. I became a therapist, and not one of those constipated but very funny ladies from your cartoon. I became a fee for service public servant serving other people that need the same help I once needed but also can’t afford it. There are clinicians who charge big bucks and clinicians who get paid nothing and everything in between. Sorry your treatment was expensive. My student loans might be paid off by the time I’m 90. Intuitive eating is akin to the minimalist movement; exclusive and subject to limited context. As recovering people we need to be empowered to make choices as part of restoring a sense of safety and control over our bodies and lived rather than being prescribed a meal plan which only serves to perpetuate our sense of helplessness, fear and inability to direct our own lives. Registered dietitians who gave me medical guidelines and choice saved my life, more than once. We need to remain critical of all mental health care, especially as those whose health and wellness depend on it.

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