As you may have read, I started a 21-day intuitive eating challenge today. This isn’t actually the first resource I’ve experimented with in an attempt to find my way to a healthier, less obsessive relationship with food. In March, I spent a weekend at a mindful eating workshop hosted by Michelle May, M.D., author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. So I thought that, in honor of kicking off the intuitive eating challenge today, I could share one of my most memorable experiences from the workshop.
During lunch on day one—the first meal we were going to eat together as part of the workshop—we received very detailed instructions about how we were supposed to make our food choices. There was a buffet setup, and one of the key tips was to pick out whatever things we really, truly wanted to eat—not what we thought we should eat. The reason this was so crucial is that when you classify certain foods as “bad” or “forbidden,” you get into a cycle of restricting that usually leads to emotional eating and/or bingeing (often in secret)—and one of the key principles behind intuitive eating and mindful eating is that when you stop judging your food choices and listen to what your body truly craves, you’ll be able to find a more balanced approach to eating (after all, you don’t have to eat an entire box of chocolates in one sitting—after you’ve “already blown it”—if you allow yourself to eat chocolate whenever you want).
This is a really scary thought to many people–myself included! I feel like I’m always mentally prepared for the likelihood that I’m going to make “bad” food decisions later—so I try to pick healthier, lower-calorie foods when I’m in a good state of mind as a way to counteract what I see as my inevitable downfall. Of course, I find the idea of eating “bad” foods in moderation incredibly intriguing—but going into the mindful eating workshop, I didn’t trust myself to stop at “in moderation” (and if I’m being totally honest, I still don’t feel entirely comfortable with this concept). Still… I decided that, this being the first meal of the workshop and all, I was going to give it the old college try.
I surveyed the options: salad, soup, veggie wraps, chicken salad wraps, tuna sandwiches, fruit salad, and cookies. Normally, I would take some salad and a veggie wrap. But what was really calling out to me—the siren of the lunch buffet—was the chicken salad wrap. Under normal circumstances, I would have ignored my cravings, gotten the veggie wrap, and then probably felt unfulfilled the rest of the afternoon, thinking about how amazing the chicken salad wrap that I’d denied myself must have been. That day, however, I decided to get some salad and a chicken salad wrap. Dr. May promised that it would be fun to try out the foods we thought we would enjoy—and that definitely sounded preferable to my normal song and dance.
When I sat down to eat, a funny thing happened: I took a few bites of the chicken salad sandwich (making sure to smell each bite before I ate it, to thoroughly chew and savor each morsel, and to put down the wrap in between bites, as I was instructed). And by the third or fourth bite, I realized that the chicken salad was all right—but it wasn’t nearly as mind-blowing as I probably would have built it up to be if I’d deprived myself of it. So instead of finishing the mediocre wrap, I went back to the buffet and got some fruit salad instead. And you know what? I ended up much more satisfied in the end.
After lunch, when I shared this revelation with the rest of the workshop participants, I felt as if I’d knocked the chicken salad off of some kind of pedestal. As I mentioned earlier, I definitely have more practice to do before I become 100 percent comfortable listening to my body when it tells me to make a food choice that’s “unhealthy.” But when I looked at my inbox this morning and saw that today’s intuitive eating challenge was to give myself permission to eat what I want, I reminded myself of the chicken salad. I decided to go for a grilled cheese and salad for lunch today and had a similar experience to the chicken salad wrap incident. So from now on, I’m going to remind myself of that experience whenever I get squeamish about eating something indulgent. Hopefully it will save me from a lot of anxiety in the future!