I’ve stopped depriving myself and still think about food constantly. How long will this last?

Casey finishes her lunch feeling a warm, comfortable fullness. Her meal tasted great, it was exactly what she’d been hoping for when she ordered. She was happy to have decided to add on the house-made brownie with her cappuccino to finish off her meal – and it was so satisfying. Months ago, as she’d been doing since she was 13, Casey would have only given herself the option to have a salad – dressing on the side, no croutons, and a diet coke. 

She never would think about what sounded good, or how hungry she was. This was no big thing, in fact, it’s what her co-workers did too. All followed by the inevitable afternoon guilt talk when they wanted sweets and coffee, almost always hungry very soon after lunch.

Casey was happy, very happy, with her journey to let go of dieting. She noticed better energy in her body. She had more drive to move her body in enjoyable ways. She felt confident in her ability to hear her body’s signals and to know when she was and was not hungry. This was huge for someone who had been dieting for over half her life. She even loved getting rid of her old “skinny” jeans from college and felt liberated, free, and to her honest surprise, even healthy in her body which she was no longer focused on the size or shape of.

But something was on her mind that she struggled to shake. In the car driving, soon after a meal, when out running errands or shopping, or when not completely distracted at work she still thought about food – a lot. She often thought about what her next meal might be and how fun it is to eat delicious food again without restriction. She spent time browsing recipes and went to the grocery store more often to get what she wanted. And a part of Casey couldn’t help but wonder… “What am I doing wrong? Why am I still thinking about food so much? I thought intuitive eaters let go of all this food thinking and that food is supposed to take up less mind space and energy once the restriction ends.” She felt some shame around this, and even though she was so great at not judging herself in many new ways with food… she felt uncomfortable with how much she still thought about food and wondered often “how long will this last?”

*

Casey’s story isn’t unusual. Let’s start by acknowledging three very important facts:

  1. No two people have the same diet recovery experience.
  2. Any history of restriction triggers the brain to want to protect you from future starvation.
  3. There is nothing wrong with you if you still think about food a lot.

Reality: You may WANT it to happen quickly – because your super f-ing tired of how much of your brain power has been going to food for way too many years. You’re over it! Just move on already!!

If you’re also still having major food thoughts more often than you’d hoped, begin reminding your inner critic that this is a healthy, protective brain at work. “Thank you brain for trying to protect my body.”

This is partly due to your brain having been traumatized by starvation – be it intermittent starvation from yo-yo dieting, chronic starvation from anorexia nervosa, or even what we refer to as “perceived deprivation”. Perceived deprivation is what the brain suffers from when you constantly think “I’m not allowed to have that, or I “shouldn’t” have that food. It is a psychological phenomenon, even if you were never physically deprived of adequate calories.

In essence… this is only natural. You are right where you’re supposed to be, my dear.

The next step in healing if you find yourself here, like Casey, is adopting radical acceptance that this is OK, this is just where you’re at. There’s no need to fight it, to try and suppress the thoughts, or try to fix. It just takes a long time in many cases for your brain to recognize that there is no longer a threat of starvation.

But what’s all this talk about “peace with food” and “freedom from food obsession” that you see everywhere in the non-diet arena?

So, yes, there are recovered eaters who don’t really think about food much until they’re hungry. Yes, a healthy relationship to food can look like “I rarely think about food unless I’m hungry”. Yes, you too may experience that and find the peace in that. But there cannot be a timeline of expectation for how quickly this transformation of where food fits in your thoughts will take.

It’s also possible that there are hundreds of other variations that you’ll continue to experience with how you relate to food and your body. It’s quite possible that there’s no “finish line” where all the past restriction becomes a vague distant memory you can’t even recall it. This looks different for everyone.

Remember that this shit runs deep. If you notice certain emotions, situations, routines, or locations trigger more thinking about food, then go further into what is happening for you. Go beyond the surface. I’ll often ask a client who’s inviting me to talk about an experience “So what do you think you were feeling when this was going on?” and she’ll quickly say, “nothing, I was totally fine. I was in a good mood.”

Well, my friends, we are complicated cookies us humans. There has got to be more. There is more than, “I was fine and in a good mood.” There are layers of thoughts, memories, and assumptions going on for us most of the time. Hence, I invite you to use your food thoughts as an invitation to go deeper. Sometimes the food thoughts are about food – and that is what it is. And sometimes, there is more to discover. Your brain may have developed deeply effective ways of turning to food in response to emotions that are still available to you at any time. Just because you have given yourself the gift of intuitive eating doesn’t mean that all that history disappears. You can use it to continue to build a strong, loving, aware, and caring relationship to yourself without judgement.

As I’ve discussed, we don’t have control over how fast our brain lets go of the layers of food insecurity from restriction. What we do have, is the ability to practice not restricting, not depriving oneself daily. No one ever said this was quick – and if they did – you’ve been swindled.

Intuitive Eating can change your entire life and create peace with food. And, I am sorry on behalf of whoever may have told you that in life after intuitive eating your food thoughts immediately return to normal, and now you’re stuck thinking “why is this not happening for me??” That story may have created some vulnerability to feeling bad about your food thoughts and now you may be striving to fix or change what is only a very natural process for your brain.

It’s not a race. Let the food obsession gradually fade, there is no “deciding” to be done with it. It’s part of your history and your brain’s very healthy way of trying to protect you from starvation. Isn’t that miraculous?

Remember a few things along the way:

  • Continue to peel back the layers of your own internalized weight bias to truly free yourself from perceived deprivation.
  • You’re not eating intuitively to lose weight.
  • Emotional eating is a human connection to food – not something to be “stopped”.
  • You get to define what satisfied looks like to you.
  • Learning to be an intuitive eater is not all or nothing. It is a practice.
  • Fill up your cup with the things in life that you value and there will be less room for food and body obsession.

 

Sumner Brooks is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating coach who specializes in binge eating disorder (BED) recovery and intuitive eating coaching.  To learn more, follow along on Instagram @intuitiveeatingRD and read her book Savvy Girl: A Guide to Eating. 

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