I sat at a table in a local restaurant a few weeks ago and put down my fork. I was full. With half the plate of dessert left, I declined as Shawn (the food pusher) invited me to get the last bite because I knew I was full. As we joked about his tendency to force all remnants of food at me anytime we eat together, I had a realization. My relationship with food was not always this healthy.
Somewhere around my Junior year of college, just around the time my “eat anything and still be a beanpole” metabolism that I’d had since childhood wore off, I developed a mindset that I could outwork the unhealthy habits I had created for myself. I could outrun the beer, outsmart the late-night ice cream binges, and outwork the Chili’s 2 for $20 (I dare you to show me ANYONE who loves their queso and Cajun Chicken Pasta as much as me!) My days and weeks would be the perfect hamster wheel cycle of killer workouts, rationed mini-meals, and junk food binging weekends.
On the weekdays, I would work so hard in the gym and watch my food intake so closely that by the time 7:00 p.m. rolled around, it was go time. All the hours of exhaustion, deprivation, and measurement lead to a mindless binge regardless of my hunger level. And you could multiply that 7:00 p.m. mentality by a thousand on the weekends. Bloating was a constant occurrence, and despite the intense workouts, I could never see muscles forming. I’d be befuddled at why I wasn’t getting stronger even after working out sometimes twice a day. Couple my over the top workout routines and junk food binge habits with my obsession with every fad of fake or artificial food out there pretending to be the real thing (here’s looking at you, Arctic Zero ice cream), and you have yourself a real-life example of what imbalance looks like. I didn’t realize it then, but I was wrecking my metabolism and slowly tearing my labrum in my hip with all the cardio and high impact workouts.
For years, I would toggle back and forth between loving and hating food, which really meant toggling between loving and hating myself. I remember reading a Q&A blog post from Julie at PBFingers.com (a beautiful, sweet, very toned and in shape woman) when someone asked her how many calories she ate in a day. Her response was something along the lines of “I don’t actually know, but if I had to guess, somewhere around 2,000 calories a day give or take.” Lord, how I longed to know that level of blissful unawareness. I on the other hand, felt so out of control and undisciplined yet constantly reminded of what my intake was at any given minute. And while I wasn’t struggling with an eating disorder, I was fighting a daily battle of thinking that moderation and balance were fallacies; that I’d never have a peace with my mindset about food and exercise. Thankfully, these memories of my “old life” seem like a million years ago.
Fast forward to today. I’m in the best shape of my life and I’m more content with my body than ever before. I don’t count calories or macronutrients, and I don’t feel the urge to keep eating after I’m full. Cravings don’t control me, foods are no longer off limits, and I eat for both energy and pleasure. Most days, my workouts consist of walking, 15-minute free weight workouts, yoga, and barre. I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually broke a sweat while exercising, and yet I’m stronger than ever. When I look in the mirror, I’m grateful for all my body has already done for me, and thankful in advance for all it will do in the future. The best word I can use to sum up this new way of life is freedom.
You might be wondering what changed. I know I ask myself that question all the time. How did I get to this place of peace and find a productive, beneficial relationship with food after years of considering it my greatest love and yet worst enemy? What did I have to do to gain an MBA (Moderation, Balance, and Appreciation) in mindful and intuitive eating? How is it possible that I can love exercise without being obsessed with it? While there’s not a perfect formula I can give you to apply to your life, there are some things that I can pinpoint as major contributors to my newfound balanced mindset.
Tip 1 - Prayer
Roll your eyes at me all you want, but the day I started taking this prayer request seriously is the day things started changing. We pray for our addictions, our relationships, and our health. We pray that God would deliver us from numerous mental, physical and emotional battles. Why in the world wouldn’t we pray for Him to help us fight this one? Most of the time, when we have an unhealthy relationship with food, we’re struggling with an unhealthy balance in ourselves. It could be with self-esteem. It could be with control. It could be with perfectionism. Or it could just be to fill a void we feel in our lives. Whatever your personal fight, it’s still a fight and God is still God. While I was in the thick of my back and forth struggle with health fads and binge eating, what really helped me was praying prior to eating. It centered me and reminded me that I don’t have to be Lord over my own life. More than anything, it made me stop long enough to recognize the whole point of eating; to nourish a body God gave me.
Takeaway: Add your relationship with food and exercise to your prayer list, and if you’re needing some extra spiritual perspective, make a point to pray before eating.
Tip 2 - Take Time Off from Rigorous Exercise
An unexpected way I found a new appreciation for my health and my body was from my hip surgery. Stay with me here. I’m not suggesting that you go off and give yourself an excuse to be laid up and not work out for four months. As I mentioned before, half of my problem was an unhealthy relationship I had with exercise. So when the doctor told me I’d be off my feet (and unable to work out) for a quarter of a year, I panicked. How in the world would I stay in shape? How could I be healthy when I couldn’t lift, run, or do burpees to burn off that pizza, beer and ice cream I’d gorge myself with on my “cheat day?” While I fretted all the way up to surgery day, what happened next felt like pure magic. My view of my body completely changed. When your physical goal for yourself goes from running an 8-minute mile to walking without crutches, something beautiful happens in your brain. You start loving each new milestone and goal met. You start appreciating your body for all it does for you and rewarding it with rest. You treat it like the temple that it is and promise that you’ll fill it with good things that will reduce inflammation and improve mobility. You start to love your body again. Ready for some good news you can apply to your life? You don’t have to wait for an illness or debilitating surgery to rework your brain. If you’re a fellow workout junkie, give yourself a sabbatical. Try walking and low-impact yoga for two weeks and do not track your meals. Use tip #1 for perspective, strength, and focus and break the ‘burn calories to earn calories’ mentality.
Takeaway: Take a workout sabbatical to evaluate how your exercise routine is impacting your relationship with food.
Tip 3 - Eat Real Food
While recovering from hip surgery, I did the January Whole30 in 2017. These thirty days were so enlightening for me! I didn’t do it to lose weight, and I didn’t even really do it to eat more greens (although that was a great bonus). I took on the Whole30 Challenge to remind myself that you eat for fuel. Period. God created our bodies to use food as sustainable energy for our bodies. And while He gave us taste buds to enjoy the sweeter things in life, as with almost anything abused in excess, it leads down a destructive path. Food is no different. So to prep for my month-long challenge I threw away all the artificial crap hiding in my house like the bagged popcorn, ‘fake’ ice cream, and spray butter and thought I’d be restocking them after a few weeks. However, once I broke my addiction to sugar and denied my cravings (nobody craves an Apple Pie Larabar… NOBODY), I felt free to just enjoy food again, not be controlled by it. Not only did I kick the habit of eating for pleasure all the time, but I learned how certain foods affected my body. So long faux pregnant belly after eating popcorn! Long after the 30 days ended, I’ve stayed the course of loving whole foods, and still keep a relatively 80/20 trade-off between real food (fruits, vegetables, dairy, meats, nuts, and grains) and treats. #TEAMREALBUTTER
Takeaway: Commit to trying the Whole30, or another whole food based challenge for 30 days. See how you feel after a month, and then try to kick the habit of artificial food going forward. This goes great with tips #1 and #2.
Tip 4 - Ditch the Scale
For the love, let’s stop weighing ourselves. I can honestly say each time I go to the doctor and they weigh me, I don’t even pay attention anymore because I have NOTHING to compare it to. I feel healthy and that’s all that matters. Stop forcing yourself to measure up to a number on an inaccurate piece of plastic and try switching your focus to your progress and how you feel physically. Can you walk or run more than you used to? Awesome! Can you do ten pushups now instead of two? Killing it! Whatever your goal, make sure it’s not related to the scale.
Takeaway: Throw out your scale and never look back.
Tip 5 - Try to Eliminate the Need to Track
I saved this last for a reason because I really think I had to make tips 1-4 my habits before I felt comfortable getting here. I used to be the dragon queen of MyFitnessPal. I’d track macros based on my ‘ideal settings’ from the If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) plan, and look at calorie counts religiously. I could tell you the nutritional facts of an egg, scoop of peanut butter, or Quest bar faster than anyone you know. To quote Cady from Mean Girls, I was a woman obsessed. It feels weird writing this but that hasn’t been my life for over two years now, and I can’t imagine ever going back. When I gave up tracking every meal (coupled with my newfound love of whole foods and low impact workouts), I gave my brain a chance to strengthen its intuition for balance and moderation. And after years of underuse and abuse, the sensor in my brain that said TOO MUCH or REEVALUATE IN 5 MINUTES when eating came back on.
Takeaway: God created your brain as a muscle wired to use good judgment. Strengthen it by allowing it to do its job on your health journey without the help of tracking apps. Make sure to drink a lot of water before meals, and try to listen to your stomach when eating, not your cravings.
If you’re on the hamster wheel of discouragement with your health, consumed with diets, calorie counting and punishing workouts that don’t serve your body, I want you to know there’s a better way. The path to contentment with your body and enjoyment of your daily food intake doesn’t have to involve strict regimes. You too can make mindful eating and exercise your reality and find the freedom to live a healthy life in the body God blessed you with. It’s possible, sister.
I hope you’ve found some helpful information in my journey of intuitive eating. While I know this process won’t be for you what it was for me because each individual’s journey is unique, I’m confident there are pieces and parts you can take away and use in your life.
*Disclaimer - Y’all I am not a doctor or health professional, nor am I a registered dietician. Just a woman who loves exercise, food, and life and wants you to take care of your physical, spiritual, and emotional health.
Do you struggle with mindful eating and exercise? What’s been your biggest struggle to date? Share in the comments, shoot me an email or holler at me on Instagram whenever you’re ready! I’d love to encourage you on your journey and pray for you!