Feed a cold, starve a fever

As you may have intuited from my posts about eating disorders and the difficulty of not dieting, I’m not yet a model of the demand-feeding lifestyle. I’m certainly better than I used to be, but I will definitely still eat cookies just to prove that I can, or neglect to eat breakfast or lunch just because they’re not right in front of me.

What’s easier for me, at least so far, is recognizing what I don’t want. As I’ve mentioned before in this space, I have gastrological idiosyncrasies; basically just because something is edible doesn’t mean I can eat it. And eventually, usually, things that make me feel sick in retrospect will make me feel sick in prospect, and I’ll stop wanting to eat them. I’ve finally given up omelets, for instance, after years, because every time they’re available I say “it has so much protein, it’s a much better option than [insert wheaty/sugary breakfast food]” — and every time, as soon as I finish it, I can’t even think about having eaten an omelet without nausea. So it’s not a quick process, but eventually I’ll figure out what my body doesn’t want. (And then sometimes I ignore it. Can I have fatty foods? I cannot. Did I eat a big ice cream cone this weekend? I did. Did I regret it? Ask me rather whether I will have another one the next time I’m spending a beautiful day outside near an ice cream truck.) While you will definitely see me eat an ice cream or a burrito if you watch long enough, the “wait for it to make you feel bad often enough to stop sounding good” approach has to date been my most effective method of approximating intuitive eating.

Given that my forays into demand feeding have been more about reject feeding, maybe it’s not surprising that being sick totally crystallizes my sense of what my body needs. I’ve had a mild but unpleasant cold/sinus thing for the last couple of days, the kind I get regularly every spring and fall just when the weather gets beautiful enough that a cold will annoy me. My body knows exactly what it wants to eat right now: nothing. It wants zero gym time. It has a powerful desire to lie on the couch and be brought warm drinks. But when I got hungry in a 3:00 meeting, after having not eaten or felt like eating all day, my craving was incredibly sharp and specific. I guess it was thrown into relief by my general illness-related food aversion: my overall distaste for food created a white noise background against which the call “TOMATO SOUP” stood out starkly. I feel particularly strong in my choices today, both in what I do want (tomato soup, Tang) and what I don’t want (everything else). But it takes having generally reduced physical faculties for these things to come forward.

We sometimes talk about listening to your body — what to do when your brain says salad but your body says Cheetos, or vice versa — as though life were a Cathy strip, where your stomach gets a thought bubble of its own. It’s much tougher than that. Many of us don’t even speak the same language as our bodies. The challenge is not necessarily one of listening, but one of translating. Apparently getting sick for me is like getting drunk for people with two years of high school Spanish — it causes an unanticipated fluency that can’t be achieved in other states. But that’s hardly sustainable. What I need is a Rosetta stone, something I can use to translate back and forth between a brain overloaded with history and expectations and a body that can’t always make itself understood. That’s what I’m after, in my forays into intuitive eating. Meditative exercise like yoga and swimming has historically helped, as has really detailed visualization of my food options, actually imagining myself eating things and considering how I might feel afterwards. I’m still hunting for more, and hoping that one day I’ll have a fluent understanding, and won’t keep having to go back to a cheat sheet.

So what’s your decoder ring? How do you get your body to speak in a language you understand?

31 thoughts on “Feed a cold, starve a fever

  1. Wow. So very true for me! I get occasional moments of clear communication separated by great heaving times of confusion and uncertainty. If you find the universal mind-gut translator, share, please?

    -Amanda

  2. Yanno, i normally don’t even LIKE tomato soup, and now i totally want some. With rice. And a grilled cheese sammich.

    My general thinking on the matter is that for the most part, when we crave a specific food, there’s something in (or about) that food that our bodies need. When i crave bananas, i know that if i don’t eat the hell outta some naners, i’m gonna spend half the night in leg cramps. that sorta thing. When i crave comfort food, it’s because i need comfort – and i refuse to feel guilty about wanting to be comfortable from time to time.

    There’s definitely something to be said about stomach-translation as a necessary thing. I knew a girl who, when she was pregnant, wanted nothing more than to walk over to the nearest gas station so she could pump herself a tall glass of iced petrol. Yeah, that definitely needed translating (she associated the smell of petrol with a certain snack food she got whenever she filled up the tank). So yes, our bodies definitely have moments where we crave things that are most certainly NOT good for us.

    My stomach language is always easier to understand when the rest of me is sick – be it with cough & cold or a fibro flare up. I think part of it may be the hyper-awareness of our physical selves, or perhaps it’s just that the things we crave in those moments of sickybits are things our bodies Need Like Whoa.

    Sorry if i’m not entirely coherent – i’m not really awake yet, and i can has teh dum today, so i not brain much good. Dur.

  3. Heehee. That post was charming.

    I’m giving some thought to my decoder ring. I’m actually pretty good about listening to my body and eating what and where it demands. Those demands are overlain with a system of things I think I should do or that I have a habit of doing, like eating three meals or eating a certain amount of vegetables a day… and my diet substances are also subject to the whims of agriculture in a pleasant way, I like to go to the fresh market and buy what happens to be in season and ripe and cheap. But aside from that I think I’ve been learning to listen to my stomach since college, the first time I consistently had a range of options (technically speaking; some cafeteria food is NOT an option) and could select according to whim.

    So availability is one thing. Also, I totally second the body-under-physical-duress speaks more clearly… I was an outdoor tour guide in hot humid New Orleans for awhile, and the heat just made me sick if I ate too much protein and starch. So I became a near vegetarian… on the other hand, when I got to grad school, that diet didn’t provide me nearly enough energy to do my thing, so starch got invited back in.

    So I guess that listening to your body is both a function of being able to guess what it wants, and to observe how it feels after it gets what it wants.

  4. I can’t eat what my body demands because so much food makes me sick. I can spend days craving e.g. tomato soup, but if I actually eat any, I will get sick.

  5. A recent moment of triumph… I went to a restaurant and ordered a salad with smoked chicken, apples, gorgonzola, and walnuts. Mmm. Ate almost the whole thing but left most of the smoked chicken behind, because I just wasn’t feeling it. The bartender/waiter (we ate at the bar) looked at my plate and said, “You left the best part!”

    Me: Yeah, I know. But it wasn’t the best part for me tonight, for some reason. It was perfectly fine, just not what I was after. I could have eaten about 10 more apples, but the chicken just didn’t do it for me.

    I go to the bathroom, come back, and find a plate of sliced apple on the table.

    Me [laughing]: OMG! Thank you!

    Bartender: If you’d told me before, I would have brought you more apple!

    Me: Oh, but it wasn’t a big deal! I mean, I was just really enjoying the apple, I didn’t, like, NEED more.

    And in fact, at this point, I was thinking I was kind of full and now just had to eat the apple to be polite. But I ate one slice, and it was like THE BEST THING I HAD EVER TASTED, and indeed, I quite happily ate all the rest of it.

    My body really, really wanted apples that night, evidently. The goal now is for ME to fully recognize shit like that, instead of relying on strangers to recognize it while I try to talk myself out of it. :)

  6. I’m food allergic to much and many, which was why keeping a food journal, for about 2 weeks, was invaluable to me. Not a ‘count calories and fat grams’ food journal, but more like a “ate bread and cottage cheese for lunch- result: bloated, tired, angry” type journal. It really helped me to identify which foods were triggering a subsequent eating jag, which were making me farty and bloated, and what was contributing to my overall feelings of exhaustion. after 2 weeks of this journaling, i found one ever-present culprit: i cannot eat yeast. so, i tried breads without it. Its a whole new world.

  7. I don’t normally like tomato soup either! It turned out not to be exactly the kind of tomato soup I wanted (it was kinda chunky) and the acidity gave me a bit of a stomach ache, but I gave myself big credit for trying. Also I found out that when you buy soup at the store downstairs, they give you a tiny wonderful bread, so I think I will buy soup for lunch more often in the coming colder months.

    Lindsay, that petrol story is hilarious. A friend of mine is obsessed with pica, which is what that sounds like — she’s also got an ED history, and I think she deals with it by joking about how her food cravings aren’t really for food. I don’t think I’ve ever had a specific craving that wasn’t for something edible, though I’ve certainly had them for things that weren’t edible by me (and which therefore had to be whims, and not my body needing something). What I often can’t translate, though, is things like feelings of hunger. Am I annoyed with something? Do I have a stomach ache? What’s going ON??

    Tanglethis, heat totally changes my food desires too! Although mostly just because I stop wanting to eat cooked things. :)

  8. Madge, I’ve been keeping an intermittent food journal too (not been doing it while sick — it would be like “Monday: cookie, felt sick. Plain noodles, felt sick”). It’s not been helping much, at least it hasn’t been telling me anything I don’t already know, but that’s compounded by the problem where I can’t always tell the difference between stomach aches and hunger. I’m sure there are days when I’ve listed myself as terribly nauseated where in fact I just didn’t eat enough. It’s a good start though, and I’m glad and heartened that it helped you find a common denominator.

  9. I’m not always great about being mindful before hand of what my body needs, but I totally get the thing about learning what doesn’t agree with you by what happens afterward. My mouth wants Taco Bell once a week, but my stomach insists once a month is about all it can handle, for instance.

    If I do actually take the time to ask my stomach what it wants, some questions I find helpful are:
    -Do I want something light, medium, or heavy?
    -Do I want something savory or sweet?
    -Do I need something carb-y or more on the protein side?
    -Is this thing I’m considering too acidic for my stomach right now?
    -If I can’t find exactly what I want, what’s the closest thing in texture and taste to the thing I’m craving that I DO have on hand?
    -What’s my past experience with this thing I’m considering eating? Does it make me feel bloated/gassy/queasy usually, or does my body generally handle this OK?

  10. I do the “imagine eating various things” thing, too, especially when I get in a state where I’m both hungry and restless and therefore unable to focus and really get a handle on what I want.

    Though I’ve found my categories seem to be “beef/sushi,” “vegetables,” and “spicy.” Which seems a bit odd to me, but do tend to cover all my normal options.

    I also sometimes try to get visual clues. If I’m at the farmers’ market or supermarket, I find that often some form of produce just seems way more appealing than the others, so I’ll grab whatever it is and figure out a way to cook it once I get home.

  11. If I’m at the farmers’ market or supermarket, I find that often some form of produce just seems way more appealing than the others, so I’ll grab whatever it is and figure out a way to cook it once I get home.

    Though, looking at that, I realize that right now it’s the eggplant that looks amazing, and I really hate eggplant, so I’m not sure what to do with that.

  12. I was once getting a massage and talking to my massage therapist about how I get things in my brain before I get them in my body–I intellectualize things well before I internalize and embody them. And she said, “Uhm, your brain is part of your body.” And I was all, “Touche.”

    One thing that was really interesting to me about your post and the subsequent comments is the idea that this is me over here, and my body over there. It’s a concept that I’m well aware of as I’ve spent most of my life living in my head. I think this point is more than semantics though–our brain is the translator.

    I think the missing piece is that we have more than a physical body. We have intellectual, emotional, and spiritual “bodies” too. So your physical body may say “cheetos!” but your emotional or intellectual body says “salad!” (or maybe it’s the other way around!) and the brain picks which one to feed. And both of those are totally valid choices. (I’m reminded of Peggy Elam’s article on normal eating.) Of course that’s a metaphor for what’s going on, but my point is that the process of “listening” to our bodies becomes easier when we stop thinking of ourselves as separate from our bodies and when we see ourselves as complex but integrated people (including intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects–or however you prefer to think about it) when we think about food.

  13. Great point, Kimberly. It’s funny, because I’m a die-hard materialist — I absolutely don’t think that there’s a “mind” separate from the brain, versus being an epiphenomenon of the brain (stay with me). So intellectually, I know that the idea of “listening” to your body is a metaphor — it’s your body doing the listening, too. But the sense of dissociation that many of us feel when it comes to food (and other bodily needs that have been given moral weight) is very real. I hadn’t thought about the idea that using the metaphor might just exacerbate the dissociation, though. Maybe we do need to change our figures of speech.

  14. I hadn’t thought about the idea that using the metaphor might just exacerbate the dissociation, though. Maybe we do need to change our figures of speech.

    Too hard! :)

  15. I do a lot of the things people have already talked about — asking the questions Sara mentioned, visualizing the eating of various foods and examining how that makes me feel.

    I find that my cravings are often shaped by 1) the weather, and 2) energy level. In the summer I’ll crave all manner of fruits and veggies. In the fall/winter, I crave soup and potatoes. I’m not a tomato soup person, but a good beef stew sounds great right now.

    I’m still trying to separate out the head from the gut so to speak… and still trying to figure out how to identify physical hunger. For the longest time I used to mistake mild heartburn for hunger.

  16. Fillyjonk, have you ever looked into the Ayurvedic principles to eating? they’ve helped me tremendously. i don’t follow them religiously, but my loose interpretation even has made a tremendous improvement in eliminating CHS (constant hurty stomach). It’s not a “diet” at ALL (there’s no restriction even remotely), just a way of eating more in tune with one’s body chemistry/composition. it’s also helped me tone down my aggression slightly, which i have no shortage of, living in Northeast Jersey, as i do.

  17. Well it doesn’t necessarily have to be hard, we can just change the question. Instead of asking, “What does my body want?” ask, “What do I want?” and then pick something. I’m not saying the choice is easy, just that we don’t have to talk of our choices as separate from us.

  18. My comment was totally tongue-in-cheek.

    Also, I’m just really tired and not braining well today.

    Whereas, my brain is on overdrive and I miss humor completely. duhr. :D

  19. SarahR, I ask myself some of the same questions – for me the trick is to remember that eating is necessary every so often. *laugh*

    Another thing that works for me, decoder-ring style, is smell. Sometimes I drive around the parts of down that are thick with restaurants and just sort of smell the air. Whatever smells good is generally what I eat whether I buy it or make it. This only backfires when I can’t identify a smell.

  20. I think I do a lot of “how will this make me feel and function after I eat it?” also. For instance, my coworker eats a donut for breakfast, but if I eat a donut and sit at my desk afterwards and try to concentrate I will fall asleep. Also, I’ll be hungry again in two hours. So, no donuts unless I am going to be in motion afterwards and plan on early lunch (or unless I want to go sleepy-bye at 9 AM for whatever reason).

    But it still needs fine-tuning. Last night I had pizza and beer for dinner, and that was great…for putting me in a coma. Whatever I had hoped to do after dinner did not get done; it was a struggle just to get up and run myself a bath. Now, if a postprandial spaceout was what I had actually planned, tee-riffic. And sometimes it is exactly what’s called for. Just not at that moment.

  21. I had a bad case of ick a few weeks ago that led me to really start paying attention to what I want to eat. I’ve been trying to maintain that thought process since then, but it’s hard bc I often want something that’s simply not here (and I don’t have a car during the day). Kinda frustrating.

    I’ve noticed I tend to want texture more than a specific food, though. Crunchy or salty tend to be the big ones.

  22. I’ve had pretty good luck with a sort of “trial-and-error” translation. Apart from actual meal ingredients or whatever, I try to keep a variety of small stuff around that only takes five minutes or so to prepare. Then, if I’m hungry, but not sure for what, I can grab a piece of cheese or an apple or microwave (I know this sounds silly) three ravioli or half a chicken breast and just kind of try it. If it’s TEH BEST THING EVAR, I can always make more, and if it’s not, I don’t have to deal with having wasted time, energy, or food.

    Also, there’s usually some pattern in my cravings. I seem to grave things in groups, although externally it makes no sense. For example, if I feel like cucumbers, any combination of bagel, bell pepper, vinegar, mild cheese, hummos, OR cucumber will usually be tasty and satisfying. So yeah, I think my body has a limited vocabulary and uses “cucumber” to mean all those things. ^.^

  23. Pregnancy did it for me. My body basically screamed, “Eat what I want when I want it or you will be punished!” Though it’s never been as clear since, some remnant of that remained.

  24. This discussion has been helpful to me because as I’ve been moving toward demand feeding, I’ve been searching for useful metaphors or ways of thinking about the issue. Trying to distinguish between physiological hunger and emotional hunger is one way to think about it it, but it feels confusing because in me the two are so intwined. So lately, I’ve been thinking that the distinction may be more between internally-driven hunger and externally-driven hunger. By externally-driven I don’t mean environmental cues (e.g., the sight or smell of food), but rather all of the cultural messages that have messed up my head and my approach to food. Internal hunger refers to the core desires underlying all of that external brainwashing. It’s what I as a whole organism need. That’s my theory anyway.

  25. I stumbled on this blog by a total accident (on a whim I googled ‘why don’t fat people get wrinkles’ haha) and I have to share up front that I’m not fat. I’ve been reading this for the past three hours because it’s so interesting and I think Kate writes well, entertainingly, and explains things the way I like things explained. And I guess I have felt that something, something didn’t add up re: obesity, dieting, and common beliefs, so this adds a new side to the issue to which I will now compare all of my first-hand observations, you know, see what adds up.

    Actually, I want to comment because I think I actually belong in this thread. I think that society’s thin-prejudice has even managed to get ME down. I was in college from ’02-’07 and a total mess about food, and most aspects of being an organized adult. I ate so, so erraticallly, alternately stuffing and starving myself, eating unhealthy foods. I starved during mornings and stuffed myself at dinner, rounding it out with a 2 am run to Whataburger. It had to do with anxiety about grocery stores/cooking and a lack of planning and self-control. School suffered in the same way.

    The relevant part: All the mornings I was starving (honestly, as a result of terrible self-management, not body image) I was way sluggish to fix the situation because I always thought, “Oh well, can’t ever be too thin!” I didn’t even want to be thinner, but I think that the “thin” positive spin instead of the “unhealthy” negative spin was enough to keep me in my cycle. Now I think about my health more, and I’ve figured out the grocery stores somehow! I thought that since I had a positive body image then I must not have an eating disorder, and therefore didn’t need to worry about it. I still don’t believe I had/have an eating disorder, but physically I may as well have had something of one for those years. Mentally and emotionally it was much easier for me to begin a new chapter (than I imagine for someone with an emotionally-based eating disorder), but my body is still paying the price.

    Many of these issues that you guys are talking about with eating, I have. Mainly trying to figure out triggers for my continual, post-meal bloating, burping, reflux, and gas. Also trying to eat intuitively, because if I tell myself I HAVE to eat the leftovers, but I’m not feeling the leftovers, theeenn I’ll just starve. One thing that helped amazingly (my version of tanglethis’ farmers’ market): I now live around the block from a Trader Joe’s and I can go there EVERY DAY if I want and pick out what I want to eat right then. Amazing. No anxiety. No trying to shop for the week and then throwing most of it away and feeling guilty. I used to stress so much that the act of cooking would make my stomach all tightened and jumpy and unreceptive of food, but I’d eat it anyway, and feel sick.

    Ok I have no idea if this post is appropriate. My feelings won’t be hurt at all if you delete it. I read a thread earlier about the responsibility of the non-marginalized group to pay attention to issues that they aren’t affected by because they have a unique power to help so I figured it would be ok to join the discussion.

    This site helps me understand my overweight friend who doesn’t let it get her down! She was always a mystery to me. Next time she tells me her mom wants her on Weight Watchers, I will be like “Do not listen to that bitch!”

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