Teppy wrote a great post yesterday about “demand feeding,” which is a really terrible name for “eating what you want when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.”
That’s something I recommend frequently, as it’s a key component of the Health at Every Size strategy. The problem with it, as Teppy points out, is a whole lot of people don’t know when they’re hungry, what they feel like eating, or when they’re full. Ex-dieters, especially, are so used to categorizing foods as “good” and “bad,” and having specific foods and portions dictated to us, the thought of really eating whatever we want — as opposed to the diet version of “eating whatever you want,” which means allowing yourself one bite of ice cream SO YOU DON’T FEEL DEPRIVED (oy) — can be overwhelming and frankly frightening.
This rang a really big bell with me:
I’ve always had this fear, which has been encouraged and strengthened by the many diets I’ve been on, that if I ate what I actually wanted, then I would devour the WORLD. Well, I already wrote about this. But to really embrace demand feeding, I have to face that fear. I know, intellectually, that my fear is unfounded. I cannot possibly eat my own weight in Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies. I *know* it, but I still don’t *believe* it.
That’s an important point not only because many of us trying to learn what healthful eating really means have to overcome that fear, but because I think the same misconception drives a lot of fat hatred. I really think a whole lot of thin people who eat restrictively — whether in a diagnosably disordered way or merely an “I AM GOOD! I EAT CELERY!” way — believe deep down that they are just barely keeping a lid on their own desire to devour the world. And they assume all fat people have just failed to keep a lid on the same desire — so if we go unpunished for that, we’re getting away with a “crime” they believe they work very hard not to commit.
Teppy points out that the marketing schtick for so many diet programs boils down to, “You can eat what you want! You won’t feel deprived!” Of course that’s a complete load of crap — either you can “eat whatever you want” except for certain foods (Atkins, South Beach), or you can “eat whatever you want” in gerbil-sized, pre-packaged portions (Jenny Craig), or you can “eat whatever you want” and then spend an extra hour at the gym and not eat anything else for the rest of the day in order to stay on your plan (Weight Watchers). But regardless, “We will give you permission — in some limited way — to eat ‘bad’ foods!” is a tremendously effective marketing strategy.
And that’s because so many of us really believe somebody needs to give us permission; simply choosing to eat fatty, sugary food because you feel like it is absolutely not an option. And then somebody also needs to put a limit on that permission, so we won’t go and devour the world. In this culture, most of us never learn to trust our bodies when it comes to eating, and we certainly never learn to trust our desires. Choosing what to eat is a daily battle between good and evil.
I mean, think about it for two seconds. People are selling plans that allow you to “eat what you want,” to the tune of billions. That’s lunacy. Because I love you, I shall offer you the Kate Harding Lifetime Diet Plan — which permits you to eat whatever you want — absolutely free! It goes like this:
Eat whatever you want. It’s your body. You’re allowed.
DAY 2 THROUGH DEATH:
Repeat Day 1.
The problem with the Kate Harding Lifetime Diet Plan is exactly what Teppy talks about — figuring out what you’re hungry for and how hungry you are after a lifetime of being told you are always too hungry for the wrong foods. I still struggle with staying on my own plan, for exactly the reasons Teppy and her commenters describe. I have a major fear of deprivation when it comes to food, plus a whole lot of baggage about “good” and “bad” foods, so trying to listen to my body instead of the voices in my head involves a lot of conscious effort — which is exactly what you’re trying to drop by, you know, listening to your body.
But it does get easier all the time. Fillyjonk and I were talking yesterday about how, after being forbidden to eat sugared cereal as kids, we both made a beeline for the Lucky Charms in the college caf. But then we both got really fucking sick of Lucky Charms pretty quickly and realized we sincerely preferred Colon Blow. That was my first experience of learning that if I remove the prohibition on certain foods, I might just find out I don’t even want them. Or at least, I don’t want them every minute of every day, like I used to think I did.
Similarly, once I was out on my own, every time I’d go to a restaurant, I would end up ordering The Thing I Kind of Wanted that Came with Fries, even if what really sounded good to me was pasta or salad or even something that came with mashed potatoes, which I love. I got mashed potatoes at home when I was a kid. But fries? Were the rarest of treats, the whole goddamned point of going to a restaurant, if you asked me. And once my mother no longer controlled my food intake, I was on a mission to eat EVERY FRY IN THE GODDAMNED WORLD.
But you know what? I didn’t eat every fry in the goddamned world. And these days, I don’t have the same internal battle anymore — I order fries when I feel like it, and the Thing I Really Want That Doesn‘t Come with Fries when I feel like that — because I’ve now spent enough years eating at enough restaurants that I no longer feel as if there’s a worldwide fry shortage looming, and I need to act now!
So it makes a lot of sense that maybe the best way to stop feeling as if you’re going to devour the WORLD is to actually go ahead and try to devour the world. Because the first thing you’ll realize is that you can’t. And the next thing you’ll realize is that you don’t really want to. And once you get to that point, you might actually have a prayer of understanding your own internal hunger cues.
But for anyone who’s grown up in this culture, really — let alone those who have dieted, struggled with eating disorders, and/or been shamed for being fat their whole lives — taking that first step of “legalizing” all foods and eating without guilt, so you can actually pay attention to how your body feels when you eat, is incredibly fucking daunting. I’ve come a long way with that, but the conscious effort is still necessary, and the voices in my head are still there, trying their damnedest to drown out what my stomach is telling me.
Yesterday, I decided I really wanted an Italian sausage sandwich for lunch. I got one at Giordano’s, and of course it was HUGE. I ate about half of it and started to feel full to the point of sickness.
Then I ate a few more bites because this is really good and I’ve only eaten half and no one can see me and WHAT IF I NEVER HAVE ANOTHER ITALIAN SAUSAGE SANDWICH IN MY WHOLE LIFE?
And only after those extra deprivation-mode bites did I go, “Wait a minute. You are so full you FEEL SICK. Why are you HURTING YOURSELF over a goddamned sandwich? You can go to Giordano’s and get a dozen Italian sausage sandwiches any time you want! You can walk away from this particular one without necessarily diminishing your lifetime Italian sausage intake! You will not be thinking about the second half of this sandwich on your deathbed!”
That’s the kind of conscious intervention I’m talking about. It’s ludicrous, but it’s necessary.
So the bad news is, I ate myself sick yesterday. The good news is, a few years ago, I would have eaten that whole sandwich and a plate of fries before I even noticed I felt sick — and then let the resulting nausea serve as appropriate punishment for my gluttony. Then only eaten “good” food for two days to atone. Yesterday, I only ate myself a little sick, relatively speaking, and I wound up feeling proud of myself for stopping to ask the obvious question: Why are you hurting yourself over a goddamned sandwich?
And then, when I got hungry for dinner, what I really wanted was a big bowl of yogurt and berries, so that’s what I ate until I was full. I didn’t make that choice because it would balance out my earlier indiscretion; I made it because I opened the fridge and went, “I’ve got yogurt and berries! Hot damn!”
So sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s not. But the one thing I know for sure is that the more I eat what I want and just let it go, instead of moralizing about it — even if what I want is a gigantic Italian sausage sandwich or a plate of onion rings or a bag of Cheetos — the less I fear I am on the brink of devouring the WORLD. And the less I eat myself sick. And the more I eat nutrient-rich food because I crave it. And the more I can truly distinguish feelings of hunger from feelings of deprivation.
And the better I feel.