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My Journey to Intuitive Eating

Written by Natalie Faella Pirolli, MS, RDN, LDN | September 15, 2022

young woman at kitchen counter placing grapes on charcuterie board

At first glance, you might think all dietitians, nutritionists, and dietetics students are healthy and have a healthy relationship with food. Though our society’s skewed version of what "healthy" looks like (i.e., thin person, disciplined eating, very active), can keep us from seeing the truth. I was one of those nutrition students who maybe appeared "healthy" from the outside, but was having a different experience inside.

I always had an interest in all things nutrition and health, and in college that interest snowballed into an obsession. As you may have noticed yourself, it’s very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of food-obsessing. You go from reading "carbs are bad" on the internet to cutting out bread and pasta from your diet, to worrying fruit has too much sugar so you stop eating that too, to eliminating starchy veggies, then vegetables altogether… It can very quickly spiral into all-or-nothing thinking (for some reason, the "everything in moderation" truth is so hard for us to accept). So imagine how quickly that can escalate when you’re spending hours each week learning about nutrition.

It's very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of food-obsessing... for some reason, the "everything in moderation" truth is so hard for us to accept.

My view of "health" became very black and white. "Oh, high saturated fat intake can cause heart disease? I’ll have 0 saturated fats in my diet." "Oh, some studies say vegetarians are healthier? Goodbye animal proteins." "Oh, all you have to do is cut out 500 calories per day to lose weight? That should be easy…" Between the many factual (not practical) lessons in nutrition I was receiving, and some other key factors: fear of gaining "the freshman 15," the mystery meat in the dining hall, my perfectionistic tendencies, and a highly critical view of myself at the time — my diet became very limited.

I look back and think about how little I was eating each day; my sad, low calorie, low fat, low protein diet that I coupled with walking miles around campus and doing cardio each day at the gym, and it’s no wonder I felt so awful at that time. As I learned later working as an RD in eating disorder treatment, by underfeeding and lacking SO many key nutrients in my diet, I was actually worsening my stress, anxiety, and self-esteem, while also enhancing my perfectionism and obsession with "health." It’s funny that I felt so "in control" of what I was eating when it was really my anxiety and perfectionism that were running the show.

By underfeeding and lacking so many key nutrients in my diet, I was actually worsening my stress, anxiety, and self-esteem...

These disordered thoughts and eating patterns continued through grad school before I experienced a complete 180 in the working world. I became somewhat anti-health, which frankly, I think resulted from the exhaustion of trying to be perfectly "healthy" for so long. I also started working in eating disorder treatment and think I was feeling a lot of anger towards the diet industry and the toxic wellness culture that had influenced so many of my clients’ serious eating disorders. Seeing the toll these disorders took on their lives (and the lives of their family members/caregivers) was heartbreaking. At this time I was also going through a heartbreak of my own and coping in unhealthy ways like drinking too much, and often. I didn’t feel good about myself and on some level felt like I didn’t deserve or care about myself enough to engage in healthy habits like eating more of a balanced diet and moving in ways I used to enjoy. When I exercised, it was just because I felt guilty for all the calories I had drunk and eaten — it wasn’t for me at all.

Then intuitive eating entered my life. I had a new job that required me to read and learn more about intuitive eating and realized it was something I needed to incorporate into my own life. At this point, I had already started making efforts to eat more balanced meals, drink less, and move more, but the "why" wasn’t for me yet. It wasn’t until I started putting the intuitive eating principles into practice that I could honestly say the only thing influencing my eating and exercise habits was myself; my physical and mental health, my happiness, my preferences, my lifestyle, my energy levels… Around this time I also started taking care of my mental health more by speaking with a therapist and journaling regularly. (I know this was a helpful piece of the puzzle, too, so worth mentioning!)

I went from exercising in ways I felt like I "should," to moving in ways that boosted my mood and energy, and felt good in my body. I went from eating as little as possible to maintain a certain "ideal," to bingeing on foods and drinks to fill a void, to tuning in and enjoying all aspects of the eating experience from food shopping, to cooking and eating. I went from thinking about how I was going to have to "burn off" everything I was eating and drinking at wine night with my friends, to being more present and truly enjoying the food and girl time.

I started appreciating all food had to offer me: pleasure, comfort, nutrients, the functions of those nutrients on my physical and mental health, the act of gathering with loved ones to eat, and so on. My curiosity for food started growing and I was eager to try new restaurants and make new dishes — not so I could control the portions and ingredients, but so I could enjoy the whole cooking and eating experience. I now eat with the intention of truly nourishing myself: mind, body, and spirit.

I started appreciating all food had to offer me: pleasure, comfort, nutrients... the act of gathering with loved ones to eat...

This doesn’t mean I’m completely in tune all of the time. I still have those times where I come to it and realize I’ve just polished off a bag of chips, or I ate what I thought I "should" eat for dinner and find myself unsatisfied and picking in the fridge and cabinets after. Or I have those thoughts (like before my wedding and honeymoon) that maybe I should try to lose just a little weight, or tone up certain parts of my body so I look good for people, pictures, pool days… not for my health, strength, or stamina. Or how I kept clothes from college for years in hopes that I’d be "that skinny" and could fit into them again. Practicing intuitive eating is doing just that — practicing. Working at it, non-judgmentally, while reaping the benefits of breaking up with diet culture and developing a more positive relationship with ourselves.

Practicing intuitive eating... working at it, non-judgmentally, while reaping the benefits of breaking up with diet culture and developing a more positive relationship with ourselves.

I look back and realize I have experienced two health extremes. One where I was in that "scared" health mode, where I was doing things out of fear; fear of gaining weight, fear of not choosing the healthiest food choice at all times, fear of what would happen to my body and my health if I missed a workout, and so on. The other extreme was this kind of "f*ck it" mentality where I was done being so restrictive and obsessing SO much so I told myself I did not care about how I looked (though I very much did) or how I treated my body. My weight fluctuated significantly during these times, and while I know my "extremes" may not even be close to what others have experienced (and I’m not trying to say that they are!), I can say that I know what it’s like to have to find your way to intuitive eating. And to have to continue to work on it.

My personal experience, and the experiences of my former clients, have made me want to help others find more balance in their lives and spread the word about intuitive eating. I want to help others leave behind the pressures and impossible demands of diet culture that only leave us feeling worse about ourselves and hungry; physically, mentally, and emotionally hungry. I want to help break the chain of diet mentality that gets passed down from generation to generation and promote health and wellness in a more positive light to help reduce the risk and occurrence of eating disorders. I want to help people let go of the food rules and regulations they've learned, and start looking within and strengthening the relationship they have with themselves.

You may relate to parts of my story, either feelings or situations you have experienced or are currently experiencing. If any of this resonates with you or you’re interested in learning more about intuitive eating, subscribe to my blog and newsletter or reach out to work together!

Thank you for reading and letting me share my story with you! Be well : )

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