Intuitive eating and compassionate curiosity helped this dietitian to challenge her food rules.
Photo: Kara Lydon
When I was about 11 years old, my parents took my sister and me to a "farm" in New York while we were vacationing in the Finger Lakes Region. It was recommended to us as a "family-friendly" activity, but it turned out to be a farm "sanctuary" with animals rescued from poor factory farm conditions. We heard about the horrors of factory farming, and then we were offered veggie dogs on a platter. As an animal-loving kid, learning about what these animals went through distressed me.
Shortly after this traumatizing experience, I looked at a plate of lamb chops sitting in their pool of red juices and decided I wasn't going to eat meat anymore. My parents assumed it would be a short-lived phase. Eighteen years later, it had become my way of life.
Today, I'm a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counselor, and I work with people who want to heal their relationship with food. For those of you who aren't familiar with intuitive eating, it's a process of letting go of a diet mentality and listening to your body's wisdom (like your hunger and fullness cues and cravings) to determine when and what and how much to eat, rather than using some external cue like calories or points or the number on the scale.
One key aspect of intuitive eating is compassionate curiosity, which means getting curious about your food choices and "food rules," without judgment, guilt, or shame around what comes up. Through practicing this work with my clients, I naturally started to get curious about my own "food rule," my vegetarianism (well, technically pescatarianism—I've always eaten seafood).
And when I got curious, I was led back in time to 16 years prior when I developed an eating disorder. At age 13, I was practicing restrictive behaviors, counting points, counting calories, skipping meals, avoiding certain foods and eating small amounts. I lost way too much weight and stopped getting my period. Point blank: I had anorexia. There are a number of things that I believe led me to disordered eating—feeling a loss of control, self-consciousness about my body, friends and family who were counting calories. But one thing in particular stuck out. It was roughly a year before this that I made my decision to be a vegetarian.
I started thinking that the close timing of my decision to be vegetarian and my eating disorder couldn't be merely a coincidence. Sometimes, eating disorders or disordered eating like orthorexia start off with a restriction that's "socially acceptable." Deciding to give up animal products or even just eat less red meat is socially accepted. The problem with these forms of restriction is when they are taken to an extreme where obsession and rigid eating rules ensue. Or, sometimes one restriction like vegetarianism leads to another, and then to another. For example, after talking to my parents recently, I remembered that shortly after I became a vegetarian, I told them I was giving up all dessert, too. So you see how one restriction can become a slippery slope, a breeding ground for the desire for more control.
Eventually, I got treatment for my eating disorder. I worked with a dietitian in private practice who helped me restore my weight, my menstrual cycle, and my relationship with food. While the eating disorder came and went, my vegetarianism stayed. I never gave it a second thought. I never questioned it. I never challenged it or got curious about it until I explored intuitive eating for myself earlier this year.
I gave myself the space to get curious and I realized that—you know what? I used to really like the taste of meat as a kid. And I guess I liked it in college too because I had a few late-night episodes of eating chicken fingers after a night out. I realized that my decision to become vegetarian was multifaceted. Yes, I deeply cared about the treatment of animals and the experience at the farm sanctuary definitely played a role, but this was also a point in my life where I was looking to exert some control. And food was where I found it.
Part of intuitive eating is letting go of an all-or-nothing mentality around eating. So many of my clients believe that they either can't eat carbs at all or if they eat them, they will never stop. There's no in-between. The work of intuitive eating is about challenging those beliefs and being comfortable living in the shades of gray. For me, I started to ask myself things like, "If I care about fair and ethical treatment of animals, then why couldn't I purchase meat from my local farm where we have a CSA?" And, "If I believe in the health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle, why can't I continue to eat mostly plant-based but still enjoy meat when I'm craving it?" I realized that I can continue to eat in a way that feels good to my body and that respects my values, but I don't have to be so rigid about it. I gave myself permission to eat whatever it is I'm craving, including meat.
Now that I've added meat back into my diet, many people have asked me how I'm feeling. Did I get sick? Do I have more energy now than I did before? Or do I feel worse? The truth is I feel the same, which supports my notion that perhaps how we feel has less to do with what foods we're eating and more to do with how we take care of ourselves on a daily basis (sleep, self-care, stress management, etc.).
If I had to offer one piece of advice to someone making the transition from vegetarianism or veganism, I'd simply say to go slow. The transition took me six months, trying a bite of this here and a bite of that there. I didn't just sit down to a big ol' hamburger one night and go to town—TBH, that likely would have caused some unpleasant GI distress. I was slowly experimenting to discover if meat was even appealing to me anymore.
If I can leave you with one takeaway, it's this. Be curious about your food choices. As long as there's no shame or judgment around what you discover, curiosity can be a beautiful and downright delicious thing.