Before I start this article I’d like to emphasise that there is no right way to eat. The aim of this article is to show you a few strategies that you might find helpful in freeing yourself from disordered eating and chronic dieting. Each of these strategies offer a framework to help you escape the cycle of fad diets and unhealthy eating habits as you relearn how to eat intuitively. There are no rules. There are no formulas. These are simply strategies to guide your own exploration in eating in a way that truly nourishes you – physically, psychologically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
There are four main eating strategies you can use to help you develop a fear-free relationship with food:
- Meal planning
- Calorie Minimums
- Portion-based Eating
- Intuitive Eating.
These are tools not rules. They offer a transition from restrictive dieting and disordered eating to fear-free eating. You may want to try them all for a couple of weeks to see what works best for you, or you can create your own approach by combining the different strategies.
Most of these strategies aren’t designed to be used forever but they are extremely helpful to ensure you are eating enough and getting enough nutrients to nourish your body adequately, shift you out of a diet mind-set, and break dysfunctional eating habits. The time people find each strategy helpful for ranges from a couple of weeks to a few months – take things at your own pace.
It is a good idea to avoid using any strategy that you have used previously as part of a diet or as a way to restrict. For example, when I had an unhealthy relationship with food, I used to micromanage each meal and write up an entire meal plan for the week so, when it came to developing a fear-free relationship with food, I avoided meal plans and instead used calorie minimums for a few months before moving onto a more intuitive way of eating.
Meal plans involve creating a plan of what and when you are going to eat. Usually, this consists of three meals and two to three snacks a day, eating every three to four hours – although this varies from person to person.
This may be the best option for you if you currently:
- Eat erratically
- Skip meals
- Allow yourself to get over hungry
- Find yourself feeling a lot anxiety and spending a lot of time on choosing what to eat
Meal planning takes the in-the-moment decision making process out of the equation – you just look at your meal plan and eat what is written down. However, if you are already very strict and have a lot of rules around what and when you can eat, meal plans can feel like more restriction so it is better to explore another option.
To make sure you’re covering the essentials, it is worth adding up the calories in your meal plan as a one-off to make sure you’re eating enough and/or talking your meal plan through with a nutritionist or dietician.
Setting calorie minimums involves establishing the minimum amount of calories you need to eat each day (this is the opposite to a diet mentality of having a calorie maximum you need to stay under). It offers much more flexibility than meal planning because, as long as you eat all your calories, how you distribute them between your meals and snacks is up to you.
You can do this by adding your calories up throughout the day (there are lots of nutrition apps you can use for this to make life easier) or, if that sounds like too much hassle, then you can approximate how much you’ve eaten at the end of the day. If, after a couple of days, you find you are eating consistently lower than your calorie minimum, then plan where you can eat more calories. You can also combine this strategy with meal planning and plan how many calories to eat at each meal without planning exactly what you eat. I found this method incredibly helpful as it meant I learnt how to spread my food out across the day rather than eat the majority of it in the evening like is fairly common in people with disordered eating.
Although calorie counting can become obsessive, and it’s not something I’d recommend doing long term, it gives you a sense of what you need to eat on a daily basis. Many of my clients have had a fear-based relationship with food for a long time so they have lost touch with how much they need to eat in order to nourish themselves.
For example, Amy* had been battling anorexia for eight years and was now trying to reach a healthy weight by eating a bowl of fruit and yogurt for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and a salad for dinner. She thought this was enough when it added up to less than 1000 calories – less than half of what she needed. Counting calories for a short period of time, helped her see things more objectively and showed her that she was still restricting her food. By making an agreement with herself that she needed to eat a certain amount of calories as a minimum helped her take responsibility for eating enough.
Again, calorie minimums are not an exact science and they always involve a little guess work. They are helpful because they allow you to gauge how much you need to eat but you don’t need to obsess over them. If you find that you already eat mathematically and the thought of going 24 hours without tracking exactly what you are eating causes anxiety, then it is probably healthier for you to explore another strategy.
Potion-based eating is more flexible than meal planning and is helpful if you’re currently caught in the calorie counting trap or don’t feel counting calories is healthy for you. It involves eating a set number of portions of foods from different categories each day. These are:
- Protein-rich foods
- Carb-rich foods
- Fat-rich foods
- Fruit and vegetables
The number of portions will be specific to you but as a guide, for each meal it’s good to aim for:
- One to two palm size portions of protein-rich foods
- One to two cupped handfuls of carb-rich foods
- One to two thumbs size portions of fat-rich foods
- One to two fistfuls of vegetables
This will vary from individual to individual and from meal to meal, and it might be helpful to work out your portions with a nutritionist or dietician and/or calculate the calories as a one off to make sure you are eating enough.
Portion-based eating is helpful because it ensures you eat enough whilst giving you the flexibility to pick and choose what and when you eat. Make sure you treat your portions with an element of flexibility rather than as a set of rigid rules – they are just there to ensure you get a balance of the foods in each category over the period of a few days not as boundaries or restrictions.
A great benefit of portion-based eating is that it gives you an idea of what kind of foods make you feel your best. For example, when I was using portion-based eating, I learnt that I feel most energised having more portions of fat and protein-rich foods in the morning and more portions of carbohydrate-rich foods in the afternoon and evening. This helped me massively when it came to eating more intuitively.
Intuitive eating will give you the most freedom around food and is one of the goals of Fear-Free Eating. It involves giving yourself permission to eat, eating mainly for physical rather than emotional reasons, and relying on your hunger and fullness to decide what, when, and how much to eat.
By looking at how children eat (what they like, when they are hungry, and until they are full), you can see how we are all programmed to eat intuitively from birth. However, aspects of our environment such as food adverts, socially acceptable ideas on where and what to eat, and our diet culture, in combination with a fear-based relationship with food or years or restrictive dieting can mean we lose touch with our internal signals for hunger and fullness. If you feel it is difficult to tune into your appetite at the moment, then use one of the other strategies to begin with and move onto intuitive eating over time.
Intuitive eating is particularly helpful if you feel any of the other strategies still create unnecessary control and restriction. I found it incredibly liberating to escape the rules and restrictions of a diet mentality and amazingly empowering to be able to respect and nourish my body (regardless of how I felt about its weight or shape) by using my intuition as a guide.
Tracking hunger and satiety can help you learn to trust your body’s signals and can be helpful to do alongside the other eating strategies too to help you tune into your body:
- Track hunger signals. This will help you to learn what an appropriate level of hunger feels like. Where one equals ‘not hungry’ and 10 equals ‘ravenous’, notice what healthy hunger feels like (I would describe it as a pleasant stomach rumbling).
- Track satiety levels. Satiety doesn’t mean feeling stuffed after a meal, it means finishing a meal so you are no longer hungry and feel better than when you started. Where one equals ‘still hungry’ and 10 equals ‘stuffed to bursting’, notice what it feels like to finish eating and feel comfortable and energised.
It’s a good idea to try intuitive eating for a couple of weeks and then, if you feel like aren’t eating enough or getting enough nutrients, combine it with another strategy for the time being. I alternated between days of calorie counting and intuitive eating until I became more in tune with my appetite.
Like with all strategies, take a relaxed approach to intuitive eating. This is something that you will refine over your lifetime so treat it is an exploration. If you struggle to start with, and find you eat too much or not enough or leave it too long between meals then don’t worry – it’s just one meal. You can experiment with how different foods make you feel as well as with food compositions.
For example, when I don’t have much time for lunch, I like eating energy dense, nutrient rich foods such as nuts and oily fish because they don’t take long to eat, I know I’m getting everything I need, and I can get on with my day. But when I have more time, I like sitting down with a plate piled high with vegetables and less energy dense foods because it means I can take the time to really enjoy what I’m eating.
Take some time to reflect on your current relationship with food and how the above eating strategies could help you relearn to eat in a way that nourishes you and feels like freedom. Give yourself the time to create a meal plan or work out how many portions of each food you need to eat a day (depending on your current nutrition knowledge) or reach out and ask for help from a dietician or nutritionist. As always, I’m only an email away!