Mama, Break that Food-Shame Cycle {with an Intuitive Approach to Eating}

The author of this article also appeared as a guest on the Momfessions Podcast. Take a listen to our discussion on intuitive eating!

Whole30®, gluten-free, keto, paleo, whatever the next one is — everywhere you look, people are researching, chatting, or posting away about their latest diet endeavor. Why? Why is this such a huge part of our life and our culture? Why does it feel good to grab hold of and commit to a new idea, a new way of eating?

I think it’s because it makes us feel less out of control — and to go even deeper, it helps us avoid the shame we feel when our eating is out of control (either in a binge-y way or just an everyday mindless way). The irony is that even though food restriction feels like control, it actually can cause feelings of deprivation and become part of a vicious and destructive shame cycle.

Eating a Donut
Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

The Good, the Bad, and the Overeating

When we restrict certain foods as a way to gain control or lose weight (not talking about food allergies or medically advised diets, here), we inadvertently create “good” and “bad” food categories in our minds, when what is true is that food doesn’t actually have moral categories — gasp!

The problem is that sometimes we want the foods the diet has deemed “bad,” and so when we eat them, we feel bad or shameful. We don’t usually stop there because now we need to numb the shame because it feels scary, and so we eat more “bad” foods (because we can’t have them tomorrow, and so we get them all in today while we’re being bad). The next day, or Monday, or New Years, we vow to be better and try harder and move on to the next trendy diet, which reinforces maybe different “good” and “bad” food categories. But never the less, we fail, which leads to shame, which leads to a need to numb the shame, and so we overeat, and on, and on.

So, if buckling down and controlling harder isn’t the way out of out-of-control eating, how will we be freed from this exhausting cycle? I propose that shame is the cause of the overeating (and therefore the cause of excess weight as well), and so we have to remove the shame in order to stop the overeating. In order to stop the shame, we have to remove the good and bad food categories. In order to remove these categories, we have to stop restrictive dieting and take on a new approach to food called “Intuitive Eating.”

Woman Eats Meal
Photo by Alexa Suter on Unsplash

An Intuitive Approach to Eating

Intuitive Eating is an approach to food, mind, and body which seeks to both nourish our body and honor our psyche, if you will. Instead of controlling our body more, we actually submit to it, learn to trust it, and listen to what it needs. Like, maybe it functions the way it’s supposed to if we pay attention. This approach embraces the fact that all of our healthy (meaning healthy relationship with food) bodies look different. We start by accepting and embracing our God-given body type, also recognizing that that will change with age (and babies) as well. 

Intuitive Eating does take some intentional and challenging work. We honor our hunger, listening to our body and trusting it. It is scary at first, but hang in there; you will notice your desires balancing out (if you are diagnosed with an eating disorder, I recommend finding a nutritionist to work with you on this). Sometimes your body might be craving salad, and sometimes ice cream. (Dispute the thoughts that there are moral categories for food; dispute the shame.) Also, listen to what else your body might be needing other than food: rest, a friend, water, a walk, Advil, reconciliation. You will have to slow down a minute and reflect, which really is hard work especially for busy mamas (you will not do it perfectly all the time, and that’s okay).

Fullness and Mindfulness

We also respect our fullness, trying to pay attention to when we are satisfied. We don’t need to overeat at his point because we don’t have lingering feelings of deprivation, and we know we are free to enjoy anything we are craving once we notice our hunger cues kicking back in. The practice of mindfulness is helpful here in learning how to really taste and enjoy food in the moment and actually ENJOY the feeling of satisfaction and fullness (heaven forbid).

Mindfulness is challenging for mamas with the constant chatter of little voices, questions, and needs, but try to carve out time to practice this skill when your environment is a bit more conducive, maybe eating lunch during nap time, for example, and it will get easier in incorporate “in the wild.”  

All of these principles will require some de-wiring and re-wiring at first — and disputing the shame thoughts — but will eventually become second nature. The shame cycle will be no more, which means the overeating cycle will be no more, which means the excess weight that comes from the overeating will be no more. Not to mention the fact that you will be modeling and teaching your children invaluable life skills for their own relationships with food!

Enjoy Food
Photo by Tanya Patrikeyeva

Break that Shame Cycle

While the goal of this approach is freedom and enjoyment in your relationship with food, the added bonus is that you’re not abusing it by overeating, and so any weight (and corresponding physical symptoms) you are carrying from that will be lost, and your body will find its natural happy place.

I struggled with bulimia in college. My fluctuating body weight reflected my out-of-control eating cycle, and Intuitive Eating is how I recovered the behavioral food piece of that disorder. (I also received counseling because a diagnosed disorder is about much more than the food and body.) While I got my masters in counseling, I worked for several years in eating disorder residential treatment and have seen Intuitive Eating’s effectiveness there as well. I have continued this approach to food for the last 15 years and have never once dieted.

I do not struggle with out-of-control eating, and I promise it’s not because I have such strong willpower (history has shown that I don’t). I feel free in my relationship with food, and I equally love salads and cookie cake! For anyone who can relate to this struggle (and you don’t have to have an eating disorder to relate) and is longing for another way, I really hope this gives you an alternative approach that frees you to enjoyment and peace with food. For more information, please check out the book Intuitive Eating and The Intuitive Eating Workbook: Ten Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food by Evelyn Tibole and Elyse Resch. 

Laura Anderson guest bloggerLaura and her husband, Ryan, moved from St Louis to Fort Worth in 2011, after finishing her masters in counseling there. Soon after moving, she had identical twins girls, Audrey and Evangeline, and three years later, Iris. Currently, she loves being the party planner and coordinator for The Happy Lark, baking cakes, and serving the campus ministry of Reformed University Fellowship at TCU alongside her husband. Go Frogs!

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