Why we develop an eating disorder differs for everybody. For some, it is a result of a traumatic life event or body-image problems developed in childhood. Some have weight issues and resort to calorie restrictive dieting that messes up their hunger cues and their eating becomes disordered. But for many, it can also start from a health issue that leads them to make drastic diet changes which later develops into an eating disorder.
For me, my eating disorder started with a health issue. In my early twenties, I had acne and after trying numerous ways to get rid of it (creams, treatments, medication..) I concluded that I had to make a fundamental diet change. I left out dairy products, minimized sugar and other processed foods. At first, there was no problem and I even felt much better. But over time I became more and more rigid with rules and restrictions, started to leave out more foods from my diet in hopes of achieving my “peak health”. But I went overboard with it. Big time. I developed bulimia and orthorexia as a result.
Last year I posted an article about Orthorexia and how I overcame my obsession of purity. So please read that to know my story. But in short, I had to let go of the “clean eating” mindset in order to recover and find freedom around foods and eating. But I have also said many times that eating healthy is important but it’s all about the MINDSET of how we approach it.
It’s all about the MINDSET of how we approach it.
Just because I overcame orthorexia does not mean I now eat junk foods all the time and do not care about nutrition at all. I practice intuitive eating and listen to my body of what foods sound good for me to eat at any given day. I do not have any rules or restrictions around foods. But intuitive eating does not solely consist of listening to your taste buds with no regards to how some foods make you feel or paying no attention to your health. Intuitive eating is also about listening to your brain, using your nutritional knowledge and having some common sense around foods. It’s about listening to your body as a whole.
Just by common sense we already know it’s not a good idea to eat junk foods all the time and it’s a good idea to include more fruits and vegetables into your meals. No need to know all about food science or count macros but to use your inner wisdom. And, at the same time, you logically know that if you sometimes eat junk foods or processed foods it’s not a big deal as well. It’s all about balance.
Note: Before we continue with the tips I want to say that this article is not necessarily meant for the people who are currently in recovery from an eating disorder. I personally know how focusing on “healthy eating” in recovery can actually be one of the pitfalls since at that stage many people may use this as a way to restrict and do not do it for the right reasons. So please be aware! Remember, having an eating disorder is always unhealthy no matter how “healthy” you eat. So focus on recovery first! This post is more for after recovery and when you are ready to practice intuitive eating.
So how do I manage to eat healthily but not fall back to the orthorexia mindset? How did I find balance with eating healthy and, at the same time, not depriving myself of anything I crave? In today’s post, I want to give you my 5 best tips for healthy non-restrictive eating.
1. Allow ALL foods
One of the biggest reason why we develop binge eating, overeating, food obsessions, cravings, food addiction symptoms, in my experience, is the restrictive mindset. The more you restrict some foods the more desire for them you create.
When some foods are “out of limits” then guess what happens? The more power you give them over you! This is why dieters do not binge on healthy foods but on all the “unhealthy foods” they are trying to restrict. In contrast, I know a woman who restricted fruits (totally healthy food!) in her eating disorder and in recovery could not stop eating them. Again, what you restrict you will crave the most!
You need to eliminate the “good and bad foods” mindset in order to truly let go of any rules and restrictions and to eat intuitively and healthy naturally. In my experience, eating whatever I crave has lead me to fewer cravings, balanced hunger cues, and more healthy eating!
In my eating disorder, I thought I was addicted to junk foods and I thought that there is just something wrong with me and I just need more control and discipline with healthy eating. I had bulimia and orthorexia because of my restrictive mindset. But when I let go of all rules and allowed all foods as equal I ended all my obsessions with foods!
Now I can go months with no desire to eat cake or chocolate, or if offered potato chips say “No, thanks!” with NO cravings. And that’s because I eat them whenever I crave them, I do not restrict them so they actually are “just food” for me. Not any way more special than a regular meal. Just as same I do not fancy carrots every day, I do not fancy chocolate every day.
Sometimes I do crave chocolate, candy, ice cream, more often and I simply eat them until I am satisfied. If I do want those foods I simply eat them and go on with my day with no second thought about it. I follow my body and do not freak out about my food desires. By doing that I have seen no negative effects and have no food obsessions. I just trust my body and instincts.
If you can have something any time and as much as you want, you tend to not want it as much anymore. All the foods become normal and equal and you can eat in a healthy, more balanced way without feeling restricted! You may even feel like the food becomes less important and even boring! (Happened to me! The girl who wrote an entire recipe book because she was so obsessed with foods!) This happens because by not restricting you take the focus off from foods and turn it into more important things in your life – family, friends, your dreams and other passions. Food becomes a natural and neutral part of your daily life and is not the main focus anymore.
2. Add in rather than take away
As I already said in the beginning, we do not need to know a complex information about foods and nutrition to make general healthy choices. You know that sometimes eating some junk foods is not gonna make a huge difference if your overall diet is composed of more balanced meals.
“Add in rather than take away” means that you can add in healthy foods to your meals rather than start restricting what you crave. For example, you can eat more fruits and vegetables and that’s all you change! You do not need to leave out sugars or salt or oil or processed foods completely because by just adding more fruits and veggies the quantity of those other foods will decrease naturally without you having to “leave them out”.
By just adding in more fruits, vegetables and whole foods your body gets the healthy nutrition that it needs without the unnecessary restrictive mindset that can escalate your cravings!
I say eat ALL the foods you want and just add in more fruits, veggies, and whole foods. That’s it! Just having this mindset can change your diet towards being more healthy and nutritious rather than restricting and depriving.
3. Make gradual changes
It is VERY important to not start “eating healthy” with a diet mindset. For example, tossing out all the foods you have previously enjoyed and filling your cupboards with all the new healthy foods you do not even know how to use. This way you only set yourself up for a failure, especially when you already had an eating disorder. It’s too much of a restriction, too much of a “good and bad foods” approach.
If you are serious about living a healthy and happy life physically AND mentally you need to make shifts rather gradually so your body and mind have plenty of time to adjust to the changes. Remember, this is not a short-term “lose weight” approach but is a long term feel-healthy-and-happy approach (regardless of size), something that will be sustainable for the rest of your life.
By making gradual changes you will make sure you won’t feel restricted or start developing your old restrictive orthorexia mindset.
4. Make it healthy AND delicious
Healthy meals do not have to be boring and tasteless or lower in calories. Do not search low-carb, Paleo or low-fat recipes. Just make meals with more vegetables and whole foods for starters. And if you make a healthy meal it does not mean you cannot add some bread with butter to it, or finish it with some cookie dough ice cream. Quit the “all or nothing” kind of thinking around foods. Just because you had a “healthy” meal does not mean it’s “ruined” when you eat some regular chocolate chip cookies afterward.
Remember – no rules! No “diet wagon” to fall off from. No restrictive mindset!
When you eat healthy you do not have to make it low calorie or low fat or low anything. It does not have to be gluten free or sugar free. As I recommended before – just focus on adding in more fruits, veggies and whole foods. Add delicious dressings, sauces and condiments to pump up the flavors. Make pasta dishes, pizzas, sandwiches, stews, wraps, taco bowls, whatever you feel like. No need to eat only boring salads and snack on carrots. This way you won’t feel like you are missing out on anything! It needs to be sustainable for the rest of your life, not for “30 days”.
5. Eat regularly
I understand that sometimes we are too busy with work or other commitments and we may forget to eat. But if you get too hungry you more likely want to eat the first caloric dense food you can get your hands on. There is nothing wrong with eating what you want when you are hungry but in the long run it can take a toll on your health. The fluctuating blood sugar levels with irregular food intake can leave you feeling lethargic and exhausted. Plus, you will more likely eat some processed or junk food simply because your body needs a quick source of energy. You are simply hungry!
To be able to choose healthy nutritious means more often it is a good idea to not get too ravenous before you eat. Eat something every 2-4 hours. Eat breakfast, lunch, dinner and have snacks ready if you may need it. No need to make it into a rule but rather a general healthy approach to eating.
To not be triggered to eat the whole box of cookies or full meals worth of snacks from a venting machine it’s essential to not get ravenous before you eat!
For example, I never intentionally wait until my stomach starts rumbling, or until I feel lightheaded and about to pass out before I eat. If you wait until this long you are already starving! This is not how I interpret healthy hunger signals. I eat when I start to notice I have less energy and the idea of food sounds great! If I can’t fully focus on my work and I start to think about food then this is when I eat! It is still a good feeling! And sometimes I can only feel like wanting something and I go and eat. Again, the hunger feeling is not only about the total emptiness of my stomach.
The more you focus on implementing these simple strategies into your life the more balanced and healthy will be your eating. With no restriction or willpower!
Tips to remember:
- All foods are available! Restriction creates more desire. Let go of the “good and bad foods” mindset and take all foods as equal.
- Focus on “adding in” healthy and nutritious foods rather than taking away the foods you crave.
- Make gradual and simple changes – for example, add in more fruits and veggies. Do not start to search different diets or ways of eating. Develop your own that is sustainable for YOU!
- Remember, you do not need to eat boring salads and carrot sticks to eat healthily – make your food delicious and satisfying!
- Do not get overly hungry before you eat. By eating regularly you will be more easily drawn to healthy balanced meals.
If you want to learn more about how I overcame bulimia and orthorexia (and how you can too!) then read my book: “Brainwashed: Diet-Induced Eating Disorders. How You Got Sucked In And How To Get Recover”