Sharing another story about intuitive eating today – this one is all about conquering a past fear food and finding the cheeseburger that hits the spot (and skipping all the ones that don’t).
Does it seem weird that a dietitian is talking about cheeseburgers?
It shouldn’t. Despite popular opinion that dietitians are the food police, I’m here to tell you that at least in the case of THIS dietitian, I could care less about policing your food choices. I spent more than enough time policing my own food choices and that’s what I’m really here to talk about today.
Bear with me on this rambling post as I spill some thoughts about the food police, fear foods, and what it meant to me to be able to conquer that on my journey with intuitive eating. I have a feeling some of you reading this might feel the same about a food. Something you’ve avoided or restricted or told yourself you shouldn’t have over and over again. In this particular example, mine was cheeseburgers.
If you thought this post was about burgers…well, it is. But if you really just want to make your own burgers or look at pictures of burger, let me redirect you to this post instead.
This classic of the American diet was not always a fear food…no, quite the opposite. I grew up eating homemade burgers on the grill on a regular basis, watching my dad dice onions and dump spices over ground beef, forming the patties then grilling them to perfection. We ate them on slices of white bread with tons of ketchup…you guys, like so much ketchup. Eventually I got into high school and occasionally had a fast food meal if I was out with friends or at a family cookout but I honestly don’t remember any experiences sticking out in my mind.
Fast forward to college and I was a newly declared dietetics major. All of a sudden I was full to the brim with nutrition knowledge, learning all about how the body works and fat and protein and calories and all of that. In my traditional, standard dietetics education there was no outright demonization of foods but it certainly was emphasized that the “right” way to eat was along the lines of MyPlate or to have the correct portion of protein at every meal with several brightly colored vegetables and not too many carbs.
So yeah…no wonder I started to feel like burgers were off limits.
Combine that with the fact that I was also in the throws of a pretty F-ed up pattern of disordered eating and compulsive exercise, and track team trips through small towns with limited options was just about enough to send me through the roof with anxiety. I probably hid it well enough. No coach or teammate or roommate ever questioned my eating habits or asked what was up with the food and on the outside I was the smart little nutrition student, making healthy choices.
And not eating cheeseburgers.
Then post-graduation I decided to plunge into vegetarianism. There’s a whole ‘nother story behind that, which you can read about here. It’s safe to say, there were definitely no cheeseburgers being consumed during that era.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t thinking about them. In fact, my explanation when people questioned my plant-based diet was that I would never deny that I liked meat and enjoyed eating it…I was doing it for the animals. Good reason, right? And I cared about sustainability efforts. Even better! But inside I was still really, really wanting to eat a freakin’ cheeseburger. Eventually that came full circle (partly because I learned a lot more about where food comes from and took a long hard look at why I wanted to identify as a vegetarian) but I added meat back in. First there was a lot of fish and seafood, then a little chicken (which I still don’t rank among my top choices), then a little pork. But beef was still hard for me for some reason.
I had made a lot of progress with intuitive eating and it felt good. But I still had a lot of fear foods that made me feel anxious and stressed. I still can’t remember exactly what prompted this experiment but one day I guess the desire to eat a burger just got to be too much. I was sick of the arbitrary food rules and the food police voice in my head telling me what I should and shouldn’t eat. And I decided that, by God, if I’m going to eat a hot, greasy fast food cheeseburger I’m going to make damn sure it’s a good one.
So began a little stretch of time I like to refer to as “The Cheeseburger Phase”.
And I systematically went around to most of the fast food restaurants I could get to. And I ordered cheeseburgers. And I ate them. Not all at once, although I had plenty of binge eating or near-binge eating episodes before I found intuitive eating with various foods. But over the course of a couple weeks I’d stop for lunch or dinner on my way home and eat a burger.
And at first I felt unbearably guilty. I sat in my car in a corner of the parking lot (praying no one I knew would see me) and ate it fast so I could get the hell out of there. I felt like if anyone saw me I’d feel ashamed and have to explain my head off to make it OK. Because why would a dietitian hide in her car eating a drive-thru cheeseburger? It was nearly identical to the shame I felt when I ate in secret in the past, only for some reason I was able to snap myself out of the downward spiral and say, “Actually, this time, I AM in control and I can decide what and when and how much I eat.”
It was scary. There were days when all I wanted was a burger and I probably could have eaten one for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had, this was just the pendulum swinging from one extreme (restriction/deprivation) to the other (I just want more of what I finally allowed myself to have). It was almost like, am I ever going to stop obsessing over my next chance to eat another burger? That’s where the trust part of intuitive eating comes in. I used a lot of meditation and positive self-talk to remind myself that if I rode this wave, I’d come through the other side and could trust that eventually my body would remind me that I love other foods…and yeah…veggies taste good, too.
One by one, as I experimented with different burgers, I came to a few realizations. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m the new cheeseburger connoisseur of Kansas City but I ate my fair share of them during The Cheeseburger Phase. I found there were some that were decent, some that were pretty terrible, and just one or two I genuinely enjoyed eating.
Now this may come as a surprise to you…but…fast food cheeseburgers really aren’t that good. I hate to spoil it for anyone who feels otherwise (please don’t let me ruin this for you) but to me, it was a massive letdown. This forbidden food got so built up in my head because it was off limits that I truly felt like when I ate one it would be like, Hallelujah, this is awesome, gimme another one! Only it wasn’t. Yeah, I was full, but it wasn’t all that satisfying. And compared to other meals I cooked at home or ordered from other places, I didn’t love it nearly as much and would have preferred something else if given the choice.
As I recalled the principles of intuitive eating and gained a better understanding of why I did what I did, it made sense. And eventually I didn’t feel anxious or guilty or excited about cheeseburgers at all. I felt pretty neutral, unless I was hungry, and of course at that point I would have felt pretty amped to eat anything that would fill me up and taste decent in the process. But these were some of the first conscious memories of feeling my fullness, recognizing satisfaction, and making an informed and empowered choice to eat something without a thought about nutrition or the potential health consequences I had been frightened into believing.
Nutrition Isn’t the Only Thing That Matters
I’m not here to say nutrition doesn’t matter. But one meal or day or week or month or year doesn’t spell imminent doom for you or your health. And the point of all of this was indeed accomplished. I found out exactly which burger I liked the most and now I know that if I have a craving or desire to grab a quick lunch, it’s the option I can go for to ensure I’m full and satisfied and get a meal I enjoy. I won’t say which one because I don’t think it really matters…it’s just a matter of opinion which food is good, better, best. But I’m not controlled by my inner food police anymore and this previously forbidden food is just another food. If the group of friends I’m with suggest a burger joint I’m not derailed by crippling anxiety and I can instead enjoy the experience and trust that eating a burger doesn’t make me a bad person.
No food has the power to make you a bad person. Just like no food has the power to make you a good person.
I wanted to share that story here because I often hear clients working their tails off on intuitive eating, only to chime in with something like, “Oh but I can’t eat that, I just don’t trust myself around it.” They’re feeling this way and you might be, too.
That’s OK. That’s normal. You’re not alone in feeling that way around a food you didn’t let yourself have for a long time. If you can give yourself the space and time to trust the process, and more importantly, yourself, there will come a day when you no longer feel like that food has power of you. You’ll want variety, you’ll crave other things, and you might find you feel more satisfied when you do.
And this is just one example of how it might look to truly grant permission to eat all foods. So if you have a story like mine, I’d love to hear about it. Leave me a comment or join my online community and let’s get a conversation going. Are there any forbidden foods you’ve rediscovered?