How to Eat Intuitively by Eating Out

In the beginning of my intuitive eating journey, I struggled to tune out diet thoughts. I’d been dieting and counting calories for so long that I had memorized the calorie count of every food that I ate regularly, whether it came with a nutrition label or not. Counting calories was almost reflexive and subconscious – I’d fall into estimating and counting without even realizing it!

Being such a sneaky calorie counter, it was really difficult for me to try to listen to my body when making food choices because I constantly had so many numbers flying around in my mind. I had awareness of my cravings, or of which foods sounded good, but having already estimated the calorie count of my breakfast and rules about calorie counts for lunch, it was really hard to make a decision that was informed by my body rather than my brain.

One of the ways I counsel my clients about learning how to eat intuitively is by intentionally choosing foods that don’t have nutrition labels — or if they do, not measuring them out. For example, instead of purchasing pre-sliced sandwich bread with serving sizes and nutrition info, I encourage them to buy bread from the bakery section where the baggies and boxes don’t come with nutrition labels. I also encourage choosing foods from bulk containers or multi-serving containers, like a big tub of yogurt instead of individual cups.

The problem that I ran into with this in my own experience was that I was really good at “eyeballing” the serving sizes of these foods, and I’d also already memorized the nutrition labels. I even knew how many calories were in baby carrots, bananas, and broccoli — some of my “safe foods.” Some of the clients I work with have the same problem, and so what I encourage in those situations is to ditch home cooking for a while and eat out at restaurants.

Restaurant meals are notorious for being high in calories and having large portion sizes. Even the salads are thought of poorly in some circles because of the dressing, croutons, and other toppings. However, this lack of “salad neutrality” is actually a good thing for someone who is learning how to be an intuitive eater; the foods that were previously considered “safe foods” like vegetables and salads aren’t quite so “safe” anymore. Plus, depending on the type of dressing or other additions, it’s almost impossible to estimate the calorie count just by looking at it. (The exception is at restaurants like Panera, which have started posting calorie counts on the menu, which I think is a big, big problem. More on that topic here.)

Anyway, by choosing to eat out at restaurants regularly and working on eliminating the perception of “superior” foods, we are better able to make food decisions based on what sounds good. Likewise, when we don’t know the calorie count of our meal portion, we can’t make a decision about how much we “should” eat based off the arbitrary numbers on a nutrition label. This means, we can’t give ourselves “permission” to eat the whole portion because we don’t know if the calorie count complies with our rules. Likewise, if our bodies drive us to keep eating out of hunger, we don’t have the information our food rules need to make restrictions over us. On the other hand, if we know the calorie count and are not okay with it, we might self-restrict despite truly needing more nourishment, or we might feel guilty for eating past the amount we “allowed” ourselves. The guilt might even then drive us to finish the whole portion as a binge. Or, we may finish it despite fullness because we intend to engage in compensatory dieting at the next meal.

For this latter reason, many people come to fear eating out because they think they can’t control themselves. But the truth is that trying to hard to “control” ourselves actually is what leaves us out of control.

In my own experience with disordered eating and dieting, I actually was afraid of eating out for many years. I came to associate restaurants with feeling uncomfortably full and painfully ashamed. I’d sometimes skip or restrict meals before going out with friends to proactively account for the high calorie restaurant food. Other times, I’d vow to allow myself to eat with abandon as long as I started a new diet the next day. Either way, all of my restaurant experiences were stressful. But once I started eating out to try to repair my relationship with food, eating out became normal to me rather than scary. There were no more thoughts like, “I’d better eat this now, because I won’t get it again,” because I knew I could eat it again at the very next meal if I wanted! Likewise, I wasn’t forcing myself to stop eating early, and I likewise wasn’t feeling entitled to continue eating past fullness based off the calorie count. Regular restaurant eating gave me the freedom to leave food on my plate, which was something I’d never been able to freely do in the past. Eventually, I was able to put these skills into practice while eating at home, too.

Today, I don’t stress about going to restaurants. When I’m there, I don’t stress about my order, either. I choose what sounds good, I eat as much as my body leads me to eat, and I go home and carry on with life as usual.

This past Sunday, I ate out for every meal. I had some coffee and a few bites of banana bread before church, and then we met up with my husband’s parents for brunch. I ordered egg and bacon biscuit sandwiches with a side coffee, and ate enough to feel full. Later that evening, we met up with some friends at a burger joint. I chose the sandwich that sounded most appealing (Korean BBQ Burger) with a side salad. I finished the salad, half my burger, and a few of my husband’s fries. We went out for ice cream afterwards to continue the conversation. I picked my favorite flavor (cappuccino chip) and ate as many bites as felt good in my stomach. Then, I gave away the rest.

Looking over my eating that day, I could’ve made so many different decisions based off calories, and probably would’ve ended up eating MORE rather than LESS. In anticipation of brunch, I could’ve skipped the morning’s banana bread, which would’ve left me unbearably hungry at brunch and led to me gobbling down my meal too quickly to sense the feelings in my stomach. Fullness and guilt from overeating at brunch would’ve led me order a salad or something else low-calorie at dinner, and then eat the whole portion because I felt entitled. (After all, it was a low-calorie option, right?) At the ice cream shop, I could’ve ordered sorbetto because of the lower calories. In the past I would’ve done this and finished it all, because I’d probably have also vowed to never eat ice cream again.

I’m so glad that I’m no longer at a place where I feel compelled to order desserts I don’t enjoy (sorry, sorbetto,) choose salads instead of sandwiches, or skip breakfast in anticipation of brunch. Eating with freedom allows me to enjoy my experiences and relationships whereas rules keep me focused on food…and only food.

[Sometimes the struggle with food and our bodies can be too much to handle on our own. If you don’t know where to turn, and taking these steps on your own feels too scary, I want you to know that there’s hope — you don’t need to suffer alone. I encourage you to make an appointment with an intuitive-eating informed health practitioner you trust. If you don’t know one, I’d love to fill that role. You can schedule an appointment here.]


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