Trigger Warning: This story contains themes of disordered eating, and may be disturbing for some. Reader discretion is advised.
Can the way you eat be self-care? The answer to that question lies in another—what does ‘self-care’ even mean anymore? The last few years have seen the bastardisation of a term that was popularised by feminist poet Audre Lorde in the 80s. Her definition of ‘self-care’, which was centred on ideas of self-preservation and rebellion against status quo, is one we seem to have strayed from.
Today, the idea of ‘self-care’ has been commodified and neatly packaged into a series of items and experiences you need to buy if you want to take care of yourself: a spa day, a Netflix subscription, a bottle of wine and of course—a $17.99 salad in which every ingredient is organic and non-GMO.
The roots of the term however, are ultimately medical—self-care refers to any act that can help you prevent and alleviate health problems. Whether this means taking time out to exercise, going to bed instead of drudging through emails for another hour, or eating healthy, nutritious food, practising self-care is essential for preserving both your physical health and mental health—the latter of which still flies under the radar in comparison to its counterpart.
“It’s normal and natural—even with a good relationship with food—to eat out of emotion”
Eating a perfectly healthy diet is, ostensibly, self-care. But what about our emotional hunger? While emotional eating is seen to be a product of ill discipline and an issue to correct, the practice of eating for emotional satisfaction has long been embedded in some of our most beloved traditions—birthday cake at a party, for example.
As registered dietician Abbey Sharp says, “Food is emotional, as it’s often tied to memories and good or bad experiences. So it’s normal and natural—even with a good relationship with food—to eat out of emotion.”
We have been conditioned to believe that the only right time to eat is when it it is in response to physical hunger, while the only right diet is one that promotes optimum nutrition. But when the allure of “clean eating” and an obsession with fine-tuning our diets starts controlling our lives, the truest act of self-care may lie in giving ourselves permission to enjoy food, honour our hunger, and trust our bodies again. After all, food is more than just calories—it is celebration, community, and pleasure.
Diet culture and the problem with “clean eating”
While there is obviously nothing wrong or “weak” about enjoying a piece of cake even when you’re not physically hungry for it, you may have experienced feelings of guilt and regret that have driven you to steer clear entirely or take the tiniest sliver even when what you really want is a normal-sized piece. Where do these feelings come from, and why do they so often accompany our food choices?
Simply put, diet culture refers to our pervasive obsession with thinness and the way our bodies look. Instagram fitness models and centuries-old diet books have normalised rules that apparently must be adhered to if you want to be healthy.
The face of diet culture is ever-evolving, with new food-phobic trends emerging every year—sometimes sugar is the devil, and other times, anything with a hint of fat in it must be kept off of our plates. No eating past 8pm, don’t drink your calories (unless its a green smoothie), make sure each meal includes at least one ‘super-food’, and don’t even think about cooking with oil.
This is where the self-care paradox lies: when does eating healthy become bad for you? The problem is that most “clean” diets do not factor the emotional and social aspects of eating food into their recommendations. The dogmatic approach they tend to follow—which strictly label foods as good or bad—results in restrictive mentalities that can often turn into obsessions.
Orthorexia nervosa refers to the eating disorder characterised by an unhealthy obsession with only eating foods that are deemed healthy and “pure”. Individuals suffering from orthorexia will find their lives controlled by their need to ensure that the quality of the food they eat is perfectly healthy by their standards, meaning that social events like an office party where no “clean” food options are available can quickly turn into a nightmare. They cast judgment on others and themselves for every food choice, and often associate their self-worth with their ability to eat a perfectly “clean” diet.
“For those struggling with disordered eating or chronic dieting, it may be the first time they’re able to enjoy meals with family and friends without stress. The world opens up when you stop stressing over what to eat”
Orthorexia may seem extreme, but the pro-diet messaging that we are constantly bombarded with can lead to immense shame and self-loathing anytime you make a choice that isn’t in line with the strict rules you believe you are meant to follow. Coupled with a convoluted “treat yourself” mentality which equates food to morality (you can have a cookie, but only if you’ve been good—and you better not reach for dessert at your next meal!), food choices have become a landmine to navigate.
The irony of it all is that this same restrictive mentality leads to what we so often fear—unbridled, uncontrollable urges to eat. When we perceive our favourite foods as “bad” and unattainable, it becomes easy to cave in to episodes of binge-eating, when food becomes a coping mechanism. This may look like stuffing yourself with pizza since you “failed” your diet when you picked up one slice, or rummaging through your fridge at midnight because you are frustrated from being hungry all day.
On her blog and YouTube channel, Sharp cautions against relying on food as your “only coping strategy”, which is an effect that often emerges from food restriction and a food-fearing, restrictive mentality. Her warning rings true for me, as someone who has experienced several late night binge-eating episodes when I would invariably end up eating uncomfortably large portions of my favourite foods as a way to cope with negative emotions or stress. Food became a safe haven and a reliable comfort, and overindulging in treats I loved seemed like an elusive reward.
Ultimately, diet mentality goes beyond what you actually eat—much of it lives in the mind. Even if outer appearances suggest that you are eating “normally”, you may very well be struggling with internalised diet culture messaging. As a result, giving yourself permission to truly enjoy food becomes a challenge.
How Intuitive Eating can help
First established in a book titled ‘Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-diet Approach’ written by two registered dieticians and nutrition specialists, Intuitive Eating’s recent spike in popularity has been for good reason—the diet philosophy places just as much emphasis on your mental health as it does the physical.
In response to a growing awakening against diet culture and its anti-body positive ideals, Intuitive Eating has 10 guidelines designed to promote food-freedom. It’s in the name—Intuitive Eating recognises our innate and intuitive desires when it comes to food, and is all about trusting your body and rejecting the rigidity of the diet rules that many of us have subconsciously learnt.
Crucially, Intuitive Eating is not prescriptive in its approach. Rather than laying down hard and fast rules for how to eat, what the anti-diet diet promotes is that we learn how to tune into our hunger cues, cravings, and nutrition needs. This comes with a learning curve—many of us have suppressed our natural hunger signals through years of yo-yo dieting, and it can be hard to overcome socialisation that has taught us to demonise certain foods while glorifying others.
“You would be amazed at how resilient the body can be, even when nutrition isn’t “perfect”. For example, if you consume too much Vitamin C, your body pees it out. If you don’t consume enough iron, your body absorbs more of it”
Instead of an all or nothing take on nutrition, Intuitive Eating suggests moderation, allowing us to enjoy delicious and healthy foods we love in quantities that feel good to us. Paying attention to how we feel after different meals and snacks and learning what works best for our bodies are core guidelines that aim to take the pressure off of food choices and make food enjoyable again.
The benefits of Intuitive Eating reach far and wide. As Sharp says, “There are so many documented benefits of intuitive eating, which include better body image, lower stress, and lower rates of disordered eating. For those struggling with disordered eating or chronic dieting, it may be the first time they’re able to enjoy meals with family and friends without stress. The world opens up when you stop stressing over what to eat.”
Like many others, embracing Intuitive Eating has revolutionised my relationship with food and nutrition. Unlearning years of guilt, shame, and internalised fat-phobic messaging now allows me to view food from a point of moral neutrality, and make mindful choices to choose food that brings me joy and feels good for my body. Most important, I can eat a balanced diet while still enjoying treats and snacks without feeling like I have to “earn” them.
Meeting your nutritional needs intuitively
One common myth about intuitive eating is that it will lead to over-indulgence, weight gain and ultimately, poor health. “Doesn’t intuitive eating mean I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want, in however a big portion as I want? And doesn’t that just mean that I’m going to eat two plates of char kway teow and eight doughnuts at every meal?” Contrary to this belief, Intuitive Eating doesn’t mean throwing health and nutrition out of the window.
Instead, the philosophy aims to detangle complicated and superfluous nutrition rules and to simplify healthy eating. Known as gentle nutrition, this practice promotes making food choices that we both enjoy and that respect our bodies’ nutritional needs.
Recommendations on how to practise gentle nutrition include focusing on adding a variety of different foods to your diet, cooking with flavour and seasoning to make each meal and snack delicious, and aiming to meet nutritional needs on a weekly basis—rather than stressing about meeting every single daily requirement.
Sharp reminds us not to undermine our body’s natural ability to self-regulate. “You would be amazed at how resilient the body can be, even when nutrition isn’t “perfect”. For example, if you consume too much Vitamin C, your body pees it out. If you don’t consume enough iron, your body absorbs more of it. So rather than worrying about every tiny little nutrient, we can look at big picture. If you aim to fill about 1/4 of your plate with protein, 1/4 with a carbohydrate or starch, 1/2 with vegetables and include some source of fat, you’re starting from a really great place of balance.”
Her advice is also to pay attention to the core tenet of Intuitive Eating—tuning into your body’s cues, which apply both to mental and physical wellness indicators. “We might notice more even energy levels when choosing a whole grain or higher fibre carb instead of a refined white version. Our digestion may better when choosing lean proteins and plant based proteins compared to fried or fattier cuts. If you learn to observe without judgement and gain a sense for your body’s patterns, you’ll find yourself naturally reaching towards the foods that make your body feel best.”