This is one of the most frequently asked questions I get when new members join my free FB group, Autoimmune Well with Kel. And I think it's also one of the questions that I asked the most after I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and an eating disorder within the same year.
Is it possible to eat intuitively when you have a food avoidance, sensitivity or intolerance? How do you feel good and okay (and not restricted) while cutting out foods that cause physical symptoms and reactions in the body? How do we eat in a restrictive manner without emotionally feeling restricted at the same time?
Since you're here (asking this question, too!), then you know how much friction lies in the wait for an answer. There's just a lot of tension in this place. Because we want to do what's best for our bodies and our physical health -- i.e. cut out foods to which we respond negatively -- but we also want to do what's best for our emotional and mental well-being -- i.e. feel free and not controlled around food.
It's like we have these two strong values -- (1) to feel good physically and (2) to feel good mentally -- that stem from an overarching desire to simply feel good. And yet, we're so confused, frustrated and sometimes so defeated because we don't know how to move forward in a way that will actually get us there.
It kinda feels like we have to pick one or the other, right?
The good news is that (spoiler alert, ha) we don't. We can eat in a restricted manner without feeling that restriction. It's because restriction itself is more of a mental and an emotional conversation rather than a physical one. (So long as we're actually eating enough food in the first place.)
For example, I'm sensitive to a particular protein, called A1 casein, that's found in certain types of cow dairy. For that reason, I don't eat much traditional cheese, milk, cream, etc.... or foods that contain these ingredients. However, I've never felt more free in general around food. The key here is not that I DO eat every food but that I COULD eat every food.
Here's how to start eating intuitively with food avoidances, intolerances or sensitivities:
Step one really is making sure the body is physically satisfied. That we're eating enough food in the first place. Step two (assuming you've got as much as information as possible about your sensitivity or intolerance) is finding a way to *let* yourself eat all foods without actually eating them.
I know, I know, stick with me here!
It's this mental and emotional allowance -- a term I first learned from Isabel Foxen Duke -- that makes a huge difference. It's what lets us make choices about what we eat and don't eat... and that choice is what cuts restriction in its tracks.
Now, I mention that this is Step #2 assuming you know the sensitivity or intolerance you have to food. I bring this up because we're bombarded with SO much information about healthy foods choices that it can be easy to think we have to cut out just about everything. While that may or may not be true for you, one of the easiest ways to cut out food and be okay with that decision is to know exactly WHY you're cutting out said food.
Meaning, make sure you know the cause and make sure you have personal evidence to back up that cause.
Maybe you've had a test. Maybe you've worked with a doctor to highlight intolerances. Maybe you've tested and tweaked and done a (reverse*) elimination diet. Either way, be sure the food you think is causing a reaction in the body is actually causing a reaction in the body.
(*I recommend not a full elimination diet of all inflammatory foods but rather a "reverse" elimination diet that starts by cutting out just one trigger you want to test. I find this is especially helpful when you're struggling with restriction and deprivation.)
When I was considering a shift away from A1 casein, I had done some research and had a hunch this could be at the root of a few unwanted bodily symptoms. So, to be sure, I took on a reverse elimination diet and removed A1 casein to the best of my ability. (P.S. I also recommend dietary changes are always run by doctors first!) It could have been really, really easy to think I had to give up dairy as a whole or that I had to eat Vegan. Instead, I wanted to get as specific as I could.
Because it really is this specificity and personal information that makes it 1000x easier to cut out food without feeling restricted or deprived. We can use this clarity to inform decisions we make in the future, so that we're not relying on willpower, discipline, commitment or even advice from experts.
To do that, and feel really good about our decisions, we have to tap more deeply into the concept of allowance. (Isabel Foxen Duke explains "allowance" really well in this blog post here.)
To see where you stand right now on this spectrum, ask yourself this: How would you feel if you ate whatever food caused a physical reaction in your body?
Would you simply gear up for the physical reaction?
Or would you beat yourself up and feel like a failure?
In other words, how attached do you feel to the food choices you make? How attached is your WORTH to your food... or even to how your body feels?
One of the biggest keys in learning how to eat intuitively when you have food avoidances, intolerances or sensitivities is learning how to choose the foods you want to eat versus following a strict plan. The key within this distinction is knowing that it's morally okay to eat or not eat any food. (Even the ones that cause physical reactions.)
And I think this is where things get really, really tricky. It's this allowance piece. And it's tricky because many of us have a really strong sense of desire around our health. We place a lot of value on feeling good and taking care of ourselves. Things get a little messy when that desire and value begins to translate into a moral obligation to do things perfectly.
Things get messy when we feel like the choices we make around food dictate our worth as a human being.
The question we have to clear up is: Am I okay and still worthy and still deserving *even if* I choose to eat a food that causes a physical reaction in my body? Am I still an okay human *even when* I make a choice that leaves me physically uncomfortable?
If the physical discomfort is annoying and frustrating and uncomfortable but the emotional pain you feel after eating something you shouldn't is worse, then you're probably not actually allowing yourself to make choices. And when you don't allow yourself to make choices, you're much more likely to feel restricted.
Again, the difference is in the feelings of restriction and not in the act of restriction itself. There's a difference between eating all the things and feeling like you could eat all the things. There's a difference between physically consuming a food and knowing you could consume a food (and still be a worthy, deserving, lovable, good human).
As we clear up any sense of moral obligation or pressure we feel to always make the right decision, we open up a lot more space for ourselves to make real choices out of love (rather than force things out of fear). Not only do we feel better because we actually feel empowered around food again, but we also have the freedom to make the choice we feel is in the best interest of ourselves as a whole. The freedom to make the most loving choice for the present moment AND the goals we have set for ourselves and our health.
If we're doing things out of love... if we make sure the cause... if we're okay to choose anything at all... that's how we *feel* freedom. It's not necessarily that I DO eat every possible food out there (like, for me, foods containing A1 casein). The freedom lies not in the "do" but in the "could". In the choice.
Want to keep digging into this topic? Read more on The Boulevard Blog here, here and here!