Or better yet, how becoming the eater I want to be made me a better person, girlfriend, friend, sister, daughter, dietitian, and blogger. I'm finally living for me. And as I explained in my last post, that sense of confidence and intuition has had the most delicious way of overflowing into all other aspects of my life.
This post means so much to me. I woke up writing it in my head, each bullet point effortlessly playing out in the weirdly perfect way that my brain is known to do. The weather was gorgeous-- that summer warmth that's not too warm with a gentle breeze. So instead of driving, I walked to the coffee shop, soaked in the sun, ordered my favorite bakery-style blueberry streusel muffin and an iced coffee, and started putting on the page the story my inner-self had already so eloquently written.
I never really talked in detail about my gradual transition from focusing on super clean, plant-based eating to intuitive eating and food freedom because in all honestly, I didn't want to make it a thing. I didn't want my story to be misinterpreted as banishing certain diets. I didn't want to position myself against anything really, but rather for food freedom and exercising the individual right we all have to never stop exploring. That looks really different for everyone. What I do isn't necessarily what you should do. We're all so vastly differently so it's no surprise that our diets are, too. This transformation is mine. It's the most sacred part of my journey yet and I cherish that. I didn't and still don't want other people's judgments to stain these precious pages.
But it's also yours, because nothing brings me greater joy than that of inspiring others. I pride myself on my healthy sense of skepticism. I don't ever do or write anything without my whole heart. So with my whole heart, I want to rewind with you. I want you to fully understand where I was so you can grasp how and why I got to where I am today.
I became super passionate (read: obsessive) about plant-based diets my second year of college after traveling to Israel, reading Skinny Bitch, watching "Forks Over Knives," and doing all the things that I'm sure many of you reading this now have done. To say I was inspired would be an extreme understatement. It was like a new religion. It changed my entire life. Looking back now, a lot of what I watched and read was super fear-mongering.
I went vegan for a year. I fell head over heels in love with the idea of preventing and reversing chronic disease with plants. It was never about calories or weight or macros for me. It didn't stem from a place of restriction. But nonetheless, my diet was pretty restricted.
A year passed and I was craving eggs in the morning and cheese on my 2am pizza like any college student does. I introduced eggs and fish back into my diet. Again, I didn't make it a thing. It was my thing. Instagram didn't even exist yet. Can you imagine?! Back then, my inspiration came from food blogs and then my own food blog, which I started in 2011 on the foundation of celebrating plants and the journey that took me there.
It was never my style to try to convert clients or friends or anyone to super healthy diets. When I became an RD, I counseled on clean eating, on being obsessive (I didn't use that word but that's what it was) about ingredients, on being crazy cognizant of every word on every nutrition label. The "About" section of my blog literally used to say that I was a label detective. Man, I couldn't delete that fast enough!
Now don't get me wrong. Transparency is very important. I take pride in knowing what's in my food and where it came from--to an extent. I eat local. We get a weekly CSA. I choose to uy certain foods organic. But there's a fine line between supporting the local food system and not having cake at a birthday party because it has refined sugar. It doesn't have to be one extreme or the other. So much of the time I spend with clients in giving them permission to flourish in that lovely gray area where it's not one paleo protein pancake on Monday and a full on donut fest on Tuesday. We often live our lives in extremes, and extremes aren't meant to last.
And let's take this opportunity to set the record straight---I am not vegan. I am not gluten-free. I am not vegetarian. I am not ANYTHING, and that is enough. I don't need to justify my diet by all-encompassing words and isolating phrases. I love plants. I would marry bread. I still gently advocate eating lots of plant-based goodies. That said, the muffin I'm eating right now is probably made with all the white flour and sugar and butter. And it's a big ass muffin! A big ass muffin that's feeding my soul.
I don't eat to live. My life is about SO MUCH MORE than eating healthy food. Food does not have one purpose and one purpose only. It's so much more than functional and medicinal. When I think of food as medicine, I think of it helping to heal. And it does! Apples and kale and lentils are the physical aspect of that. The fiber and phytonutrients help prevent and delay disease. But salted chocolate chip cookies with my best friend and pizza with my boyfriend feeds my soul and satisfies me in a way that kale simply cannot. And lucky for us, we don't have to choose. A world exists where both can live in harmony.
I was living in extremes. But I didn't have an extreme medical condition. I'm sure there are plenty of people that can be thrive that way, but it wasn't working for me. I wanted more. I wanted to eat pizza with non-organic cheese like a normal person and not feel like some part of my conscience was going to come after me with a pitch fork. I wanted to find a balance, to be able to eat mostly plant-based because I genuinely am passionate about that cause, but also to have the freedom and confidence to eat whatever else I wanted whenever I wanted it without being judged by myself and others for breaking some stupid rules that didn't exist.
I wholeheartedly believe that one can be plant-based and eat intuitively. I still eat that way for probably 75% of my meals because I want to. But when I wake up craving an egg and cheese sandwich, I honor that. And if you're denying clear cravings and not honoring what your body wants, you should probably take a closer look at the rules you're living by.
I tried a bite of Jeff's steak the other night. I was staring at it and thinking, "am I not eating meat because I don't want it or because some imaginary diet god is making me feel like I shouldn't?" I thought that trying his steak would be the ultimate proof of intuitive eating. But guess what happened? I spit it out. It tasted disgusting to me. I used to love steak. Looks like things have changed!
Intuitive eating is honoring your body's hunger and fullness cues while keeping in mind gentle nutrition. I'm not going to start eating steak that I don't like to prove a point just like I'm not going to eat kale salads every day for lunch to prove a point. But I'm so proud of myself for at least trying it. Had I liked it, I would've started eating it again.
That release of pressure. Wowwwww. That, hands down, has been the best part of all of this. I used to be afraid that my readers/followers would leave me if I posted pictures of cheese. Or cinnamon rolls. Then I realized I'm not living for them. I'm living for me. I'm so glad to have you all on the ride, but I will never sacrifice my life and my sanity for food choices that protect a false image. The rebrand of this space, of myself as a person, of myself as a dietitian, was the best thing I ever did. It was totally unplanned. It was completely organic. It happened just like it should.
Diet culture is sooooo pervasive. It still boggles my mind. A day doesn't go by that I don't hear someone talking about dieting or negative body image or fat shaming in some way, shape or form. It's like getting a new blue car and all the sudden all you see on the road is blue cars. Back when I was pretty much vegan, I wrote a satirical post called "5 Questions Not to Ask a Vegan." I got a really rude comment from a reader a couple weeks ago that apparently has been deleted since. She said I should delete the post. She said I had no right to talk about what someone should or shouldn't ask vegans since I'm far from being vegan and have no idea what a vegan needs.
Um, hello. It was news to me that I had to be vegan to talk about vegan diets. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't need to have a vagina to be a gynecologist. Your best friend doesn't have to be in serious relationship to give you relationship advice. And rest assured that as a dietitian, it's my job to be an expert on all diets, veganism included. Long story short, I'm more than ready to no longer be the subject of judgment that sadly happens so often in the diet community.
Speaking of this community, I hear a lot of people talking about advocating holistic health but it's really not holistic at all. It's about extending the obsession with all things healthy and natural into every area of life. I'm all for all natural sunscreen, but we've gotta draw a line somewhere. That word has been watered down to nothing. Holistic, to me, means honoring all the outliers as a regular part of life. It means thinking of food as more than sustenance and fuel. It's a social experience, a precious ancient ritual, a joyous necessity to not solely sustain life, but to enjoy it.
You may think eating super duper clean all the time is extending your life, but I'm willing to bet the mental energy you waste on overanalyzing what and when and how you should eat is slicing off a lot more years than you realize. And is spending an hour a day micromanaging your diet or weighing food really worth it? What's the point? I'd rather live a shorter, happier life than live till 100 with the sole purpose of eating only healthy food. What do you value? What is life truly about?
Remember that you can't measure the joy you find in celebrating over good food with friends like you can measure the macros in the salad you ate at home alone after denying the invitation to eat out. Because it's harder, because it's impossible, to quantify the affect that honoring food freedom has on our mental well being, we underestimate its power.
Like I tell my clients, breaking up with dieting is like breaking up with a boyfriend. You'll make mistakes. You'll go back to him even though he treats you like crap. But eventually, you'll get over it. You'll meet someone else and wonder how you were ever with someone who made you so fiercely doubt your self-worth, who made you feel like you needed fixing. You'll find food freedom and you'll never look back. Now I want to tell you a few things I did that helped me get to the mindset I'm at today.
I stopped weighing myself. I threw the scale in the trash. And besides the physical act of stepping on the scale, I stopped wanting to weigh myself. That was huge! My self-worth is not up to the scale.
I stopped trying to fit into clothes from other seasons of life. When I was eating really clean all the time, I wasn't at my natural set weight. Clothes fit me differently. I was bonier. I would've never eaten an entire coffee shop pastry myself for breakfast without freaking out that it didn't have a fruit or vegetable. I wouldn't have looked past the salads I wasn't craving and ordered fried arancini as an appetizer like we did this past weekend. I don't try on my old jean skirt and yearn to be smaller. I throw away the things that don't fit and I wear clothes that are comfortable and that make me feel good. It's so freeing!
I embraced not finishing things. I used to be the person that could never leave a bite of food on the plate and now it's so clear why. Eating something deeply, deeply satisfying used to be an anomaly; so of course I always had to finish every bite. Absence makes the heart grow fonder! We want what we can't have. When I started eating things on a consistent basis that didn't used to make regular appearances, I could actually listen to my fullness cues and stop eating, even if there was food still on the plate. I knew it wasn't the last time I'd let myself enjoy it.
I started letting my boyfriend make food decisions. He has always been such a natural with intuitive eating, as a lot of men are. It used to always be me choosing where we eat out because I was so picky. I wanted to be in control. Dieting is about control. "Oh, they won't have anything for me there." Now he picks and I say, "sounds great!"
I released the rules. I started eating dairy (gasp) like yogurt just to prove to myself that I actually enjoy it, because I do. At first it hurt my stomach because my gut bacteria weren't used to it, and now I feel totally fine when I eat it! Nothing is off limits. I make my food choices, not anyone else.
I paid close attention to how I felt when I was eating. The mind body connection is so huge. We can actually affect how we metabolize food and absorb nutrients just by the mentality we have when eating it. Think about actually enjoying ice cream without any guilt whatsoever, without thinking about how you're going to adjust your gym routine tomorrow to compensate. The beauty!
I released exercise judgement and the all or nothing mentality. I'm at a place now where I move when I want to move. I had a cold and didn't work out for a week and a half. I honored my body and felt no repercussions whereas before I'd feel required to over-exert myself the next week at the gym.
I surrounded myself with like-minded people and media. They say you're the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. I filled my life with inspiring non-diet people. Same goes with social media. I did a mass unfollowing of people who I didn't jive with anymore. Ignorance is sometimes bliss, especially in this case. Out of sight, out of mind.
I stopped contributing to diet culture. I began to realize first hand how often friends and strangers say "You look so skinny," "I feel so fat," "I was so bad this weekend, "That's my weakness," and "I need to eat salad all week." Sometimes I wouldn't respond at all. Other times I'd change the subject. I want no part in fueling that fire.
I stopped the overcompensation. I stopped telling myself I wanted something super duper healthy Monday morning just to make up for a weekend of ample eating and drinking. And I started eating out more! Sometimes we need to break from the rigidity of routine. If eating the same thing every day is your safety net (maybe because you know exactly what's in it, including the calorie count), challenge yourself to eat out!
I wholeheartedly immersed myself in non-diet culture media by reading and listening to everything I could get my hands on. I send all my clients a document called "Happy Eating Resources" which includes links to books like Intuitive Eating, Body Kindness, Health at Every Size, Mastering Your Inner Mean Girl, Start Where You Are, and podcasts like Food Psyche to listen to while they walk throughout the day. I love this episode on the religion of dieting---so eye opening!
Don't let life pass you by for all the wrong reasons. Eat like no one's watching!
This post is still helping people in 2020. Thank you!
Alexis Joseph says
That means the world! Thanks, Monica.
Thank you so much for writing this and sharing your journey. I've followed you for awhile and always envied your meals and breakfasts and delicious treats. I always thought "I wish I could eat like her" or "maybe I'll eat a muffin on Saturday which means I should eat healthy until then". I'm not sure why it took me so long to finally realize that I can do this. I CAN follow in your footsteps. I re-read this blog post (and most of your others on this topic) with an actual intention of reading closely and taking notes. I've had around 7 light bulbs go off within the last hour of reading them. I can't wait to take the next step in eating intuitively (starting with Grandview Cafe and wine night tonight with my best friend).
I can't thank you enough and I cant wait to keep following along with you!
Awwww you made my day! I always worry about content being overwhelming versus inspiring—that’s always a fine balance. It’s easy to forget that food is my life—it’s my job and so much more! Kind of like looking at an interior designer’s house 🙂
Nurit Siegal says
Wow what an amazing, amazing post. absolutely loved reading it!
if you are on a vegan diet for health reasons only, then i don't see any problem with indulging in eggs and dairy when the cravings arise ...
For those that are vegan for ethical reasons primarily .... it actually just feels more guilt-free to indulge in vegan goodies, like your aaaaaaaamazing one bowl chocolate muffins... like... three in one day??
Wow! I love your posts and I am so grateful for your blog. I am recovering from a severe eating disorder and your website has helped me tremendously . Thank you so much for what you do 🙂
Awww thanks love!
I love this post so much. I definitely struggle with the over-compensation point and often feel guilty treating myself to something, as though I don't deserve a cookie now and again! I always feel the need to justify to myself why I'm eating what I'm eating. Sadly I work in an industry where disordered eating is practically the norm, but I just don't FEEL very good when I make choices about what I think I should eat versus what my mind and body actually wants to eat. I always feel a dilemma as an educator who struggles with these things while at the same time trying to teach my students to make mindful choices to fuel their bodies. Your post made me feel hopeful that I can get past this!
Love this post!!! I'm not yet an intuitive eater, but I'm taking small steps away from tracking macros and trying to let go of that way of eating I've followed for so long. Totally hoping I have your same point of view on eating one day soon! Such an inspiration!
I love this and am working towards the same thing. It is exciting to learn to embrace who you really are when it comes to your lifestyle...in my case an indulgent person who loves pleasure (but also wants to thrive and feel good)! It take time to find the balance, especially when you have celiac disease - that definitely adds a whole other layer to the situation. Enjoying the process though :). Thanks for this post!
I'm a 35 European male who has stumbled on your blog just now. I appreciate that I'm not your typical reader.
I actually had quite a different reaction to your blog than many of the people posting above.
I felt happy that you have found the balance you need in your life, but at the same time, I was overwhelmed by the judgmental language - and saw lots of reference to guilt and shame associated with plant-based eating or 'clean' eating.
It strikes me that you were judging yourself very harshly before you went vegan and indeed since you transitioned back, but really you were just making choices based on the information you were faced with at each point. The vegan documentaries you mention are made by compassionate people who want others to have information that is still surprisingly hard to come by. They are making these films in the face of a global commercial food industry that is very aggressively promoting meat, dairy, sugar, additives and convenience food. They do this to make money and they have shown very little consideration towards our collective health.
So where does that leave us? Some of us discover the documentaries, read the studies, meet inspiring advocates and make some changes that we hope will give us health benefits. But many others will not find this information and will therefore not be able to make the choices you or I have made at different times.
This is simply because these counter-industry ideas are not mainstream and therefore get very little airtime compared to the huge marketing reach of the commercial food industry.
My own position is that, having spent my 20s battling a long list of illnesses, I now do whatever I can to boost my immunity. Learning about the ancient principles of Ayurveda changed the way I think about food (and life more generally). I learned about my constitution, what might be beneficial for me and I started to make choices that reflected this. I don't associate food with shame or guilt, and I practice (and seek out) non-judgement. The biggest feeling the change has given me is actually relief - that I no longer get so sick, that I'm no longer lost and adrift in a bewildering food environment. Turns out the answers were all there in a 5,000 year old philosophy.
From there, it was a natural transition to choose plants over meat, and eventually drop dairy too (I already had an egg intolerance). If something has a bit of dairy in, I don't worry about it. I drank milk again and it made me feel sick. I don't feel any desire to eat meat. I don't get as sick anymore. I am calmer and live at a more peaceful pace which I enjoy very much. In summary, life is more enjoyable now.
Of course, there were difficult points along the way - giving up comfort foods that I was hooked on like commercial breakfast cereals, pizza, cheese and so on.
This brings me back to my concern about your post. There are a lot of people who don't have the skills you have and haven't been on the journey you have been on. They are still right back at the beginning - addicted to foods designed by a cynical food industry to hook them in. Foods that have great 'mouthfeel' but very low nutritional content. This is causing people to become diabetic and increasing their risk of heart disease. I worry about America - a country I visit and love - but I also worry about Europe.
I noticed elsewhere on your blog, a reference to healthy living Europeans. As a British-born Greek, I want to let you know that many people are dying in the Mediterranean from heart disease - not to mention lung cancer due to persistently high smoking rates. My father lost many friends in his 60s from heart attacks and cancer. Unfortunately the so-called 'healthy' Mediterranean diet based around olive oil which we hear so much about has changed beyond recognition over the last 50 years as countries like Greece got richer (and now poorer again) - first introducing large amounts of meat as people got wealthier, and then relying more on convenience food as people have become poorer again. This has proved a lethal combination and has eroded the dream of a healthy and long life amidst the olive groves.
I feel an overwhelming sadness for all those who won't find out about healthy choices until it's too late. I know that you will be ok because you have so much information at your fingertips - but others will not and soon, one in three Americans will be obese, whilst people of other constitutions that were never designed to consume large quantities of meat (such as parts of Africa and China) will see a dramatic rise in allergies, intolerances and yes, diseases as a result of the influx of Western eating in their continents.
So please think carefully before posting opinions which may confuse less informed people into thinking they can chug as many frappucinos as they like. I can see you practice moderation and that's an important message too - but do think about all those people who are still addicted, lost or blissfully unaware about the complications of the Western consumer diet, which is still a diet and which must still be questioned and critiqued.
Thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.
Hey there Lawrence,
Thanks for your comment on the article. I truly love learning about new readers and appreciate your constructive criticism. Before I explain myself, it's important you understand that my private practice is largely women with disordered eating/eating disorders, therefore most of my non-recipe blog posts are framed from that perspective. A fair number of my clients used "clean eating" and going vegan as an excuse to fuel their disordered thoughts and eating patterns. It may not be the norm, but it happens. Often. (I do fully respect the choice to do either of the former for health, ethical, or any other reason.)
I eat "clean" and plant-based most of the time, too. But I also enjoy things like bread and pizza and ice cream (dairy free or not) when I want it---something that most of my clients can't say they're able to do without extreme guilt. So, I'm usually speaking on behalf of them and trying to facilitate finding the joy in food. My philosophy as an anti-diet dietitian is eating intuitively, and I highly recommend you give Intuitive Eating a read if you're interested in this topic.
I don't look down upon eating well by any means. I'm a dietitian, after all! That said, while the the "clean eating" movement is overwhelmingly positive, it has plenty of unforeseen negative side effects as well. The obsession with eating healthy all the time, orthorexia, is also a huge concern, and one that hits close to home since again, I work with these clients daily. Eating disorders has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
"This brings me back to my concern about your post. There are a lot of people who don't have the skills you have and haven't been on the journey you have been on. They are still right back at the beginning - addicted to foods designed by a cynical food industry to hook them in. Foods that have great 'mouthfeel' but very low nutritional content. This is causing people to become diabetic and increasing their risk of heart disease. I worry about America - a country I visit and love - but I also worry about Europe."
I realize that most people don't have the skills I have, and that's exactly why I write. To teach and speak to the masses. To show people that perfection shouldn't be the goal. I don't just preach to eat pizza and ice cream and other foods with mouthfeel. You just caught a snippet of what I write. Have you ever read my What I Ate Wednesday posts? They're a great example of the balance I preach. Intuitive eating isn't often misinterpreted to be eating whatever you want at any time, and that's far from the truth. It's not about eating crap all the time. I could write a whole post about these misinterpretations, but I hope you give this a read: https://www.refinery29.com/intuitive-eating-myths. Also, know that I spend weeks, months, and sometimes years working with people of all shapes and sizes to find a healthy balance with fueling themselves with nutritious foods but not at the expense of not loving and enjoying themselves and their lives.
I don't believe you're either "hooked on" breakfast cereal and pizza and the like or your not. And to be honest, a life without those things is one I surely don't want to live. I freaking love a bowl of cereal. And guess what? I'm still really damn healthy.
I've been a dietitian for three years and a blogger for six. I oversee multiple restaurants that serves wholesome, delicious food. Anyone that knows me or has been following me for some time now knows that dumbing down my messaging to "drink as many frappucinos as you like" would be extremely inaccurate and to be honest, insulting. It seems that you're targeting a very tiny piece of a very large picture.
If there's one thing I've learned from blogging, it's that you can never please everybody. Just like anything in the world. It's impossible. Luckily that's not my goal. So I welcome emails like this that come from another perspective because there is indeed always another perspective. But I've been in your shoes. I've been on both sides. And I'd rather my inbox be overflowing with messaging from women who've overcame eating disorders because of my content rather than the ones that criticize me for putting down the clean eating movement.
Just recently found your blog & think I found it at the perfect time.!! I've ways been big on not dieting yet found myself with SO MANY rules. I would eat past full sometimes because even though I allowed all foods in my diet, some I rarely ate & when I did it was usually for something special that meant that I tended to overdo special events to the point making them slightly less fun because eating past full is never fun LOL!! I recently read "Intuitive Eating" & your posts pretty much sum up exactly how I feel about the freedom that comes from truly being an intuitive eater (as opposed to someone who "doesn't diet" but still seems to have a lot of rules) feels. Keep writing these awesome posts that make me want to go out & live a happy free life instead of letting the the "shouldn't" or the "supposed to" food rules suck the fun out of it all (:
Oh man, what an unbelievably raw and wonderful post. I was nodding my head emphatically as I read, and it was incredible how much sense everything you were saying had, even though it went against everything I believed in up until about 2 years ago.
Transitioning to intuitive eating/exercising has been one of the most freeing things I've done yet, and though I still sometimes have those old thoughts, I'm no longer going insane trying to stay at one jean size that is no longer where my body wants to be because hello, bodies change, and I can't look like a 16-year-old for the rest of my life.
Thank you for always keeping it real! I've followed your blog for about 4 years now, and it seemed to always parallel my own journey, so I'm so so glad to see us both evolving :))))