Eating what I want

Two years ago, at the height of my health kick, I followed a meal plan that had me counting exactly 10 almonds for a snack and competing with friends as to who could eat the smallest bite of dessert.

Today, I'm a convert to the idea of intuitive eating, where I eat what I want, when you want - and my clothes still fit and I look good.

Sounds magical? It's, in fact, logical.

Intuitive eating is about returning to a natural, healthy relationship with food. It's about honest and guilt-free satiety replacing the binge-starvation cycles so popular with affluent inhabitants of the First World chasing a weight-loss goal.

Intuitive eating is what my mother has been trying to teach me her entire life. "Just listen to your body" is what she says.

Other fitness influencers support her view. Popular bloggers such as the Fit Bottomed Girls and Kelsey Miller of lifestyle website Refinery29 love the hashtag "antidiet".


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Miller is famous for The Anti-Diet Project, blogging her journey from self-loathing to healthy balance. After a lifetime of being penalised for loving food because she was plump, at age 29, she gave up crash diets and decided to relearn her body's hunger cues. She started going to the gym for fitness and fun and not to achieve a number on the scale. For more, read her new book, Big Girl.

Her experience is typical of many in First World nations who have easy access to food. For Miller, food has been the enemy for years and she is only now befriending it.

My own experience with such irrational behaviour is confined to a few months in 2014, when I first started seeing myself as an athlete. No-carbohydrate diets, such as the paleo diet, were popular with gymgoers then, as were all-raw-food diets and juice cleanses.

I like my vegetables cooked, prefer fruit to juice and the high point of my day is the morning coffee and cake with my family before we disperse to work.

Then my trainer said the magic words: "If you want to do a pull-up, it will be easier if you weigh less. There will be less to lift."

Sold. No carbohydrates and calorie restriction was going to make me a ninja warrior.

I went from a size 16 to a size 10 in 12 weeks. I ate two hard-boiled eggs and a ton of vegetables for breakfast - fruit was the enemy and beware of bananas - and a hunk of chicken or fish with the same sides for dinner and lunch. Twice a day, I ate exactly 10 almonds for a snack. Coffee was taken black and a cake was forgiven if it was followed by an hour of cardiovascular workout (not to be confused with the other hour of weight training).

I felt great even though I still couldn't manage a pull-up. Even though my mother started watching me very carefully at mealtimes with a new set of wrinkles in her brow.

Then I fell and broke my elbow. I still can't believe this of me, but in that first month, when the orthopaedist thought I might never bend my left arm again, when I couldn't sit, stand or lie down without my arm firing red-hot needles into my body, I was Googling "work-out strategies when arm is broken".

I even found a series of exercises, which I planned to use to offset the extra calories I had to consume while healing.

Thank heavens for the painkillers that kept me asleep and for a mother who pointed out that I would never do a pull-up if I joggled the bone while it set.

Fast-forward to May last year. Bone healed, joint mobility regained, I signed up for a swim-run event.

There are multisport athletes who swear by a no-carb and paleo diet, but I could not stick to that. I needed fuel of the peanut butter- and-honey sandwich kind. Maybe the occasional cake as well since I was swimming 2km a week and running 12km, not to mention the weight training. My father was making his famous custard trifle - I had to have a tiny slice since I would work it off later.

I binged for a few weeks, found my jeans wouldn't fit and, worse, my running speed had dropped. I knew I had to find some sort of balance between feast and famine.

"Listen to your body. Watch yourself," said my mother for the billionth time.

So I did. I began eating mindfully.

Mindful eating means asking yourself what will really nourish your body. Will 10 almonds do or is a substantial meal called for, with noodles or rice as well as meat and two servings of vegetables? Really want dessert? Then relish each bite and hum to drown out the doomsday urge to go for a run afterwards.

Eat when hungry, eat enough and it keeps you happy and satisfied until you are hungry again. It is so simple, but it is surprising how easy it is to distrust that the body - this amazing evolved organism - knows what it needs to be healthy and active.

Today marks 51 weeks of relatively mindful eating and I am still a size 10.

I find that if I allow myself to eat everything I want, whenever I want, I actually want a lot of spinach and steamed salmon and fresh homemade roti. Some days, I crave salty fries or laksa for lunch. Other days, I can digest only two hard-boiled eggs with a banana for breakfast, followed by a snack of almonds.

When a friend from Germany baked me apple cake dripping with brown sugar and cinnamon and nuts, I enjoyed several post-dinner slices and had extra energy for a run the next day. And I did a one-minute dead hang, with the beginnings of movement towards a pull-up.

It is possible to have your cake and eat it too, guilt-free. Just ask your body what it really wants and trust the answer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'Eating what I want'. Print Edition | Subscribe