How the Pandemic Helped Me Embrace Weight Gain and Intuitive Eating

I’ve gained a lot more than some weight. I’ve gained freedom from restriction, and space in my life to think about more important things.

When the world shut down last March, so many of us had no idea what lay ahead. Within the fear and uncertainty, was, I admit, a tinge of excitement—the same kind of feeling I had when school got out for summer vacation. An abrupt stop to our routines meant a chance to reinvent myself, and to emerge from the end of this a more confident, more beautiful (read: thinner) woman. I know I wasn’t the only one with this idea.

In fact, barely a month into that first lockdown, which forced gyms to close their doors, weight-gain memes referring to the Quarantine 15—a play off the infamous Freshman 15—started floating around, and have picked up speed since. Fitness gurus and nutritionists started sharing tips about how to lose that pesky quarantine weight. My own friends lamented their new bellies and thicker thighs, and talked about getting their pre-pandemic bodies back. It says a lot about how we feel about fatness as a society when even during a pandemic, which has claimed more than 2.5 million lives around the world, gaining weight is still right up there with the worst thing that could happen.

(Related: How the Pandemic Finally Made Me Confront My Eating Disorder)

As a fat-positive advocate—and someone who routinely shares body positive photos on Instagram—it pains me to admit that I still fight against the instinct to conform to societal standards of beauty. But to deny it wouldn’t be truthful; it would be turning a blind eye to the very real, unattainable expectations we have of ourselves that erode our self-esteem.

In my earliest years, I ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full. I enjoyed the pleasures of delicious-tasting foods, without feeling guilty of overdoing it. Through this way of eating freely, I naturally maintained a weight my individual body was meant to sit at. But somewhere along the line as a child, I began internalizing messages that I should control my eating, restrict my food and become smaller.

Over time, these practices—which manifest as eating disorders for many—disconnected me from myself. I forgot what hunger and satiety felt like. At some of my worst points, physical hunger felt good, like a reward for denying myself what my body needed. I binge ate when restriction became too much, and starved myself to recuperate those losses. Eventually, the cycle became too much and I slowly started to distance myself from it.

When I noticed my disordered tendencies—calorie counting, and building eating plans and workout regimens—kicking in again last March, I pivoted. Now, I thought, was the perfect time to give intuitive eating a real shot.

In the 25 years since registered dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch founded the evidence-based, mind-body health approach called intuitive eating, the anti-diet practice has picked up popularity. The approach, per the latest edition of their book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, aims to free people of chronic dieting and rediscover the pleasure of eating, and involves 10 principles, including rejecting the diet mentality, honouring your hunger and making peace with food. Anti-diet dieticians like Christy Harrison and Ayana Habtemariam have joined the movement, rejecting the diet and weight-loss mentality.

In the past, eating was never intuitive for me. Building a meal plan to keep organized or save money always required consulting the Internet, rather than just asking myself what I wanted and what made me feel good to eat. It was never a decision I made in collaboration with myself, and after years of chronic dieting, I didn’t even know what I really liked or disliked. I didn’t know how to make these decisions from a place of body trust. I posed questions to the Internet that only I could answer for myself.

When I started to follow the principles, I admit, I was afraid of gaining weight. A part of me even wished that this intuitive eating technique would help me lose weight, but I knew there was a possibility it wouldn’t. I had to be okay with that. What I wanted more was the freedom of having no food groups or specific items off the table, ever. I hoped it would improve my anxiety, my self-esteem and my overall happiness. Lo and behold, it did.

(Related: What Made One Woman Obsess Over—Then Quit—the Biggest Wellness Fads)

Being able to cook all my meals at home helped me slow down and reflect on my restrictive eating patterns. I experimented with keeping foods I used to binge on in my cupboards, which went completely against a previously learned weight-loss trick: If it’s not in the house, you won’t eat it. As it turns out, trusting myself to have the foods that are typically seen as “bad” in my kitchen freed me from the intense, insatiable cravings I used to get. Knowing the formerly forbidden foods were there, whenever I felt like eating them, was a freedom I’d never experienced before.

I stopped tricking myself into enjoying substitutes like cauliflower rice and zucchini noodles, and ate things like sticky coconut rice soaked in delicious green curry, and angel hair pasta covered in homemade Bolognese. For the first time in my life, I started cooking with butter. I watched cooking shows and flipped through cookbooks, allowing myself the joy of recreating the indulgent, rich meals that caught my eye, without analyzing their nutritional benefits or macronutrients. Everything really is better with butter.

Like many people, despite keeping active, I’ve gained weight during quarantine. I’ve gained weight. I feel it in my arms, I see it in my face. For a while, I struggled to look at myself during a Zoom call. But I’ve learned that a bit of extra weight, and a few pieces of clothing no longer fitting me, is nothing compared to the agony of constant dieting, and not being able to enjoy foods I love without the fear of getting bigger.

Before this experience, I thought this new way of life could lead to weight loss. In the back of my mind, I still crossed my fingers that once I began eating intuitively, my natural set body weight would be less than what it was. I had to reckon with this not being the case and now, depending on the day, feel mostly okay about it. Sure, I could be smaller, but that would require going back to the way I was living before—and that’s a place I have no interest going to.

I’ve gained a lot more than weight: Like the, freedom from restriction and the space in my life to think about more important things. I’ll be leaving this lockdown with new stretchmarks on my stomach and arms, reminders that I let myself expand into the world with the intention of loving myself more.

Next: This Nutrition Expert Is Encouraging You to Eat the Cookie

Originally Published in Best Health Canada