Reverse Dieting and Learning to Eat Intuitively

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I spent so many years of my life trying every different diet and fad attempting to find effective ways to lose weight and “get toned.” I went as far as trying the Hollywood diet, which is awful and had me utterly miserable all day, and doing the cayenne-lemon-juice cleanse.  Sure, they might have been effective for a day, but I quickly gained whatever water weight I had lost (because really that’s all that you can lose or gain in a short amount of time). Most of these led to years of battling with eating disorders, you can read my story about those here.

Then I resorted to just counting calories and keeping my carbs super low. I succumbed to the mentality that I needed to eat 1200 calories or less in order to see progress.  I was also doing crossfit at the time. Not only did I have low energy and never gained any strength, but I could never rid myself of that “spare tire” around my belly, no matter how little I ate. Plus, I was hungry ALL THE TIME, and would very easily get the urge to binge quite frequently because of it. My body just wasn’t happy.

In the beginning of last year I joined Eat to Perform. I just wanted a little guidance, and I was tired of being at a standstill with my strength and body composition. So I signed up.  The coaches gave me specific macro-nutrients to hit every day, and it immediately scared me. Hitting over 2000 calories a day with 200 grams of carbohydrates seemed like a LOT! I was hesitant, but I also trusted that this would help my workouts a lot and that I would at least see progress in the gym.

So what happened?

Well, my workouts definitely felt a lot better and I had a ton more energy. In the beginning, the scale went up a little and I had some bloat. I was told it was normal to gain 5lbs or so though, especially when coming from a low-calorie and low-carb background, since your muscles are filling with water (which is why they call it carbohydrate), but that it should stabilize once my metabolism adjusted.

In the past, with my old eating-disordered mentality, I would run away as fast as I could at this and resort back to a restrictive diet. But I was tired of “dieting” all the time, and wanted this time to be different.  I didn’t want to be on a diet anymore.  I didn’t want to be hungry anymore.  I didn’t want to be tired anymore. I just wanted to eat the amount of fuel that my body needed for energy to sustain my workouts, gain strength, maintain good health and do some body re-composition.  And I needed to actually stick with something before I made any judgments about it. Results do not happen overnight!

And what do you know, my body did start to adjust quickly, and the changes were positive. Since I am so active, my body was not getting enough fuel from the food I was eating. When your body does not get the fuel it needs from food sources, it is a natural response for it to store fat for energy. One of the best places for it to store that fat is in the abdomen. Once I started eating the amount that my body needed, I saw changes.  Below is a photo of my body’s three-month progress, left is January 2016 coming from eating an average of 1400 calories a day, and right is March 2016 after increasing to an average of 1900 calories a day.

reverse dieting effects
Left: January 2016, 1400 calories. Right: March 2016, 1900 calories.

Not a crazy dramatic difference, but my stomach did get tighter and I lost an inch in my waist.  If I had shown that photo to others, most people would have probably assumed that I had decreased my daily calorie intake in the right photo, and not increased it by nearly 500 calories.

While I had a mostly good experience with Eat to Perform, I did not want to be logging and measuring all of my food in the long term. ETP was good because it helped me to see food as fuel and energy, and I didn’t see carbs as evil and scary anymore. Logging my intake everyday gave me a sense of how much food my body needs, and it got me into the habit of eating enough protein and carbs daily. I learned what foods my body responded the best to, and how to listen to what exactly it needs.

I enjoyed getting more food to eat, but I didn’t always enjoy the process. I had to plan everything out ahead of time, otherwise I would end up playing “macro tetris.” My husband and I had different macros to follow, so the day before I would program dinner in, since we eat that together, and then fill in the spaces around it to fill in the rest of my macro needs. It ended up taking a lot of my time. Every night I would program food for the next day, which would sometimes get frustrating since not everything would fit perfectly, so I’d have to adjust my snacks or my meals around until I had foods that fit into my macro allowance. Sometimes this would take a while to do, because dinner was going to be high in fat so I couldn’t have too much fat for the beginning of the day, or I would be perfect in protein and fat but way under in carbs, and instead of eating a bag of dates I’d have to figure out which meals to change that had higher carbs along with protein and fat. Once I was finished programming my food for the next day I had to pack everything and get it ready to take the next day, which meant measuring out my portions to make sure I was eating the right amount, and putting it all into containers and bags to take the next day. Sometimes this whole process would take a couple of hours. It was taking time away that I could be spending relaxing on the couch with my husband, or doing chores that need to be done, or reading. I felt like it was too obsessive and that it led to orthorexia in me.

Counting Calories

For some people, macro counting can be a great thing, and very beneficial.  Some like all of the planning and the control they get with strict meal planning.  And if you are training for a competition or a show, this can be helpful.  But for someone like me, it can be dangerous.  I come from a long history of eating disorders, and the constant planning can get to be too obsessive, so much so that I can’t be happy unless I am following everything strictly, and will beat myself up over the little things that aren’t perfect.  I definitely thought at many times that I had orthorexia or some sort of disordered eating. I feel like I’m in control, but it starts to control me, and my life revolves around what fits into my meal plan.  I couldn’t go out with friends and enjoy myself unless I knew that whatever I would consume fit into my macros.  My husband and I would plan our weekly date nights out a few days in advance so that we could fit everything we ate into our numbers, and skipped out on some of our favorite restaurants because they didn’t fit.

But I stuck with it in order to form a habit of getting enough food.  And it definitely helped. But after doing it for several months, I felt that I had learned how to tell what my body needed and how to estimate portions correctly. And I wanted more freedom. I didn’t want to look at food and think that I couldn’t eat or cook what I wanted to because it didn’t fit into my numbers perfectly. So I devised a plan to slowly phase out of food logging and learn to eat intuitively.


Reading nutrition labels

How I phased out of Food Logging

I only logged at the end of the day, after I had already eaten. For the first week of this process, I still logged everything, but not until the end of the day. I didn’t plan ahead, I just packed the foods I wanted to and the foods I thought my body would respond well to. Then, at the end of the day, I would log everything I ate and see how I did. I mainly focused on my protein numbers and made sure I was eating enough. And I found that even without planning ahead, I was still following my macros pretty well.

I started logging less. I then took it down to only logging every other day, and then once a week. I started transfer my concentration more on what my body was telling me then the numbers in my food log.

I started to listen to my body and examine my hunger. I tuned into my body and examined how I was feeling, and learned to listen to my body for the cues it gave me. If you are truly listening to your body, it will tell you what it needs.  I started learning how to gauge my hunger and how to tell if I was really emotionally or physically hungry (see tips below).


Eating Intuitively

How I Gauge Hunger

Where is the Hunger?  Whenever I felt “hungry”, I first would stop and examine where I felt the hunger. Hunger is a physical feeling, and builds slowly, whereas emotional hunger is sudden.  I have mistaken appetite, thirst and indigestion for hunger before. I usually take a couple deep breaths, and feel my stomach. If it was just my appetite or a craving, the feeling was mainly in my head. Something might sound good (like that plate of pastries in the break room), but if I stop to think about it, my body does not really want it. I was feeling just fine up until I saw the treats.
I’d drink a glass of water and see how I felt.  If I start to feel better and it seems to satisfy me, then I was probably a bit dehydrated.  Not getting in enough water can also make you feel foggy and tired.
If the feeling was in my chest and felt like a bubble, then I knew it wasn’t hunger, it was indigestion.
But if the feeling was coming from my stomach, and it felt empty, or if it is grumbling, or if I have low energy, weakness or lightheadedness then I was probably hungry.

Could I eat Tuna and Carrots? Another way that helps is to picture something that wouldn’t normally be appetizing to me unless I was actually hungry.  For example, if I feel like I could eat a donut but don’t feel like I could eat tuna and carrots, then it’s not hunger, it’s a craving.

What does my body need? Then, I would stop to analyze what it was that my body needed.  Often, if our body is craving specific foods, then it is looking for certain nutrients.  I usually stop to think what would satisfy me more–nuts, meat or potatoes.  If I feel like I’d be more satisfied with nuts, then my body is looking for fats.  If I feel like I’d more more satisfied with meat, then my body needs protein.  And if I feel like potatoes or rice would satisfy me, then my body was craving carbs.

I also find the Food Cravings Chart to be very helpful.

Am I getting enough food?  This can be difficult, but there are signs that can help you gauge if your body is getting enough fuel.  I first analyze my energy levels.  If I am feeling tired, weak, foggy, or irritable, then I probably need more fuel.  How are my workouts? If I feel like I can’t finish them, or don’t have energy to do them, or feel lightheaded or faint while doing them, then I need more food.  I also know that if I start to constantly have low energy, lack of sleep, more hair falling out and constant irritability or moodiness that I need to up my overall intake of food.  “Hangry” is a real thing!


Food isn’t as scary to me anymore, and I do thank Eat to Perform for helping me to get out of the mindset that more calories and carbohydrates are bad. My body is so much happier with eating more food.  I have a ton more energy throughout the day and for my workouts, and am finally gaining more muscle.  And no more urges to binge! I do not feel that I am deprived or missing out on anything.  I still focus on filling my body with whole, clean foods that it will benefit from instead of artificial, sugary processed junk that will not satisfy it.  And I love how I feel!

It was a process to improve my relationship with food and get to where I can eat intuitively without feeling stressed out, and it’s still not perfect, but it’s much better and I am still learning day to day how to healthily fuel my body.  But I am much happier now that I am not adhering to a strict regimen and have more freedom with my meals.  My life does not revolve around my food, rather, food fits nicely into my life.  Every once in a while I do log a day of food, mainly because I’m curious of how much protein and carbs I’m getting in (I want to build those muscles!), but I try to never let it stress me out or dictate how I feel.  It’s a process, but it’s worth it!

Bananas and Candy

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