We managed to avoid it for over three years, but COVID finally got us. Joanne and I developed strange sensations in our throats virtually simultaneously and then tested positive a couple of days later. Whether due to the disease itself or as a side effect of Paxlovid, we developed terrible tastes in our mouths. Joanne described it as tasting like gasoline, while to me it seemed more a combination of cheese, bad breath, and metal. Additionally, I experienced waves of queasiness and a drastically reduced appetite.
Some of my patients talk about how much easier it is for them to eat intuitively when they are sick versus when they are fully healthy, and my experiences were somewhat similar to their own. When our appetites are diminished and food seems off-putting, our range of tolerable eating options shrinks considerably, which ironically makes food selection easier because foods we are willing and able to eat stand out in greater contrast to the rest.
Sometimes my patients, when they are ill, have an easier time practicing unconditional permission for a couple of reasons. First, because their array of appealing foods is so small, their only realistic option is to go with these foods. Second, because they are sick, they feel they are more deserving of self-care than when they are healthy, so they worry less about their perceived nutritional quality of food or about what they “should” be eating.
Being sick is so unpleasant and disruptive that at least making food choices can be easier for the aforementioned reasons, yet we can learn lessons from eating while sick that we can apply when we are healthy.
Choosing from a vast sea of eating options can be difficult and overwhelming, which is why deciding what to order from the Cheesecake Factory’s massive menu can be challenging. It is why, when our daughter demands “Choices!” when I ask her what she wants for a given meal, I offer her a small selection of different foods. We do advocate for having a wide variety of foods on hand at home so we have a reasonable shot at being able to satisfy whatever criteria our intuitive eating questions lead us to, but selection can nevertheless be hard if every option feels appealing. As when we are sick, having a smaller range of options that sounds good can make the process easier, but we can accomplish the same objective without being ill by eating before the magnitude of our hunger grows to unwieldy levels.
Only some of my patients utilize a hunger/fullness continuum, as it can sometimes be counterproductive if misused, but those who do know that we define a “3” as a comfortable hunger where we are ready for a meal and we are able to discern which foods sound like they will best hit the spot. In contrast, we define a “2” as a hunger that has grown uncomfortable, where we may feel irritable and stressed, and choosing what to eat can be especially challenging because our bodies are essentially telling us, “I don’t care what you feed me, just give me food!”
By eating before we get to a “2,” we give ourselves an opportunity to separate the most appealing foods more easily from the rest of our options. The practicalities of real life sometimes preclude us from being able to have our meals and snacks exactly when our body’s hunger cues suggest we are best off eating, but through experience, we can learn how to incorporate well-timed snacks that have us arriving at mealtime comfortably hungry rather than ravenous.
In terms of unconditional permission and the relative ease with which we can practice it when we are sick, remember that we are always deserving of self-care – including having the freedom to eat what, when, and how much we want without justification – regardless of our state of health. Think of self-care as something to be practiced not just when we are ill and need to get better, but also when we are already well and hope to stay that way. Personally, I can remember many times over the last few decades when I put self-care to the side, disregarded what my body was asking for, and ended up in a state of illness that was arguably avoidable if I had taken better care of myself.
Next time you are sick, consider the lessons about your eating that you can take with you as you leave the illness behind.