What I Eat in a Day as an Autistic Person Recovered From an Eating Disorder

autism recovery
What I Eat in a Day as an Autistic Person Recovered From an Eating Disorder

How do I eat intuitively as an autistic person that’s recovered from an eating disorder? This is a question I’ve received so often, and for good reason! I talk all about food freedom, extreme hunger, and honoring your body’s needs, while at the same time talking about how autistic people may struggle with recognizing their body’s cues and how many behaviors that may seem restrictive from an eating disorder lens are actually manifestations of autistic traits. So how does honoring hunger fit together with being autistic? Keep on reading to find out!

As I write in my memoir Rainbow Girl, my eating habits since my youngest years were governed by structure and routine. For 10 years straight, I ate the same thing for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner. When I developed my eating disorder at the age of 11, my whole goal was to eat as “healthy” as possible. Because of my naturally petite frame and high metabolism, just a few pounds of weight loss was enough to land me in the hospital. I was terrified of what was to come, but I remember when I received a meal plan with all these exchanges, the biggest sense of relief washed over me. I finally had a reason to eat a substantial amount of food again because the plan basically gave me permission to do so. Which actually brings me to this whole idea of “fear foods” not really resonating with me. I did have fear foods, but not in the way they’re traditionally labeled in the ED recovery community.

Meal Plans and Fear Foods 

Whereas most people recovering from anorexia fear high-calorie, nutrient-dense food, I honestly didn’t really have a problem eating these foods as long as they followed my plan. But to ensure they followed my plan, they had to be precisely weighed and measured because these were obviously also the foods for which small miscalculations or variations in portion size could lead to different exchanges. Which of course, meant lack of knowledge and therefore lack of trust, and then ultimately would lead me to have anxiety and make it seem as if said high-calorie food was a fear food.

I distinctly remember one discussion with my dietitian when she asked me about my fear foods and I told her one of my fear foods was green peas. She was like, “Why? Green peas can’t be a fear food! They’re vegetables!” But as anyone with an eating disorder knows, green peas are much more starchy than, for example, broccoli or cauliflower, so in my mind they should have been counted as a starch rather than a vegetable exchange. I tried to explain this to my dietitian, but she said I was making it up and that “my eating disorder was talking” and I just remember how invalidated I felt! It wasn’t that I wanted to eat less or not eat green peas – I love green peas! – it was just that the exchange didn’t make sense to me, and therefore, brought up anxiety around counting them as a vegetable!

Even though there were some examples of foods counting as exchanges that I felt I had to be extra cautious around like I just mentioned, my meal plan was my lifeboat for well over 7 years. It gave me a reason to eat, which, now that I think about it, makes total sense from an autistic perspective. I never do anything without reason, and I know that most autistic people resonate with that! We approach everything in such a logical manner. We do our research, we weigh our options (no pun intended), and then draw a conclusion based on the results. Whereas this approach has contributed to many scientific breakthroughs from our autistic friends such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin, this thinking style can also be the Achilles’ heel of autistic people who go on to develop eating disorders. In my case, this need for things to make sense and only taking action when I could somehow justify it through logical reasoning made eating without some kind of structure or routine near impossible.


On top of that neurodivergent people tend to lack interoceptive awareness. Interoception is the sense through which you monitor the inner state of your body, meaning it’s responsible for telling you whether you’re hungry or thirsty, too hot or too cold, tired or energetic, you get the idea. So when Instagram influencers or healthcare professionals tell you to “rate your hunger on a scale from 1 to 10” or to “listen to your body” and “honor your hunger,” what they’re actually saying is to interpret your interoceptive awareness. But how can you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full if you’re unable to recognize these cues? That’s right. The puzzle becomes a bit more complex than the “peace and ease” these people promote.

That being said, autistic people need a different approach. Even before I discovered I’m autistic, I felt this in my flesh and bones. Treatment wasn’t working. The advice to “eat intuitively” didn’t align. Being “spontaneous” and allowing food to be unpredictable gave me more anxiety than the freedom I was promised. If you’re in the same boat, you’re not alone, you’re not crazy, and you’re not the anomaly who just has to “manage” and ED for the rest of your life. In fact, THE fact that you know the traditional treatment approach isn’t working for you, already puts you leaps and bounds further than most people who are still stuck in trying to fit a mold they were never meant to fit!

Autism and Intuitive Eating

So what is the autistic approach? How can you eat intuitively? How do I do this? Well first of all, I don’t like this whole “intuitive” terminology with regards to eating. To elaborate, let’s read the definition of the word intuition! As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the noun “intuition” is defined as the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference. As I mentioned earlier, autistic people are incredibly logical. We are ALWAYS using evident rational thought and inference, which makes us so detail oriented and creative! But as you can conclude from the definition of intuition, we simply cannot “be intuitive” if our brains work in a completely different fashion. And actually, it’s not just our brains that have an impact on this inability to understand and interpret inner cues. The state of your nervous system also plays a huge role!

Nervous System

The term “nervous system” is an umbrella term for several subsystems. It can be broken down into the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord and is responsible for interpreting incoming information, formulating appropriate reactions, and sending responses to the appropriate systems within the body. The peripheral nervous system is made up of nerves that branch off from the spinal cord and extend to all parts of the body. The peripheral nervous system can be further divided into two subsystems, one controlling external responses and one controlling internal responses.

Your somatic nervous system is the division of the peripheral nervous system that governs the external activities of the body. Your autonomic nervous system is the division of the peripheral nervous system that governs the internal activities of the body, so as you may have guessed, this is the system we will be paying the most attention to!

Autonomic Nervous System

When you think of the autonomic nervous system, some thoughts about fight or flight mode and rest and digest mode may come up. If so, you’re on the right track! Historically, the autonomic nervous system has been divided into two systems that oppose each other: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with fight-or-flight behaviors and the parasympathetic nervous system is associated with growth, healing, and restoration.

Although this paired-antagonistic model of the autonomic nervous system is highly prevalent in most textbooks and forms of health education, it fails to explain several aspects of human biology. A much richer and all-encompassing explanation lies in the polyvagal theory, a model of the autonomic nervous system created by the psychiatrist and neuroscientist Stephen Porges.

Polyvagal Theory

The term “polyvagal” combines “poly,” meaning “many,” and “vagal,” which refers to the nerve called the “vagus.” Your vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body and therefore directly influences many important systems including your breathing, heart rate, and digestion. It can be divided into a left and right branch that originate in two different parts of the brain.

The Polyvagal theory views the autonomic nervous system differently from the “old model” by breaking it down into not two, but three unique branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the dorsal vagal complex (DVC), and the ventral vagal complex (VVC). I know these terms sound crazy scientific, but stay with me here! I promise I’ll explain all of it simply.

The old model divides the entire ANS into the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is known to be influenced by the vagus nerve. The polyvagal theory takes our understanding of the parasympathetic nervous system a step further by dividing it into the DVC and VVC, two complexes that are associated with the two different branches of the vagus nerve.

The dorsal vagal complex (DVC) is the phylogenetically oldest circuit of your ANS. It’s shared with all vertebrates, including reptiles. So similar to how our brainstem, the oldest part of our brain, is referred to as the reptilian brain as you learned in Module 2, the branch of the vagus associated with the DVC is often referred to as the “reptilian vagus.”

One of the earliest survival strategies of vertebrates is “death feigning,” which can be observed as behavioral shutdown as well as other symptoms of immobilization in humans. Think: feeling numb, blanking out, dissociating, etc. For this reason, the DVC is also known as the shut-down circuit or the immobilization system. The inhibition of movement slows heart rate, decreases metabolism, and conserves oxygen, which are adaptive responses for reptiles who can survive without oxygen for long periods of time. However, as you probably know, us humans need oxygen 24/7! The body is highly adaptive, so throughout evolution, it developed another threat response that became our first line of defense: the sympathetic nervous system.

In contrast to the DVC that causes immobilization, the sympathetic nervous system supports mobilization behaviors and can therefore be referred to as the mobilization system. The SNS regulates your body’s fight-or-flight response by preparing the body for imminent danger. When your SNS is activated, your heart rate increases to deliver more blood to areas of your body that need more oxygen.

The last circuit we will be discussing is the phylogenetically newest circuit: the ventral vagal complex (VVC). It is part of the parasympathetic nervous system along with the dorsal vagal complex, but is associated with a different branch of the vagus. In fact, the ventral branch of the vagus projects to structures including the head, face, and throat, making it a key player in your ability to speak, eat, and breathe. Because of its influence in social communication, the VVC is also known as the social engagement system.

How the nervous system impacts hunger

Now you may be wondering, what does all of this have to do with intuitive eating? Well, autistic people are often either in their sympathetic nervous system or dorsal vagal complex, and this may actually be a reason why autistic people have trouble in social situations, but that’s a whole nother topic :)

I often talk about how being autistic can feel like living in a constant state of fight-or-flight, as when you’re living in a world that wasn’t built for you, you are quite literally surviving in threatening circumstances! Obviously, the body cannot be in fight-or-flight mode forever, as being in this state demands incredible amounts of energy. So if you as an autistic person don’t get time to recharge, don’t get enough rest, or really don’t get enough of anything else you know you need to self-soothe, your body will revert to its most primitive autonomic circuit and your dorsal vagal complex will be activated. What does this tell us about autistic shutdowns and meltdowns? Those are both examples of how the body attempts to preserve itself. They’re not “problematic behaviors” like so many ableist people say, they’re adaptive survival mechanisms!

How this applies to intuitive eating – or rather the lacking ability to “be intuitive” with food – is that fight-or-flight mode and dorsal vagal shutdown both cause homeostatic processes to be put on the back burner. Any systems that support growth, healing, and restoration, including the ingestion of food, are not priorities when your body needs to escape danger. After all, evolution would have made a grave mistake if it prompted you to casually sit down and *mindfully* eat a sandwich if you needed to run away from a tiger!

Logical eating

All that being said, I believe a much more appropriate term to use when it comes to eating as an autistic person instead of “intuitive eating” is logical eating. When I’m stressed, my hunger cues go way outta whack, not to mention my entire digestive system. If I followed the whole “ohh I’m gonna rate my hunger on a scale of 1-10 and eat until I’m comfortably full!” all the time, I would probably not even be alive right now. And that’s obviously from the perspective of not feeling hungry, but what about when you also never feel full? That’s also a feeling I know all too well! My body seems to often flip flop between two states. Some days or weeks, I’ll not have physical hunger and I follow my mental hunger – or thinking about wanting to eat – to guide my eating decisions. But then other weeks, it’ll be like my stomach did a 180 degree flip and it can feel like the kitchen is pulling me to come eat everything but the kitchen sink!

This all has to do with the body’s attempt to keep itself in homeostasis, because the reality is that the body is not static and sometimes we do just need more food. But that’s of course also where food and eating gets another layer of complexity for autistic people recovering from eating disorders, because we want food to be predictable! We want to be able to eat the same amounts every day! We don’t want our body’s needs to change, because then that means we have to change.

But the reality of life is that change is the only constant. You cannot control your body’s needs, meaning that trying to do so will only result in having an eating disorder for the rest of your life. You're reading this though, because you do want food freedom. You do want to eat in a way that’s not governed by rules, while still following the routines your autistic self thrives on. And it’s bringing these two concepts together that results in my approach to eating: it’s all about having freedom routines. What do I mean by this?

Freedom routines

Personally, I have a daily food structure. I have a certain amount of meals and snacks that are always going to be part of my daily routine, and I love this routine. It’s predictable, I know what I can expect, and it provides me with a structure that allows me to feel safe. However, I don’t want to be governed by this routine. That’s exactly what an eating disorder did to me long enough! If I want to go out to lunch or have an unplanned ice cream, I want there to be space for that. Insert: freedom routine! I have my daily eating structure and I have flexibility within that. An example of this may be that I had my usual breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, and Oh! I’m on a walk and it’s hot and you know what? I’m suddenly really craving an ice cream cone.

During my ED days, I would have said “oooh no, can’t have an ice cream cone at like 4pm, that would mess up the whole plan.” But if at that moment I really wanted an ice cream cone, my plan would restrict me, and therefore prevent me from living a life that’s aligned with my core value of freedom. So maybe in my recovery days, I would have allowed myself the ice cream cone, but to make sure the day would be “balanced,” I would delete my night snack. But also during my recovery days, my night snack was HOLY. No joke. I spent the whoooole day looking forward to my nighttime feast. In anticipation of this, I’d likely still not have the ice cream cone to “preserve” my night snack. Looking back now, I clearly see my entire mindset was rooted in scarcity. I was so afraid of feeling a different level of fullness, so afraid of the guilt or anxiety that would come from changing the plan, that I kept everything the same, all the time.

But the result of this was not food freedom. It was being a slave. So I knew that if I wanted freedom, even if that was my own unique version of it, I had to stop enslaving myself to rules. And I did this through having my rules – so the eating structure I mentioned previously – and making space for flexibility in between them. In the case of the ice cream cone, how I would have challenged this in the past is to pick out a certain day or certain days of the week that I would have that “extra” ice cream cone at 4pm and not change ANYTHING else about my day. Yes, of course this brought up fear and anxiety, and it will for you if you resonate with my experience, but it goes to show that you CAN challenge yourself and the ED fears by using your autistic trait of desiring predictability to plan exactly when and how you’re going to do this.

How do I eat now?

As someone who is fully recovered from an eating disorder, I still use this approach! Everything in my life needs to be predictable for me to feel safe, so it would not only be unrealistic if this didn’t also apply to food, it would just be weird. THAT would not make sense! I have my set meals and snacks, and if I want more or less, there’s margins for that. Because again, change is the only constant. You can fight it and be at a lifelong war with yourself, or you can accept it and make peace with yourself. Don’t get me wrong, change is still super hard for me. But I’ve accepted that some kinds of change are out of my control. And you can’t control what you can’t control. A hard truth, but the truth nonetheless!

The food scale

If you read my recent post on why I do NOT believe in smashing the food scale, you’re probably dying to know how the food scale fits into my life! As I said in that post, I still own a food scale. For many years, I tried on and off to not use it, but every time I put it away and out of sight, I just felt really lost. Every time I tried to go make food, I would go into that dorsal vagal shutdown state and I just wouldn’t know what or how much to eat. If a traditional eating disorder professional who’s completely shut themselves off to being neurodivergent-affirming heard me say this, they’d probably say this was an “excuse” of my eating disorder or whatever. But I know my truth, and that is that numbers have always given me a sense of safety. Knowing what time something starts, when it’s going to end, doing certain tasks at certain times, constantly counting things in my head…this has been my life since I remember having a conscious thought, meaning this is a characteristic that inherently makes me me! So I’m not going to fight it. In fact, I embrace it!

I was talking about the food scale a few weeks ago with one of my clients and she so eloquently explained how a food scale can fit into the life of an autistic person. We share a love of smoothies, and we were totally both connecting over how we’ve both perfected our smoothie recipe, meaning we have all the ingredient ratios perfect. She said that this perfect smoothie brings her so much joy, and that’s what living a life of freedom is all about. However, if she didn’t use her food scale, she may not get the ratios right and therefore, her smoothie wouldn’t be as good. So why would she force herself into that position if she doesn’t need to? Well that’s why she won’t! She knows her truth and owns it, just like I know mine and own it. And deep down, you know yours. Now go own it!

And that's a wrap! I really hope me sharing about how I approach eating as an autistic person gave you insight and encouragement, and also permission that you don’t have to strive for this ideal of “intuitive eating.” It’s okay to approach eating like you do everything else, which is logically! We all have to eat every day, for the rest of our lives, so you might as well make the experience as peaceful as you can! If you want more guidance on how to create your own logical eating structure, schedule a consultation call for 1-1 coaching here. And if you mention that you scheduled this call after reading this post, I’ll even send you a free copy of my cookbook Nourishing Neurodiversity which contains some *perfect* smoothie recipes, if I do say so myself ;)

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