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Have you ever felt guilty for eating something like a whole candy bar or an ice cream sundae? Then, have you thought something along the lines of: “I’ll just have a salad for dinner and burn off everything I ate in the gym”? Think about this for a moment. Why would eating something we enjoy shoot off into restrictive, possibly unhealthy behaviors? Well, because that’s what diet culture has programmed us with. This is, in fact, the Food Police (society, media, family, friends, “health gurus”) operating to regulate our eating behaviors, instead of letting us trust our bodies.
In this post, I’m going to share how to challenge the food police and stop having rules around food, in order to achieve a positive relationship with it.
“Scream a loud “No” to thoughts in your head that declare you’re “good” for eating minimal calories or “bad” because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created. The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loud speaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in returning to Intuitive Eating”.Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating
Dealing with the food police
So what exactly is the food police? It’s the thoughts in your head, the beliefs and the negative voices telling you what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. It judges everything you put into your mouth. The food police typically stems from diet culture. From things diets have told to you, to things people have told you, things magazines have told you, etc. It can be hard to know which food facts are true and which ones have come from diet culture.
One of the main characteristics of the food police is guilt and moralization. Moralizing foods into “good”, “bad”, “healthy”, “unhealthy”, “clean”, etc is what fuels the guilt many experience after eating a “sinful” food.
I like how in the book Intuitive Eating, the authors point out that,” The quality of any of these ‘bad’ foods has almost nothing to do with the level of despair that is felt when they are eaten”. They cite Roberta Pollack Seid’s book, Never Too Thin, on how these moralistic views of food and diet laws we follow resemble a false religion-the religion of diet culture.
Food morality and the diet industry
And it seems like a very lucrative “religion” indeed. Think of how the diet industry feeds off our sense of food guilt. Foods and food products labels as such only add more fuel to the fire:
- “Zero guilt”
- “Guilty pleasure”
These food labels only serve to drive the message deeper that the normal and necessary need to eat is “shameful” and must be chastised at all costs. (And it also doesn’t hurt them that they’re cleaning out your wallet, meanwhile). It also triggers compensating behaviors, such as over exercising in order to “atone” for committing a food sin.
But, like I’ve said so many times, food is just food! We need it to live, but we also have a right to enjoy it without the food police breathing down our necks. Which is why this principle (#4) of intuitive eating is so crucial for gaining food freedom.
Dealing with the food police involves, first of all, identifying the thoughts we have around food, plus dealing with our own beliefs and feelings around food. Don’t worry, I’ll give you a series of steps you can try. Remember, as with anything related to the diet mentality, it takes time and effort to unpack all those years of conditioning we’ve had.
Identifying the food police
OK, let’s jump right in. Like I said, first we have to identify the thoughts that are the food police talking, and then we learn how to challenge and replace these thoughts into healthier ones. This in time will help change our feelings, beliefs and attitudes about food, helping us become the intuitive eaters we were born to be.
Ask yourself this questions: Is obsessing so much over food and dieting really making us as a society happier?
Common food police talk
You know when the food police has pulled you over when you hear (or think) the following:
- That has too many calories
- You shouldn’t eat after “x” hour (I hear this one a lot!)
- That’s too high in “_____” (carbs, sugar, fats, etc.)
- You’ll gain weight if you eat that
- You ate too much, you shouldn’t eat for the rest of the day
- You have to “work off” that cupcake
- It’s not time to eat yet
- You just ate, how could you still be hungry?
It’s interesting that even if you’re not dieting, the inner food police can still be very much present. It is ready at any moment to second guess and question your intuition a food preferences. This is disempowering on so many levels!
In fact, I personally consider external food rules as an invasion our our boundaries. Let me explain: would you let someone tell you when is the correct moment to go to the bathroom, even if you have to go, like, right now? That’s what dieting does: it disregards our natural need for food and tries to regulate it to conform to socially constructed body types.
So what can you do about it? In essence, change your beliefs, thoughts and behaviors about food. It’s not always easy, but it is a worthy goal in order to gain freedom around food. You’ll learn to eat the foods you really want to, while checking your thoughts to be sure they support your choices. But first, let’s see what being free from the food police can look like.
What does living without the food police look like?
Like I’ve mentioned before, we were not born with the food police monitoring our eating behaviors. These negative feelings and beliefs about food come from:
- Diet culture
- Media (especially women’s magazines)
- Diet industry marketing
We were born to be intuitive eaters. As an example, here’s what enjoying food without guilt or moralizing can look like:
Recently, my 8 year old daughter wanted an ice cream sundae, so I bought her one (I’m raising my kids to be intuitive eaters). I watched with amusement how she enjoyed her ice cream with abandon, squealing over how good it tasted and how cold and creamy the texture was. “This is sooo good, Mami!”, she exclaimed. When we got home, she just went about her merry way, no food guilt or worrying about how she was going to “burn it off”.
I thought, ” Dang, this is how eating is supposed to be when we’re not bombarded with all those external food and diet rules”. Pure, simple enjoyment, with the satisfaction that comes from eating what we really want. I would never want my kids to feel unworthy or inadequate because of what society says is “right” or “wrong” to eat. I will not allow anyone to tell them how to be or what to feel, especially when honoring their bodies’ messages.
Getting rid of the food police
As we can see from the above example, getting rid of the food police allows you to:
- Learn to trust your body
- Develop body respect
- Make food choices based on satisfaction and inner needs
- Tune out the external diet culture noise and tune into yourself
Eating according to one-size-fits-all rules doesn’t take into account the diversity of our bodies and our needs.
One of the main ways to get rid of the food police, through changing our thoughts, beliefs and behaviors around food, is by eliminating food rules. In this next section, I’ll explain what food rules are and how to stop letting them run your life.
Examples of food rules
Just like the food police talk I discussed above, food rules are adopted from diet culture, and can be imbedded deep in our psyche. Plus, they’re directly related to the food police messages. And although food rules can make us feel in control, that’s just because diet culture has taught us that we can’t trust our own bodies. Here are some examples of food rules, so you can be more aware of what to look for when working towards eliminating them.
- Don’t eat at night (or past “x” hour), even though research is not conclusive (1) on this “rule” and it depends on many other factors
- It’s not time eat yet (even if you’re about to pass out from hunger)
- Skipping meals because of “eating too much” in a previous meal
- “Working off” a certain food
- “Earning” a food for “being good” during “x” period of time
- Eating only “healthy” or “diet” foods
- Avoiding foods that have “too much” carbs, sugars, fats, calories, etc.
- Eating “clean” (one of my personal pet peeves! I mean, to me, clean eating is eating food that’s not expired or covered in dirt)
How to get rid of food rules
One of the first steps you can take to get rid of food rules is to identify which ones you currently follow. Think about why you hold these rules to be true…
Because the thing is, most of these rules don’t help us due to: (a) they don’t take into account that we’re all different, and therefore use up food differently, (b) many of these rules don’t really make physiological sense or have any strong evidence to back them up, and (c) like this article from The Real Life RD explains: “Nutritional minutiae doesn’t really matter as much as we think it does”.
This means, that one meal, one food, one (perceived) “food faux pas” will not make or break you. The overall relationship with food you have is more important than whether you ate 2 slices of cake at your niece’s birthday party.
10 ways to challenge the food police
In order to challenge the food police, slow and steady is the name of the game. Remember, it’s going to take some time to change years of thinking, believing and behaving a certain way around food.
You can start out by making a list of the most common and frequent food rules you follow. Chose 1 of these rules at a time, and make a plan to get rid of it.
Ask yourself: what’s the first small step you can take to stop living by that rule? For example, maybe it’s allowing yourself a snack when you’re hungry before bedtime, if you typically follow the no food after 6 pm rule. Try it for one day, and notice without judgement how you feel.
It’s normal to feel somewhat scared or strange about breaking a long held food rule. Try to understand where those uncomfortable feelings come from. Can you challenge those beliefs with facts? Be patient and gentle with yourself while you work your way down that list. Here are some steps to help you out:
- Practice self awareness: Self-Awareness is key in order to tune into your feelings, beliefs, thoughts and behaviors around food. Look for patterns in the way you tend to think about and perceive what happens to, how you explain things to yourself and how you make sense of the world around you. Pay attention to how you tend to act and behave in certain eating situations. What are your default responses to certain foods? What are your habits and tendencies related to eating?
- Identify your thoughts without judgement: As Evelyn Tribole states:“You are NOT your thoughts or your beliefs! Rules and thoughts are a byproduct of your mind—not a direct experience from your body”. And they can be changed with time and effort to ones that serve you. If it’s helpful to you, write down which are the most common ones you have that you’d like to improve.
- Replace unhelpful, restrictive thoughts with more realistic, flexible ones: Instead of thinking: “Oh, I’m so bad for eating that brownie!”, change it to, “How great that I’m finally letting myself enjoy the foods I want to! It’s so awesome that I’m not letting external eating rules dominate me, and I’m finally putting my own cues first (and how delicious was that brownie, btw!)”. Focus on the reality here: nobody is “bad” for eating any food.
- Work towards banishing dichotomous, absolutist and linear thinking: In my professional opinion, these are the main cognitive distortions that drive food rules and unhelpful food beliefs. Let me break it down:
- Dichotomous thinking: This is also known as “black or white” thinking. Either you’re “good” for eating a salad or “bad” for drinking a chocolate chip milkshake. The problem with dichotomous thinking is that it only gives you two choices, and neither are very realistic or achievable. Allowing more flexibility in your eating behaviors will slowly erode this perfectionist (and unhelpful) tendency.
- Absolutist thinking: If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from all my years in healthcare, it’s that there are no absolutes or guarantees when it comes to the human body. Absolutist thinking believes that one behavior will irrevocably result in another behavior. For example, if I cut out cabs, I’ll be healthier. (Carbs are absolutely necessary, btw, but that’s a subject for another day). Once again, allowing yourself wiggle room and replacing the “shoulds” that come with absolutist thinking with more permissible language will help break out of absolutist thinking. For example, instead of saying, “I shouldn’t eat lunch because I had such a huge breakfast”, change it to “I can eat whenever I’m hungry because that;s what hunger signals are for”.
- Linear thinking: Just like absolutist thinking, linear thinking rests upon unrealistic “guarantees”. A lot of food myths are also based on linear thinking (such as, “the cleaner I eat, the healthier I’ll be”. Here’s a really great post about the “clean eating” myth, in case you’re interested). This type of thinking focuses on end results, and gets frustrated and invites feelings of failure when the unreasonable goals are not reached. What can you do? Switch to process thinking…
- Adopt process thinking instead: This type of thinking acknowledges that change takes time and that it’s not a linear process. And it’s cool with that! Focus on what you’re learning, what you’ve achieved, how much you’ve improved, instead of why you’re not there yet. Like Aerosmith sings: “Life’s a journey, not a destination” (I’m a 90s kid, I can’t help it!)
- Play detective with food beliefs and myths: ” ‘X’ food can give you cancer (or some other terrible disease)”. Can it really? Remember that the media loves to get us into a state of panic over any little thing, and food is unfortunately not excluded. Dig deeper into these “facts”. Look for credible, professional sources. Sometimes, what we thought about a certain food turns out to be the complete opposite. Remember when we all thought that”fats are bad”?
- Foster flexibility in your eating: There is a great deal of evidence (2) in favor of allowing flexibility at mealtimes, which can have both short-term and long-term benefits in achieving sustainable healthy eating. Flexibility helps us eliminate the dichotomy of “good” and “bad” foods, avoid extremist attitudes toward food, and frees ourselves from guilt at mealtimes.
- Honor your intuition: Learn to listen to yourself. We’re taught that we must constantly seek external guidance and disregard our own internal signals, but it’s time to break away from that. Honor “your gut reactions, whether they are biological, pleasure-based or self protective” (Intuitive Eating, pg. 105).
- Set boundaries: Don’t let anyone pressure you or try to influence your eating behaviors. For example, if a well meaning relative tries to push second helpings of something but you’re already full, gently but firmly decline. If someone passes judgement for eating a food that’s not “healthy”, calmly remind them that food is just food. If someone makes a comment on your body size or weight, stand your ground and inform them that they have no right to make statements about you or your physical appearance (discover how you can be healthy at any size, in this post).
- Have patience: Working to challenge the food police is not a simple task. And it may sound unreachable or very difficult (because it is very difficult indeed to unpack x years of dieting), but each small step towards this is a success worth celebrating. Remember that patience and self compassion can go a long way.
In short, in order to challenge the food police you have to be willing to work on yourself first and foremost. Give yourself a chance to break out of external regulation and get in tune to what you really need. You are perfectly capable of self-regulating your own eating without external food rules. It can be challenging for some, but that’s what professional help is here for. Here are some of my favorite intuitive eating resources (oh, and here’s the Intuitive Eating Counselors Directory) :
Intuitive eating books
- Intuitive Eating and
- The Intuitive Eating Workbook by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
- Anti Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison
- The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner
- Healthy Eating for Life: An Intuitive Eating Workbook to Stop Dieting Forever by Cara Harbstreet
Intuitive eating podcasts
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…