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In this post, I go over how to end the food fight and make peace with food. I love this principle (#3) of intuitive eating because it deals with letting go of food guilt. I cannot state this enough: food and eating are a normal, natural part of life. Guilt just has no place in normal biological functions! Would you feel guilty for your heart beating or for your lungs filling with air? Then guilt should not get to interfere with us giving our bodies the energy they need.
Psychology of food deprivation
Making peace with food means dealing with self imposed food restrictions and deprivation. In fact, depriving ourselves of foods we like because they’re “bad” usually backfires and gives food more power over ourselves. Let’s see how this works.
When we are restricted from anything in life (eating, sleeping, doing pleasurable activities, etc), it tends to heighten our desire for it. Think about it. This is like when you’ve been quarantined to your house for weeks and are shocked to find you even miss the people you can’t stand at work! By having your usual company restricted, you start to crave it more, including the less pleasant aspects of it.
The same happens when we restrict food. Food deprivation can trigger what is known as rebound eating.
This is how it goes: you deprive yourself of a particular food you like (for example, ice cream) for the sake of “dieting”. Then, at some moment when you encounter the “forbidden” food (after “being good” and avoiding it), instead of just enjoying it, a binge may occur, along with the food-conditioned guilt that comes with it.
Then the cycle of deprivation and bingeing starts all over again. This paper (1) describes how “dieter’s food cravings were more likely for foods they reported restricting eating”. Once more, if this happens to you, it’s not your fault: it’s diet culture and the diet mentality abstinence-like model at work in our programming.
Breaking out of this cycle requires us to make peace with food. How? By allowing ourselves to eat whatever we want, whenever we want it. I know, it sounds scary right?
But that’s what intuitive eating is all about. It’s about getting rid of that false diet culture belief that we can’t trust ourselves around food. It sounds blasphemous, but giving yourself unconditional permission to eat is vital in order to make peace with food and learn to trust your body and the signals it’s sending you.
What is the ultimate goal of Intuitive Eating? Making peace with food!
As Intuitive Eating defines it: “Restrained eaters in essence are chronic dieters who are preoccupied with dieting and weight control”. They tend to set up rules on what and when to eat, instead of honoring their hunger.
In fact, as this paper (2) points out, restraining food does not help in reaching “dieting goals”. “An explanation for this contradictory behavior pattern is that these individuals are highly sensitive to food cues, and in some cases, this sensitivity leads to food craving and as a result overeating….Confronting delicious foods and even thinking about favorite foods is a strong initiator for craving more and ultimately overeating in food restrainers, compared to other individuals”.
Restrained eating only leads to a power struggle between what your body wants to eat and what your diet related beliefs say it’s appropriate to eat.
Intuitive Eating on the other hand, teaches us that sometimes our bodies want a fresh salad and sometimes they want a piece of chocolate. And that’s OK! All foods can be part of a balanced diet, and we get to choose what to eat with mindfulness and intention.
How to identify restrained eating
Many people don’t identify as conscious dieters, yet they are unconsciously engaging in restrained eating behaviors. This list helps you to identify the sneaky eating patterns taught to us by diet culture. In order to start getting clarity, ask yourself if:
- You only allow a particular amount of food
- You use exercise to compensate for eating certain foods
- You have feelings of guilt or shame around eating certain foods
- You only allow yourself to eat certain foods when you are at “x” weight
- You have rules about when or how often you can eat these foods
Forbidding and restricting foods is definitely a recipe for unhealthy food preoccupations and a negative relationship with food. In this next section, I’ll walk you through 5 steps to help you make peace with food and see it for what it really is: something we need in order to stay alive, but also have a right to enjoy.
The 5 steps to Making Peace with Food
As with everything that has to do with dismantling diet mentality, making peace with food is not a “one and done” deal. It’s a non-linear process which calls us to continuously be present in our thoughts and behaviors around food. Learning to recognize which is our own voice and which is diet culture’s may take some time, but it’s a worthwhile goal in order to gain freedom around food. Here are 5 steps, derived from Intuitive Eating, on how to make peace with food.
1.Banish “good” and “bad” foods labels
Moralizing foods into categories of good/bad, healthy/unhealthy just adds fuel to the food fight. When we use these labels, we just can’t help but feel a sense of “doing something wrong” when we eat foods that are traditionally seen as “unhealthy”.
We can’t fully enjoy that luscious piece of caramel cheesecake (I love caramel!) without a lingering sense of guilt. And we have every right to enjoy these foods! As I’ve mentioned before, no one food or meal is going to make or break you. So start practicing some food neutrality.
Next time you encounter one of these “sinful” foods, ask yourself why you think it’s labeled that way. How did you acquire this particular belief about this particular food? Do you think you can start seeing this food in a different light? Like, maybe it doesn’t contain many nutrients but it sure does taste good!
Honoring eating for pleasure is just as legal as it is satisfying.
2.Make a list of “forbidden” foods
Once you feel ready to start making peace with food, make a list of the foods that you’ve forbidden in the past, or that you feel like you can’t control yourself around. It’s helpful if you start listing them from the least problematic ones for you to the most.
As you make your list, try to reflect on why feel the need to restrict these foods. Did you have a particular experience with any of them? Is it because of the way they’ve been historically labeled as “bad”. There are no right or wrong answers; this step is all about getting to know your thoughts and feelings around certain foods a little bit better.
3.Plan to try out one of these foods at a time
OK, now that you have your list, it’s time to plan a time to try one of them out at a time. If this seems too daunting for you, start with the least intimidating of the list.
Buy the food, or order it at a restaurant, and get ready to eat! Remember to approach this exercise with as much non judgmental curiosity as possible. Go at it from a place of wanting to learning more about yourself, and turning down the noise of how you’ve been conditioned to eat.
4.Check in with yourself
While you’re eating the particular food, be very present and check in with what you’re feeling. As yourself the following questions:
- How does this food taste? Sweet? Salty? Umami? Bland?
- What is the texture like? Crunchy? Creamy? Dry? Chewy?
- How do you feel while you’re eating it? Do you feel happy? Comforted? Anxious about be eating it? Any guilt present?
- How are you experiencing this food? Is it as good as you thought it would be? Or maybe now that you’ve given yourself permission to eat it, do you realize you don’t really like it that much?
Continue with this process with the rest of the foods on your list. Remember, go at your own pace, and do what feels more comfortable for you. The main purpose of these steps is to recognize that food is just food; it has no power over you once you allow yourself to eat unconditionally.
5. Keep the foods you enjoy on the list available at all times
Part of the reason we feel powerless around certain foods is that since they seem “forbidden” or “special”, we unknowingly give them power that they don’t really have. After trying out the foods on the list you made, make sure you have the ones you enjoy available at all times.
That’s right: no more keeping “temptation” out of the house in order to avoid it. This just gives these foods more influence over you. If your mind already knows that these foods are going to be absent from your diet for a period, you will try to “get your fill” before the deprivation starts again.
By having them around, you’re telling yourself that (1) you can have them (which starts to remove them from their pedestal) and (2) that they’re available at any time (thus eliminates the feelings of “I’ll never be able to have this again”, which only triggers more cravings).
Remember, your relationship with food is influenced by years of the restriction, deprivation, guilt and shame that diet culture embeds in us. It takes awhile to unlearn these thoughts, feelings and behaviors around food, and I can’t stress this enough: be gentle with yourself. Self compassion and patience is the name of the game here. Go at your own pace, and eventually you’ll start to gain the freedom to enjoy food like it was always meant to be enjoyed.
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…