Intuitive Eating Principle Four: Challenge the Food Police
This post is the 11th in a series on the topic of intuitive eating. Where Intuitive Eating is capitalized and italicized, it refers to the text Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Where intuitive eating is in plain text, it refers to a more generalized non-diet nutrition framework or style of eating.
If you’ve been working your way through the first three principles of Intuitive Eating:
Reject the Diet Mentality
Honor Your Hunger
Make Peace with Food
You may notice that eating is getting a bit easier. Perhaps you’re recognizing how much time and energy all that dieting, or thinking about dieting, was sucking from you. Maybe you’re enjoying more of the foods that had previously been off limits. If that’s you, I’m so glad! But . . . perhaps you’re also finding yourself stuck in some negative self-talk about the foods you’re eating?
It’s super common to feel uncertain about incorporating more food, and more fun food into your diet. But getting stuck in negative food thoughts is a surefire way to undermine your intuitive eating. Fortunately, these food thoughts are totally changeable. You weren’t born thinking carbs are bad – you learned that. And you can unlearn it too.
But first, my standard disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for individualized medical or mental health care. It does not constitute a patient-provider relationship. The content of this post might not feel useful to you right now – please take the information that serves you and leave the rest.
The thing about nutrition science is that, well, it’s not the most scientific science. Ugh, I cringe even as I type that. I’m committed to evidence-based care in my own practice. I believe that rigorous science in the fields of medicine, nutrition, and psychology can have a meaningful impact on public health. I also believe it’s important to be honest about the limitations of current data.
The reality is, it’s nearly impossible to design experimental protocol that can demonstrate that a particular food or dietary pattern causes or prevents disease or illness. You can find just as much research to support plant-based diets as you can to support high protein diets. There’s research to support fasting and research to support eating breakfast every day.
The lack of decisive nutrition research is almost certainly due in part to the diversity of human bodies. I’ve worked with folks who felt their best when they ate consistently every three or four hours and folks who felt great eating larger meals with lots of time in between. Some people enjoy following a plant-based diet. Some folks, despite ethical concerns about eating meat, find that cutting animal protein out of their diet leaves them feeling perpetually unsatisfied.
And human nutrition is just . . . hard to study. Most research on human nutrition relies on participants reporting their typical intake using a Food Frequency Questionnaire or 24-hr Diet Recall. Both these tools are known to be flawed and inaccurate. And very few nutrition studies continue beyond 12 weeks due to cost and attrition rate. But consider the alternative. Let’s say you want to definitively prove that a high fiber diet reduced cholesterol. You’d need to monitor every. single. food. study participants ate for months or possibly years on end. You’d need an experimental group that could commit to the high fiber diet and a control group that maintained their pre-study eating habits. And you’d somehow need to blind participants and researchers, which would be, well, impossible since the group that’s eating oatmeal every day is obviously the experimental group.
What we actually know about human nutrition is pretty simple. Aim for a varied diet that includes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, plant sources of fat, and plenty of fun foods. Sounds good, right? But there’s no black and white here. No “eat this, not that”.
And yet, despite a lack of evidence to support the inclusion or exclusion of any particular foods or specific eating patterns, almost all the nutrition advice we get from popular media comes in the form of an absolutist recommendation:
“Avoid carbs after noon”
“Gluten and dairy are bad for you.”
“Cut all processed sugar from your diet.”
These all-or-nothing nutrition one-liners are not accurate! But even when we know nutrition is more nuanced, these cliches get stuck in our heads, triggering intrusive thoughts and feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety that are tough to shake.
Start by noticing.
Most of us are only aware of a small fraction of the thoughts that pop into our heads during the day. But we can’t change our thoughts when we don’t even notice they’re happening. So, step one is to observe. Think about trying to “catch” the thought mid-food-shaming.
“I really shouldn’t . . . oop, there’s one of those all-or-nothing food thoughts!”
It may be helpful to keep a log of all your uninvited food musings. Start noticing the sheer volume of food thoughts. Some of them may be totally ridiculous, “I’ve failed at life because I ate a cookie today.” Some may conflict, “I should eat more vegetables, maybe I’ll bring carrots to snack on today, oh no, wait, carrots are too high in carbs.” And as you’re tuning into your food thoughts, you might also start to observe how your mood, energy level, or environment impacts these thoughts. Is it ok to eat ice cream on a fun afternoon out with your friends but “bad” to eat ice cream after a tough day at work?
Questions the thought.
Next, you’ll poke holes in your cognitive distortions.
Start by reflecting on where these thoughts came from. Who told you you were bad for eating cookies? Maybe it was one person in particular – your mom or your high school best friend. Or maybe the thought came from several sources and has been reinforced throughout your life.
Then challenge the thought. Are you really a bad person for eating cookies? No way! Maybe the cookie still feels bad or wrong (don’t worry, we’ll keep working on that), but cookies don’t impart any moral value on their eater.
Let’s try this with another super common diet thought, “I shouldn’t eat carbs.” Ok wait a second, where did that come from? I’m sure you’ve heard some variation of “limit carbs” a million times but can you remember who specifically told you to avoid carbs? Was it a social media influencer? Or someone selling Keto supplements or a diet program? And is it actually true that you shouldn’t eat carbs? What happens when you restrict carbs? Do you feel better, or do you end up binging on carbs by the end of the day or week?
Validate and reframe.
Now that you’ve challenged your thought, it’s time to validate and reframe. The validation is important here because there’s a feeling attached to the thought, and we don’t want to talk ourselves out of our feelings.
Start with an “it makes sense” statement. “It makes sense that I feel uncomfortable about eating cookies. Lots of people have told me that cookies are bad and that I’m bad for eating them.”
Then add an “and” and a reframe. “And I know that what I eat doesn’t make me a good or bad person. I’m allowed to enjoy cookies if I want them!”
Or “It makes sense that I’m wary of carbs, I’ve been hearing about low carb diets since I was a kid. And I know that carbs are essential for energy and if I skip carbs, I just end up binging anyway.”
Alright, now I know I’m always suggesting you check out the complete Intuitive Eating and Intuitive Eating Workbook texts. But this time I really mean it! The Intuitive Eating Workbook is loaded with tools and worksheets to help you challenge the food police and change your food thoughts. If you liked the exercise in this post, you’ll love the Intuitive Eating Workbook!
And of course, if you need additional support on your intuitive eating journey, remember that help is always available. This work is tough. Talking it through with an anti-diet therapist or dietitian can make such a difference.
Until next time,