Intuitive Eating Principle Three: Make Peace with Food
This post in the tenth 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.
This is the part of Intuitive Eating where you eat brownies.
Maybe a lot of brownies. Maybe more brownies than feels reasonable or “balanced”. Maybe brownies every day, multiple times a day, for weeks or months on end.
Principle Three: Make Peace with Food invites you to give yourself unconditional permission to eat. This is the Intuitive Eating principle that draws people in, “You mean I can eat as many brownies as I want?!” but also the principle that tends to trip people up, “Surely this is too many brownies, this can’t be right, I should probably stop eating these brownies . . .”
Unconditional permission to eat is critically important to building a long-term foundation in intuitive eating. But it’s often misunderstood as “f*ck it” mentality or “just eat whatever you want.” These misrepresentations of unconditional permission to eat are ubiquitous on social media, where the nuance of intuitive eating is condensed into bite sized video clips and screen-shot-able text boxes. It’s my hope that this post will add a bit more context and structure as you begin incorporating previously restricted foods back into your diet.
But first, my standard disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for individualized medical on 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.
Remember that restriction leads to backlash. We’ve explored how “cheat” or “last supper” or “f*ck it” eating is a common response to both long- and short-term food inadequacy. But backlash eating also shows up when specific foods have been limited or restricted altogether. A common example is the restrained eater who doesn’t keep snack foods in the house because, whenever there are chips around, she eats the whole bag. This reenforces that she can’t trust herself around chips and keeps her stuck in the cycle of restriction/backlash eating.
But the problem here isn’t the chips! It’s the restriction of the chips. If chips were truly always available, they would lose their allure over time, eventually becoming integrated into a normal eating pattern. This process is called “food habituation” and its evidence based. Studies have shown that people can habituate to all sorts of foods – chocolate, pizza, potato chips. When these foods are allowed without restriction, they become less exciting over time. That gourmet ice cream that you never let yourself have? Yeah, of course you’re excited to eat it! You’ve elevated it above other foods. It’s more of a treat, more naughty, more special. But when you allow yourself to eat it regularly, it becomes just another food. Still delicious and enjoyable, yes, but without all the anticipation, guilt, anxiety, and so on.
Now hang on a second! I am not suggesting you go out and buy bags of chips, pizza, and ice cream today. Because, again, habituation is a process. While it may feel enticing to jump right into unconditional permission to eat, I suggest checking out Intuitive Eating and the companion workbook to provide structure for the habituation process.
If you’re not up for reading the books just yet, or you’ve already read them but need more guidance, consider these tips:
Start with a foundation of adequate, consistent intake.
Check out my last post for some tools to evaluate if you’re ready to begin the food habituation process. If you’re still finding yourself skipping or delaying meals, or eating meals that aren’t sufficiently satisfying, you may not be ready for the brownies just yet. Let’s say you’d like to habituate to chips. Imagine you skip breakfast and start snacking on chips mid-day. You’re already super hungry. You’re replacing a meal with snack food. This pretty much guarantees you’ll eat an uncomfortable amount of chips (and reinforces the belief that you can’t control yourself around food.) But now imagine you eat a complete breakfast followed by a good-sized, satisfying lunch with a side of chips. That eating experience will feel so much more positive and contained, helping to build trust that intuitive eating and food habituation are possible.
Habituate to one food at a time.
“Just eat whatever you want, whenever you want” is not intuitive eating! This is especially apparent in the context of food habituation. If you’ve restricted pizza, French fries, and ice cream for years on end, you’ll probably feel a bit overstimulated, maybe even panicked, if you reintroduce all these foods into your diet at once. Instead, choose one food to start with. Remind yourself you can have as much of this food as you like, it will never be restricted again. You can have more later tonight. You can have it again tomorrow. Give yourself at least two weeks to practice habituating to your first food before adding another food in.
Go at your own pace. Think “intuitive eating training wheels.”
Some folks may choose a super exciting food to habituate to: “I can eat ice cream?! Awesome! I’m gonna habituate to that!” But someone recovering from chronic dieting or disordered eating may feel totally overwhelmed at the thought of habituating to ice cream. Instead, you may choose to start with a food that feels a little safer. I’ve had clients practice habituating to tortillas, popcorn, even strawberries. Sure, in the long term we want to move away from reliance on “safe” foods. But as you begin practicing unconditional permission to eat, safe/safer/safe enough foods can be useful in building trust in the intuitive eating process.
“Balance” means balance over time.
People early in eating disorder recovery are often shocked (maybe a bit terrified) by the sheer volume of food they need to eat to feel satisfied. I always remind my clients they’re refueling after years of restriction and malnutrition. They’ll need to meet their baseline nutrient needs plus significantly more to balance out such a significant period of inadequate intake.
This “balance over time” effect holds true for people who’ve restricted certain types of food, even when they’re eating sufficiently to meet their needs. If you’ve limited yourself to dessert only on weekends or pizza once a month for years, you’ll probably want to eat those foods a lot, for a long time, before you feel yourself integrating them more sporadically into your diet. And if you’ve restricted whole food groups like bread or sugar, you may feel carb crazy for a few months while your body learns to trust that these foods will always be available moving forward.
Psychological restriction is still restriction.
Remember that eating brownies while telling yourself, “I really shouldn’t be eating these brownies” is still restriction. The food habituation processes is built on a foundation of food abundance. You can have as many brownies as you want right now, later today, tomorrow. Brownies will never be off limits again. It’s the perpetual availability of brownies that allows for habituation. There’s no reason to eat brownies beyond comfortable fullness when you could stop while you’re comfortable and have more later. But if you’re telling yourself you shouldn’t be having the brownies, making plans to restrict brownies tomorrow, or feeling guilt or shame for eating the brownies, you’re undermining the abundance mentality that habituation relies on.
Make Peace with Food in perhaps the most joyful and simultaneously terrifying principles of Intuitive Eating. Please be patient with yourself as you explore the foods you’ve been missing out on for way too long!
And one final note: If you’ve tried intuitive eating in the past but found yourself flooded or overwhelmed while trying to habituate to new foods, I’d suggest working with a therapist or dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating. Letting the guilt fester will only send you back into a diet spiral. Support is available, please reach out if you need it.