“Off a Diet” is Not Intuitive Eating
This post is the ninth 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.
Are you ready to make peace with food? Today’s post offers a bit of a shift – instead of breaking down Intuitive Eating Principle Three: Make Peace with Food – I want to explore how this principle is frequently taken out of context, sometimes keeping folks stuck in the binge/restrict cycle they’re trying desperately to break free of.
Make Peace with Food is the part of Intuitive Eating where you get to eat all the foods that have been restricted for years on end. Unconditional permission to eat means that foods like pizza, ice cream, chips, and pasta will never be off limits again. It means that if you want to eat pizza, ice cream, chips, and pasta every day, you can. Heck you can eat these food multiple times a day if you want! But these four words, “unconditional-permission-to-eat”, which often feel like a massive relief for anyone who’s been stuck in the diet cycle, can quickly sour if implemented without care and intention.
If you’ve tried intuitive eating in the past, but it hasn’t worked for you, perhaps feeling out of control and binge-like, I’d ask you to consider that this may have been backlash eating, not intuitive eating. Backlash eating is the kind of all-or-nothing eating that occurs between diet cycles. Last supper eating, f*ck it eating, and cheat days are common examples of backlash eating. Is this how your attempts at intuitive eating felt in the past? If yes, I’d encourage you to give unconditional permission to eat another try. Just with a bit more structure this time.
Before we go on, here’s 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.
I’ve spent *years* rolling my eyes at #intuitiveeating content with messages like “Just eat the cake, Karen!” or “Life’s too short to stress about brownies.” As if someone can just get over a lifetime of food shame, guilt, and anxiety because a stranger on Instagram made a snarky graphic. And popular books on Intuitive Eating like Laura Thomas’ Just Eat It and Caroline Dooner’s The F*ck It Diet (I like these books, btw, just not the titles!) perpetuate that unconditional permission to eat is as easy as opening the floodgates and allowing all the food all at once.
While the “just eat the cake” approach does seem to work for some folks, I find it’s anywhere from unhelpful to downright dangerous for people who are genuinely struggling with chronic dieting or disordered eating. Why? Because, as the OG Intuitive Eating authors Evelyn and Elyse highlight:
Psychological restriction is just as critical to address as physical restriction.
Eating a brownie while feeling guilty about it isn’t unconditional permission to eat! “Oh my god I can’t believe this dietitian told me to eat as many brownies as I want, wtf? that’s definitely wrong, I need to stop eating these brownies right now, but just one more, oh my god I can’t stop, I knew it, I have a problem with brownies, what’s wrong with me?!?” – Does that feel familiar? That’s psychological restriction, and it will hijack your intuitive eating every. single. time. you try incorporating previously restricted foods back into your diet.
For most people, psychological restriction, the anxiety and shame around eating certain foods, will linger long after they’ve started down the path of intuitive eating. That’s normal, and it doesn't mean you can’t pursue unconditional permission to eat, even if you still have some sticky feelings about eating certain foods. But it’s critically important to call out this psychological restriction for what it is. So many of my clients feel frustrated at the suggestion that they’re restricting. “I’m not restricting! I’m eating the brownies!”. This is gaslighting and emotional self-silencing. Instead, try, “I’m eating the brownies but I’m still feeling a lot of shame about them. I’m gonna be patient with myself as I get used to eating this food again.”
You’ll find more on overcoming psychological restriction in upcoming posts. But it’s also worth knowing that working with an anti-diet dietitian or therapist can be tremendously helpful here. Don’t languish in a state of eating lots of brownies and feeling super guilty. Ask for support if you need it!
Making peace with food is a structured approach.
At odds with the social media suggestion that you just jump into eating all the food, Intuitive Eating is clear that taking a structured approach will set you up for success. Before you get started introducing previously restricted foods back into your diet, you must have a stable foundation of adequate intake. If you don’t know what hunger feels like in your body, don’t order a pizza just yet. Because if you’re not eating sufficiently during the day and/or finding yourself ravenously hungry by the end of the night, it’s likely that you’ll feel out of control with pizza, and that will only serve as confirmation bias that you really shouldn’t be eating pizza anyway.
Check out this checklist, adapted from The Intuitive Eating Workbook:
If you answered “yes” to most of the questions, you’re ready to start making peace with food. More on this in the next post. But if you answered “no” to many of the questions, it could be beneficial to focus on hunger and fullness cues, satisfaction, mindfulness, and coping skills before introducing unconditional permission to eat. Of course, this isn’t an all-or-nothing exercise! You may never answer “yes” to every question. And you may decide to dip your toes into unconditional permission to eat (with gentleness and intention) even if most of your answers are “no”.
For more tools to get you started making peace with food check out The Intuitive Eating Workbook. I promise it will be a valuable companion on your journey!
How do you feel about taking a more measured and thoughtful approach to unconditional permission to eat? Have you gone down the rabbit hole of eating all the food, only to find yourself more certain than ever that you really need a diet to keep your eating under control? If yes, you aren’t alone. But consider, could you benefit from a version of unconditional permission to eat that’s more structured, and built on a foundation of adequate nourishment?
This post is dedicated to Betsy. I truly believe there is a life where you eat the brownies, enjoy them, and leave the guilt behind.