Intuitive Eating Principles: No. 3 Make Peace with Food
Nutritionists are human. After reading my fair share of “things nutritionists would never eat” type articles, I thought I’d set the records straight: I eat whatever. I. want. Raw kale with brown rice pasta, tossed with extra-virgin olive oil, fresh parmesan, chili flakes (always), and canned tuna. Mom’s gluten-free Nanaimo bars. Sour gummy candy. A crisp apple straight from the orchard. Why? Because I've made peace with food.
Another intuitive eating coach and anti-diet dietitian recently mentioned how she felt like a fraud at one point for advocating healthy fare while secretly snacking on Boston Creme donuts in shame. And though I eat whatever I want pretty openly and transparently now, her story resonated with me. In the past, every time I ate something I felt I “shouldn’t”, I negotiated with myself. Just this once.
Except these were foods I enjoyed and didn’t want to live without. The negotiations never stuck. So I started eating intuitively and made peace with food — all food — instead. And frankly I’ve yet to see this dogmatic thinking do anyone any favours. There’s no shame in enjoying food, whether it’s a raw kale salad or a chocolate chip cookie.
A number of studies also suggest the more “forbidden” an object becomes, the more we fixate on it. Psychologist Fritz Heider has explained before how depriving yourself of something actually heightens your desire for it. Like that mythical unrequited love, “being restricted from anything in life sets it up to be extra special” (Resch and Tribole, 75). Deprivation leads to some pretty serious biological repercussions as I discussed last week, but it’s not pretty psychologically, either.
So how do we truly begin to make peace with food?
DEPRIVATION, RESTRICTION, AND EATING
You can usually tell whether you’ve felt deprived or restricted by the way you react around food. After spending the holidays with my family, I was stunned by my reactions around foods I used to feel kind of crazy around.
If you grew up in a home where there was never enough food to go around or where you competed with siblings for the last chicken leg, you might have been conditioned to hoard food or to eat to discomfort out of fear. Similarly, if you’re returning home after a long period away, you might overindulge in Mom’s home cooking. If you’ve recently spent a lot of time in an area where fresh produce wasn’t widely available, you might experience unusual cravings for salads.
To avoid snacking, I used to restrict my shopping habits to “meal foods” only. I would skip the hummus, popcorn kernels, and plain yogurt to prevent eating between meals — something I now view as disordered. While I feel snacking is totally overrated, I do believe in honouring your hunger and eating when you need to, not skipping due to some misguided beliefs. If you keep your pantry and refrigerator bare — only to overdo it at restaurants and dinner parties — you’re definitely depriving and restricting.
Those who grew up during the Depression era might be part of the Clean Plate Club and have encouraged their children to do the same. Because food was once so precious and unavailable, it’s now held in high regard. The thought of wasting food is inconceivable. We may exhibit the same behaviour around “once in a lifetime foods”, such as gelato in Italy, macarons in France, and beef in Argentina.
EATING IS NOT AN EXAM
Type A people are especially prone to dieting and disordered eating in my experience. Do you ever feel like you have everything together — the house, the family, the career — except your eating? Like whatever you do, you can’t control your cravings? Mealtime isn’t something you ace; it’s not an exam or an essay. And the more you try to control it, the more it backfires. We’re always on the hunt for that dopamine hit. If you feel deprived in other areas of your life, food deprivation may be felt even more strongly.
There’s a lot of pressure to achieve the perfect body, and with it, the assumption we can all get there through the perfect diet. That the reason not all women are size 2 supermodels is due to our mortal inadequacies, our dieting failures, our unforgivable compulsion for chocolate from time to time.
But here’s the reality: we come packaged in different bodies. We may or may not like the body we were born with. Others may or may not like the body we were born with. But that doesn’t make it wrong, akin to stealing or lying or cheating — even if they’re often similarly perceived.
THE PROCESS OF UNCONDITIONAL PERMISSION
Unconditional permission is something I still struggle with, albeit unconsciously. I’m so programmed to eat what I believe I should be eating that I sometimes forget to tune in and ask myself what I feel like eating. Do you feel the same way? First we need to stop placing mental breaks on our food selections. Maybe you mindfully eat a plate of pasta — only to follow it with “but I shouldn’t have eaten that.”
Sometimes this happens naturally if we eat foods that simply don’t agree with us. For example, I often experience a sugar hangover after sweets — it doesn’t agree with me — and I’m extremely sensitive to gluten. But if the shouldn’t isn’t coming from a place of self-care but instead from a place of self-control, you know you’re only giving yourself pseudo-permission.
We need to work through the deprivation and the guilt. So often I see clients who either struggle with feelings of deprivation or struggle with guilt over eating. Neither is good. The key to working through both is giving yourself unconditional permission to eat.
This means abolishing “good” and “bad” foods — a process that may take longer than anticipated — eating whatever you like, and, yes, ditching those “food deals.” Food deals are things like “I can have this extra slice of bacon now, but I need to hit the gym later to burn off the calories”, “I can enjoy this piece of cheesecake now, but the diet starts tomorrow”, or other conditions.
The problem with this line of thinking? Instead of eating and enjoying our food, we’re always analyzing our choices with a critical eye. This type of conditional thinking may also promote over-eating. Instead of eating to satiety and leaving whatever’s left, you might finish your plate or eat seconds, promisingyourself an extra 30 minute jog in exchange. In short, you haven’t truly freed yourself of the guilt around eating. Instead of focusing on your food choices, connect to how they make you feel and acknowledge your thoughts as you eat them.
HOW TO CREATE REWARDING, PERSONAL BOUNDARIES
Look, there’s nothing wrong with giving up milk because it doesn’t sit well with you or sugar because it makes you feel like shit. But there’s a difference between a publicly-imposed restriction and a decision arrived through personal connection.
Boundaries ought to be personally meaningful. Maybe you keep a 10pm bedtime because you know you won’t feel optimal without eight hours of sleep. This is a personally meaningful limit. You don’t drink because you want to keep your energy levels up — another meaningful limit. The problem arises when we do things because we’re told to, whether or not they resonate with us. This is especially important when we look at food.
While I feel some are under the assumption intuitive eating is about eating whatever you want, whenever you want, and as much as you want, it’s actually about setting meaningful boundaries. Instead of other people deciding what you should eat, you decide. Instead of others telling you to give up gluten, you decide whether it’s right for you. While dieting encourages autopilot behaviour, intuitive eating promotes mindfulness and conscious eating.
FIVE WAYS TO MAKE PEACE WITH FOOD
Which foods appeal to you? Make a list.
Out of the foods on your list, which do you actually eat? Circle foods you restrict.
On your next trip to the grocery store or to your favourite restaurant, give yourself permission to eat one of the foods on your list.
Does the food taste as good as you envisioned or remembered?
Give yourself permission to eat as much as you like. Sometimes this will be 2 tbsp of chocolate ice cream — other times it will be 2 cups.
Repeat as many times as you like.