When coaching clients through the intuitive eating process, many people find unconditional permission a super tough act to integrate.
If you’re relatively new to intuitive eating and slowly working through the intuitive eating principles, you may feel ready to throw in the towel. You’re eating all the things! You’re eating the cake! You’re honouring your hunger and fullness cues!
You’re eating with attunement! You’re enjoying dessert, feeling comfortable around potato chips, and going out for ice cream with friends. All experiences and pleasures you previously denied yourself.
But regardless of what you tell yourself, you still feel out of control. You worry you’ll never stop eating. You worry you’ll never stop gaining. You find you can’t not eat an entire pint of ice cream in one go. If there’s cake in the house, you’ll find it. Cheeseboards? Game over.
But before you decide that you’re not cut out for intuitive eating — that intuitive eating may work for some people, but not you — we need to dig deep into restriction.
I’ve never, ever seen binge eating operate without some level of restriction.
I’ve never, ever seen out of control eating without some level of restriction.
Because the reality is, even if you’re giving yourself “permission,” restriction is often so deeply ingrained that we aren’t even aware of when it's operating.
I liken restriction to a volcano. Everyone can see when a volcano is erupting. I mean, there’s lava. That’s some very obvious restriction: “I’m on a diet,” “I’m not allowed to eat anything good,” “I don’t buy that stuff,” I would never eat x.” This is lava restriction. You’re fully aware of what you’re doing.
But what about the kind bubbling beneath the surface? The kind that you’ve never not lived with? We call it “the diet mentality” in intuitive eating because so many people are dieting — even if they’re not on a diet.
And sometimes it helps to have a coach on your side to identify those areas for you — to point out where you’re still restricting so you can fully make peace with food and body.
We have to tease out the stories.
The story your mother taught you about what you need to look like to be loved.
The shame you carry from what your father said to you when you were six.
The terrible things kids said to you when you were twelve, just as you were trying to make sense of your changing body.
The beliefs you hold about sugar — that you are inherently addicted.
…Or the beliefs you hold about carbs — that they make you gain weight.
The belief that weight gain is "bad."
…Or the beliefs you hold about fat — that fat makes you fat.
The belief that fat is "bad."
The stories magazines and billboards tell you about your worth.
The story that you should always be on a diet.
The story your friends repeat about how you should always be on a diet.
The story products marketed to you — the yogurts, the cereals, the snack packs — repeat about how you should always be on a diet.
The story that there will be a diet that works this time.
The story that we can change our lives by changing our bodies.
The story that our bodies are wrong, not enough, and we should always be aiming to lose weight, shape up, or ship out.
The story that women should not weigh.
Which parts— which stories — of your life are begging you to be smaller? And how can you grow outside of them? What’s included in the next chapter? Who gets to write your book?
If you are restricting in any way, intuitive eating will reveal it. Today I’d like to dive deeper into the way restriction shows up in our lives and how to begin unpacking it by looking at physical restriction vs. psychological restriction.
Physical restriction is exactly what it sounds like: where the lack of food is apparent to the naked eye.
Not all physical restriction creates issues, but I think it’s important to be aware of the way it informs our eating decisions.
Some forms of physical restriction include:
Seasonal availability. Not all foods are available year-round. I live in Toronto, so let’s use strawberries and asparagus as examples. I experience a greater “emotional charge” with these foods than, say, potatoes and cabbage, because they’re only available for a limited time.
Ask any business coach: few things move us to action like scarcity. During May and June, I’m loading up on these because I know it’ll be another year until I get them again. And sure, I can eat imported berries and asparagus, but because “it’s not the same,” I can’t help but feel enamoured by these foods.
Consider this for yourself. How do you feel about sweet potatoes vs. watermelon? Apples freshly picked from the orchard vs. eating those from cold storage months later?
Travel. Whether you’re enjoying pasta and gelato in Italy or guacamole and margaritas in Mexico, there’s an element of scarcity — restriction — here. Think of the stories you’re told: 1) it’s not the same at home 2) you don’t know when you’ll get to eat quite like this again.
Often, these foods are less expensive — wine is cheaper in Europe than it is in Canada, for example. If you’re someone who “always overdoes it” on vacation or views this as your one chance to go all-out, this can add fuel to the fire. Because you don’t have access to these foods all the time, you may feel compelled to eat more than usual.
By the way: there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a vacation. That’s part of the experience. But your trip may also not be as enjoyable if you’re uncomfortably full the entire time.
Moving away from home. Nothing tastes as good as mom’s home cooked meals, right? Or Dad’s. Or someone else’s. The point is, when we return home (or to our neighbour’s) after a long hiatus, it’s totally natural to eat more than we normally would.
We haven’t had access to these foods for a while, which has left us feeling deprived. There’s also the limited-time-offer thing (must get our fill in now!) If you find you eat a bit more whenever you visit family, this may have something to do with this.
Food insecurity and food deserts. If food was scarce when you were growing up — you never had enough — this may follow you into adulthood. The same can be said for survivors of war, refugees, and those facing excruciating economic conditions.
What about those struggling in food deserts? Yes — the same. Being denied food, a basic human right, can incite feelings of deprivation and lead to overeating and binge-like behaviours to compensate for that deprivation.
Food allergies or sensitivities. Allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities can be tricky to navigate (I have Celiac’s disease and understand what it’s like firsthand.) I used to feel out of control around gluten-free donuts, cookies, pizza, and other foods because I so rarely got to enjoy them. I think the biggest takeaway here is to approach your allergy/sensitivity from a place of choice (empowerment) vs. circumstance (disempowerment.)
For example, you could eat [x food], but you probably wouldn’t feel very well. This might be a more helpful way to frame your eating decisions, as opposed to stating how you “can’t” eat something. I could eat gluten; no one will arrest me. But I’ll feel like shit, so I choose not to.
Psychological restriction can overlap with physical restriction, but it’s generally self-imposed vs. situationally-imposed.
For example, believing a food, ingredient, or macronutrient is inherently “bad” for you. This form of restriction can lead you to deny your cravings for favourite foods and to feel deprived, leading to binge-like behaviours and compulsive eating, either to compensate for the deprivation (“stuffing it”) or when in the presence of off-limits foods. Carrying negative beliefs about food the have little basis in science is a form of restriction.
Denying cravings because you feel the craving is inherently unhealthy — or denying your experience. Believing your body is “wrong” for its cravings, rather than validating those cravings as natural and life-affirming. For example, believing something is off because you’re craving carbohydrates (an oft-demonized macronutrient), or for wanting a cookie. Denying an experience is a form of restriction.
Not eating something for fear it will lead to weight/fat gain. This is in line with the previous forms of restriction, but it’s important to acknowledge separately. Avoiding “fattening” foods is a form of restriction. Why? Fat isn’t bad — it isn’t a problem to solve — and secondly, when a food caries a higher energy load, we’ll probably fill up on less. Our bodies can self-regulate. If you eat a lot of rich foods, you may naturally crave lighter fare. You could eat more, but you’d probably feel uncomfortably full.
Not eating something for fear it will give you X or lead to Y. Again, this folds into the other forms of restriction, but has less to do with weight gain/fat phobia and more to do with believing [X food] will give you cancer. While certain foods may help to prevent or support disease, illness has to do with far more than what we put (or don’t) in our mouths. This choice has more to do with fear-mongering than it does with science.
Being on a diet with “yes” and “no” lists. Same deal. When you’re on a diet, you have lists for which foods are acceptable — and which aren’t. This is an obvious form of restriction that gets dealt with during the first stage of the intuitive eating process.
Naming foods or eating styles (including slightly more subtle, insidious labels such as “clean eating” and “real food”.) Let’s get one thing out of the way: all food is “real” food. All food is made of chemicals. What makes a food “real”? Most foods are at least minimally processed — it’s what makes them edible and digestible. It also doesn’t matter what these foods are. “Clean” implies some foods are dirty, while others are good and virtuous. Food hierarchies are a kind of restriction, where some foods are better than others (which means the “others” should be avoided.)
If you’re engaging in overeating or binge-like behaviours, there’s a good chance you’re restricting in some way. Which point resonates most with you? Did you experience any “aha” moments while running though these lists?