While I think that all of the principles of intuitive eating are important, making peace with food may top my list. We kicked off this series by rejecting diet mentality and then we learned to honor our hunger. Now, it is time to make peace with food and give yourself unconditional permission to eat (1).
It would be difficult to continue on the journey of intuitive eating without first addressing this principle. In the second principle we talked more about biological deprivation, but principle three relates more to our psychological deprivation.
Unconditional permission to eat? Say what! I totally get it. When I tell people that there are truly no foods off limit (minus allergies, of course), they think I must be joking. We live in the era of a new fad diet every other day, so it probably seems like there must be some kind of catch. But there’s not!
While this may sound liberating, the idea of no food rules often elicits fears in most people as well. This is the nature of diet cycling and restriction. We tend to cling to our food rules and the false promises they offer. But take a moment and reflect with me. Think of a food that you’ve forbidden yourself from eating or labeled as “bad”. Now consider your relationship to that food. As soon as you told yourself it was off limits, did you find yourself craving it more? Did you have your “last supper” in preparation for your latest diet? This is often the case. In fact, forbidden foods tend to have a paradoxical rebound effect that actually triggers overeating.
There are a number of theories and studies that can help explain why we crave these foods more. Some studies illustrate that forbidden foods even sound more attractive to non-dieters. In a study from 2007, a group of kids was given M&M’s but told that they could not eat the red ones (2). While we all know that each of the colors has the same taste, which color do you think they were immediately drawn to? Naturally the red M&M’s were all they could think about. Similar studies have been repeated. You’ve probably noticed this in your own life. As soon as you feel deprived of something, the more you want that item. Sometimes people even notice this with more nutritious foods. When I studied abroad in Taiwan, for example, I was surrounded by an abundance of noodles and dumplings. However, by the end of my trip, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a fresh salad. This was because I had been deprived of such foods for a period of time.
Another trend that is often seen in dieters is the all-or-nothing or what-the-hell effect (3). This often occurs when people set themselves up with food rules and as soon as they perceive that they’ve broken the rules it’s “What the hell! Might as well throw in the towel today.” This is followed by bingeing on the foods you consider to be off limits the rest of the day. When people perceive that they broke their food rules, this triggers overeating (4).
So how can you transition from restrictive eating to allowing all foods a place in your life?
When working with clients, I often will have them make a list of the foods that they consider to be off limits. To help jog your memory, it’s helpful to categorize these foods by grains, fruits, sweets/desserts, processed foods, and fats/fatty foods (5). Once the list is compiled, I often have people set specific times when they will eat those foods and document their experiences. In the process, you might even notice that the foods you have been fearful of don’t appeal to you as much as you had anticipated. This also helps with habituation and makes foods seem like less of a luxury that you will binge on.
In contrast, I also ask people to make a list of foods that truly appeal to them. You are now allowed to explore foods and your preferred flavor palate. At times this process can be frustrating, because people realize that foods lose some of their allure when they are always available to you and not off limits. This transition allows you to see foods in a new light. Instead of looking at them as “good” or “bad”, you might ask yourself more questions. Is this food satisfying? How does my body feel after I eat this food? Does this food taste good to me? Do you feel connected to your taste buds and the flavors?
Have fun with discovering the foods you love! You can save/print this handout to remind you of the principle as you go.
Don’t forget to use the hashtag #SpillingTheBeansOnIE on social media or tag me in any posts while you are going through the principles with me.
Tribole, E. & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating, 3rd edition. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Jansen, E., Mulkens, S., & Jansen, A. (2007). Do not eat the red food!: Prohibition of snacks leads to their relatively higher consumption in children. Appetite, 49, 572-7.
Herman, C. & Polivy, J. (1984). A boundary model for the regulation of eating. Eating and Its Disorders. New York, NY: Raven Press.
Urbszat, D., Herman, C., & Polivy, J. (2002). Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet: effects of anticipated deprivation on food intake in restrained and unrestrained eaters. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111(2), 396-401.
Tribole, E. & Resch, E. (2017). The intuitive eating workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.