My intern, Ally, is taking over my blog to bring you a 10-part Mini training teaching you about the ten principles of Intuitive Eating. Each week, a new blogpost will go live summarizing the key elements of the principle while also giving you actionable steps to bring the principle into your life. Ally’s first post was on Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality, and last week she gave the low down on Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out those posts to get up to speed!

This week, Ally is teaching you all about Principle 3: Make Peace With Food. To make sure you don’t miss any posts from this series, click here to subscribe to my weekly newsletter.  

Take it away, Ally!

So you’ve kicked off your intuitive eating journey by rejecting diet culture and  honoring your hunger as you work towards trusting your body. What’s next? Principle 3, Make Peace With Food, is all about giving yourself unconditional permission to eat.

When you eat intuitively, no food is inherently “good” or “bad.” Let’s consider a slice of pizza and a green smoothie. Do these foods have different nutritional value? Of course, but that doesn’t mean that these foods have different in moral value. A slice of pizza is morally equivalent to a green smoothie- choosing one over the other doesn’t make you a better or worse person. All foods have something to offer: micronutients, vitamins and minerals, macronutrients (aka energy), and even joy and pleasure!  By attaching positive/negative labels to specific foods, you set yourself up to tie your moral value to the food you eat (meaning that eating “bad” foods make you feel like a “bad” person and vice versa). 

Diet culture is rooted in restrained eating, meaning that certain foods are demonized and forbidden. By declaring these foods “off-limits,” an all-or-nothing mindset kicks in. The moment you break a food rule, exceed a calorie goal, or consume a “forbidden food,” overeating is triggered because you feel like you’ll never have the chance to eat that food again. By granting yourself permission to enjoy all foods, you always know that you can have more later, so there’s no need to binge.

When you’re trapped in the dieting cycle, deprivation leads to uncontrollable cravings, which ultimately results in binging and intense guilt. Making peace with food isn’t just about removing labels, it’s also about allowing yourself unconditional permission to eat. While guilt can manifest as a result of eating “forbidden foods,” subsequent binging can also cause feelings of guilt and shame. Today, I’ll share some actionable steps around how you can neutralize all foods and ditch the all-or-nothing mentality. 

“When you rigidly limit the amount of food you are allowed to eat, it usually sets you up  to crave larger quantities of that very food.”

(pg 102 of Intuitive Eating)

The above quote is speaking to an important Intuitive Eating truth- restricting a food leads to craving that food more. Forbidden foods become overvalued in your mind, which triggers obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. It’s important to consider how both biological and psychological deprivation can disrupt your internal peace. Can you think of a time when you tried to limit a food and it was all you could think about? We can notice this binge-restrict cycle in a variety of real-life situations.

For example, folks who grew up in the depression-era often report that they were instructed to clean their plates as a result of food scarcity. This mindset has been passed down through several generations- perhaps you even grew up in a family pushing “cleaning your plate” at meal times. When you’re unsure of when food will be available next, you’ll likely disregard your hunger cues and binge on the food you have access to while you have the chance. 

The phenomenon of restricting leading to binging was also demonstrated in one study about diet thinking that was conducted amongst female college students at Northwestern University. During this experiment, participants were offered an ice cream tasting where they could eat as much ice cream as they wanted. 

“The non-dieters naturally regulated their eating; they ate less ice cream… The dieters, however, had a dramatic, opposite behavior… researchers concluded that forcing the dieters to ‘blow their diet’ caused them to release their food inhibitions. With inhibitions banished, restraint was eliminated and the dieters overate the ice cream….”

(pg 108 of Intuitive Eating)

In this scenario, the students who had a history of dieting believed ice cream was an inherently “bad” food. When the dieters were presented with the opportunity to eat as much ice cream as they wanted, they felt as though this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, causing them to ignore their hunger/fullness cues and binge. Whereas the non-dieters, on the other hand, were observed naturally regulating their eating behaviors when presented with the unlimited access to ice cream. The ice cream was very exciting to the group of dieters because it was prohibited. The longer a food is off-limits, the more exciting it becomes to your brain. The non-dieters, in contrast, knew that they could have ice cream any time they wanted so there was no need to binge on it when given unlimited access to it. 

Diet culture has many names for this all-or-nothing mentality including “cheat days”and “saving up” points/calories for a big meal. In reality, this deprivation leads to binging on forbidden foods even when you’re not actually hungry. 

On my own journey with intuitive eating, I’ve had to work to overcome various- sometimes sneaky- food rules. In particular, I can recall a few rules that were challenging for me to break, such as eating two “carbohydrate-rich” meals in one day. From a young age, messaging from social media convinced me that opting for low-carb foods would somehow make me a healthier person. For example, if I ate toast for breakfast, I’d opt for a salad instead of a sandwich or pasta for lunch because I felt as though having two “carbohydrate-rich” meals in a row would make me gain weight. On days where I did choose a sandwich for lunch after having toast for breakfast, I was left feeling guilty, convincing myself that my day was a “waste.”

At first, I didn’t even realize this was a food fear of mine. After all, I was eating carbs. Yet, setting rigid guidelines about what/how much carbohydrates I could eat was still a form of restriction. Regardless of how subtle a food rule is, it’s still a rule! To challenge this idea, I started off by eating 2 carbohydrate-heavy meals in one day (i.e. a bagel for breakfast and pasta for dinner). From here, I noticed the energy that these meals gave me and how enjoyable my eating experience was. This encouraged me to continue to challenge this food rule day by day.

As an intuitive eater, I can now enjoy multiple meals with carbohydrates throughout the day, as I know that these foods give my body energy and I can have as much or as little as I want to. Because I’ve granted myself permission to enjoy all foods, I no longer fear this loss of control.

When you take this step towards legalizing all foods, you may fear that you won’t eat “healthfully” or you’ll never stop eating. It’s normal to have these fears because diet culture makes us believe that we can’t trust our bodies. Consider this- let’s say you ate only chocolate cake everyday for two weeks. How long do you think it would take for you to become sick of chocolate cake? Believe it or not, after some time your body would start to naturally crave other foods. Your body is smart, and it can be trusted to communicate its needs to you.

The first step towards reaching this place of freedom is going through the full experience of actually eating your fear foods. When you have positive experiences with previous fear foods, it’s easier to neutralize them in your mind. Start by making a list of the foods you are currently restricting. Pick one of the foods off that list and grant yourself full permission to eat that fear food. When eating the food, make an effort to be present in the experience. What’s the texture of it? What about the mouthfeel? What about the smell? How do you feel in your body when you sit down to eat the food? Do any certain emotions come up for you?

Now that you’ve granted yourself permission to eat the food, does it taste as good as you imagined? If it does, continue to purchase that food and keep it around in abundance to show your brain that it isn’t going anywhere. This repeated exposure to previous “fear food,” known as habituation, makes it less alluring overtime.

Move through this experiment tackling one fear food at a time until you’ve reached the point of habituation with each food. As you work through making peace with each individual food, you’ll discover that you genuinely enjoy some foods while others aren’t all they were cracked up to be.

Did you hear the news? We launched a podcast here at Leah Kern Nutrition! Shoulders Down Podcast is a podcast designed to teach you how to harness your intuition to govern not just how you eat but also how you live. New episodes get released every Tuesday!  Click here to listen to our latest episode with Emily Holt-Gosselin, a fellow Intuitive Eating Counselor who talks about divesting from diet culture as an act of social justice. 

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