Do you give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want? Or do you have a list of “off-limit” foods? How do you respond when those forbidden foods are present…anxious, nervous, or in a tug-o-war with self-control?
Intuitive eating principle #3, make peace with food, invites us to eat the foods we love without guilt or deprivation. It strips away labels like “good” and “bad” foods. Kale becomes equivalent to cookies, and food loses its power.
If you’re struggling with your relationship with food, I’ll teach you how to make peace with food. I understand how scary this may sound because I was once there, too.
Let me tell you a story about my mom’s baking…
Although my freshman year of college was healing in many ways, I still experienced some lingering diet mentality. One of the loudest messages was: sweets are “bad” for me.
I labeled sweets as a forbidden food, despite loving cookies, croissants, apple pie….you name it.
This mental restriction around sweets increased my cravings for them, especially when they were around.
Every time I went home for holiday breaks, I was warmly greeted with my mom’s out-of-this-world baking.
She makes the fluffiest pumpkin cookies that burst of fall flavor! Her chocolate chip cookies are the most requested dessert among our family and friends. Ohhh and if you spend the night, you’re lucky to wake up to her mini banana chocolate chip muffins.
Nothing screams a warm Midwest welcome like my mom’s kitchen.
But when I carried this mental restriction around desserts, her kitchen was like swimming into the scary deep end without floaties.
I warned her: don’t make any cookies before I come home. I set limits on the amount of “treats” I was allowed but always blew past them. I thought…if only I had better self-control around cookies…I can’t eat just one. I’d get mad at myself, feel guilty, end up eating more…and the cycle would repeat. Nothing worked.
So how did I transition from this feeling of swimming in the deep end without floaties to feeling like I was Michael Phelps racing in the Olympics?
…I made peace with sweets.
When I no longer viewed sweets as a daunting enemy, they gradually lost their power. I no longer felt like I was riding an emotional roller coaster ride each time I ate them. This switch didn’t happen overnight and there were still times I’d overeat desserts. But I allowed space for this to be okay.
Now when I visit my mom, I smile when she picks me up from the airport and has a cookie on the front seat for me (yes, she actually does this and it’s the kindest gesture). Sometimes I eat it right away. Other times, I wait to eat it when I’m hungry and have the taste for it. I just eat it when I want it and move on, without the emotional drama. The best part…all that brainpower I spent worrying about food is now freed up for me to focus on what truly matters, connections with my loved ones.
There are a few principles that explain what happens when we give ourselves unconditional permission to eat:
- Habituation. This principle illustrates how the more we are exposed to something, the less appealing it becomes. Think about it…how appealing are leftovers on day 1 versus day 4? One long-term food habituation study revealed that an increased rate of habituation was associated with decreased energy intake (1). Are there foods you love, but forbid yourself from keeping them in the house? The habituation principle illustrates how keeping those foods in the house (increased exposure) may assist in healing your restrictions around that particular food.
- The Guilt Deprivation Seesaw. Do you feel guilty when you eat “bad” foods? If you’re ready to release guilt, you must first loosen the grip on deprivation. Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole explain this as the seesaw syndrome (2). Think of guilt and deprivation on opposite ends of a seesaw.
Are you stuck on the Guilt-Deprivation Seesaw?
When deprivation is high, guilt is low. In other words, when you’ve been staying away from your forbidden foods you think: I’ve been good.
Eventually, the deprivation builds and builds and you can’t stay away from the forbidden food any longer. You allow yourself to have it so the deprivation lowers. But as deprivation lowers guilt increases. As guilt rises you think: I’ve been bad.
At this point, the cycle repeats itself. You feel caught between periods of restriction and binges and don’t know how to stop. When you stop playing with restriction, you stop playing with guilt. That’s the beauty of making peace with food!
How to Make Peace with Food
- Write a list of the foods you love. Put a checkmark next to the ones you allow yourself to eat. Circle the foods you view as forbidden.
- Select one food from your forbidden food list. Permit yourself to eat it, in a setting that is comfortable for you–whether that be at home or out at a restaurant.
- Pay attention to the eating experience. What do you like about the food item? Dislike? Do you love the food item as much as you thought?
- If you enjoy this food, give yourself unconditional permission to eat it when you are hungry for it. Keep it stocked in your house or allow yourself to order it out.
- Repeat this process for each food on your forbidden food list, taking it at a pace that is comfortable for you.
Observe what happens when you participate in the peace practice. Over time, you may find that food that you once thought of as appealing start to lose appeal. You may find that when you truly allow yourself to eat certain foods, your cravings for them decrease. Foods that once triggered your emotions may become a neutral eating experience.
I’d love to hear from you!
What questions or concerns do you have about making peace with food? Drop a comment or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org to be answered in a future blog post.
If you’re looking for support in making peace with food, check out the My Services for more information on personalized support with a registered dietitian.