Intuitive Eating Basics // Principle 3 - Make Peace With Food

Recap: the Intuitive Eating Principles

Just to recap following my previous posts in this series, Intuitive Eating is made up of 10 foundational principles that ultimately aim to help us get back in tune with our internal cues, move away from external cues like food rules and restrictions, and help us to trust our body again. These principles include:

1. Reject the diet mentality

2. Honour your hunger

3. Make peace with food

4. Challenge the food police

5. Respect your fullness

6. Discover the satisfaction factor

7. Honour your feelings without using food

8. Respect your body

9. Exercise - Feel the difference

10. Honour your health

Remember to take some time to listen to these podcast episodes for an overview of what Intuitive Eating is (and isn’t):

And here are three must-read books:

Principle 3: Make Peace With Food

 
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When we tell ourselves that we can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that end up building into uncontrollable cravings and, more often than not, (subjective) bingeing. When we have strict food rules, but inevitably end up ‘giving in’ and eating what might be deemed a ‘forbidden’ or ‘bad’ food, the experience will usually be filled with such intensity that it usually results in Last Supper overeating and the overwhelming guilt that goes along with it. Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods is a bit of a paradox in that when you finally have permission to eat whatever you want without restrictions, it removes the urgency and excitement, and you get to actually experience how how food feels in your body. ⁣

The Effects of Psychological Deprivation

In the last blogpost of this series, which looked at learning to honour your hunger, we learnt more about how the body responds to deprivation including how powerful physiological mechanisms will do everything that they can to prevent starvation. Deprivation / restriction also has a profound impact psychologically. As mentioned in the book, Intuitive Eating, psychological deprivation will wreak havoc with your peace of mind, triggering cravings, obsessive thoughts around food, and even compulsive behaviours.

What do I mean by The ‘last supper eating’ phenomenon?

Kelsey Miller explains it well in this post that she wrote for Refinery29. ‘Last Supper’ eating can be characterised by the anxiety and urgency that you experience when you're given the opportunity to eat a ‘forbidden’ food. It is the reason why (subjective) binges happen on a Sunday evening because, well, ‘Diet starts on Monday’ right? The mere idea of restriction (whether that be of a specific food, or food in general) can trigger this phenomenon, and when you rigidly limit the amount / types of foods you are allowed to eat, it will usually set you up to eat larger quantities of those exact foods. In anticipation for the self-imposed restriction, your head says ‘Ok, well I better feast on this now because I’m not going to be able to eat food X again!’. When this happens, more often than not it will end in feelings of guilt and shame, and so the cycle of deprivation and indulgence continues.

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Restrained Eating

Why are some people able to diet ‘successfully’ then? If the biological and psychological effects of restriction are so compelling, how is this possible? Chronic dieters tend to adapt by changing their responsiveness to inner body cues and their mindset. Restrained eating involves ignoring body cues such as hunger, and rather controlling food intake through meticulously calculated meal plans and food rules.

A restrained eater may look like they have it all together around food, they may even be labelled as the ‘healthy’ one by friends and family, but behind the scenes things will usually go a bit haywire when one of their rules are violated. When a ‘forbidden’ food is eaten or a calorie limit is exceeded, there is a good chance that they may end up overeating (or rather eating more than they would if they hadn’t been restricting and could tune into their own hunger-fullness signals) before starting afresh the next day.

Guilt, Deprivation, Repeat

The authors of Intuitive Eating describe the cycling between deprivation and guilt surrounding food as a seesaw. When foods are prohibited or viewed as ‘bad’, the more alluring they become. When deprivation is at its peak, guilt is usually at its lowest point - but what goes up must come down! Eventually you might allow yourself to eat a ‘forbidden’ food because you’ve been ‘good’, but eating these foods will often end up being accompanied by a bit of guilt and shame, as well as internalised feelings of being ‘bad’. As the days go by and diet rules are broken, you may feel increased guilt and more out of control around ‘bad’ foods. The seesaw swings to the other side, where guilt is at its peak and deprivation at its lowest, and you may feel the need to deprive oneself of foods again. The thing is, the more deprived you are of those ‘forbidden’ foods, the greater this backlash will be. The reality is that “the only way to get off the seesaw is to lighten up, and let go of the deprivation” [2].

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Unconditional Permission to Eat: The Key to Making Peace with Food

Making peace with food and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods is important to prevent this pattern of guilt and deprivation. The push-back against this idea can often be as a result of not reading the Intuitive Book and not fully understanding the complexity and nuances of this framework [6]. One common misconception is that it means eating whatever you want, whenever you want, without any attunement to how it actually makes you feel [5]. The reality is that practicing unconditional permission to eat still involves checking in with ourselves, noticing our hunger and fullness cues, and feeling the satisfaction of foods [6].

The three main components of true unconditional permission to eat are [4]:

  1. Deconstructing food hierarchies and throwing out the idea that certain foods are ‘good’ and others are ‘bad’. Making peace with food means allowing all foods and learning that your food choices are not a reflection of your character or morality (how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ you are) in any way. Realising that different foods serve us in different ways, and taking them down off of a pedestal allows us to find freedom around food.

  2. Eating what you really want when you really want to. When you truly know that you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want, the intensity and out-of-control eating diminishes. Often ‘forbidden’ foods become a lot less desirable once you are able to eat them freely. It is important to note that doing this should be done in conjunction with attunement to your body’s hunger and fullness cues.

  3. Making food choices for both satisfaction and health.

The goal of this is to help you work out what foods actually feel good for your body. Learning how to make food choices without any conditions or hidden agenda of restricting them again in future is incredibly freeing, and plays an important role in eliminating out-of-control eating that is often experienced through chronic dieting.

Surely I won’t stop eating?

At first, unconditional permission to eat may look like eating a whole lot more of the foods that were ‘off limits’ for a long time (usually these will be things like cakes, cookies, bread, sweets and pretty much anything that diet culture demonises), but the reality is that eventually this urgency diminishes. As we allow ourselves to be exposed to these foods, the less appealing they will become - this is known as habituation. This process of repeated exposure is an important part of the intuitive eating process, as it is the only way that you can rebuild experiences with eating and make peace with foods without any strings attached!

Here’s a good example of how habituation works - think about one of your favourite foods (I’ll use vanilla ice cream as an example). If you were to eat it for breakfast on Monday morning you might enjoy it quite a bit, and perhaps even if you had it for lunch, dinner, and snacks that day too. As the days go on, eating this food for each meal will lead to it being a lot less appealing. On the other hand, if you say to yourself ‘I’m not eating ice cream at all this week/month’, this restriction automatically puts ice cream on a pedestal and makes it very enticing. The habituation process looks different for everyone, and there’s no telling how long you might be in the ‘honeymoon’ phase for, but as you work your way through previously forbidden foods you will most likely find incredible freedom in allowing yourself to eat them.

Why Should I Give Myself Unconditional Permission to Eat?

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If I haven’t convinced you already, here are 5 reasons why giving yourself unconditional permission to eat is incredibly freeing:

  1. Food loses its emotional power, and is no longer ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Food is no longer linked to your morality, and eating enjoyable foods no longer requires ‘punishment’.

  2. Over time, you’ll no longer feel the urgency to overeat. There is nothing wrong with eating past the point of comfortable fullness, but in this case I am referring to overeating as a result of restriction/deprivation. As I’ve already mentioned, when foods are ‘off limits’ they become so alluring to the point where deprivation becomes too much and you end up diving head first into them. When you allow yourself to eat all foods at any time (unconditionally!), your body can trust in the fact that the food will be available tomorrow, and the next day, and so on - so you don’t need to eat it all in one sitting.

  3. Your body will eventually crave ‘nutritious’ foods. Once you make it through the honeymoon phase, those previously ‘off limits’ foods will likely lose their appeal, no longer be placed on a pedestal, and you will probably crave a healthy balance of all nutrients and foods that you enjoy (vegetables included!).

  4. No more guilt and shame around food. Having permission to eat all foods means that you no longer ‘break rules’ that your latest diet has set. This means that there is no space for guilt or punishment when you eat foods that previously may have led to feelings of shame.

  5. You can once again rebuild a positive relationship with your body. Allowing yourself unconditional permission to eat and making peace with all foods, with attunement to how your body feels, means that you will slowly but surely be able to drown out external voices and rules that dictate what you ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ eat. Instead, you can turn inwards and tune into what your body wants and needs.

How Can I Make Peace With Food?

Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch detail five steps that you can keep in mind as you navigate this principle of intuitive eating [2]. As they note, it is important to work through this at a pace that you feel comfortable with and which allows you to build up trust in your own body.

  1. Pay attention to the foods that you find appealing and make a list of them.

  2. Tick off the foods that you do eat, and circle those that you have been restricting.

  3. Pick one of these foods and give yourself permission to eat it. Go to the shops or a restaurant and eat it.

  4. Check in with yourself and note how the food tasted, what the experience was like, and how it actually made you feel. If you enjoyed it, continue to give yourself permission to eat it on a regular basis.

  5. Keep enough of the food in your kitchen so that you know that it is always available when the desire strikes. If this is a bit scary, give yourself permission to go to a restaurant or café and order it as often as you like.

You can then continue to work through your list slowly but surely. Just an important note, is important that you be very specific when you go through this process. For example, if you know that ice cream is something that you have restricted and would like to explore eating again, it is important to be very specific about the type and flavour of ice cream you want to make peace with (pistachio flavoured gelato from the shop down the road, or Ben & Jerry’s Cookies & Cream ice cream as examples).

I love how this blogpost explains the way you might know if you’ve made peace with food [6]: “You know you’ve entered habituation when you look at a previously forbidden food and think to yourself, ‘I don’t actually feel like eating this today, I can come back to it later if I so choose, but whatever I do choose is not right or wrong, it just is’