One of the best parts of eating intuitively is that all foods are allowed. Nothing is banished, nothing is limited, and nothing is off the table. The goal is to work towards gradually erasing all of the food rules and restrictions that have been deeply ingrained for years and years. There is great freedom and empowerment in this action. And – if you are truly attuned to your body’s needs and preferences and are honouring them accordingly – it is 100% possible to eat freely this way and not overdo it.
Deprivation - often disguised as controlled, portioned, regimented, rule-following, “healthy” eating – is what most often leads to out-of-control eating. On the other hand, total permission to eat freely results in a balanced, satisfying eating experience.
Contrary to popular belief, removing the limits of what we are allowed to eat does not result in loss of motivation, eating with wild abandonment and never-ending weight gain. When you first commit to this shift, there will almost certainly be a period of time where you will experience increased cravings for foods that you have previously restricted. The longer and deeper your deprivation runs, the more this will occur. However, if you stay the course and trust your body to sort it out, this will inevitably subside and pave the way to a more balanced approach to eating.
This can seem totally counter-intuitive, so let me demonstrate with an example that most people can relate to.
You arrive at work on Monday morning, and there is a big box of fresh donuts on the staff room table. Let’s look at two scenarios of how this might affect you.
In Scenario One, you are someone who eats intuitively who doesn’t have any strong feelings about donuts. If this is the case, they probably won’t phase you. Maybe if you’ve just eaten breakfast at home, you realize that you’re not hungry right now, and decide not to take one. You know that you can get a donut at any time whenever you feel like it. Like me, you drive right past at least four chain donut shops on your way to work, and there is also one in the same building as your office that you can walk to within three minutes. Donuts are not scarce or expensive.
But maybe they look delicious and maybe they aren’t regular donuts, but from a fancy and less accessible bakery – this may change your decision. Maybe your favourite kind is there and you can’t resist. You take one and because you’re still full from breakfast, you decide to eat it later in place of your usual morning snack, or eat it with your lunch. Maybe it looks and smells so fresh and delicious you eat it right away, and then later choose to forgo your snack because you don’t feel the usual hunger pangs at 10 am.
Whatever choice you make – and it really doesn’t matter which one, there is no right or wrong, better or worse choice to make – the point is, you are making your decision from a rational, flexible frame of mind. This decision is small, insignificant, and one of many more that you will make that day.
In Scenario Two, you are someone who believes that donuts are a bad, unhealthy food, or even more extreme - full of toxic sugar that you might equate to ingesting poison. You are also unhappy with your weight, and are of the opinion that you need to slim down to improve the way you look and feel. You feel shame and dissatisfaction with your body, and believe that you need to closely monitor what you eat. Sugar, carbs, fat, gluten (insert other popular villainous nutrient) should be limited or avoided. You don't trust yourself around these foods, and believe that you lack self-control.
And so you arrive at work, having eaten breakfast at home, this time likely to have a very different reaction to the box of donuts. You might immediately find them to be very triggering. The temptation to have one will likely be much greater simply because they are forbidden. When we tell ourselves that we can’t or shouldn’t have something (and especially that we are a BAD person if we eat this BAD food) we will simply want it more.
If you have been following a plan that restricts carbohydrates and doesn’t provide enough of this essential nutrient, you will physiologically react to this as well – your cravings for sugar will naturally increase in response to your body’s experienced scarcity.
More importantly, the donuts may be triggering because you know that whatever decision you make has the ability to drastically alter your mood or even to make or break your day. If you resist, you may feel proud, strong, focused on your goals. This will reinforce the idea that you are a GOOD person if you make the correct choice and avoid the BAD food. It may also lead to the eventual pendulum swing from deprivation into binge eating territory.
If you indulge, you know that you’ll feel shame, loathing, disappointment, frustration, anger, fear and worry. This of course is not any fun, and will probably lead you to seek out a behavior that will numb or tune out these feelings – cue entrance of “f*** it” eating later in the day. This is the classic “I’ve already screwed up today and I’m a worthless human being, so might as well go big or go home and start fresh tomorrow” reaction that propels you to the drive-through to pick up a box of donuts on your way home to devour throughout the evening.
Once again, forbidding ourselves to have something we want will only make us want it more. Labeling ourselves as weak, unmotivated and lacking willpower will simply add more fuel to this fire.
In Scenario Two, either choice, either reaction, is highly emotional and highly irrational. Can food really have this much power over us? The ability to ruin our day, to shatter our self-esteem, to flood us with shame and self-hatred? If this is the case, then of course it makes sense that seeing that box would be highly triggering – even enough to send our overwhelmed, confused minds into fight-or-flight mode.
The bottom line is, the person in Scenario One who doesn’t follow food rules, who trusts their body to let them know what it needs, who allows themselves full permission to eat freely, doesn’t need the “help” of a diet plan to make the “correct” choice. They know that eating a donut will not harm them in the long run and so they aren't scared of it. They enjoy a wide variety of food choices and they value pleasure as much as nutrition as an important and healthy part of the eating experience. They've learned from experience that their weight will naturally regulate itself. As such, they learn to reject the notion of a perfect body shape and size, embrace the reality of body diversity, and respect that their genetic weight blueprint may be different from what society tells them is ideal. (As an aside, most people feel that they should weigh less than their genetic set point range. Just as attempting to force your foot into a size 6 shoe when it is actually an 8 is destined to fail, so is spending a lifetime trying to alter your body’s natural shape and size.)
The person in Scenario Two who takes the white-knuckling, fearful approach to eating– afraid of foods, not trusting their own ability to regulate what they choose, their mind in a frantic state completely disconnected from their body – becomes hopelessly trapped in the vicious cycle of restricting→over-consuming→overwhelming guilt and shame. Over time this evolves into deeper mistrust of their own ability to make food choices, as well as increased shame and decreased self-worth. And often, over time, the thing that they are most scared of… weight gain.
Which starts the cycle all over again.
Still feel that this is not in the realm of possibility for you? I'd love to show you the evidence-based research and convince you that this is legit! Email me if you'd like to chat and get more info.