Will intuitive eating make me fat?

One of the things I hear over and over again is that people are terrified that if they embrace intuitive eating, especially the notion of being able to eat whatever they want whenever they want, that they will eat their way into obesity. Without any rules to follow dictating what they can and can't eat and nothing to hold them accountable, they will become out of control over eaters with no off-switch. It seems logical, so it can be difficult to wrap your head around the fact that the opposite is actually true. What I have seen over and over again, and what research demonstrates is that intuitive eaters eat a wider variety of foods, have an overall more balanced diet, and achieve weight stability - as opposed to someone who is on and off diets endlessly. 

It all boils down to habituation. The more regularly available something is, the less special and significant it becomes. If we don't allow ourselves to eat chips except for occasionally, chips become a big deal when we do have them. If they are in the pantry all the time and we can have them whenever we want, they become just another food that is there, like yogurt or apples. We can all relate to the idea of filling a small "appropriate portion size" bowl with chips for a snack and returning to the pantry two or three times to refill the bowl, eventually just grabbing the bag, because the first bowl didn't satisfy us. When was the last time you did this with apples?

I re-experienced this phenomenon last night, when Christmas arrived one month late at our house. My husband's colleague, who is amazing in the kitchen, makes this insanely delicious caramel popcorn with spiced nuts that she gives out at Christmas each year. It's so good that we usually devour it the very first night. She retired last year, and it didn't dawn on us until a few days before Christmas that this meant we wouldn't be getting popcorn this year, which was a devastating realization. "See if you can get a hold of her and get the recipe" I begged my husband. I think I even uttered the words "Christmas just won't be the same" - admittedly a little dramatic, but the sentiment was real in the moment.

Word got back to her, and yesterday my husband brought home not only the recipe but two bags of sweet, deliciousness much to my delight and excitement. One of the bags had ripped a bit, and we barely were through supper and hadn't even cleared the plates when we busted the bag open and dug in.

My train of thought went something like "this is so good, OMG this is so good, must write thank you email, I can't believe how good this is, starting to feel full but no way will I stop eating this, should save some for later but not ready to stop, possibly going to get a stomach ache if I don't stop soon but probably going to be worth it" and on and on for several minutes.

And somewhere in the middle of this, I had the thought that this is exactly what "last supper" eating feels like - that moment when you've blown the diet and you know you'll be getting back on it tomorrow so you're going to feast in a frenzied, out of control manner knowing that this will be the only chance to do so. This popcorn was only available to us once a year, so no surprise that we coveted it and found so irresistible. If we had bags of it in the cupboard year round, we would find it much more ordinary. We would eventually get sick of eating it, as impossible as that seems.

This is an experiment you can try on your own anytime. Start with choosing one food that is typically off limits to you. Not a major fear food that is likely to trigger you, something a little less emotionally charged but still off limits. For me this used to be keeping cookies and certain types of granola bars in the house for fear that I would snack on them constantly (now they are both in my pantry and sit there for weeks and even months sometimes). Tell yourself (and mean it) that you will allow yourself to have this one food any time you want without any limits. You are allowed to have second and third helpings if you want. You can have it for breakfast or late at night if you want. No judgement, no guilt. Try this experiment for a couple of weeks (or even just one week if two weeks seems to scary) and see what happens towards the end. My bet is that food won't be as alluring as it was before the experiment, when it was limited.

When you take away it's power, food becomes... just food. Not linked to virtue or morality, not indicators of our willpower, discipline, strength or character, not having the power to lift us up and feel amazing if we make the "right" choice or sink us into shame and despair if we don't.

And now, I'm off to get some more popcorn.