Note: I put “problem foods” in quotes because our goal is to turn foods that feel like a problem into foods that are just another food. Instead of “CHOCOLATE 😳😳😳” It becomes just “chocolate ☺️”
As I sat down to write this post, I grabbed an unopened bag of chocolate (speaking of) that had been in our cabinet for over a month. I ate about, IDK, like a handful maybe? And then just put it away just now before I wrote this sentence. I haven’t thought about it since, besides the fact that I’m still talking about it with you!
Crazy concepts, right? Unopened bag for a month, took a few and put it back, stopped thinking about it. This is peace with food. Neutrality with food. Being able to have some of a food, feel satisfied, and move on. It wasn’t always like that for me, and it’s usually not like that for my clients when we first start working together.
You might be thinking, “that’s cool, it works for them but I’m different,” and that’s what I call contempt prior to investigation. The first thing that must change when healing our relationships with food is our mindset, and choosing to believe that a healthy food relationship IS possible.
*important note* Food fear does not discriminate unfortunately. So you may feel just as problematic about avocados or bananas as you do about chocolate cake. This is because diet culture has demonized so many foods that almost nothing is “safe” anymore.
I personally don’t believe that we are just robots that need fuel. Yes, nutrition and eating for physical health is important (I’m a dietitian for crying out loud 😂), but I work with my clients to expand their definition of “health” to include eating for mental, emotional and spiritual health as well. For me, chocolate gives me a feeling of just being human and enjoying something sweet.
Food is connection, nourishment, comfort, culture, community, legacy, history, power, fuel, fun, nostalgia, nurturing, and tons more. When we focus only on eating for physical health in strict, rigid ways, we forget all these other qualities of food and our mental health tends to suffer. To me, true wellness is about much more than physical health. Am I delusional and believe chocolates are going to somehow give me tons of nutrients? No. But I wanted a sweet after dinner before I sat down to write this post, and that sounded satisfying.
My philosophy is that ALL foods should fit into your life in whatever way you want them to. You get to decide which ones, how, when, and why because it’s your body, your plate, and your business. With diets, only certain foods fit based on some crazy arbitrary, senseless, rigid rules which is why diets fail because they suck.
Intuitive Eating allows you to examine your real relationship with food. What foods do you even like or not like? What foods make you feel good? What foods don’t make you feel good? In the absence of food rules, it’s beautiful to me how natural and soul-fueling eating can be. My clients always say, “It’s amazing, Lexy. I’m just eating. I’m eating and living, it’s as simple as that!”
But what about those foods you feel “out of control” with? The “I can’t eat that or I’ll eat the whole box/bag/whatever,” foods or the, “I can’t keep those in the house because I don’t trust myself,” foods?
Surely the answer is just to not eat them, right? Okay fine, let’s play the tape through. So you can’t EVER have pizza, muffins, bagels, candy, pasta, cereal, ice cream, popcorn, or cookies? That sounds miserable to me. And after working with cancer patients for the first half of my (so far) 9 year dietitian career, I learned one huge lesson. Life is WAY too short. And every single one of them told me they wish they worried less about food and ate the friggen cake.
I get emotional every time I think of this^^. Life is too damn short. If it helps you imagine a world where you can include these “problem foods” and still feel balanced, i’ll tell you that most of my clients end up eating WAY more veggies than ever before, exercising WAY more, while also including their favorite foods – that once felt like a “problem.”
Not to mention when we restrict or deprive ourself of certain foods, we tend to “overdo” them and feel out of control with them.
So how do we find peace with these “problem foods” then?
The answer might shock you but I promise it works – I see it ALL the time with my clients, and it’s how I can have those few chocolates and put the rest away easily without even thinking twice about them after.
You eat [insert problem food here] more. How much panic just set in? Palms sweaty? Heart racing? Jaw dropped? I know that reaction because I had it myself when I first discovered this concept and I see that reaction every single time I have this conversation with a new client. I know, imagine? A dietitian saying eat more candy.
But yeah. It’s the only way I’ve found to truly make peace with “problem foods”. You likely feel out of control with these “problem foods” in the first place for a few reasons, let’s take a quick dive into two main reasons why (there are many).
👉🏼These foods may have been restricted in childhood, on a diet, at summer camp, in college, and the like. Restriction leads to feelings of deprivation, which tends to eventually lead to bingeing. You can only hold your breath for so long. It’s like if I took you to the desert and you had no water for 7 days. As soon as you had access to water on day 8, you’d chug it super fast. If you had plentiful water access after that, the first few days you may still chug it. But eventually you’d be like, “Oh, I can have water whenever I need to – I don’t need to chug it whenever I get it.” You’d end up drinking the water in closer alliance to what your body actually needed or wanted, and then move on.
👉🏼They’re moralized as “bad”, “cheat”, “unhealthy”, “junk”, or whatever negative connotation diet culture chooses to give them that day. If you’re a little kid and I put you in a room with a bunch of toys and I say, “I’m going to leave the room. You can play with anything in here but this blue toy truck,” what are you going to want to play with as soon as I leave the room? Probably the blue toy truck. As humans, we want what we “can’t” have. So our desire for these foods is SUPER high just because they’re taboo and given way more credit than they even need. The reality is, they’re just foods made up of varying combinations of carbs, protein, and fat. You’re not “bad” for eating pizza. You’re just a human eating pizza. The question is, do you even LIKE or WANT pizza and if so, how much?!
So what do we do? It’s called habituation or basically, getting used to the food. Three of my main “problem foods” before I found intuitive eating were candy, chips, and pizza. I would restrict them because I thought they are “bad” for you (reasons 1 and 2 above) and eventually binge. I started having them more often, and eventually (not overnight!) my relationship to them shifted. I started feeling more comfortable around them, like I could have them when I wanted. Not that it’s necessarily a goal, but I end up eating less of those foods overall because I realize the amount that actually feels good in my body and mind, and it’s definitely not bingeing them.
Your brain and body essentially start to feel safe with that food, knowing you can have it when you want it. It’s like if you went into the desert for a week and you had no access to water. Once you could finally drink again, you’d chug as much water as you could. But eventually, you’d become used to having water when you needed it so you wouldn’t feel so pressured to drink as much as you could all at once.
When habituating to a food, we must allow the process to look like whatever it needs to look like – no rules, that’s the point. How does the food feel, taste, smell, while you’re eating it but also after? Intuitive eating asks us to connect to the experience of our body/mind + that food and really be present for whatever comes up.
I’ll also mention that this concept of habituation is REALLY important to tackle alongside other principles of Intuitive Eating such as challenging the food police, and building self-care and coping skills.
“But what if I never stop eating ______ food once I give myself permission to?”
I can almost guarantee you will. Because we get sick of things as humans! Unless there’s something deeper going on physically, mentally or emotionally, most of the time we end up getting sick of the food and feeling more neutral towards it.
“What if I can’t eat _____ food for a medical condition but all I do is crave it?”
I feel you. I have celiac which means I can’t eat gluten. However, when I got diagnosed I kept eating gluten! (And obviously got very sick…) Once I changed my mindset from “they said I can’t eat this,” to “it’s not respectful to my body to eat this when it’s telling me it doesn’t agree with it,” I was able to stop. Make sure to work closely with your doctor and a registered dietitian to work through intuitive eating and food allergies/intolerances.
If this sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Making peace with food is HARD! Because we live in a really messed up diet culture world that basically normalizes disordered eating (fasting, cutting out entire food groups, all that). So it can feel almost impossible, I get it! You don’t have to have all the trust in the world, but do you have a tiny freckle’s worth of willingness to believe this could work for you? That’s all you need, in my experience.
Need more support?
- Principle 3 – Make peace with food is the chapter in Intuitive Eating that goes over way more of this concept of habituation.
- I work with clients 1:1 to make peace with food, health and their bodies to live their best lives and feel empowered. Book your free intro call here and let’s chat!
*This post should not be a substitute for medical, nutrition, or therapeutic counseling or care.