Intuitive Eating Blog Series - Part 3: Make peace with food
So, if you've read my posts about ditching diets and honoring your hunger, we've made some steps away from the deprivation mindset and through actually allowing yourself to eat. The next question is, what kind of food should you eat?
The answer to that question is: eat what you crave. Yes, LISTEN to your cravings. Not only is your body smarter than you think it is, but denying yourself the foods you really want for the sake of discipline or not "overeating" can actually lead to the opposite effect.
(sidenote: this is a nutrition blog, and don't worry, we'll get there. Gentle nutrition is the very last principle of Intuitive Eating, all this food relationship stuff is really important to work through before getting into nutrition!)
Think of your brain like a rebellious teenager - the more you tell yourself that certain foods are off limits, the more those forbidden foods seem to have a certain allure to them.
Food companies LOVE this - picture all the food commercials you've seen about a certain chocolate being "sinful" or a hamburger being a "guilty pleasure." This puts those certain foods on a pedestal; your mouth might water, and you might even ruminate on that particular food the whole day. What do you think is going to happen the next time you see that food in the grocery store or on a menu? You're likely going to buy it.
Something similar happens when that food is not allowed in your regular eating - we think about how much we want the food, and then we think some more, and then it's a super intense craving beyond the amount that we might have wanted the food in the first place. When we are finally confronted with an opportunity to eat that food, we might even feel out of control. Our brains turn into sneaky teenagers that tell us to "get it while we can!" and we often end up eating way more of that food than we ever intended.
Then comes the guilt - the dread of looking back and realizing that we "gave-in" or "messed up." Stop right there and give yourself some grace. This is not about discipline at all - this is about balance.
The deprivation-guilt cycle is fueled by a lack of pleasure and satisfaction. Our brains like to have fun, including having a grand-old time with pleasant tastes and textures, and feeling satisfied through honoring our hunger with substantial food. When we deny ourselves the pleasure of eating fun, satisfying foods, our brains go into thrill-seeking mode and may lead us to a place that feels a little too wild. For some people this might look like an all-out binge, for others it might not be so intense but still doesn't feel quite right. Either way, balance does not happen when the diet pendulum is pulled to the side of deprivation.
Ending the week with a "cheat day" or ending a month of cutting out all sugar (cough cough... Whole30) with an ice cream binge will likely feel terrible psychologically, but will also likely make your body feel pretty crappy. The reason for this could simply be that putting a lot of food into your digestive system all at once can cause a bad tummy ache, but bingeing also can lead to rapid rising and crashing of your blood sugar which does not feel good at all.
Long story short, restriction doesn't work!
What does work is making peace with food. When no foods are off limits, our brains spend way less time obsessing over what we cannot have and much more time living in the moment, savoring the flavors and textures we allow ourselves to enjoy. Slowly but surely, satisfaction increases, cravings level out, and binges come to a stop. Needs are being met.
This is not something immediate - it can take a bit of time in the "honeymoon phase" (Cara Harbstreet likes to call it the "cheeseburger phase," love this post by her!) before things start to level back out to balance. Going back to the pendulum analogy: you've been on the side of restriction and your body's natural response is to binge. Continue giving yourself permission, and without the pull towards deprivation, there will be much less swinging to the other side. Eventually, the pendulum will gently swing back and forth around a lovely sweet spot - balance.
So here's a challenge: Choose one food you don't keep around the house because you always end up eating too much, or that you never let yourself have. Is it your favorite flavor of regular ice cream (NOT Halo Top)? Pizza? Maybe a bag of chips?
Now go get that food. Eat that food. Repeat.
Find peace with food, and balance will follow.
You'll also get to know yourself a little better in this process; taking away deprivation will allow your true food desires to blossom. You might find that you really don't have much of a sweet tooth, and that your thing is actually crunchy, salty pretzels. You might realize that you don't actually like pizza that much, but that ice cream is definitely part of your daily routine.
You can have any and all of these foods as a part of your normal daily life, and still be a normal, healthy, happy, successful person.
A lot of people need a bit of guidance to find balance. Definitely reach out to a Registered Dietitian or Therapist who is an Intuitive Eating Counselor for some help, or if you think you just need a little boost, check out an online class like this one from Christy Harrison and this one from Rebecca Scritchfield. This one from Caroline Dooner is a bit edgier but super awesome too ;) As always, I also recommend everyone get themselves a copy of the book Intuitive Eating, 3rd edition to read more on this approach.
Let me know in the comments below which food is your challenge food! My most recent ones have been Talenti ice cream and salt + vinegar potato chips. Yum!