Diet advice is all about restriction and willpower. It tells you to “just say no” to all the foods you love and enjoy - no wonder so many people are trapped in a cycle or restriction and binging! If you’re wondering how to make peace with food and become a more intuitive eater, it starts with giving yourself permission to eat the foods you love.
If, like me, you were a child in the eighties and nineties, then you probably have vivid memories of DARE, the anti-drug campaign, and it’s mantra of "Just Say No." Maybe you even had a sweet oversized black t-shirt with “JUST SAY NO” emblazoned in bright red letters, which looked super cool with your patterned stirrup pants and glitter jelly sandals. I wonder why that look hasn’t come back with the rest of the 80s trends?
What I remember most about DARE were long lectures about the dangers of using drugs, and when we were old enough, graphic images of tarry lungs, scarred livers, people who were addicted to drugs, aged well-beyond their years, and bodies of teens killed from drinking and driving. There’s one picture of a girl after a car accident that still occasionally pops up in my nightmares, 20 years after that high school health class. We were taught that people who used drugs were bad people with bad intentions, and to avoid them at all costs.
It was a well intentioned program, but almost 30 years later, we know it was pretty ineffective. Studies have found children enrolled in the DARE were no less likely to use drugs, and not only that, they were more likely to suffer from lower self esteem. A few years ago, I sat next to a woman on a plane who works in public health on anti-drug policy, and got to chatting about DARE, as one does when sitting next to an anti-drug public policy expert. One thing she shared was that when a teen did drink, smoke or try drugs, they internalized that shame (because you know, the whole drug users are evil bad people thing) and they were more likely to continue using drugs, and experiment with more dangerous kinds.
As we were having this conversation, I couldn’t help but be struck by the parallels to food. Now, please note that I am NOT comparing food to drugs (that whole sugar addiction thing is bunk), and certainly my insight into what anti-drug programs actually are effective is pretty much zilch. But it reminded me of how when it comes to food and nutrition, we’re also taught in this abstinence-like model. “Just say no” to all the bad foods, and if you can’t “control” yourself, it’s because you’re a bad person with no willpower. We’re told to put the cookies on the top shelf, out of sight and supposedly out of mind. Or if you really cant control yourself, just keep them out of the house! We’re taught all sorts of ridiculous strategies for fending off cravings, everything from eating carrot sticks to drinking a glass of water to going on a walk around the block to tapping your fingers on your forehead. But we are never taught to competently eat all foods. And when we do finally break down and eat the food we want, it’s always consumed with a side of guilt and shame. And kind of like the internalized shame led teens to do more drugs, guilt and shame with food leads to eating more of those “bad foods,” and eventually more restriction to relieve the guilt, replicating the cycle all over again. As you can imagine, this pattern creates a pretty chaotic relationship with food.
How to Make Peace with Food
So how do you make peace with food and get off this pendulum of restriction and binging? Just say yes (to food! This is where the DARE analogy ends!). Give yourself full permission to eat the foods you enjoy. Allow yourself to eat without the rules and restrictions that put certain foods up on a pedestal. Because you cannot make peace with food if you’re not allowing yourself opportunities to practice eating these foods like a normal human being.
In intuitive eating, there are two principles I like to refer to as the permission principles. The first of these principles is the third principle of intuitive eating - make peace with food. This principle is all about giving yourself physical permission to eat the foods you enjoy by allowing yourself those previously off-limits foods. The second is the fourth principle of intuitive eating - challenge the food police. This is all about giving yourself emotional permission to eat the foods you enjoy, by unlearning and challenging the inaccurate and unhelpful diet advice that creates stress around food, and taking the morality out of your eating choices.
If you’re struggling with a relationship with food that feels chaotic and out of control, and wondering how to make peace with food, I promise you, the answer isn’t to be found in restriction. As scary as it feels to “just say yes,” especially with a food you’ve had scary experiences with in the past, it’s the only way to build the skills you need to be able to eat those foods competently - in a way that honors your physical and mental health.
This is where the guidance of a dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor can be important. It can be helpful to start with foods that are less scary first, and to have skills that ensure you’re able to have positive experiences with those foods that build up your confidence. This is especially true if you’ve been diagnosed with binge eating disorder, or another eating disorder. I work with clients virtually and out of my Columbia, SC office providing intuitive eating coaching. Contact me if you’d like to see if we’re a good fit to work together, or I’d be happy to point you to a non-diet dietitian in your area!
This post was originally published 4/15, and has been updated to give you the best possible content.