Make Peace with Food

Peace, Love, Food!

In my previous blog post on hunger I discussed the physiological reasons that restriction can lead to overeating. Today I will be talking about the power of the brain and that making peace with food is rooted in how psychological restriction of food can actually effect our bodies and how we eat. Note when I say restriction – I mean any limitation or rules placed on your food intake including restricting the amount or type of food that you let yourself eat. 

We want what we “can’t” have.

This is one of the reasons restriction leads to increased desire and cravings for the foods you tell yourself you can’t or shouldn’t have. This fear of deprivation can grow so strong in dieters or restrained eaters, that before even starting a new plan, diet, program, you can have a “last supper” effect where you find yourself eating all the foods that will be forbidden once your diet starts. With each successive diet or attempt to control your weight, you can find the intensity of craving for food increases. Last supper binges can become more extreme and you can even find yourself vacillating between restriction and binge behaviors throughout months, weeks, days, or even within an hour.

To normalize this sensation, think about a time when you had access to a special food, a food you don’t often get to have. An example of this may be a holiday, special restaurant, family recipe, or on vacation. Did you notice that you ate more of the food because you realized it may be the only time you get to have it, at least the only time for while, until mom makes her famous holiday cookies again? This may be normal when it happens occasionally with special foods, but with dieting and restriction, this list of foods can be enormous and you can feel like everything is special and off limits, leading to increased desire to eat it all while you can, like the night before your next diet starts.

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If you often restrict the types and how much food is allowed in your house you are more likely to overeat right after grocery shopping when the amount of food available is higher because your body wants to get it all while it can. It’s used to having limited options. This can lead to cleaning the plate every time you eat b/c you feel like this amount is what you are allowed to have and your body is fearful it won’t get what it needs at future time. Diets actually encourage cleaning the plate because they often restrict you to limited portions that are approved; it makes sense that someone being restricted would eat every morsel of “allowed” food. Unfortunately, this wears away at your self-trust and can increase feeling of loss of control.

Note: learning to trust that food will be available and making peace with food can be additionally challenging for those who have experienced any sort of forced dieting; or anyone who has experienced food insecurity – both of these have been shown to play a roll in the “get it while you can” mentality with food. These are important topics to discuss with trained professionals like a dietitian and therapist.

What does the evidence say?

Research on restrained eaters has shown that the restraint can lead to over eating when self-proclaimed food rules are broken, or there is a perception of being “bad” with food. One studied from Northwestern University examined how much ice cream restrained eats vs. non-restrained eaters would eat after being filled with milk shakes. Ironically, restrained eaters ate the most ice cream when they were fed more milk shakes prior to the test. Non-restrained eaters on the other hand ate more ice cream when fed less shake and less ice cream when fed more shake. This study shows how physical hunger and fullness can be ignored completely once a “rule” is broken if you have a restrictive mindset with food. In another study, restrained eaters ate more pudding when told the pudding was high calorie than when told it was low calorie. It didn’t actually matter how many calories were in the pudding! This shows how powerful the brain really is, just the thought of eating “too many calories” led to over eating.

What to do about it?

Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Like with honoring your hunger you have to fully commit to eating when hungry, making peace with food goes a step further to saying that you will allow yourself what you actually WANT to eat when hungry. Unconditional is a key word here, this means knowing that you can truly have whatever food you want without any sort of compensation for eating it. Example of conditional permission: “I can have cupcake tonight, if I eat a salad tomorrow,” “I can enjoy this pasta tonight, if I workout for X amount of time tomorrow”, “It’s okay to honor my cravings as long as I have portion control and only eat half.” These statements may seem like you are letting yourself eat what you want, but the fact that they come with a condition can cause your brain and body to want more of the foods. There still isn’t freedom to have it whenever.

This is often when clients want to run out the door, it’s terrifying to think you can eat whatever you want, I am often met with fears about eating too much, never stopping once you start eating, not eating “healthy” enough if you eat whatever you want. The truth is though that the restrained eating has caused an unhealthy relationship with food and that once you have permission to eat you will be able to find balance in that food intake, a balance that is right for your body. When you actually allow yourself unconditional permission you are able to connect to your body’s cues because there isn’t fear and guilt overriding connection to taste and hunger/fullness.

To begin making peace with food you can try the following steps.

Make a list of foods that you think you may enjoy eating but limit yourself of in some way. It may help to consider different food groups like dairy, fruit, vegetables, grains, proteins, fats, other – this can just help you get some ideas going. Then the goal is to slowly incorporate these foods. Pick one, purchase it, and try eating it as often as you would like, you may find that you overeat the food at first, that’s okay! It’s likely that old fear of future restriction sneaking up on you. Keep buying the food and keep incorporating it when you want it.  You likely won’t have to go down the whole list because as you continue to give yourself permission with more foods you will start build trust and won’t have to experiment with each one. If you are finding that you are bingeing regularly when you try this experiment it may be time to step back and go back to the previous intuitive eating skills, talk with your treatment team or get one if you don’t have one! They will be able to help you more safely incorporate foods in a way that may feel more supportive and successful to you. Also remember if you do over eat on the new foods, it’s okay it’s part of the process. You can continue to work on normalizing your relationship with food. You have already taken a huge step by trying a food that was previously forbidden!! 

Book an appointment today - if you want additional support making peace with food.