I talk a lot about giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. I believe strongly in that principle for food freedom and absolutely believe that TRUE unconditional permission to eat naturally brings unconditional permission to stop eating. I add the disclaimer of “true” to clarify the importance of not beating yourself up about eating - enjoying or truly having it whenever you want it without conditions on why, how, where, when or what. If you do that, you’ll surprise yourself with your natural ability to self-regulate and ability to “take or leave it” depending on how you feel.
When talking about unconditional permission to eat, I find that most clients usually jump straight to ice cream or fried foods or chocolate or chips or other foods they regularly overeat or feel guilty about eating. “Fear foods” if you will. They can easily feel too overwhelmed to even consider it (which is likely due to that all-or-nothing mentality). While I certainly encourage unconditional permission to eat those too, I don’t know if that’s the best place to start. I say that realizing that everyone’s journey to, and experience with, Intuitive Eating is different and it definitely isn’t a linear process.
What I would encourage you to think about is what judgements and diet rules you have that involve...more nutritious foods. I don’t wish to encourage any “good vs bad” dialogue with that distinction, but I don’t think it’s helpful to ignore the fact that some foods are more nutrient dense than others. All foods have nutrition and will be beneficial in their own way and the best way to assess nutritional adequacy is with flexibility, variety and overall food patterns. In essence, we want to balance our need for nourishment with our need for satisfaction. The real goal is not to see all foods as nutritionally equal (that's avoiding reality) but to have the same emotional reaction no matter what you eat, because you trust your body and your own ability to self-moderate between all foods. I talk more about that here: Is There a Downside to Clean Eating?
But instead of feeling overwhelmed by jumping straight to desserts and snacks, maybe you assess your variety from each food group. You may be eating carbohydrates but only sweet potatoes and brown rice, never white potatoes, white rice or white pasta. Or maybe you eat dairy but only yogurt never cheese. Maybe you eat fruit but only berries, not bananas. Or maybe you eat all those things, but you feel guilty when doing so (and therefore aren’t giving yourself true unconditional permission to eat).
So maybe were you start is including a greater variety of foods from each food group. At times (depends on the client) I find it helpful to give the recommendation to build balanced meals (a carbohydrate, a protein, a fat and a fruit/vegetable). ANYTHING can be included as a carbohydrate, protein, fat or fruit or vegetable. This provides a framework and structure for them to build flexibility. It allows them to get creative with food and possibly try new recipes (or old ones they have avoided because of fear). It allows more options to feel less anxious about eating out or making family meals that everyone will enjoy and be able to eat. For some it’s helpful to think less about the food and more about variety and satisfaction, which is a great way to work on the very intimidating principle of unconditional permission to eat. It's also great practice to include food groups that have been avoided (carbs and fats usually). It’s a good first step to re-learn how to build meals without fear.
No food is off limits. The avocado or cheese or potatoes or rice or peanut butter or bread or brown sugar in your oatmeal or maple syrup on your pancakes…or anything else that diet culture has taught you to fear. I’ve blogged about this in the past when discussing my food philosophy which I encourage you to read about here:
One of my favorite things to help clients do is to brainstorm really flavorful, creative meal and snack ideas. I like to get them excited about food, which has felt scary or boring or frustrating or confusing. It’s usually hard for them to give themselves permission to feel satisfied, and I appreciate them trusting my permission as a bridge to them being able to do it for themselves.
Just so we are clear - I truly believe in making peace with all foods as away to food freedom and to put you back in charge of your own food choices without being micromanaged by rules. I also believe in taking this process a step at a time. Believing you have to make peace with all foods right now could feel really overwhelming. I would start with one food or food group that you want to challenge. Add it to one meal or snack a day and once you feel more comfortable, move on to the next. I think you’ll find that some of those scarier foods feel less intimidating as you start to see that food is available to nourish and satisfy you, not to hurt you.
Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD