I can remember this scenario like it was yesterday.
I’m in college, living alone. I’m standing in front of the ice cream section of the frozen food aisle, looking at all the flavors (if you have been around me more than 10 minutes, you probably know that I LOVE ice cream). You can’t tell, but there is a mental war going on in my head…
I really want some ice cream. Don’t do it, Tori! You’re going to regret it. There’s nothing good that can come from having ice cream in the house. But it looks sooo good. But if it’s in the freezer, I’ll eat the whole thing! Oh my gosh, they have coffee ice cream! With chocolate chips in it! Tori, no. You ate too much ice cream last week. Skip it!
Sound familiar? I honestly felt uncontrollable around food. Many say they are “addicted” to sugar, chips, you name it… and I felt that.
So, when I tell you to give yourself unconditional permission to eat, I know that’s scary, because I’ve been there. The fear is that giving yourself permission to eat things you have spent years convincing yourself you shouldn’t eat might result in bingeing and this “out of control” feeling.
It’s important for us to understand binges before we go further.
"If you think you have a binge problem, what you probably have is a restriction problem."
Wherever there is a binge, there is probably restriction hiding somewhere in the background. As Christy Harrison’s recent book Anti Diet puts it, imagine lifting a pendulum to one side and letting it go. It’s not going to stop in the middle – it’s going to swing just as far over to the other side. Same with restricting. If we restrict ourselves from food we love, we begin to obsess. All we think about is food. We’re trying to “justify” eating those foods by going to the gym for an extra 30 minutes, skipping another meal, or claiming you “deserve” it because you had a bad day. Someone who wouldn’t think twice about a burger and fries is suddenly craving it.
And what happens when you finally give into that burger and fries? It’s a burger-and-fries party. The fear of future restriction (“My diet starts Monday”) causes you to impulsively eat more, more, and more until you’re painfully full.
If you haven’t “successfully” cut out sugar, carbs, or other “bad” foods, you’re probably thinking this doesn’t apply to you. But even thoughts of restriction or “partial” restriction can lead to this cycle. Here’s some examples:
I shouldn’t eat a whole piece of cheesecake,
I only eat sweets on days I go to the gym, or
I try not to eat too many chips, because I know they’re bad.
These thoughts, while not as extreme as swearing off entire food groups, can still have harmful effects on your relationship with food.
If you think you have a binge problem, what you probably have is a restriction problem.
When you decide to make peace with foods, one of the first steps is giving up the diet mentality and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat.
This may be the opposite of everything you’ve tried to prevent a binge. Instead of keeping the cookies out of the house, you make sure they’re readily available.
Instead of avoiding the donuts Sally the Receptionist brought in, you allow yourself to enjoy one (or two!).
And don’t get me wrong, you may experience a honeymoon phase with food, where you feel like you’ll never want “healthy” foods again. And at first, why would you? It’s called the honeymoon phase for a reason – in a new relationship, you can’t get enough of a person. You want to be around them night and day and learn all about them. After a few months or years, you realize that your life needs more balance than that. You rediscover hobbies, you spend more time with friends again, and your relationship with your partner is more balanced.
The same thing happens with all the food you’ve been restricting. When you’re rediscovering the world of donuts, pizza, and bacon, you may think you’ll never go back. But after a while, your body craves more balance. (By the way, this process is hard. It requires a lot of trust in your body, which can be very difficult. It’s highly suggested working with a non-diet dietitian!)
When things begin to even out, you discover what true, balanced eating looks like. When food no longer has control over you (because you know that YOU are the one in charge of what to eat, when), you can experience true peace with food.
Instead of that pendulum swinging dramatically – restrict, binge, restrict, and so on – it’s remaining steady.
But this is impossible without giving up restriction. It’s impossible to experience a balanced, healthy relationship with food when you hold on to the idea that some foods are “good”, while others are “bad”.
And so, what? Why is a healthy relationship with food all that big of a deal?
For one, you get the rest of your life back. You can rediscover all the hobbies and people you enjoyed before diet culture took over you life (in the form of endless meal prep, calorie counting, etc.). You can enjoy social gatherings without worrying about the buffet table. You can train for a marathon because you want to, not to manage your weight or body shape.
And that, my friend, is why unconditional permission to eat is so important - you can have your full, amazing life back.