Make Peace with Food
The next step toward intuitive eating is to stop depriving yourself and make peace with all foods—even the "off-limits" kinds.
I recommend completing this module over the course of a week, taking some time to review the material a couple of times, and to complete the journal exercises each day.
Start by listening to the talk below. When you're done, scroll down for the notes, journal exercises, and audio meditation.
Audio: how to Make Peace With Food
Module 4 Notes
In the last module we discussed physical deprivation, but psychological deprivation can be just as powerful.
If you’ve told yourself that you “shouldn’t” have a certain food, or that the thing you really want is a “bad” food and you’re only supposed to eat “good” foods, the psychological deprivation you feel can lead to intense cravings and, eventually, overeating or bingeing.
You’ve probably experienced this if you’ve been on a diet that restricted certain foods or food groups. Limiting essential nutrients like carbohydrates or fat causes both psychological and physical deprivation.
But even seemingly “healthier” eating plans, like a “whole-food, plant-based diet,” can cause just as much deprivation.
Say, for example, your diet rule is to avoid "processed" foods, but you’re really in the mood for your favorite packaged snack. If you restrict yourself from eating the snack, you begin to feel a sense of psychological deprivation.
When the deprivation builds up enough—maybe right away, or maybe not for a while—eventually there’s a backlash. You “give in” and eat the snack, which makes you feel guilty, and then you start the cycle of deprivation and guilt all over again.
The way out of this vicious cycle is giving yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want. (Of course if you have serious food allergies, such as a peanut allergy, continue to avoid the foods that give you a reaction.)
You may find that when you first start allowing yourself unconditional permission to eat, you continue to ping-pong between guilt and deprivation. But over time, you’ll start to view the foods you once restricted and overate like any other foods—not any worse or better.
Nutritionally speaking, a truly healthy diet includes a balance of both “healthy” and “fun” foods. In fact, nutrition and public health research shows that the people with the best health outcomes consume balanced diets including some processed foods, added sugars, refined grains, etc.—they are not ascetics who avoid fun foods at all costs!
Not only that, but other research shows that intuitive eating in particular leads to the best health outcomes, and that people who try to exert any level of "control" over their eating actually have worse physical and mental health on a variety of measures, including greater levels of disordered eating. (We'll revisit the concept of control in module 5.)
In Module 11 we’ll address nutrition in more depth, once you’ve worked through all the other modules to improve your relationship with food (which, as we discussed in the introduction, has to come first).
But for now, just keep in mind that any food you like can be part of your repertoire, and when you truly give yourself unconditional permission to eat, you will soon find that you’re able to approach all foods in a balanced way.
Journal exercise 1: making peace with food
To help you get started on the path to peace, try making a list of your own “off-limits” foods.
Write down as many as you can think of, including:
- Foods you think of as actively "bad" or "unhealthy"
- Foods you love but feel you can't control yourself around
- Foods you'd never really think to eat because they've been "illegal" in your mind for so long
- Foods to which you have any other negative emotional reaction, beyond genuinely disliking the taste. And be honest with yourself: for the foods where you dislike the taste, is there any other reason you think of them as "bad"?
- If you have a genuine food allergy or religious/ethical reasons for avoiding certain foods, you can make note of those here as well, but definitely don't feel the need to challenge yourself to eat these foods! Use your judgment, and keep yourself safe.
Once you've made your list, try asking yourself the following questions:
- What do these foods have in common?
- Can you think of a time in your life when these foods didn’t have such a negative value for you—when they were just food? For example, when you were a kid?
- What would it be like if you allowed yourself to eat these foods?
- What feelings and judgments might you have about yourself?
- Can you think of why those judgments are not necessarily true, and write back to them from a more compassionate, more balanced point of view (as you did with the diet-mentality thoughts in Module 2)?
Now pick 1-2 of your easiest "off-limits" foods to start with. Over the course of the week, give yourself full permission to eat the food(s), whenever you desire, while honoring your hunger and fullness. As you do, track the process in your journal:
- Notice the thoughts that come up when you allow yourself to eat the food(s).
- Notice any behaviors or emotional reactions you might have after eating them:
- Are you reacting or judging yourself from a diet mentality?
- What do you believe would happen if you gave yourself permission to enjoy the food(s) anytime you wanted?
- Can you write back to these thoughts from your Healthy Self, as we did in Module 2? What can you say to refute them?
- Notice whether the food tastes as good as you expected.
- If so, continue buying it as often as you like!
- If not, recognize that the food might not be as enticing without the "off-limits" label attached. That's totally fine—you also have permission not to buy it if you don't want it!
- If you're ready to keep the food in the house, be sure to stock it in your pantry/fridge so that you can have it whenever the desire strikes.
Keep working with those first 1-2 foods (even if it takes more than a week) until you truly feel you’ve made peace with them. Then move on to the next few foods on your list, until you've worked your way up to the more challenging ones.
Expect Some Ups and Downs
It can take a while to undo habits you’ve created through months or years of making foods “off limits,” so be kind to yourself as you work to make changes. (It will help to review the self-compassion exercises we practiced in Module 1.)
Many people experience what I call a honeymoon phase when they begin to make peace with food. The honeymoon phase is when you're so excited to finally have access to all the foods that were once "off-limits" that they're all you want to eat.
Cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Cupcakes after every meal? Pizza in the morning, pizza in the evening, pizza at suppertime? All totally normal when you're in the honeymoon phase. Expect some unusual eating patterns in this phase, and try not to judge.
Keep giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, and just trust that the honeymoon phase will pass in its own time—because it absolutely will. "Legalize" all foods in your mind.
Eventually, you'll find that you actually crave foods that weren't previously off-limits, because you genuinely want some variety (see Kelsey Miller's personal account of this experience in the "further reading" section below).
Until that shift happens, allow yourself to be in the honeymoon phase for as long as you need to be, and know that intuitive eating will really start to "click" for you when you can genuinely legalize those previously forbidden foods.
Throughout the process, make sure to keep practicing the skills you learned in the previous modules: Pushing back against the diet mentality, honoring your hunger, and speaking to yourself compassionately.
Making peace with food won’t happen overnight, and that’s O.K. It took me a good four years to fully re-learn intuitive eating (and I say re-learn because we’re all born knowing how to do it), so I get what a process it is!
But I promise it gets easier—I now live with total freedom around food that I never thought was possible, and I have so much more mental energy to spend in other areas of my life. I know the same can be true for you!
- Trust the process:
- Don't believe the bad press: Read these essays I wrote for Refinery29 (can you tell they're my favorite body-positive media outlet?!) about why self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity can actually be a manifestation of disordered eating, and why you don't need to fear "processed" foods.
Journal Exercise 2: Post-Lesson Reflection
In your journal, reflect on what you learned in this module.
- Are there particular aspects of making peace with food that seem more challenging for you than others?
- Which foods will you need to continue to work through in the weeks to come?
- Did anything about this process seem easier than you'd expected?
- How will making peace with food help you move closer to your goals and intentions?
Please provide your feedback to help us improve this module.