Part of the Eating with Intention Series

Principle IV: Challenging the Food Police

Client: “I feel so guilty…”
Tribole: “Why what happened?”
Client: “I ate a donut…”
Tribole: “Well, what do you mean? Did you kill someone to get the donut?”

This is one of my favorite lines told by Evelyn Tribole during one of her many presentations on Intuitive Eating. She is re-capturing a moment with someone experiencing that distinct tinge of guilt, failure, and embarrassment over a food choice. If you’ve ever struggled with food, you know this feeling. I love what she playfully captures here—the absurdity of what she calls the food police.

To take this metaphor a bit further, just take a moment to imagine someone explaining to an actual police officer what happened…

“Well, I know donuts are bad. The sugar, the white flour, the fat…but I caved. I’m guilty. I did it. I’m sorry, officer.”

Now, this process of adding absurdity to our inner dialogue is a little taste of what it can look like to diffuse a thought. When we have thoughts that plague us—thoughts that are automatic and yet not necessarily helpful and sometimes not even true—we know we need to try something different. In some way or another, we need to separate ourselves from the thought, to interrupt this pattern and start shifting our thinking. Cognitive Behavioral Therapies like CBT, REBT, ACT and others offer accessible and helpful techniques for ways to reframe, re-direct, and challenge these very kinds of thoughts.

Deciding that these kinds of thoughts about food haven’t been helpful is the first step. If we’ve never once stopped to ask ourselves, “Wait, why do I feel guilty about the donut?”, then we have a lot of uncharted territory to explore.

To provide an organizing principle around this dieting thought life, Tribole and Resch extrapolated from M.D. Eric Berne’s theory of ego structure. They write, “We have found that in the world of dieting and eating, specific voices come up from moment to moment, which influence how we feel and how we behave… We have identified the following eating voices. There are three that can be primarily destructive, but we can also develop powerful allies.”

So we have these specific voices (like ego states) that represent what’s chiming in when we think about food. Let’s see if any of them sound familiar with your experience.

The Food Police

Role: Pours on the guilt and criminalizes your food choices.
Sounds like: “You’re going to have to exercise extra tomorrow if you eat this donut now.”

The Diet Rebel

Role: Usually results in self-sabotaging, is reactionary.
Sounds like:  “I’m sick of saying no. I don’t care what the doctor said about my cholesterol I’m going to eat all of these donuts. No one can make me lose weight.”

The Nutrition Informant

Role: That constant authoritative sounding voice that keeps us dieting.
Sounds like: “You can’t eat this donut because white flour and added sugars make you fat.”

Now, if we’ve decided that we’d like to make a shift out of reacting to these voices. We can begin to enlist ally voices. The ally voices listed below may feel less familiar to us.

The Food Anthropologist

Role: Neutral, non-judgmental observer. States the facts.
Sounds like: “This donut is super sweet. Sweeter than I expected.”

The Nurturer

Role: Loving and kind. Provides supportive comforting statements.
Sounds like: “Learning to listen to my body is difficult, but I think I’m seeing some growth.”

The Rebel Ally

Role: Used to speak up for your self by clearly stating needs and setting boundaries as it pertains to eating.
Sounds like: “I’m full, no thanks” (to a food pusher) or…“Yeah I’m still hungry” (even when you are the only one saying yes to a second helping.)

The Nutrition Ally

Role: Neutral about nutrition. Helps you to make decisions about foods that will sustain you by taking energy, health, satiety, and pleasure into consideration.
Sounds like: “Donuts are so good, and yet they also don’t fully supply what my body needs at 8 am. If I enjoy this now, how else can I get what I need?”

The Intuitive Eater

Role: Internal wisdom about your best choices for your body’s needs.
Sounds like: “A donut sounds good, but in the past, I’ve felt a little headachey after eating a whole donut. Maybe I can find someone to split this with me or cut it in half.”

I wonder what comes to mind for you when you read through each of these voices. Read through them again and pay attention to the tone of each voice and what that evokes in you. Which do you prefer? Which voice do you need more of? Which voice do you need less of?

The work of challenging our thoughts rests on identifying what is unhelpful and what is helpful. It is the work of learning to risk by letting go of depending on policing, rebelling, and buying into incomplete anxiety-filled nutrition info. It is moving toward alternative paths led by strong empowering voices of non-judgment, nurturing, and intuition.

If you’re interested in learning about more principles of intuitive eating, check back for more of this weekly article series.

Tribole, E, Resch, E. Intuitive Eating. New York: St. Martins Griffin 2015. Print
Tribole, E, Resch, E. The Intuitive Eating Workbook. California New Harbinger Publications 2017. Print

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