Part of the Eating with Intention Series

Principle III: Making Peace with Food

In the last article, we focused on the work of honoring your hunger vs. controlling it. Over time, working to create the habit of listening and responding builds our capacity to remain attuned to our body’s hunger and satiety cues. Part of trusting our body in this way involves trusting our food choices. If you’ve been ignoring your body cues or have struggled to follow a restrictive plan, you may feel that you no longer trust yourself around certain foods, and thus are at a loss as to what you should eat.

Some foods have become a threat—an enemy, and you’ve opted to ban them from your home. The defeating belief that “I just can’t have _________ in the house…I’ll eat the whole _________” It’s almost as if there is some kind of battle going on, and you’ve got to develop armor and tactics to conquer and win.

What if instead of building up our armor to “be good” around “bad foods” we put down our armor and began working toward something more like a peace treaty with food?

Tribole and Resch put it this way: “Making peace with food is a critical process in Intuitive Eating. It involves making your food choices emotionally equal without placing shame or judgment on them. Whether you are eating green jellybeans or a piece of broccoli, your dignity remains intact, regardless of your food choices.”

Emotionally equal. Let that concept sit for a while. If you’ve been a chronic dieter, this is quite a shift. What if all foods fit? What if we laid neutral ground for all of our food choices all the time?

Tribole and Resch refer to this concept as giving your self “unconditional permission to eat”—permission to enjoy all foods with balance and ease. This unconditional permission is necessary so that we are no longer subject to the effect of deprivation seen in chronic dieting.

Deprivation is quite simple and quite powerful. Once we are deprived of something that we want or need, we begin to long for it with building intensity. You might hear yourself or other dieters make comments like “Those fries are calling to me” or “That cheesecake just has this power over me.”  This is the kind of intense reaction to food that can happen due to consistent deprivation accompanied by labeling foods as bad or wrong. Once we’ve labeled something as untouchable and decidedly avoid it, the desire grows and grows until we break. This is a natural reaction to such a setup, a type of counter-regulation

This counter-regulation effect is shown in a classic study done by Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman in their work developing the Dietary Restraint Theory. This study looked at the difference in how dieters vs. non-dieters consumed milkshakes when asked to participate in taste testing. The dieters dramatically over-consumed milkshakes while non-dieters ate in proportion, naturally regulating their eating.

So if we understand that deprivation isn’t helping and we’re open to laying down our judgments about foods, how does one actually begin this peace process?

Tribole and Resch direct Intuitive Eaters to finally make peace with food through Systemic Habituation—a process where we remove the building drama that happens with deprivation. This happens by normalizing those forbidden foods by giving our selves unconditional permission to simply eat them—to bring them back on your plate and into your home, with the goal of making peace with them one by one.

Intuitive eaters find that this kind of permission over time not only reduces the drama—it increases a capacity for presence and intentionality with food. When we emotionally neutralize our food choices and make room for all foods to fit, we have the freedom to explore and learn about the food choices we have. For instance, we might find out that the food we’ve been depriving ourselves of isn’t actually as great as we’ve made it out to be in our minds. Or, we might learn that we, in fact, do love the food, but recognize how quickly we get full and how it becomes less enjoyable once that fullness hits. We might also learn about foods that don’t make us feel great physically and naturally begin to reduce our drive to eat them as we become more aware, more connected, and more present to our bodies.

Needless to say, while the end result is attractive, this is not a quick or easy process. There are many unique and individualized ways to practice habituation based on your history with food and the anxiety you may have surrounding these challenges. This is precisely why this work is most beneficial when done with a supportive and committed group setting, or a knowledgeable and skilled individual therapist or dietitian.

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
Polivy J, Heatherton, T, Herman, C. P. (1988) Self Esteem, Restraint, and Eating Behavior, Journal of Abnormal Psychology Vol 97 no. 3,354-356 University of Toronto, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
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