We’re back with part 4 of our relationship with food series in which we’re going to dive in a bit deeper into the role restriction can play in our relationship with food, how saying goodbye to restriction might be a huge help, and how being vegan, or making other dietary choices for ethics, religious beliefs, etc., fits into this.
As you know, in this series of shorter episodes and posts I’m guiding you through a little journey towards the resources, tools and general mindset we can access to help us improve our relationship with food. For me it was a journey of many ups and downs, navigating emotional eating, overeating, occasional binges, and even more frequent dieting and restricting. Then came an over-obsession on eating “healthy”, “clean” and “pure” foods. It took me a long time to find the resources and amazing experts that would finally give me the tools that helped, but my hope is that I can be here to present them to you, so that you can go through this process with the guiding hand of the incredible pros and qualified experts that helped me so much.
The Pitcher of Water
When I got started on my journey, through all the different steps and stages I’ve been telling you about in this series, I soon realized that restricting foods was like a pitcher of water that was holding me inside. It gave me the false sense that my issues with food were contained and under control. The thing is though, that restriction and dieting are also like a water tap that can’t be turned off, countless rules and regulations that keep getting piled up on top of each other until you can’t hold them any longer. Eventually, there’s just too much water in the pitcher and it overflows and makes a mess in the kitchen.
It was such a HUGE part of my journey with food when I realized that all those times when I had felt out of control with food, I had been trying to control it by forcing it to sit perfectly inside the pitcher, but of course it would eventually overflow. I hadn’t realized it was the restriction of food through dieting that had completely separated me from my own internal wisdom with food. Diets had told me for so long how many cookies I could have and when, with what ingredients and with what nutrient proportions, that if left to my own devices I had simply no idea how to eat a cookie. I didn’t know if I felt satisfied with two, or five, or ten, if I actually liked them as dessert, for a snack or if I even liked them at all.
When my head (and all the information gathered and collected through the years that lay in there), was making all the decisions at the table, there was absolutely no moment or frame of mind that let me tune inwards and notice how I was feeling. Was I full? Was I hungry? Was I feeling satisfied?Did the food taste good? Was I enjoying my meal? Did I prefer something else? All of these questions get thrown out the window when you’re stuck in a place of rules and shoulds when it comes to eating. If 5 cookies are allowed in the plan you’re following you bet 5 cookies are what you’re going to put on the plate. If endless kale is permitted, then you will practically sprinkle kale dust on steamed kale in a kale wrap for days on end and you haven’t even stopped to wonder if you actually like it. If only a certain amount is “allowed”, then it becomes a battle against the clock, seeing how much you can ignore incoming hunger until the clock tells you it’s time to eat again.
None of these rules and regulations can go hand in hand with helping you find a better relationship with food because you are forever stuck in a scarcity mindset. It is precisely this scarcity mindset which will make the pitcher eventually overflow, making you rebel against the rules, and feel out of control with food after you’ve been attempting to control it for so long.
Sometimes even the anticipation of rules or scarcity can set us off, eating much more than we normally would if he had a simpler and calmer relationship with food. Think of how children eat when they come from a family with lots of siblings at the table. It becomes a race to reach for the largest piece of whatever’s on the table, a race to finish your plate before someone else digs into it or steals your French fries.
Think about what happens when you’re sharing a dessert with someone who eats faster than you, you’ll most likely eat faster and with less awareness and enjoyment because you’re afraid your dessert buddy will eat your share before you get to it.
On a more serious note, think of people who have struggled with poverty or food insecurity, your relatives that went through wars or the Great Depression. Even after the availability of food is normalized they will tend to eat as much as possible and as quickly as possible.
Dieting and restricting has a similar effect. A clear example is how you eat the week before you know you’ll be going on a diet on Monday. You will try to eat all of the things you love that will be “forbidden”, you will feel “hungrier” much more frequently, you will eat in preparation for what will come next.
All of these examples are about living in that scarcity mindset, but if we’re on the very lucky and privileged side of the equation, and we have ample access to food, we can decide right now that we will give up scarcity (dieting) and its aftermath (overeating and bingeing), and move into a safer space, tuned into our preferences with food, our hunger and fullness signals, using other emotional tools to self soothe, letting go of perfectionism with eating and our bodies, removing guilt and shame for the act of eating, and finding that natural place with food that is calm and peaceful, where you are the one who determines when, what and how much you want to eat.
Unconditional Permission to Eat
Part of the process I went through meant giving myself unconditional permission to eat, which in no way should be misinterpreted as a free for all with food in which you eat until everything is gone. That approach would also not be alligned with being tuned into your body. Unconditional permission to eat meant that I would allow all foods back into my life (I exclude animal products since I’ve been an ethical vegan for many years now, we’ll get to this in a bit). I would allow myself to eat what I enjoyed, I would eat with awareness of how my body was feeling while I ate, and I would remove all the external cues (measurements, calories, macros, cups or serving sizes, times of day or food combinations), and focus on the internal ones (whether I enjoyed my meals or not, whether I was hungry, ravenous, partly full, mostly full, satisfied, whether I felt like doing some exercise and what kind, whether a food agreed with me or not, whether I was enjoying the moment of eating). Unconditional permission to eat was one of the hardest parts of the journey for me, coming from an endless line of diets with endless rules, but eventually, I got there, by slowly allowing the foods I was afraid of eating, and re-learning what it felt like to have my own body determine what and how much to eat, understanding that this would be different every day. I had to slowly learn how to trust it again.
The authors of the book Intuitive Eating, registered dietitian nutritionists Elysse Resch and Evelyn Tribole do a fantastic job of helping you navigate this process of giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. I love listening to the audio book from time to time because it’s such an amazing resource and a great reminder to help tune out the very diet centric voices and resources out there.
Where Does Veganism Fit In?
It was so essential in my search for a better relationship with food to let go of restriction, but what about veganism? Was it only possible for me to fully embrace this more intuitive, mindful, approach to eating if I left ALL restrictions behind, including the choice to not eat animal products? Of course not! At least not for me.
Eating vegan foods was not about foods I felt were now banned from my diet or that I couldn’t have. Eating vegan foods was about preferring to choose the vegan alternative to make something I loved, and would continue to eat in its vegan form. This preference, not this “rule”, was a part of my life because I wanted to eat in a way that caused less of a negative impact on the environment, on the animals raised for food, on the people who work in these industries. Quite frankly, the health benefits that we now know are great and are associated with eating a vegan diet were just a little bonus that came with the package. This meant that for me, letting go of restriction was the biggest step, but this could include opting for the vegan options because that’s what I wanted to eat, not what I thought I should or had to eat.
Leaving restriction behind was hard, as I was so used to moments of control, then moments of overeating, then moments of control again, but leaving restriction behind was simple when it came to veganism as I feel veganism is about the simple swap of the meat and dairy based ingredients for vegan ones, to make the same burgers, pizzas, lasagnas, desserts, etc., that I used to love as a meat eater. There was no restriction for me there, just the swapping of ingredients. The only thing I knew at that point, was that I had to really let myself eat what I enjoyed, and do so with awareness and presence, always tuning in to gauge how I was feeling, not relying on external rules or control.
Start by Asking Yourself a Very Important Question: What do I Like to Eat?
When your food choices have been dictated by the diet du jour, this question can be a bit of a head scratcher but it’s so incredibly important. A big part of this journey we’re going on together with food has to do with figuring out who you are with food, what foods you like to eat, in what ways you like to prepare meals, what you enjoy when eating out.
My list of foods before I went on this journey included not only a big list of ones I felt were off limits, but also quite a few staples that I didn’t really enjoy! Since satisfaction is such a big part of tuning into how your body is feeling and also a part of tuning into your hunger and fullness signals, being able to have all the foods you like be part of your life again is a big and important step.
Let’s start there, let’s begin by doing a little research into what we enjoy and don’t enjoy. Write a list of foods that fill up your heart as well as your stomach. We have this idea that all that will appear on the list will be ice cream sandwiches, but I promise you, there will be plenty of those play/fun foods we love, and also plenty of vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, etc. We might realize we don’t like lettuce greens as part of a salad, but we love shredded lettuce inside a taco or burrito. We might not like a veggie stir fry but we might love it if we tossed in some soba noodles. We might discover we don’t really like oatmeal and are more satisfied with toast for breakfast and that this keeps us comfortably full until lunchtime.
We might discover that we don’t like to eat a sandwich without that side of chips, so we’ll include them, and with time, by learning that we won’t restrict these any longer, they will stop feeling like forbidden fruit and you’ll notice that you’re no longer eating an entire bag because you feel powerless over them. There’s no need for power or will power. By allowing all foods, by choosing foods that are truly satisfying to you, and by remembering that you can have them again whenever you’d like to, slowly, and with time, food starts finding a calmer place in your life. You start seeing food as a wonderful but simple part of your day which you can also leave behind to focus on other things like work, hobbies, loved ones, relaxation, fun. It’s no longer a battle against the clock until dinnertime. It’s no longer about fighting a craving, it’s about living your life and letting food come back to normal.
This week I want you to make that list of foods you love. Starting with satisfaction is a great first step. When allowing previously forbidden foods, remind yourself that you can have these whenever you’d like to, and you don’t need to eat as if you had 6 invisible hungry siblings fighting you for it. When sitting down to eat these foods, do this with maximum awareness, practice mindful eating, and then rinse and repeat the next day. If you happen to be an intuitive eater and you also happen to be vegan (like me!), remind yourself that there is no food police or vegan police monitoring the food you’re eating. You don’t need to fall into the micro vegan diets that are out there or add additional restriction to the mix, make what you enjoy, eat what feels satisfying and do it with awareness and delight.
We’ll continue on with our relationship with food series next week so stay tuned!
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