I spend a fair amount of time in class every week at Green Mountain at Fox Run talking with women about the importance of giving themselves permission to eat what they want.
While many aren’t totally sold on this idea at first, thinking, “that’s exactly what brought me here to begin with,” they do usually all agree that the alternative approach of restriction and deprivation hasn’t worked so well either.
If you find yourself intrigued by this idea but ultimately saying, “I’m scared to give myself permission to eat what I want,” these six tips are for you.
1. Change the way you talk about these foods.
First, stop calling them “bad foods.”
Foods are not good or bad, and you certainly are not good or bad based on what you eat.
It’s hard to escape the self-imposed judgement and criticism associated with eating foods when we are assigning them moralistic value.
Some people like to use the term “fun foods” instead to describe these foods – so we can associate them with positive feelings.
But if “fun foods” doesn’t feel authentic, or feels too close to the good food, bad food language, and the food to which you are referring doesn’t fall into a defined food group – like fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, or dairy – (for example, I am thinking chocolate chip cookies), just describe them as “other foods,” neutralizing the language all together.
2. Practice having a conversation of permission with yourself.
When you are confronted with or start desiring a previously forbidden food remind yourself, “I can eat this food if I want…it’s my decision.”
Then ask yourself, “but do I really want it?”
Understand what might be driving the desire (emotions, convenience, or a true desire for the food) and consider the quality of the food, timing of the food, and how the food will make your body feel. This gives you the opportunity to make an informed decision.
Then decide what you’ll do – eat the food or not eat the food.
If you choose to eat the food, do so mindfully (more on this below). You may notice your critical voice trying to sneak in and ruin it for you, and when you notice that, practice mindfully bringing your attention back to the eating experience and focusing on the food – not allowing that voice the airtime it desires.
After you’ve decided, practice moving on. That is, not allowing that decision to occupy anymore of your mental or emotional energy (and yes, this is possible, though admittedly not easy).
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3. Practice incorporating foods back in slowly.
Remember that making peace with food is a journey and not a race. That is to say, you do not need to bring all of these challenging foods back into your life or your home at once. To get started, you don’t even need to bring them back to into your home at all.
First, choose what food(s) you want to experiment with. Let’s use ice cream as an example.
When you find yourself desiring ice cream, start by giving yourself permission to go out and order a dish (or cone!) of ice cream. And give yourself permission to do this as often as you’d like. Going out to get the ice cream creates some space between the decision and the behavior and can help to make food decisions more intentional and less automatic.
As you eat the ice cream, slow down, tune-in, and savor it. Notice how your body feels and how much you need to feel satisfied.
As you become more comfortable with this practice of going out and getting the desired food, and as the food becomes more ordinary and truly allowed, you will likely feel more comfortable bringing this food into your home.
Next, you may choose to practice bringing a small portion into the house, eventually working your way up to the point where you can have this food in your environment without fearing it will constantly be calling your name.
4. Create a plan to practice with challenging foods.
Rather than impulsively deciding when you’ll have these foods, plan a couple of days each week to practice mindfully eating a challenging food. At first, some structure around these eating experiences can help to ease anxieties about certain foods.
The more you practice the more confident you will become.
5. Eat challenging foods as part of a meal rather than a stand-alone snack.
Because challenging foods are often also highly palatable foods (that is very good tasting food) that aren’t all that filling (for example, chocolate and potato chips), they become especially easy to overeat when we are hungry. If we do overeat them, the experience serves to reinforce our belief that we can’t trust ourselves.
If we pair these foods with a meal (for example, having potato chips alongside a turkey sandwich and an apple as part of a balanced meal rather than a stand-alone snack), physical hunger will be reduced, making it a little bit easier to eat them without overeating them.
6. Eat mindfully.
Slow down, tune in, and savor each bite as you eat. Check in with your body after each bite and assess the experience – how does it taste? How do you feel? Is this food meeting your expectations?
Try to find the place at which you feel satisfied – when your body feels content and the flavor becomes less intense.
Part of the challenge with these foods is the fear that has been created as a result of past experiences. Believing that once we start eating we won’t be able to stop. That one bite or one piece is going to trigger the desire for another, and another, and another.
But if we consider how we usually eat these foods – quickly, distracted, filled with guilt and shame – it isn’t mindfully. And as such, we usually don’t fully experience the food, but instead just give our taste buds a teaser of something good that makes them say, “wow, that was good, give me more.”
We continue to eat because we aren’t allowing ourselves the opportunity to experience the food or find the point of satisfaction. However, when we can really slow down and truly taste the food as we eat it, we can achieve the same objective – prolonging the flavor and eating experience – with less food and more satisfaction.
Surprisingly, as you begin to practice eating these foods mindfully, you might even learn that you don’t actually like some of the foods that you feel have been problematic. And, for the ones you really do like, you’ll enjoy them that much more.
But what if I do overeat when I am practicing?
Yeah, that might happen. And you know what? IT’S OKAY. Even the most mindful of eaters overeat sometimes.
In fact, episodes of overeating can be wonderful learning opportunities. When we can non-judgmentally reflect on what led us to overeat, we can use that information to help fine tune our eating experiences in the future. The key is, being constructive with the information, not critical. Harsh criticism doesn’t typically take us anywhere we want to go.
This is a process. It take time, practice, and patience. Change won’t happen overnight, but these tips can help. Most importantly, remember that real and sustainable change is possible and that you do have the power to make it a reality.
And you don’t have to do it alone. We have over four decades of experience in helping women to create lasting changes in the way they approach and think about food. Contact us to learn more about our nutrition and eating behavior curriculum and the personalized coaching services available at our immersive retreat.