A couple of days ago I went back and read some old journal entries from when I first started eating disorder recovery. I stumbled across one particular entry that I think accurately depicts the struggle that many people face, whether you’re in eating disorder recovery or have engaged in chronic dieting throughout your life:
“I feel like there is a constant tension in my mind between thinking that I should only eat grilled chicken, salad, fruits, and vegetables and wanting mac & cheese, pop tarts, fast food, and chocolate all of the time. I know this is black and white thinking, but for some reason it only feels okay to do one or the other. I don’t like mixing the two. It’s good that I recognize it, but it’s frustrating that my brain can’t just accept that I need to embrace the grey.”
Do you relate to this tension? This nagging voice in the back of your mind that one minute tells you that you can only eat salads, and the next is egging you to eat the entire pan of brownies that you made for tomorrow’s bake sale?
We live in a diet culture that encourages black-and-white thinking when it comes to food.
As disturbing as these voices can be, they are extremely normal for someone who has engaged in chronic restriction / chronic dieting to think this way.
Diet culture tries to categorize foods into two groups: good and bad / healthy and unhealthy.
Some people try their best to only consume foods that fall into the “good” group, those foods that are natural, organic, and “clean”. Certain food groups that are demonized by diet culture are strictly limited, one of these being carbohydrates. This is where many people run into trouble.
Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is a chemical produced by the brain that triggers our drive to eat carbohydrates.¹ Food restriction or under eating activates NPY, causing the body to seek out more carbohydrates.¹ Consequently, when the next meal comes around, the person who is underfed is physiologically driven to consume more carbohydrates than they normally would otherwise.
In other words, the overpowering drive you feel to binge on a pint of ice cream after work isn’t your fault. Let me repeat myself: it isn’t your fault. You should feel no shame, no sense of remorse for having cravings of any kind. Our bodies are wired to protect us from famine, from not getting enough food.
To have food cravings is to be human. No amount of dieting will take away food cravings…it will only intensify them.
Dieting / food restriction turns normal, human food cravings into an unhealthy preoccupation / obsession with food.
How do you break free from this sort of thinking? How do you embrace the grey?
Give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want, whenever you want it.
Woah. That’s a radical concept.
Whatever I want, whenever I want it?
It is scary surrendering that kind of control. It’s scary to reject the diet mentality. But it is the only way that your extreme cravings will decrease in intensity. It is the only way that you will be able to embrace the grey…that you will be able to eat brownies and vegetables in the same meal…that you will be able to say no when you aren’t hungry for dessert, and “I’ll have another” when one of your mom’s cookies just doesn’t quite satisfy your tastebuds…that you will be able to honor your hunger and respect your fullness.
This is the beginning of intuitive eating….this is the beginning of freedom.
Freedom from intrusive thoughts about food.
Freedom from the obligation to eat certain foods.
Freedom from restriction.
Freedom from binge-eating.
Freedom from guilt and shame.
Freedom from insatiable hunger.
Freedom to not look up the menu before going to a restaurant.
Freedom to eat more than one snack between meals.
Freedom to say no when you are no longer hungry because you know there will always be more.
Freedom to say yes when you genuinely want more.
Freedom to honor your hunger and respect your fullness.
Freedom to eat without knowing the nutritional content of the food.
Freedom to form connections over a shared meal.
Freedom to live a life that is more than the food you eat.
Life will always be grey, and it’s better to embrace it than fight it.
Photo by Anete Lusina // Pexels
- Tribole E, Resch E. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. New York: St. Martins Griffin; 2012.