Louise Adams, a psychologist, author and member of the HAES community in Australia described one of the best analogies I’ve ever heard with regards to bingeing and restriction on a Food Psych episode with Christy Harrison.
She encourages listeners to consider a cow grazing in a gated pasture. Day in and day out that cow grazes on the same small patch of gated grass all while looking out over the lush rolling fields that surround her.
Then one day, the farmer opens up the gate, and what does the cow do? Does she eat at the same lazy pace, listening to her hunger and fullness signals, simply enjoying the new patch of grass? Absolutely not. She goes all out – eating all the lush new grass she possibly can, while she can. Who knows when the farmer will open up that gate again? She needs to take advantage now, while she has the freedom. She will likely eat far past the point of comfortable fullness.
This is what deprivation does. The cow in that analogy was not physically deprived of the food she needed, but mentally. She was locked up in one area of grass, looking out day after day at all the ‘greener pastures’ around her.
Louise concludes her analogy saying that deprivation isn’t about how much you are or aren’t eating – it’s about how trapped, anxious and afraid you feel around food and your ability to have a calm and peaceful relationship with it.
Diet culture boxes us in with their strict plans, protocols and, most recently ‘healthy lifestyle changes.’ If we can’t adhere, we’re not only shamed but blamed for it. So not only should you feel ashamed of yourself for breaking your diet and eating past the point of fullness, but it’s no one’s fault but yours. They make us believe that it’s not the restrictive plan or restrictive thoughts that the plan planted beforehand that cause you to go all out on all those foods you felt deprived of, it’s you. Something is wrong with you they say. And we believe it.
Every night when my dog finishes his dinner, he comes over and sits by our dinner table. What ensues from there is a tortuous 20 minutes or so where he watches us all eat (with a few low whines or grumbles just so we all understand his terrible misfortune) just hoping for any crumb to hit the ground. Every once in a while, when he just can’t take it anymore, he’ll hop up and grab at whatever he might be able to get. It doesn’t matter if he actually likes what we’re eating, it doesn’t matter that he just ate his dinner. Like the cow (and like all of us trying to diet), the mental torture of deprivation causes him so much distress that it builds to a point where he’s ready to quickly scarf down as much of whatever he can get.
Similarly, I hear from a lot of moms who tell me they can’t stop picking at cold french fries or bites of mac and cheese off their toddler’s plate while they’re cleaning it up. They feel so much shame in this and will often say “I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” The truth is, nothing! They love french fries, but are telling themselves they ‘shouldn’t have them’ or are avoiding carbs because they heard carbs are ‘bad.’ As a result, they end up scarfing them down when they can no longer stand that feeling of mental and/or physical deprivation.
Co-authors of Intuitive Eating Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch call this ‘deprivation backlash.’ The longer you abstain from a certain food (whether physically not eating it or just telling yourself you ‘shouldn’t’ have it), the more alluring it becomes. When that dam of restriction breaks, the water doesn’t slowly trickle out, it rushes out and you end up inhaling an amount of food that makes you feel physically ill. And it’s likely the guilt and shame of the moment hardly even allowed you to taste it as it went down.
My advice to these moms is that they would likely get more pleasure and satisfaction out of simply allowing themselves their own (warm!) french fries or mac and cheese. This allowance would mean eating those foods without guilt, in an amount (not to mention a temperature!) that feels good, and moving on. Rather than scarfing an unpalatable version of them while filled with shame and then beating yourself up for doing so.
It’s not until you lift any and all restrictions (within your means, reach and medical safety) that the deprivation backlash will end. What really frees you up to have a peaceful relationship with food is simply letting go of all that control diet culture pushes: ‘Avoid having certain foods in your house, hide foods you ‘can’t control yourself around,’ restrict yourself from foods you like but ‘shouldn’t’ have.’ All of that advice diet culture loves to give only serves to makes that deprivation backlash stronger.
It is restriction, not permission, that causes that out of control feeling around certain foods or food groups.
Self Reflection: Think of those foods you allow yourself to eat all the time. Do you most often feel ‘out of control’ around them? Do you binge on steamed broccoli or when you binge are you more likely to go for all those foods deemed ‘bad’ by diet culture (carbs, sugar, etc.)?
If you chose the latter, there are a number of reasons for this:
- In my Daily Reminder #3, I talk about when you’re deprived of needed fuel, there is a particular drive toward starchy, sugary carbohydrates. Not only are these foods digested quickly into glucose providing the body the fuel it needs quickly, but glucose is the exclusive fuel for the brain and nervous system.
- There’s also what Tribole and Resch call ‘habituation.’ When something is constant in your life, it can become almost mundane. Something you don’t think that much about. Going to work feels ordinary and unexciting for most people, but vacation feels fun – something you look forward to. The same goes for food – when you have constant exposure to a food, it’s not so interesting. When it’s something new or that you don’t get to eat all the time, it feels really alluring.
- It’s also just human nature to want what we ‘can’t’ have, so if we tell ourselves we ‘shouldn’t’ have something – it’s all we’re going to want. Think of telling a toddler that they can’t have something. Before you can even finish saying ‘no’ it’s a full-blown temper tantrum over their perceived deprivation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve handed something to my older son to play with that my younger daughter wanted nothing to do with prior. The moment whatever it is touches his hand, she wants it. And of course, whether my son cares about it or not, he will hold onto it like his life depends on it so as not to suffer the same deprived fate as his sister.
- And finally, in many cases what may seem like ‘binge eating’ to you, is often just your body making up for much needed calories and/or food groups. It may feel like a lot of food and it may even make you feel uncomfortably full (especially if you’re used to restricting your intake), but it very likely could be just the right amount of food your needs. For all your body knows, you’re in a famine and it needs to get all those important calories in while it can. One hint that the deprivation dam has broken and it’s going to send every signal off that it can to get you to eat, eat, eat. It wants you to survive and thrive and providing your body with the appropriate amount of energy to allow that to happen is all it’s concerned with. You body doesn’t know you’re purposely withholding calories or certain foods in attempts to shrink your body or ‘improve your health.’ All it knows is that when it signals for food, it’s not getting it.
When you go to berate yourself for being ‘out of control,’ remember that cow and give yourself a break. It’s the body’s natural response when it cannot trust that it will be fed, in the amount it needs, whenever it needs it. Rather than criticizing yourself, consider the amount of restriction you may be under. Then remind yourself that it is permission, not restriction that will decrease those ‘out of control’ moments.3