the fifth part of my deep dive into intuitive eating covering what it is, how to begin to put it into practice and my take on it as a registered dietitian.
Today’s post is all about challenging the food police, the fourth principle of Tribole and Resch’s Intuitive Eating program.
If you missed previous posts in this series, you can catch up now:
- Intuitive Eating: What Is It? – a basic overview of what the Intuitive Eating program is
- Intuitive Eating: Reject the Diet Mentality (Principle #1) – a discussion of the first principle within the Intuitive Eating program
- Intuitive Eating: Honoring Your Hunger (Principle #2) – a conversation about the importances of listening to your body and the very real biological responses that occur when we don’t
- Intuitive Eating: Making Peace with Food (Principle #3) – discussing how to embrace this very critical step of the IE process and why it can be scary to do so
And you can always find all the posts I publish in this series right here should you wish to revisit one at any point. And without further ado, let’s get on with our next principle!
Challenging the Food Police
To kick this post off, I’m going to start with a quote from the very first sentence of this chapter in Tribole and Resch’s book:
Scream a loud “No” to thoughts in your head that declare you’re “good” for eating under 1,000 calories or “bad” because you ate a piece of chocolate cake.Tribole, E & Resch, E. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works
When we talk about the “Food Police” it’s easy to assume that we’re referring to an outside party (a concerned relative, a well-meaning friend, spouse or even a complete stranger!). And it absolutely can be, but there are often also Food Police who exist right in our very own mind!
The Food / Guilt Connection
As I’ve mentioned in pretty much every post leading up to this, we live in a diet-obsessed world and as such, a lot of guilt is often associated with food and the process of eating. There are so many “shouldn’ts” and “don’ts” and “can’ts” when it comes to food it can be dizzying…especially since they seem to change all the time depending on the latest diet out there.
Even some of the most well-balanced people I know, who have not a single (outward) issue with food or body image will often make comments about how they “really shouldn’t be eating” this or that.
Guilt associated with food and our food choices is a pervasive message in our society, making it hard to escape subscribing to the idea that we should eat in a way that’s ‘virtuous’ or ‘guiltless.’
As Tribole and Resch’s book states:
“With these daily reminders, it becomes difficult to view eating as simply a normal pleasurable activity; rather, it becomes good or bad, with the societal Food Police chastising each blasphemous bite of food. The Food Police are alive and well—both as a collective cultural voice, and at the individual level.”
The more of these daily messages we receive, the more they become indoctrinated in our minds as “facts” or “rules to live by.” I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people who have started out by saying, “I know carbs are bad…” When I ask them to elaborate on why they feel carbs are bad (do they feel ill when they eat them? do they break out in hives? are they having serious digestive issues when they eat them?) their response more often than not is “oh I just heard that somewhere…” (For the record, carbs are not bad. They’re our body’s preferred fuel source and contain important nutrients that our bodies need to function).
So What Exactly Is the “Food Police?”
There are so many of these thoughts (Tribole and Resch refer to them as ‘cognitive distortions’) that occur on a daily basis that we never take the time to sit and evaluate. Where did they come from? Do you subscribe to these thoughts because they’re true for you or just because you heard them or read them somewhere? Adopting these little bits and pieces of information you pick up throughout life without ever taking the time to evaluate their necessity allows them to become deeply entrenched in your psyche and part of your belief system.
These thoughts interfere with our ability to truly eat intuitively because (even if we’re hardly aware of them!) they become what influences our decisions around food, rather than our internal cues.
Tribole and Resch refer to these types of thoughts as the “Food Police.” They are those thoughts that cause you to associate guilt with your food choices rather than feeling neutral or good for honoring your hunger. The Food Police might sound something like this:
- Carbs are bad
- I can’t never eat fat or I’ll get fat
- Don’t eat after 6pm
- I don’t deserve to eat that because I didn’t exercise
- I ate too much at lunch so I shouldn’t eat dinner
If you recognize any of the above, chances are the Food Police are in your life. Whether internally or externally, you’re receiving their messages and they’re harming your ability to be an Intuitive Eater by associating guilt with food.
Not only does the Food Police associate a lot of guilt with eating, but it can set impossible standards (i.e. never eating fat, avoiding carbs, not snacking and so on). Tribole and Resch describe the Food Police as “keeping food and your body at war.” Your body is asking for something, but the rules of the Food Police won’t permit you to have it.
When Negative Diet Talk Becomes Negative Self-Talk
Have you ever been in a diet cycle where you’re constantly trying to start a diet but keep “failing” causing you to “restart”? You go to bed at night and pray that you’ll have a “good” day (i.e. sticking to the impossible diet rules that disregard your internal cues) but as the day goes on, obstacles arise (even something as simple as feeling hungry at a time when you’re not permitted to eat on the diet) and you find yourself in the same situation as you did yesterday, breaking your diet to eat a snack. Often one tiny diet rule violation can spiral into an all-out binge on the foods you “shouldn’t” have.
The Food Police are those thoughts that are responsible for causing you to begin to associate your eating actions with terms like “good” or “bad.” With time, thoughts about eating that are categorized into “good” and “bad” become thoughts about yourself and the person that you are. You begin to think of yourself as “weak” or “ineffectual” if you can’t stick to your diet or “strong” and “virtuous” when you do.
When you think in terms of how good or bad your eating is or how fat or thin your body is, you can end up judging your self-worth based on these thoughts. If you begin to feel that you’re a bad person, you’re likely to create self-punishing behaviors.Tribole, E & Resch, E. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again – diets are HARD. Restrictive eating patterns of any kind are hard. Many are asking your body to do the impossible – overpower your internal biological cues. We’ve made it this far in humanity because those internal cues are powerful. Their job is to keep us alive so they don’t mess around! Tying your self worth with how well you do on a restrictive eating plan is crazy, but so many people get trapped in that type of thought cycle. It takes time and effort to banish those thoughts that you’ve spent years engraining and become an Intuitive Eater.
The Intuitive Eater
Tribole and Resch’s book talks about 3 different destructive voices that the dieter experiences (The Food Police, The Nutrition Informant and the Diet Rebel). I’m not going to go into each of them in this post (you can read their book if you’re interested in learning more about each as they describe them!) but suffice it to say, they work together in providing different harmful messages that only serve to pull you away from Intuitive Eating.
The Intuitive Eater doesn’t look at eating as “good” or “bad” but rather has a neutral stance on eating. The Intuitive Eater is able to adapt to different situations that are presented and won’t get upset if they can’t control every aspect. They go with their gut and honor their internal cues (regardless of whether they’re purely biological, pleasure-based or circumstantial).
As someone who has been an Intuitive Eater for the better part of 10 years, I don’t think all that much about what I’m going to eat. Where food once took up my every waking thought, now it’s something that can help provide me energy, satisfy a craving, focus my mind and generally just allow me to keep going with my day. When I’m hungry, I eat what I’m craving (sometimes it’s vegetables and whole grains, others it’s pizza and ice cream) and I move on. I don’t scrutinize my every food choice, I trust my body and allow my internal cues guide me.
Changing Our Behavior
Every day we are responsible for the many different thoughts that we fill our heads with. Research has shown that one of the first steps in changing our feelings & behaviors is changing our beliefs. So it’s important to look at our beliefs around food and diet and evaluate the influence they have on us in order to begin to change.
When diet thoughts are irrational or distorted, negative feelings escalate exponentially. As a result, eating behavior can end up being extreme and destructive. It’s the classic case of perception becoming reality.Tribole, E & Resch, E. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works
So how do we go about changing our behavior?
1. Challenge Your Irrational Thoughts: Once you’ve taken the time to evaluate your thoughts around diet and food, it’s important to identify those thoughts that are irrational and challenge them when they arise by replacing them with fact-based, positive thoughts. For example, if one of your thoughts is “carbs are bad,” it may come up next time you reach for a bagel. When that thought starts to creep in, remind yourself “carbs are not bad, they’re an important fuel source that provide necessary nutrients and I really like the taste of bagels.” Repeat this like a mantra each time that thought comes up. Eventually that new, valid thought will replace the old irrational one.
2. Ditch All-or-Nothing Thinking: Diets tend to teach us to think in terms of all-or-nothing. You’ve either followed a diet perfectly or you’ve failed at it. This type of thinking is dangerous because it doesn’t leave room for real life. Things come up, unexpected situations arise and if we’re not able to go with the flow and adapt to the situation, we’re going to fail every time. Instead, take a more moderate approach when it comes to food and eating. Tribole and Resch refer to this as “living in the gray area” and explain that you may not get the high that living in the “white” of black-and-white thinking provides, but you also won’t get the misery of enduring the “black.” Eat what you crave, listen to your body and don’t try to be “perfect.” Flexibility, patience and kindness are key to making peace with food and “all-or-nothing” thinking doesn’t allow for any of that.
3. Get Rid of Absolutes: We’ve touched on this in past posts, but when you think in terms of absolutes you usually tend to fail (just as with all-or-nothing thinking). As soon as you tell yourself you “absolutely” can’t have something, all you’re going to want is that thing. If you tell yourself you “absolutely need to lose weight” or “absolutely need to stick to your diet” you’re setting yourself up to fail because we don’t live in a world where absolutes exist. Life is unpredictable, things come up and living a life where they don’t means shutting yourself off from the rest of the world. Rather than thinking in absolutes, think in more moderate terms. Instead of “I can only eat salad next week” think “I’ll work to include a few extra servings of vegetables next week” or “I can only eat when I’m hungry” try “I’ll honor my hunger and fullness cues.”
4. Avoid Linear Thinking: Again, we’ve talked about this in the past, but progress does not occur in a straight line. Whether it’s with becoming an Intuitive Eater, losing weight, recovering from an eating disorder, starting a business – expecting a linear path is another way to to set yourself up for failure. In their book, Tribole and Resch talk about switching to process thinking which they describe, “focuses on continual change and learning rather than just the end result.” Accept that there will be ups and downs but feel grateful for the fact that while you work towards whatever your goal is, you’re still able to live and enjoy other aspects of your life.
So often people want to shut everything out and focus solely on achieving their specific goal to the detriment of everything else in their life. But all that does is set you up for disappointment when progress isn’t linear. You have nothing else to focus on in the moments where progress is stalled or you’ve taken a brief step backward because all your energy & time has gone into achieving your goal. Understanding that progress takes time and is not linear allows you to make room for everything else going on in life while as you work toward your goal.
Half the battle in changing your behavior is being aware of the beliefs that drive it in the first place. Take the time to pay attention to the internal thoughts and beliefs that you have and challenge those that you know are destructive to your overall well-being. Each time you do that, you’re slowly changing the belief system that years of diet talk has built in your mind and doing so is key to building a more positive relationship with food and yourself.