What’s the problem?
We always desire what we can’t have. It’s human nature. If you tell a child that they can play with any toy except the red truck, guess what toy they’ll want to play with?
The same happens with food.
Restricting any type of food is, without a doubt, one of the leading causes of eating issues. Even if we forbid ourselves access to only one food group (for example, carbohydrates or fat), sooner or later it results in overeating.
So why do we still limit our access to certain products?
It’s because after years of food restriction, diets and disordered thinking, we’ve been left with the notion that certain foods are “good” and “safe”, while others are “bad” and “fattening”.
Every diet comes with its own set of rules and things we should or shouldn’t eat.
Eat this, don’t eat that.
Eat that before 7 PM every second Tuesday.
We hear messages like “carbs make you fat!” .
We get lost, confused, frightened, afraid to eat anything in case it causes our bodies to expand like balloons.
We want to eat healthily, we really do, so we try our best to follow these rules.
But it’s too hard, too strict, too controlled.
We miss those tasty foods that we don’t allow ourselves to eat.
We feel miserable and deprived.
Eventually, we give in and eat something “forbidden”.
We break a rule.
We feel weak, ashamed and guilty.
These feelings often cause us to lose control and binge – which makes the guilt even worse.
And so a simple act of breaking a food rule (which shouldn’t be a rule in the first place!) can snowball into a day-long binge fest.
Who wants to live like that? You’re not the problem here, strict food rules are! ♥
Science & Studies
Studies show that food rules lead to overeating and bingeing.
One study looked at the eating behaviours of two groups of people: those who lived by strict food rules and those who did not. The researchers asked individuals from each group to consume a high-calorie milkshake. Afterwards they could eat as much ice cream as they wanted.
Those who followed strict food rules in their everyday lives went on to eat significantly more ice cream after drinking the milkshake. The researchers hypothesised that they continued to overindulge because they felt bad about breaking their food rules (Herman & Mack, 2975).
In a similar study, participants were asked to consume either a milkshake or a serving of cottage cheese (both containing the same number of calories), before going on to eat as much ice cream as they liked.
Those who initially consumed the milkshake went on to eat considerably more ice cream than those who chose the cottage cheese – even though the calorie content in the two foods was identical!
The researchers suggested that individuals with strict food rules experienced more guilt after consuming the milkshake because they believed it to be “forbidden”. This guilt triggered the urge to keep on eating.
These experiments show that whenever we try to adhere to strict food rules, we’re only setting ourselves up for failure. The more we restrict our food intake, the more likely we are to overeat (Holmes et al, 2014).
Eventually our food rules – the very things that are supposed to keep us safe – lead to bingeing.
Okay, what’s the solution?
Not allowing ourselves to eat food we enjoy leads to deprivation – and deprivation makes us miserable and prone to bingeing.
We need to acknowledge that these foods are important to us.
By depriving ourselves of these foods, we’re denying a large part of our own being.
It holds deep emotional connections too.
Perhaps your granny used to comfort you with some ice cream when you were little.
Perhaps the smell of a warm apple pie overwhelms you with calmness, security and joy.
They have a special place in our minds.
We deserve to allow ourselves to experience the emotional satisfaction that they give us, guilt-free.
The truth is that all foods have a place in a healthy, balanced diet.
That’s right! ALL FOODS.
The quality of your food intake is best assessed by looking at the overall picture.
It’s all about balance, variety and developing a non-restrictive, non-judgemental attitude towards food.
But if I allow myself to eat my “restricted” foods, won’t I just end up bingeing on them?
By allowing yourself to eat all foods, you’ll gradually remove the anxiety, guilt and fear associated with certain products.
By confronting this fear, you’ll expose it as fake. These foods will quickly lose the sense of dread that is attached to them.
If you can eat something every day, you tend not to crave it as strongly anymore.
Eventually, a piece of chocolate could be as exciting as an apple.
Let’s get this straight… You’re going to eat these foods anyway, whether you try to avoid them or not.
Would you rather have loads of candy at once, or lots of small pieces that you can enjoy over time, guilt-free?
Pick a new habit
Choose a new habit to work on from the list below. Learn more about habits here.
Include a portion of your “restricted” food in your main meals
Try and add a small portion of your “restricted” food to at least one of your main meals every day.
If you’re struggling with doing that, start with a small portion of a product that you find the least scary. Once your anxiety around it decreases, take it up a notch and give other foods a try.
This strategy is known as “exposure therapy” and can be extremely effective.
It works by gradually exposing you to the thing you fear, starting with the least scary version of it. As you overcome your fears one step at a time, you can eventually get rid of them altogether! ♥
Think of food as “sometimes food” and “all the time food”
Get into the habit of looking at food in a new way.
Forget about food being “good” or “bad”. This attitude doesn’t help you and it certainly doesn’t prevent you from eating the food anyway!
From now on, no food is considered “bad” or “unhealthy”.
By refusing to label certain foods as “bad”, you’re removing their power over you.
If a food isn’t “bad”, then there’s no need for you to feel guilty after eating it.
If you’re allowed to eat all types of food, then there’s no reason for some of them to trigger a binge.
If you feel the need to label your food in some way, divide it into two groups: “sometimes food” and “all the time food”.
“All the time food” includes real, whole products that are packed with macronutrients and are guaranteed to promote good health. Examples of such products include:
- Meat and tofu.
- Bread, rice, potatoes and pasta.
“Sometimes food” is all about more energy-dense products, such as:
- Ice cream.
Remember that all of us need to allow ourselves to eat our “sometimes foods”. No food should ever be off limits.
You don’t need to eat perfectly to be perfectly healthy!
During the worst times of my bulimia, one bite of chocolate was enough to cause me to spiral into a full-blown bingeing and purging session.
This is exactly what we want to avoid.
Instead of seeing food as something that can only be undeniably right or shamefully wrong, imagine balanced eating as a spectrum. ♥
- If you’re worried that exposing yourself to “restricted” food can lead to a binge, try and eat it when you’re at your best both mentally and physically – perhaps when you’ve eaten a well-balanced breakfast or feel relaxed and well-rested.
- You can also try and think about this in reverse. When would it not be safe for you to eat those foods? Perhaps when you’re tired? When your period is due? When you’ve had a stressful day at work? When you’ve been restricting?
- If you tend to binge in the evening, it’s probably a good idea to avoid any “restricted” foods at that time of day – at least until you’re feeling stronger and more confident.
- Use positive affirmations when thinking about “restricted” food. Try and repeat: “Food is just food. It can’t make me fat just because I eat a serving.”
- Throw away any leftovers after eating if you’re tempted to binge on them.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for support. Call a friend and let them know that you’re struggling if you feel like you’re about to binge. Our HealED Coaching Service works great for situations like that as well. You can always reach out to your personal recovery coach and receive guidance and emotional help.
Trust me, you can absolutely do this! 🙂
Ready to move on?
If food rules are wreaking havoc on your life, you might want to spend a little extra time here. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. It’s okay if you need a few weeks or even months to achieve a real sense of balance. Just continue challenging yourself and introducing new foods into your daily life.