3 Tips to Stop Feeling Out of Control with Food
When we say “stop feeling out of control,” what do we really mean? In my anti-diet work with clients, our goal is to turn foods that feel like a problem into foods that are just another food. Instead of “CHOCOLATE ???” It becomes just “chocolate ☺️.” Does that sound like the kind of chill relationship with food you’d like to have? Read on.
As I sat down to write this post, I grabbed an unopened bag of- you guessed it- chocolate that had been in our cabinet for over a month. I ate about, IDK, a handful maybe? And then put it away just now before I wrote this sentence. I haven’t thought about it since, besides the fact that I’m still talking about it with you!
Crazy concept, right? Unopened bag for a month, took a few and put it back, then stopped thinking about it. This is the ability to have some of a food, feel satisfied, and move on. It wasn’t always like that for me, and it’s usually not like that for my clients when we first start working together. Common words and phrases I hear from clients before we begin our work are: “food addiction,” “if I start eating ____ I won’t stop,” or “lack of self-control.” But once we dig into what’s really going on underneath the surface, we’re usually able to eliminate the out-of-control feeling and eventually achieve food neutrality and peaceful eating experiences.
You might be thinking, “That’s cool, food neutrality works for them, but I’m different.”
That’s what I call: contempt prior to investigation.
The first thing that must change when healing our relationships with food is our mindset; you must choose to believe that a healthy food relationship IS possible. And remember: food fear does not discriminate. You may feel hesitant about foods like avocados or bananas in addition to things like pizza or chocolate cake. This is because diet culture has demonized so many foods that almost nothing is “safe” anymore.
If you can acknowledge that there are foods or food groups out there that make you feel scared or nervous to consider eating or keeping at home, then you’ve identified an area of potential growth in your intuitive eating journey. Before you begin intentionally working on making peace with these foods, I want you to really manifest the belief that it IS possible to have a neutral, peaceful relationship with all foods.
You believing in yourself like:
Food is more than fuel
We are not just robots that need fuel to function. Yes, nutrition and eating for physical health is important (I’m a dietitian for crying out loud!), but I work with my clients to expand their definition of “health” to include eating for mental, emotional and spiritual health as well. To read more about this, check out my post, “How to Practice Gentle Nutrition with Intuitive Eating“. For example, chocolate gives me a warm feeling of just being human and enjoying life’s simple pleasures. This contributes to my emotional and mental health, which I consider equally as important as my physical health.
Food is connection, nourishment, comfort, culture, community, legacy, history, power, fuel, fun, nostalgia, nurturing, and tons more. When we focus only on eating for physical health in strict, rigid ways, we forget all these other qualities of food and our mental and emotional health tend to suffer. Being able to enjoy food in all the ways I’ve just listed is part of a wholesome, full and vibrant life. Making peace with food is about preventing food thoughts from dominating your brain space, enabling you to use your energy on more important things and enjoy foods for all the other benefits they bring to the table beyond just calories.
All foods fit
My personal philosophy is that ALL foods should fit into your life in whatever way you want them to. You get to decide which ones, how, when, and why because it’s your body, your plate, and your business. With diets, only certain foods or amounts are allowed, and it’s usually based on some crazy, arbitrary, senseless and rigid rules. I believe this is partly why diets fail- because food is more than just tasteless fuel (see above) and humans are living beings with needs that are immensely more complex and nuanced than a calculation of energy input.
Just because a certain diet plan says a particular food is off-limits doesn’t mean you will stop desiring that food. By denying yourself that food, you’re experiencing a form of restriction, which causes the binge-restrict cycle to kick in. It makes perfect sense that this results in intense cravings and/or feeling out-of-control around certain foods.
Why do we feel out of control around food?
We’ve already touched on this a bit, but I want to recap:
-These foods were restricted at some point in your life: in childhood, on a diet, at summer camp, in college, etc. Restriction leads to feelings of deprivation, which tends to eventually leads to bingeing.
Take this example: You’re in the desert and you have no water for 3 days. As soon as you have access to water on day 4, you’re going to chug it super fast. You may chug so much water that you throw up.
If you had plentiful water access after that, the first few days you may still chug it. But eventually you’d be like, “Oh, I can have water whenever I need to – I don’t need to chug it whenever I get it.” You’d end up drinking water in frequencies and quantities based on your body’s internal cues to what it needs, without giving it a second thought. And as long as you don’t experience an extended absence of water again, you’ll likely never feel the need to binge water to that extreme again.
-They’re moralized as “bad”, “cheat”, “unhealthy”, “junk”, or whatever negative connotation diet culture chooses to give them that day. If you’re a little kid and I put you in a room with a bunch of toys and I say, “I’m going to leave the room. You can play with anything in here but this blue toy truck,” what are you going to want to play with as soon as I leave the room? Probably the blue toy truck. As humans, we want what we “can’t” have. So our desire for these foods is SUPER high just because they’re taboo. The reality is: they’re just foods made up of varying combinations of carbs, protein, and fat. You’re not “bad” for eating pizza. You’re just a human eating pizza, providing you carbohydrates, protein, fat and possibly some other micronutrients.
Foods being assigned moral value will also likely lead back into out-of-control cause #1- restriction. If you believe a food is bad for you (or that you are bad for eating it) it makes sense that you would restrict yourself from that food. Hello again, binge-restrict cycle!
Here are my 3 tips to stop feeling out of control around food
The umbrella approach to making peace with food is called Intuitive Eating. I’ve already mentioned it multiple times in this post. It allows you to examine your real relationship with food, based on your internal cues and preferences, not external rules or systems. What foods do you even like or not like? What foods make you feel good? What foods don’t make you feel good? In the absence of food rules, it’s beautiful to me how natural and soul-fueling eating can be. My clients always say, “It’s amazing, Lexy. I’m just eating. I’m eating and living, it’s as simple as that!” Check out these 10 principles of intuitive eating and how they can work for you.
But what about those foods you feel “out of control” with? The “I can’t eat that or I’ll eat the whole box/bag/whatever,” foods or the, “I can’t keep those in the house because I don’t trust myself,” foods? How do we incorporate them into our eating patterns without going crazy and eating well beyond comfortable fullness?
The answer might shock you but I promise it works. I see it ALL the time with my clients, and it’s how I can have those few chocolates and put the rest away easily without even thinking twice about them after.
Here are three steps for how to stop feeling out of control with food:
1. You eat [insert problem food here] more.
How much panic just set in? Palms sweaty? Heart racing? Jaw dropped? I know that reaction because I had it myself when I first discovered this concept and I see that reaction every single time I have this conversation with a new client. I know, imagine? A dietitian saying eat more candy/pizza/brownies/chips/bread/etc. It’s the only way I (and most of the other dietitians and health professionals who help people quit chronic dieting) have found to truly make peace with “problem foods”.
So what is the process going to look like? It’s called habituation or basically, getting used to the food. Habituation is also defined as: the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus. By increasing the frequency of this food in your eating, you lessen the excitement, cravings and reward response that you used to have around it.
This means regularly and intentionally including these foods in your eating pattern. You buy them and keep them in your home and when you get the urge to eat some, you do. In the principles of intuitive eating, you will find this concept discussed as “unconditional permission to eat.” This isn’t letting yourself have one bite of the food. It’s letting yourself eat however much you desire in the moment. When habituating to a food, we must allow the process to look like whatever it needs to look like. It may look like a lot of binges at first, but I want to encourage you to press on! Because what comes next is the magic: your brain and body start to feel safe with that food. You remove the restriction half of the binge-restrict cycle. And over time, the desire to go crazy over that food will lessen and probably eventually disappear.
2. You stop labeling food as good or bad.
Think back to our discussion on two of the reasons you may experience out of control feelings around food. One was restriction, which we addressed in tip #1. The second was the concept of wanting what we can’t have. Almost every diet out there has certain foods labeled as good, green light, clean, OK or healthy and others labeled as bad, red light, processed, off-limits or unhealthy. In our minds, labeling foods as indulgent or off-limits creates a desire that might not otherwise be there. Part of feeling normal and neutral towards all foods is quitting the process of labeling foods as anything. No more counting points. No more checking food labels for calorie numbers. No more using a stoplight system. A mantra I love for this process is: “food is just food.” Or you can replace the first word in that phrase with whatever food item you’re working on feeling neutral towards. “Ice cream is just food.” “Pizza is just food.” “Chips are just food.” Not bad food, or unhealthy food or food you can have in moderation…. Just food.
3. You pay attention to and reflect on your eating experiences.
Feeling out of control while eating can happen whether you are paying attention or zoned out. I’m NOT saying that removing distractions and focusing on eating will allow you to eat a “proper portion” (insert eye roll!) What I am saying is to really engage with your food when possible. Think about how the food feels, tastes, smells, not just while you’re eating it but also after. Intuitive eating asks us to connect to the experiences of our bodies and minds while eating a particular food and being present for whatever thoughts or feelings come up.
While you’re eating, if you’re having panicked thoughts about how you’re ever going to stop or how to know when it’s a good time to stop or trying to determine if you’re full… that’s OK! It may be helpful to think about every eating experience as an opportunity for learning about yourself instead of an opportunity to “get it right”. Trying to understand yourself better- your preferences, your hunger and fullness cues, the roles that food plays in your life, etc- will help you increase your capacity for self-compassion. It will help you in seeing food as your ally instead of your enemy. And it will help you eventually begin to feel normal and neutral around all foods, instead of worried, nervous, scared or out of control.
I’ll also mention that these concepts- habituation, feeling neutral towards foods, being able to have a few bites and then put it away with no feelings of deprivation or restriction- are all parts of the bigger practice of intuitive eating. IE has 10 principles and they are ALL going to be important as you work on your relationship with food, dieting, body image and health. In addition to the three tips I shared in this post, I really encourage you to dig into the rest of the principles and if you’re desiring some deeper work, consider partnering with an anti-diet therapist or RD to walk this journey with you.
Lastly, here are some commonly asked questions about unconditional permission to eat and habituation:
“But what if I never stop eating ______ once I give myself permission to?”
I can almost guarantee you will. Because we get sick of things as humans! Unless there’s something deeper going on physically, mentally or emotionally, most of the time we end up getting sick of the food and feeling more neutral towards it.
“What if I can’t eat _____ for a medical condition but all I do is crave it?”
I feel you. I have celiac which means I can’t eat gluten. However, when I got diagnosed I kept eating gluten! (And obviously got very sick…) Once I changed my mindset from “they said I can’t eat this,” to “it’s not respectful to my body to eat this when it’s telling me it doesn’t agree with it,” I was able to stop. Make sure to work closely with your doctor and a registered dietitian to work through intuitive eating and food allergies/intolerances.
Where do I find more support?
- Check out this post titled: Do You Feel Guilty About Emotional Eating and Turning to Food for Comfort?
- Principle 3 – Make peace with food is the chapter in Intuitive Eating that goes over way more of this concept of habituation.
- I work with clients 1:1 to make peace with food, health and their bodies to live their best lives and feel empowered. Book your free intro call here and let’s chat!
*This post should not be a substitute for medical, nutrition, or therapeutic counseling or care.