Eat What You Want
Part of healing your relationship with food means giving yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want, whenever you want it, in as much quantity as you want.
When I tell people that, they’re usually in disbelief. They immediately think that if they did that, all they’d do is eat pizza, cookies, cake, and ice cream all day every day. They’d gain weight, get fat, and feel miserable about themselves.
The resistance to accepting this statement comes from focusing on the whatever, whenever, and the quantity of what they eat, instead of focusing on the “want” part. They’re confusing permission with desire. They’re assuming their cans and their wants are the same and always will be.
It’s normal to think that. But you have to remember one very important thing – what you want to eat as an active participant of Diet Culture is not the same thing you’ll want once you free yourself of the food prison you’re in. Your wants will change as you do.
Back when I made my first foray into permission-based eating, I was the kind of person who planned out their entire week’s worth of meals beforehand, each meal picked so that its calorie content would fit into the calorie budget I set for the day.
My planned diet was all whole foods, of course. Because eating junk food was bad and wouldn’t allow me to lose weight.
But much to my dismay, I was never able to stick to my perfect diet. Maybe I could for a day or two or possibly even for the entire workweek. But when nighttime came, or the weekend arrived, things would start to fall apart.
At the time, I was not giving myself permission to eat whatever I wanted. I was following a set of food rules, can’ts, and shouldn’ts. Because it’s what I thought I had to do to succeed.
Like most people, the lack of permission around food was leading to the very outcome I didn’t want. I felt restricted and deprived, and I’d just end up eating the foods anyways.
And when I did end up eating those foods, it wasn’t from a place of permission and abundance. It came from a place of scarcity and a biological drive to just give in. Food was the one running the show.
I was fed up with the cycle and needed to do something different. So I flipped the script and decided I was going to give myself unconditional permission to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it, and in whatever quantities I wanted.
I went to the grocery story to do my shopping for the week. But I didn’t have anything planned. No meal plan. No shopping list. I was going to walk up and down the aisles to buy whatever I wanted.
And that’s exactly what I did. I bought cereal for breakfast. Fried chicken tenders for lunch. Frozen pizzas for dinners. Hostess Cupcakes for snacks. And I even bought soda to drink. And I rarely drink soda. But I wanted it, so I got it.
As I went up and down the aisles choosing my food this way, I felt an overwhelming sense of freedom wash over me. A lifetime of food rules that I had been imprisoned to were shattered.
It was a very emotional shopping experience for me. And one I’ll never forget. Because it was in that moment that I realized just how hard I had been on myself all these years in the quest to lose weight.
When I got home I started my new “diet” immediately. That first day I ate everything I had bought and wanted to eat. And I did it with full permission and no guilt or shame attached.
It was great. But it didn’t last long. The next day come lunchtime I realized that I really didn’t want the lunch I picked out anymore. I had gotten the desire to eat junk food out of my system and I actually wanted something a little healthier.
I went back to the store and got some different food that would make me feel better. It was what I wanted to eat – not what I thought I should eat or had to eat.
By the end of the week my diet was mostly whole foods again. But this time I was eating from a place of freedom. There was no one telling me what I had to eat. No food rules. I was running the show.
And that’s what permission-based eating will do for you too. The timetable might not be the same, but the process will be similar.
Permission is the process of taking back control from food. It forms the foundation of your eating decisions, and what allows you to feel empowered around food.
I started eating what I wanted, whenever I wanted, in whatever quantities I wanted. But those wants were no longer pizza and ice cream and cupcakes and soda. My wants shifted to what made me feel my best. Leaving behind Diet Culture allowed me to change, and my wants changed as I did.
Creating Healthy Boundaries Around Food
Permission-based eating isn’t the same thing as a free-for-all. Nor is permission a synonym for “yes” or “eat it”. It’s not a behavior – it’s an underlying mindset, an attitude towards food, that helps you make the best choices for yourself both in the short term and the long term. It’s what gives you the space to make your eating choices from a place of “I do/don’t want” instead of from a place of “I can’t/shouldn’t have.”
Giving yourself permission starts NOW. You don’t wait until you’re presented with a food choice before giving yourself permission to eat it. You don’t say “I’m GOING TO give myself permission”. You give it. Now. Because a lack of a permissive state right now is what drives the compulsions later.
Giving yourself permission now creates a healthy and empowering atmosphere surrounding your eating, which leads to one of the biggest benefits of permission-based eating – the establishment of healthy boundaries around food.
A healthy boundary around food is not the same thing as a food rule. Diet Culture preaches food rules. These rules are very black and white, pass / fail, and are pushed onto you by people, programs, books, etc, that know nothing about you, your physiology, your psychology, your goals, or your unique situation. A healthy boundary is chosen by you, while a food rule is chosen for you.
A food rule is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It attempts to force you to adapt to a diet, as opposed to letting your diet adapt to you. And worst of all, food rules don’t solve any of your problems – they just try to bandage over them by taking a very mechanical outside in approach to your eating.
That means if you’re struggling with overeating at night, a food rule that might be imposed would be “no eating after 6pm”. On the surface it seems like that should work. After all, you’re overeating at night, so if you don’t eat at night, then problem solved. Right? Wrong.
It’s not problem solved. It’s symptom treated. And that’s what food rules do – they treat your symptoms. They slap a temporary bandaid on your underlying struggles, which leads you to believe they work, until they don’t. And then you think your solution is more black and white thinking, more willpower, more abstaining, more lines in the sand – more food rules that never worked in the first place.
And why would they? Eating constraints imposed upon you from external forces will always create a disempowering feeling around food born out of an “I can’t have” attitude. Food rules always keep the food in power and you feeling helpless around it.
The alternative to food rules is healthy boundaries around food. Healthy boundaries are born out of a place of “I don’t want” – an empowering feeling that’s rooted in personal autonomy and body respect. You are the one who decides whether to eat something or not, not because you can’t control yourself around food, but because behaving in a certain way doesn’t make you feel your best.
Boundaries are necessary for any healthy relationship to thrive, and your relationship with food is no different. We construct these boundaries to protect ourselves. They are in place so we can feel our best mentally, emotionally, and physically.
What you’re going to realize is that from the outside looking in, a healthy boundary around food and a food rule can LOOK exactly the same to an observer, but they feel very different to the person carrying out the behavior.
The difference between eating the same food and having two different outcomes is your mindset. And that mindset is what determines how you feel when you eat. Because without the mindset, you’re not really practicing permission-based eating – you’re just eating and praying you’ll be able to stop.
It’s a nuance, but it’s a big impact nuance. Because how you feel when you eat right now is what determines how you will eat in the future. A healthy boundary can be implemented for life, as it aligns with your identity and helps you feel empowered. It leads to improved consistency over time.
Food rules don’t align with you (remember square peg into round hole). They don’t come from a place of permission. Nor do they last, as they don’t address the underlying struggle that is leading to the unwanted behavior that you’re trying to bandage over.
For example, I choose not to eat fried food. But I don’t do it because I feel like I can’t have it. There’s no food rule in place that’s rooted in body control. Instead, I choose not to eat fried food because I don’t want it. It’s a healthy boundary that’s rooted in self-care and body respect. When I eat it I feel horrible, so it’s something I’ll eat only on the rarest of occasions. I don’t miss it. I don’t feel deprived from it. I don’t feel like the food is calling out to me.
And unconditional permission was the mindset that got me to that healthy boundary. It was giving myself permission to eat it that gave me the space to understand that it wasn’t something I really wanted for myself. I could have it if I wanted it, but I was choosing not to.
Scarcity vs Abundance
If you could only choose one meal to eat for the rest of your life, would you rather it be M&Ms or a salad? Starting tomorrow you have to eat it any time you’re hungry for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between – forever.
I asked this question to my social media community and the answer was very interesting. The majority of people said they would eat the M&Ms. I then asked them if they felt they had a healthy relationship with food. The majority of people said they didn’t.
This wasn’t all that surprising to me. When you have an unhealthy relationship with food, one of the things you tend to do is put food up on a pedestal. You attach disempowering meaning to many foods and you label them as off limits.
This does two things. First, it makes the food feel scarce. Like most things in life, scarcity adds value to the thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s artificial scarcity or real scarcity, if it feels like it’s in short supply, it becomes more valuable in the eyes of the beholder.
Anyone who lived through the early days of the COVID pandemic remembers how scarce toilet paper became. The scarcity changed people’s behaviors and made them act irrationally.
The same thing happens with perceived gas shortages. When word gets around that gas is in short supply, people are quick to fill up their tanks whether they need gas or not. Scarcity creates fear, which leads to people overvaluing things in the moment. This leads to more irrational decisions that aren’t always in your best interest or the interest of the community as a whole.
Food is very similar. The only difference is the scarcity we feel, is self-created. By labeling foods as good or bad, following arbitrary food rules, fearing food’s impact on our weight, and eating from a place of no permission, we create scarcity and drive up the value of the very foods we feel like we shouldn’t eat.
Which leads me to the second thing placing the foods you want off limits does – it makes you eat them. Ironic, isn’t it?
Scarcity creates demand. The less of something you feel there is, the more you want it. When you eat too few calories and food becomes scarce, there’s an increase in food seeking behaviors. This over-restriction in food intake tends to result in you eating more food than you would have had you just eaten from a place of abundance and fueled your body properly.
When you place fun foods off limits they immediately become scarce. Banning them creates more intensity and allure around them and you just want them more. Eventually you do eat them, and usually in greater quantities.
When you eat from a place of scarcity it drives what you call last-supper mentality. You’re always in a state of feeling like you can’t have a particular food, so when you do inevitably eat it, you end up eating it in larger quantities than is desirable because you know that starting tomorrow you won’t be able to have it again. So you get in your fill now.
This is the reason so many people feel out of control around particular foods. They blame addiction to sugar, or label certain foods as triggery. And while food does have some physiological effects on your body that might drive your desire to eat, the bigger driver is your self-imposed psychology and the food prison you continue to keep yourself locked in.
When you let yourself out of that prison, neutralize scarcity with abundance, and give yourself permission to eat what you want, food loses its intensity. Off limit foods lose their value and allure, and the food seeking behaviors that you try to suppress diminish.
M&Ms are no longer this amazing chocolatey goodness that is so bad yet oh so good. It’s just food. Food that either meets your needs or doesn’t. Food that either makes you feel your best or doesn’t.
So as you heal your relationship with food, you start eating food again instead of labels and feelings. You’re able to recognize what’s best for you and you gravitate towards the foods that meet your needs and will make you feel your best.
Because that’s really what scarcity and abundance are all about. Most people think of scarcity as something that’s really rare, and abundance as something that’s just overflowing beyond capacity.
But I like to think of it as something much more simple. Scarcity means not having or being enough, and abundance means having or being enough. Scarcity means your needs aren’t being met, while abundance means they are.
Feeling abundant around food means you’re eating enough calories to feel and perform your best and enough of the types of foods that are going to satisfy you.
10 years ago I wouldn’t have had to think twice about whether I’d want M&Ms or a salad for the rest of my life. It was M&Ms all day every day. But now? M&Ms are great, but only in small doses. Eat more than that and I’ll hear my body screaming for nutrition. So these days I’m taking the salad, and it’s not even close.
Your goal is to create an atmosphere where you take fun foods for granted. Because when you do, you don’t eat as many of them. As soon as fun foods seem scarce; as soon as you feel like they are going to be taken away from you, that’s the moment you want them most, and that’s when you tend to overindulge in them.
Permission, healing, and abundance got me out of the intense food moments of the now that were being driven by the disempowering psychology of my past, and allowed me to honor what I truly wanted and needed in order to feel my best not just right now, but for the rest of my life.
The Binge / Restrict Cycle
Restricting calories and depriving yourself of satisfaction in your diet has a very predictable cause and effect. These behaviors tend to lead to the exact opposite of what you want to happen. And that leads to more restriction and deprivation. The cycle repeats and repeats. This is called the binge/restrict cycle.
While you might not experience a full out binge, the cycle is still the same. Call it the overeat/restrict cycle if you want. Regardless, it’s a self-reinforcing downward spiral that you need to get yourself out of.
The cycle tends to start with restriction. This restriction can be triggered by many things – a glimpse of your body in the mirror, a bad day or weekend of eating, or a panic that swimsuit season is coming. Whatever the situation, you feel a sense of discomfort, and you turn to getting your diet under control and use restriction and deprivation as tools to feel better. Unfortunately, that sets the binge/restrict cycle in motion.
Restriction then leads to obsession. The obsession phase is highlighted by a strong feeling of “I’ll never eat ___ again!” There could even be a feeling of confidence behind it if the restriction is leading to some weight loss. During this time most people are obsessively counting calories and demonizing certain foods or even entire food groups as the cause of all their (or the world’s) problems. In essence, you’re waging a war against food, and it might even feel like you’re winning, for now.
That’s when the inevitable struggle phase comes in. You didn’t realize it at the time, but you were riding a wave of heightened willpower. But like most willpower dependent diet culture strategies, it eventually wears off. And that’s when the inconsistency and struggle starts to happen. You start feeling the side effects of the restriction (quantity cravings) and deprivation (quality cravings). You’re thinking about food all the time. Those foods you placed off limits are calling out to you and it’s getting harder to keep saying no to them. You might also be feeling hungrier than usual – making it harder to adhere to the arbitrary calorie budget you set for yourself.
That leads to the next phase – bingeing or overeating. You start to rationalize and bargain with yourself in order to eat what you really want. You might just have a bite or a little bit of that food you weren’t supposed to have. But that leads to last supper mentality, which is characterized by thinking you should go ahead and enjoy it now since you aren’t supposed to or can’t have it again. Unfortunately, the restriction and deprivation spring is wound so tight, that there’s a need for a release. Your psychology and physiology then take over and you end up overeating. The degree to which you overeat is directly correlated to the degree in which you restrict and deprive. The larger and longer the restriction, the larger and longer the overeating. All that restriction and deprivation debt you created now needs to be paid back with interest.
Which leads to feelings of guilt and shame – the final phase of the binge/restrict cycle. This is where you have thoughts of failure. You’ve overeaten yet again. And you see yourself in the mirror and don’t like what you see. And if you recall, this is what starts the binge/restrict cycle all over again with restriction in order to get things under control.
The cycle is rooted in the overvaluing of food, which is valued in direct proportion to how much you’ve restricted and deprived yourself. The more the restriction and deprivation, the greater the value. Which makes it harder to stop eating once you’ve started, because there is such a high pleasure response to eating something with such high value.
That’s the cycle. It’s common and it’s predictable. In its simplest of forms, it’s a period of mindless and out of control eating, followed by a period of intentional restriction to make up for the unwanted behaviors you just engaged in. This restriction then fuels the overeating, and the cycle persists.
The cycle tends to happen on shorter time scales, say via the daytime/nighttime eating cycle, when you restrict and eat well all day only to overeat at night. Or it might be more medium term, such as the weekday/weekend cycle, when you restrict and are “perfect” all week, only to overeat on the weekend. Or the cycle might be longer in nature. This tends to correlate with the diet cycle when you diet for a few weeks or even months, only to eventually overeat and wipe out all your progress in a fraction of the time.
Whatever the case, recognizing when you’re in it is key to getting out of it and staying out of it in the future. If you feel like you need more willpower and discipline with your diet, it’s most likely because you really need less restriction and deprivation. This is a good sign that you’re about to enter the binge/restrict cycle. Instead of being reactionary, be investigative. Try to understand what part of your relationship with food (or body, exercise, or mind) is creating this unwanted behavior and then go heal it. Address the struggle at the source instead of masking over it with dieting and body control.
Food Labels Matter
How we label our food matters. Labels are loaded with meaning, and meaning influences how we think, feel, and act.
I could call pizza unhealthy food, junk food, fatty food, fun food, or a free meal, and even though every single label is referring to the same thing, each one will elicit a different feeling in you. Depending on the label, you could feel guilt and shame when you eat the pizza, or you could experience feelings of food freedom. And while you’ll be eating the same pizza regardless of the label, what you do after you eat the pizza is determined based on the label and meaning you’ve attached to your food.
To be fair, even calling pizza “food” is a label. After all, you have to call it something. So it’s not about dropping the labels altogether, but rather labeling your food in a way that best produces the feeling and outcome you want.
We see the effects of labels all the time. Marketers carefully choose their words because they want you to feel a certain way. They understand that this feeling produces an action they want. And more times than not, a food label takes the power away from you and gives it to the food.
Would you rather buy a certified pre-owned car or a used car? For all intents and purposes they are the same thing, but there’s a good chance a pre-owned car sounds and feels a little more luxurious to you. And because of that, you’re going to be much more likely to purchase a pre-owned vehicle than you are to shop at the used car lot.
Politicians do this all the time when they want to influence people. Minimum wage vs living wage. Stimulus checks vs government handouts. Depending on who you are, these labels create different emotions, which will influence different actions.
So when it comes to your food, you have to become your own food marketer. You have to first be aware of the labels you are attaching to your food, and then you have to pay attention to how each particular label is making you feel and act.
If a label is making you feel guilt or shame over what you eat, it’s time you start using more empowering language. Remember, guilt-free foods are not foods you eat with certain ingredients – they are foods you eat with a certain attitude. A guilt-free food is just something you eat without guilt – aka ALL foods.
So were you “good” with your eating this week? If you weren’t good what were you? Were you bad or were you simply not as consistent as you wanted to be?
Again, the same thing happened, but one label is loaded with feelings of guilt and shame while the other is more objective. And the more objective you can be the more likely you are to see data simply as feedback to make effective adjustments with, as opposed to spending the next week paying penance for your bad eating.
It’s up to you to decide how you want to label your food. Each label and its resulting experience is unique to you. Each person’s experience depends on their history and the meaning they’ve attached to that particular label.
Remember, we want to eat in a way that makes us feel our best mentally, emotionally, and physically. That goal isn’t just determined based on what we eat. It’s also about how we feel when we eat. So choose your labels wisely.
Food Is Not the Enemy
In the car one day, my wife and I were talking to our daughter. She had asked for us to buy a particular cereal, and I had said no after reading the label. It had an ingredient in there that I didn’t approve of.
I tried to explain this to her in a way that she might understand. I told her “did you know that there’s an ingredient in that cereal they use in embalming fluid?” I thought that would be so disgusting that she would say “OMG, that’s gross. I’m never eating that cereal again.”
But no, that’s not what she said. In fact, she didn’t say a thing. So I asked her, “does that matter to you?” And she said, “not really. It just tastes sooo good.” As we all sat in silence for the next 5 minutes as we drove, I knew there were unspoken thoughts going through all of our heads. That’s when she said something – “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to move out so that I can eat whatever I want.”
It was at that moment that I knew we were doing something wrong. The years of preaching about eating healthy food and depriving them of the foods they wanted had created an unhealthy relationship with food.
Our efforts had backfired. The restriction had made her value these foods even more. She wanted what she couldn’t have. There was now a forbidden allure to these foods.
While we were forcing her to eat the foods we bought, she was going over to her friend’s house and eating all the stuff that was off-limits with us. She was also trading with her friends’ lunches at school to get what she really wanted.
I give this example not to tell you how to raise your own kids, but to tell you that the same thing happens to us as adults. We deprive ourselves of certain foods in the name of health and weight loss, and then we wonder why we can’t resist them. We put these off-limit foods on a pedestal and worship or fear them.
We tell ourselves that we can’t eat them. They are bad for us. They will make us fat. They are the enemy. But they are not. An unhealthy relationship with food is bad for us. An unhealthy relationship with food is what keeps us from achieving our ideal body. And an unhealthy relationship with food is the enemy.
When we make up our minds to be healthier or to lose weight we essentially wage a war against our food. We start slapping labels on various foods and call them good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. We see calories as a bad thing and any processed food is seen as resistance against us achieving our goals.
Instead of demonizing foods you have to start seeing the value in them. I don’t just mean whole foods either. Everything you eat has value and can potentially meet a need of yours.
But in order for you to see the value in your food, you first have to stop seeing it as your enemy. As you continue to heal your relationship with food you’ll notice that you naturally gravitate towards the foods that make you feel your best, and you’re able to eat these foods in an effortless way. And this all happens from a place of unconditional permission.