If you look on the internet for health advice, which most of us do at some point or another, you’ll likely see it suggested that in order to be healthy, one requirement is to never eat food that’s “unhealthy”.
Depending on who you ask, that could mean no ice cream, cookies, candy, chips, crackers, cheese, meat, anything with gluten, anything with sugar, anything with carbs, anything with fat, or processed food.
Sounds easy, right?
Maybe you diet and try to avoid all of those things as long as you can, but eventually, it gets harder and harder.
And at some point you slip, finding yourself 2 pints deep in double chocolate fudge ice cream before you even realize what’s happening.
You feel like since you’ve “blown it”, you might as well eat everything you can get your hands on, and you promise you’ll start over tomorrow.
But even with the fresh start the next day, that cycle usually repeats itself.
Even if it’s not showing up in that extreme cycle, it’s pretty common to find yourself engaging in situational binges. E.g. you normally eat “healthy”, but you’re at a friend’s house to watch the big game and there are so many tantalizing treats, that you end up binging on nachos + cupcakes.
The common theme here is restriction. Telling yourself that you can’t have a certain food for whatever reason (it’s not healthy, it’s too high in fat, it’s not low enough in carbs, etc) automatically creates a mentality of restriction.
And where there’s restriction, the end result is usually a binge. A binge can be a biological response to restriction (e.g. your body thinks it’s starving and doesn’t know when there will be enough food again, so it urges you to eat as much as you can now).
Or it can also be a response to mental restriction. E.g. you’re not starving yourself, but you’re thinking about eating less or cutting out carbs.
This is totally normal. If I told you that no matter what, you absolutely should NOT think about a purple panda, what’s the first thing you’re going to do? Think about it, of course! When we feel restricted, even just mentally, our natural response is to do the thing we’re not supposed to do.
Binging doesn’t typically exist without restriction. In other words, if you would let yourself eat whatever you wanted or needed, whenever, there would be no reason to engage in a binge.
And that can sound scary to people because they think if they let themselves eat whatever they wanted, they’d eat all the things and never stop, and gain weight and become unhealthy, and be miserable.
But the truth is that usually isn’t the case. (side note: weight and health aren’t the same thing anyway, as I’ve talked about before.)
When we allow ourselves free rein to eat whatever we want, things start to lose their allure.
A few bites of chocolate or ice cream start to hit the spot, when before it would have taken a full bar or pint to feel satisfied.
When something isn’t forbidden, it’s honestly just not that exciting anymore.
A perfect example is this bag of potato chips.
I ate these last weekend. I know what you’re thinking: “why in the world would a nutrition professional knowingly eat something that has absolutely no redeemable nutritional value?”
I’ll tell you why, because I had been thinking about them, and I wanted them. That’s it.
I’d seen advertisements for them at subway stations all over town and I was strangely intrigued. Potato chips that taste like lasagna? What kind of lasagna? Frozen or homemade? How do they make them taste different from pizza-flavored chips? (my mind is a weird place, friends).
If I had told myself I couldn’t have them, I would have started to obsess over them, staring with longing at the ads on the train, daydreaming about how delicious they probably are, and it would be harder and harder to restrain myself, until one day, I’d feel “weak” and rush into the closest convenience store, buy 3 bags, and eat them all in a hurry, hardly even tasting them and not stopping until I was uncomfortably full and ridden with guilt.
But because I don’t restrict myself, a very different situation occurred.
I found myself walking past 7-11 last weekend and I remembered the chips, so I popped in and grabbed a bag to share with my husband.
We ate them while walking home, and they were fun, but not great. And because I knew I was allowed to have them, they truly weren’t that exciting. I ate a couple handfuls but ended up letting my husband finish the bag because I had lost interest.
And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not worried that I’m going to have a heart attack or die of cancer because I had 9 potato chips that weren’t good for me.
It’s what you do most of the time that matters when it comes to long-term health, and most of the time I eat a nutrient-dense diet based on whole foods. But sometimes I eat fun foods too and that’s ok. I’m not overly concerned with how this will affect my health and there’s nothing to feel guilty about. Please believe me when I say you don’t have to be perfect to be healthy.
So if you find yourself feeling out of control around food or like you “can’t have it in the house or I’ll eat it all”, try giving yourself permission to eat it. All of it. No matter how sugary or carb-y it is.
And you may eat a lot of it at the beginning, but as the novelty starts to wear off, it’s going to become less exciting.
And you’ll find you probably need to eat less of it to feel satisfied. And before you know it, that half-eaten chocolate bar will have been sitting in your fridge for 6 months because you forgot about it and you’ll realize you finally feel comfortable around food again.
The journey to get there can be long and sometimes a little messy, but stick with it because it works, and it’s worth it to stop feeling scared of food.
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