This is the fourth post in a 10-part series looking at the principles of Intuitive Eating. Last week’s post was on Principle 3: Make Peace With Food.

Do you feel guilty after eating foods you like? If so, you are far from alone. There’s no shortage of opinions on how we should or shouldn’t eat, on which foods are “good” foods and which foods are “bad” foods. Yet no matter what comments we hear from the collective food police, our inner food police is likely to be harsher.

The fourth principle of Intuitive Eating, “Challenge the Food Police,” goes hand in hand last week’s principle (“Make Peace With Food”). Because when you are constantly policing what and how much you eat, there is no food peace.

The food police can come from within, or without. Certainly, you may have people in your life who tell you how you should eat – either directly or indirectly. They might say things like “You eat that? Haven’t you heard how bad that is for you?” or “I heard that eating X food does Y for you” or simply bragging about their own eating habits, making you feel like you should follow suit.

However, the most militant form of the police comes from your own mind. It incorporates every bit of information you’ve internalized from doctors, friends, family, media and culture about:

  • How you should or shouldn’t eat
  • which foods are “good” and which foods are “bad”
  • How much your health relies on what you eat (hint: many things affect how healthy you are, and food is only one of them)
  • How what you eat affects your weight (which can lead to restriction and then to rebound eating)
The destructive dieting voices

In their book “Intuitive Eating,” dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch discuss the specific voices that can pop up from diet culture and influence what we think and how we behave. These voices are known as the Three Destructive Dieting Voices, and they are:

  • The Food Police, which is a strong voice that develops through dieting and serves as your inner judge and jury. Your food police voice scrutinizes every eating action and keeps food and your body at war. (“If I eat that, I’ll gain weight.”) When you disobey what your food police tells you about what to eat, this can trigger overeating because you are ashamed or feel like you’ve already blown it, so all food is fair game.
  • The Nutrition Informant provides nutrition advice to keep you “in line” with dieting. It makes rules in the name of “health” and colludes with the food police by operating under the guise of health, but promotes an unconscious diet. For example, your nutrition informant might say something like, “Snacking’s now OK, but only if you eat fruits and vegetables!” Or, you may feel like nothing’s “safe” to eat because of shifting nutrition information (“Eating fat is bad! No, wait…eating carbs are bad!”)
  • The Diet Rebel is the voice that says, “Oh yeah? I’ll show you!” as it pushes back against any externally imposed rules, which can manifest as overeating or sneaking food. I have clients who snuck food to rebel against strict food rules when they were children, and still do it decades later even if their spouses or partners don’t care what they eat. Unfortunately, rebellious behavior often has no limits, and this can become very self-destructive.
The ally voices

However, we also have four powerful ally voices.

  • The Diet Rebel can transform into your Rebel Ally if you channel that rebel voice outward, and use it to protect your food boundaries against anyone who tries to food police you. In other words, you use your mouth for words—in a polite but firm way—instead of acting out with food through secret or rebellious eating.
  • The Food Anthropologist is a neutral observer who makes observations without making judgement. It takes notes of your thoughts and behaviors about food just like an anthropologist would observe a group of people or culture. In other words, this voice is just about the facts! Keeping an intuitive eating journal can help you put your inner food anthropologist into action by allowing you to sort through the facts about rather than get caught up in the emotional aspect of eating.
  • The Nurturer’s voice is soft and soothing, like the voice of a loving grandparent or best friend. This is the vehicle for most of the positive self-talk in your head. The nurturer can also help you cope with the harsh words that come from the Food Police and the Diet Rebel.
  • If you can quiet the food police, the Nutrition Informant can become a Nutrition Ally, helping you to choose foods based both on nutrition AND satisfaction.
  • The Intuitive Eater speaks from your internal cues about hunger, fullness and satisfaction. You were born an intuitive eater, but this voice has probably been suppressed for most of your life. The Intuitive Eater combines the Food Anthropologist and the Nurturer, and can bring out the positive side of the Rebel and the Nutrition Informant. For example, the Intuitive Eater might say, “That slight growling in my stomach means I’m hungry and need to eat,” or “What do I feel like eating for dinner tonight? What sounds good to me?”
Challenging the food police

One of the best ways to challenge the food police is to change our self-talk. Negative self-talk often makes us feel despair, and feelings of despair can trigger sabotaging behaviors.If we challenge the negative self-talk, which is often based on unrealistic and sometimes absurd notions, we’ll feel better, and act better.

So…if we can change our beliefs about food and body, our feelings and behaviors will also change

Negative self-talk around food and body is usually based on distorted or irrational thoughts. These thoughts can lead to an escalation of negative feelings, which can in turn lead to extreme, disordered and even destructive eating behavior. It’s a classic case of perception becoming reality. In order to replace distorted thoughts with more rational thoughts, it’s important to be able to recognize and identify the various types of negative thinking. For example…

5 types of negative thinking
  • Dichotomous or binary thinking, also known a black-or-white, or all-or-nothing thinking. Very few things in life are truly black-or-white, so getting comfortable swimming in the gray areas can help us in numerous ways, including those not related to food or body.
  • Absolutist thinking (“I must eat perfectly or something bad will happen”). Use words like “can,” “is okay” and “may” instead of “must,” “ought to,” “should,” “need to,” “supposed to,” or “have to.”
  • Catastrophic thinking, such as “If I let myself eat cookies, I’ll never stop.” Replace your exaggerated thoughts with more positive and accurate thoughts. Even if eating feels a little chaotic while practicing making peace with food, with regular reassurance that you can have foods that are appealing to you, you’ll settle into balanced eating. In other words, you won’t stop eating cookies if you love cookies, but you definitely won’t eat them nonstop.
  • Pessimistic thinking (the cup is half empty). Make the cup half full (Instead of “I’m such a failure,” try “I had some success this week” because odds are very good that you did. I have so many clients who think they aren’t making “progress,” but when we look at the shifts in their mindset and how their eating has become less angst-ridden, we see that there’s been a LOT of progress.
  • Linear thinking. If you tend to be success-oriented (as most long-time dieters are), it’s easy to focus on getting to your goal without appreciating what you can learn along the way or accepting that there will be up and downs in your journey. There’s a lot of experimentation in Intuitive Eating, and a lot of learning about ourselves. Embrace the process instead of just racing for the “goal.”
The power of self-awareness

Self-awareness is the ultimate weapon against the food police. But, as I tell my clients, self-awareness needs to be partnered with curiosity and non-judgement. Awareness of our thoughts, emotions and behaviors provides valuable information, and that information opens up the possibility of change. (Think about it: If you’re blind to what you’re thinking, feeling and doing, you can’t possibly change.)

Become aware the food talk in your head, and around you, then get curious about it and challenge it rather than judging yourself based on the content of the thought or for having the thought at all. This is where self-compassion comes in handy!

Next post: Principle 5: Discover the Satisfaction Factor.

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Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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