Give Yourself Unconditional Permission to Eat: Your Questions Answered

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Photo by Ellieelien on Unsplash

This article is for educational purposes only and is not a replacement for one-on-one support from a professional coach or therapist who is well-versed in a non-diet approach to health.

In my last article I explained how restricting food leads to food guilt and overeating, what it means to give ourselves unconditional permission to eat (i.e. the Permission Paradox), and why permission is essential for making peace with food.

The idea of permission is scary for my clients who are emotional and restrictive eaters. In this article I answer the three most common questions I get from clients when we begin this work.

How can I be healthy if I don’t control what I eat?

In a recent session when closing out our work together, a client answered this beautifully. “If I give myself permission it satisfies my craving, and I don’t need to repeat it. I get the donut, and it’s not a focus anymore.”

This is not a one-time success story. As clients regain self-trust, strengthen attunement to their needs, and replace restriction with permission, food stops ruling their life. On numerous occasions, clients have shared their breakthrough moments with me: They allow the once-forbidden food back into their kitchens or they pass by a favorite bakery. Before reflexively reaching for (or purchasing) the food, this time they decide to pause and ask themselves: Is this really what I want right now? Because they’ve created this space for inquiry and honesty and they’ve acquired tools for emotional resilience, they’re able to make an intentional choice and continue with their day, without the drama or restraint that was once present.

When we forbid food, we undermine trust in the body’s wisdom and disown our power to choose. The persuasive lure of the forbidden leads us to eat things we don’t necessarily want or eat in a frenzied, mindless manner that we don’t feel good about later. When our eating experiences are clouded with guilt and shame it’s impossible to spot the flashing light indicating whether we even want or like the food. But through permission and a mindful pause, the shame fog parts and we can see clearly, without judgment or obsession, whether or not we want to eat.

Note that it takes time for a forbidden food to lose its appeal. When we first give unconditional permission, we may eat more than we’re comfortable with. This is a natural (and temporary) response to long-term restriction and newfound freedom. But like the pendulum explained in the last article, if we let it be without restricting its natural movement, those extreme swings to restrict and overeat become more moderate and eventually settle in the middle.

Can I still lose weight if I eat whatever I want?

It depends, and I explain below. But first, it’s important to point out that embedded in this question are the common beliefs that we can control our weight and that a lower weight is healthier. Both “truths” have been debunked. And to be at ease with food and our bodies, we must understand how buying into these false truths keep us trapped in the cycle of restriction and guilt-eating.

Weight is not a good indicator for health. There are healthy people in larger bodies and unhealthy people in smaller bodies. If weight — rather than physical and mental health — drives our choices, we’ll continue to ignore and distrust our body and be unable to cultivate a healthy relationship with food.

Despite what diet culture wants us to believe, weight is more complicated than simply controlling food and exercise and we can’t force our body to a specific number on the scale. Yes, if we’ve been using food regularly and primarily to numb, distract, and self-soothe, it’s likely we could lose weight when we tune into our body’s signals and learn non-food coping strategies. Similarly, if we’ve been restricting food and over-exercising, we might gain weight as our self-care behavior normalizes.

Each of us is born with a unique setpoint and natural range of 10–20 pounds we can comfortably move within without resistance. The human body is an expert at achieving this homeostasis, if we stay out of the way. We’ll know we’re in this setpoint range when eating feels effortless and enjoyable, we don’t obsess over food or weight, we mindfully respond to emotional triggers, and we eat naturally in response to cues from the body.

Consequently, when we achieve a mindful relationship with food we’ll feel better in and about our bodies regardless of weight because we’re meeting our emotional needs, our choices are purposeful rather than impulsive or mindless, and we’re no longer acting out of fear or insecurity. In essence, this process is about creating a bigger life where we realize food is only one part of our well-being and our body does not equal our worth. It’s the incongruency of living one way but wanting something different for ourselves that feels uncomfortable and brings my clients in to see me in the first place. Bringing choices in alignment with our desire to listen to and respect ourselves — rather than controlling food and weight — brings us peace and ease.

For more, watch this video series on an unconventional approach to weight loss.

How do I create healthy structure around food without rigid rules?

Creating healthy structure is an inside-out job. It comes from recognizing what drives our food choices, connecting with cues from our body, becoming aware of thoughts and emotional needs, trusting this internal feedback, then acting in alignment.

We usually operate from the neck up, disconnected from our body and eating based on external markers such as a fad diet’s good and bad food list, judgment and guilt, a number on the scale, or whether or not we’ve exercised. But healthy structure incorporates insight from the body and rational thought. It replaces external rules with self-reflective questions such as: Do I want the food? Do I like the food? Do I like how it feels in my body when eating it? When food choices are based on these questions, our choice (regardless of what we choose) is coming from a place of care and respect rather than fear and control. We’re not suppressing our reality and needs in favor of external markers.

But remember, if you’ve been using food as a primary coping mechanism, it’s dangerous to abruptly take the food (or food rules) away. They’ve been a source of safety and security for you, and it takes time to rebuild trust in your body and learn a new way to navigate life. Make this is a gradual process where you loosen your grip slowly over time. And as with any of the changes mentioned in this article, consider working with a coach or therapist to support you along the way.

If you’d like support learning how to loosen your grip on rigid food rules and find peace with food, get in touch for a complimentary 30-minute consult.

Behavioral Food Therapist — a compassionate confidante and guide on the path to cultivating an easeful connection with food, body, & mind.

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