Challenge the Food Police
Now that you've identified some of your food rules, the next step is to learn how to step outside of rule-based thinking and reclaim your body's natural ability to self-regulate.
I recommend completing this module over the course of a week, taking some time to review the material a couple of times, and to complete the journal exercises each day.
Start by listening to the talk below. When you're done, scroll down for the notes, journal exercises, and meditation.
Audio: Challenge the Food Police
PDF Workbook (New!)
Module 5 Notes
If you’ve been stuck in the diet mentality, you’ve probably been listening to the food police for a long time. The food police are Tribole and Resch’s term for the voices in your head that pipe up whenever you go near one of the “bad” foods we discussed in the last module.
The food police are in charge of enforcing diet rules and punishing you for eating so-called bad foods.
They’re the part of your mind that berates you for disobeying your self-imposed eating rules, makes you do penance through increased restriction or exercise, and turns even non-diet-oriented nutrition advice into new rules to follow.
If you want to tune in to your intuition, the food police have got to go.
We’re all born with the ability to self-regulate our eating, but when the food police get involved, we lose touch with that internal motivation. Eating becomes about following the rules or rebelling against them—not about honoring your own needs.
So how do you start to challenge the food police and get back your ability to self-regulate? By practicing and incorporating three key skills:
- Listening to your inner caretaker (in Intuitive Eating, this is called the “Nurturer”)
- Cultivating nonjudgmental awareness (the “Food Anthropologist”)
- Gently setting and honoring your own boundaries with others (the “Rebel Ally”)
Listening to your inner caretaker means tuning in to the nurturing, caring part of you that wants to help you feel good and be happy. It doesn’t care about following food rules or rebelling against them; its only concern is to make sure your needs are getting met.
This voice can be hard to tune into if you were raised in a family where criticism was common (as many of us were), so tuning in to the caretaker may take some ongoing work. Working with a psychotherapist can be very helpful in this process. I’m also including a journal exercise and some other self-help resources at the end of this module that will help you tune in to your inner caretaker.
Cultivating nonjudgmental awareness means tuning in to the part of yourself that notices what’s happening in your mind, body, and the outside world without judgment. (This practice is also known as mindfulness, but I’m using the term nonjudgmental awareness here to highlight the importance of non-judgment in the practice.)
For example, you might become aware that you’re in the mood for something sweet, or that your eye keeps getting drawn to one item on the menu, or that you’re feeling hungry (low in energy) or full (no longer interested in eating).
When the food police get involved, these once-neutral observations become pathologized, e.g. “why are you always craving sweets?” “You’re addicted to unhealthy food!” “Why are you hungry already?” “You can’t be full yet, you haven’t finished your plate!”
But once the cops leave the scene, there’s no problem with any of these things. Your desires, sensations, and bodily cues are just information and are nothing to be feared.
Gently setting and honoring your own boundaries means clearly stating your food-related needs to other people, and honoring those needs even when others are doing something different.
For example, you might be on a group outing, and you become aware of your own rapidly rising hunger levels, but no one else has mentioned anything about eating. You can set your own boundary by stating that you’d like to grab a bite to eat soon, and asking if anyone else is interested. If they say no, you can honor your boundary by getting food on your own and meeting up with them later, or eating a pre-packed snack, or grabbing something quick to munch on while walking, etc.
The food police keep you from setting and honoring your own boundaries by telling you things like “everyone must eat together,” “never let anyone know you’re hungry,” or “your needs aren’t as important as other people’s.”
When you were growing up, your family may have played by those rules, too. But now that you’re an adult, you have the power and the right to take care of your body’s needs to the best of your ability, no matter what anyone else is doing.
What about Control?
People often ask me how to tell whether something is “healthy control” versus “unhealthy control,” and they’ll say that if they didn't have some low level of control with food, they’d go completely off the rails.
This is akin to thinking that we need some kind of food police to keep us healthy—just a kinder, gentler police force that exerts a more subtle level of control.
Researchers have actually done some great studies on this low-level control. The technical name for it is “flexible dietary control,” and it involves keeping your food choices and portion sizes in check, and following little rules to keep yourself from overeating, or gaining weight, or eating too many of the “wrong” types of foods.
It’s what I sometimes call the “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change” diet.
In other words, still a diet.
Here’s why: The research on flexible dietary control has shown that it actually overlaps with the rigid dietary control found in more extreme diets. That is, these seemingly different concepts are actually two sides of the same spectrum, and the people who practice flexible dietary control routinely slide back and forth between the flexible and rigid sides of the spectrum.
So flexible and rigid dietary control are not distinct concepts. You can’t have flexible dietary control without also having some elements of rigid dietary control, and without being at risk of sliding back to the rigid side.
Intuitive eating, in contrast, has been shown to be a distinct concept, not on the spectrum of dietary control at all.
I repeat: It’s not about control.
WTF?!?! How do you get yourself into a balanced eating pattern without control?
The key is to apply those skills we just discussed: nonjudgmental awareness, your inner caretaker, and gentle boundaries.
Your nonjudgmental awareness considers food and bodily sensations in a neutral light. It notices things like texture, flavor, hunger, fullness, convenience, desire, social context, nutritional content, and the potential for satisfaction.
Your inner caretaker notes which foods make you feel good, which ones you love the taste of, which ones appeal or don't appeal to you at the moment, and whether you need connection with others or time to yourself.
Your boundaries help you honor your body’s needs and desires even in the midst of external messages to the contrary.
Combining those points of view, you can see how foods are not good or bad, black or white, the way the food police make them out to be.
Instead, some foods are fun and delicious, while others are nourishing and energizing—and your mind and body crave both. Some foods are more convenient for fueling up on the go, while others are an experience that can be savored—and both are necessary at different times. Some food experiences are shared, and others are solo—and again, you'll seek out a balance of both.
You don't need self-control to make food choices; you need attunement to your inner caretaker, non-judgmental awareness, and boundaries.
Once you are able to consistently apply these three core skills, you can make changes to get your eating more into balance without having to forbid yourself from anything.
That’s why we won’t even address nutrition in depth until Module 11, because until you’ve really learned the alternative to dietary control, you’ll be likely to slip back into the old control-driven approach anytime you think about nutrition.
Meditation: Cultivating Nonjudgmental Awareness
Journal Exercise 1: Envisioning Life without the Food Police
In your journal, reflect on how you would make food choices if you weren’t listening to the food police. Think of a recent situation in which you did listen to them:
- If they hadn’t been around, what would you have done differently?
- What would you have used to guide your food choices?
- Which of the three skills we discussed above would have been the most challenging to implement?
This exercise may bring up some emotions, and that’s completely understandable. Give yourself lots of compassion as you do it, and plenty of time to revisit it over the coming weeks. It can be overwhelming to think about completely revising how you make food choices, but it will get easier the more you practice.
Journal Exercise 2: Cultivating Your Inner Caretaker
This exercise from my friend Katie Dalebout’s book Let It Out: A Journey Through Journaling is a great way to start tuning in to your inner caretaker.
- Set a reminder on your phone to go off once a day, or perhaps choose a day out of the week and set a reminder to go off every hour. This reminder should say: Hey, how are you? How are you feeling? (just as you would check in with a friend you haven’t talked to in a while).
- When your phone alert chimes with these questions, return to the present and take out your journal. Take inventory of how you’re feeling, and respond to your self-check-in by answering those questions.
- After you ask yourself how you’re feeling, now take inventory of what you need. Ask yourself, What do you need to feel better? For instance, perhaps you catch yourself stuck in money fears. In that case, use this as an opportunity to befriend and nurture yourself by asking, What’s something nice I can treat you to today? Treating yourself doesn’t have to be expensive; it can be as simple as going on a walk, listening to your favorite podcast, or playing your favorite song.
Additional Resources for Learning The Key Skills
- Chapter 8 of Intuitive Eating
- Tara Brach’s podcast, and her book Radical Acceptance
- Christopher Germer’s book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion
- Katie Dalebout’s book, Let It Out: A Journey Through Journaling, and podcast, The Wellness Wonderland
- The Headspace meditation app
Journal Exercise 3: Post-Lesson Reflection
In your journal, reflect on what you learned in this module.
- Are there particular aspects of challenging the food police that seem more challenging for you than others?
- Which of the three key skills will you need to continue to work through in the weeks to come?
- Did anything about this process seem easier than you'd expected?
- How will challenging the food police help you move closer to your goals and intentions?
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