“Should you really be eating that extra slice of cake?” “That dinner roll will go straight to your hips.” We’ve all heard it. The gentle whisper or, oftentimes, loud screams of the food police. That un-welcomed voice dictating what, when and how much we should be eating. Sometimes the food police can be a family member, an overly concerned dieting co-worker or even our own self-critics in our head. Attempts from others or even ourselves to control our eating behaviors through rigid food rules and condemning comments are typically unproductive, harmful and usually lead to feelings of guilt and shame. More often than not, the food police ignites a “rebellious eater” which causes the opposite result than that intended by projecting food rules in the first place.
I recently met with a patient who had many food rules and many fear foods. Fear foods are foods that you may consider to be “bad” or “off-limits.” They may illicit anxiety upon eating them or even just thinking about them. Individuals usually have specific rules surrounding their fear foods such as, “Don’t eat it at all” or “If you eat it, you have to compensate for it later.” Usually these food rules are driven by underlying thoughts and beliefs such as, “If I eat this, I’ll gain weight” or “If I take a bite of that, I won’t be able to stop and I will be out-of-control.” Nancy Clark, RD once said, “Food restriction creates food interest.” This means that if I label something as off-limits, I’m more likely to become preoccupied with thoughts about that particular food. This can lead to eating the forbidden food, and therefore breaking my food rule, which could trigger the “What the heck?” mentality. This often leads to feelings of out-of-control eating followed by guilt and shame. What if we began to look at our food rules critically and determine where they originated?
For this particular patient, she was told from a young age not to eat foods high in sugar due to sugary foods being bad and causing weight gain. She was taught that certain foods, such as candy, were to be avoided. This message triggered a preoccupation with sugary foods which eventually lead to eating candy in secrecy and disposing of wrappers placed neatly in toilet paper so as not to be seen in the trash can by her parents. In time, she began to fear these foods to the point that she restricted them completely due to anxiety about feeling out-of-control. In our dietary sessions, she listed many fear foods, food rules associated with each fear food and underlying thoughts and beliefs surrounding each food. This patient had become her own food police.
Together, we began to challenge her thought patterns, examine perceived truth versus reality, consider recovery-focused reasons to break the food rules and examine ways to incorporate these foods into her normal eating plan (starting with the least anxiety provoking food item first). Slowly, this took the power out of the food and placed it back into her hands. Eventually she was able to see food for what it really is, just food! It was no longer this bright and shiny object dangling over her head with shouts of, “You can’t have me!” Once her anxiety level became manageable around these particular foods, she found that she developed a much more flexible approach to eating sweets. She could take them or leave them.
With the holidays quickly approaching, there will be many food police out on patrol. Whether it’s your great aunt Mary who is always on a diet or your own inner critic reminding you that New Year’s Resolutions are just around the corner. I challenge you to consider your fear foods, food rules, thoughts/beliefs surrounding these rules and recovery-focused reasons to break the food rules. I challenge you to advocate for yourself and for others that food is amoral, neither good nor bad, and that all foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle. I challenge you to remember this message and take it with you to your holiday gatherings. I challenge you to challenge the food police.