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{Intuitive Eating with a Chronic Condition} Principle #3: Make Peace with Food

This is the third in a series of posts on adapting intuitive eating for a chronic condition. I would like to acknowledge that I personally don’t have a chronic condition, and am open to learning from the lived experiences of those who do. Please leave your feedback by commenting below, or by sending me a private message.
Other posts in this series include:

Principle #1: Reject the Diet Mentality
Principles #2 & #5: Honour Your Hunger and Feel Your Fullness
Principle #4: Challenge the Food Police
Principle #6: Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Principle #7: Honour Your Feelings Without Food
Principle #8: Respect Your Body
Principles #9 & #10: Exercise – Feel the Difference & Honour Your Health with Gentle Nutrition

This principle introduces the idea of “unconditional permission to eat all foods”, which is another key feature of intuitive eating. Unconditional permission to eat can feel like a roller coaster—the idea of being able to eat as much as you want of anything you want can be fun and thrilling, especially if you’ve been avoiding some foods for a long time. It can also be freakin’ scary, as it can feel like a loss of control, or that you’re not taking care of your health.

via GIPHY

How unconditional permission “works” is via the idea of habituation. Yes, in the beginning you might find yourself swinging to Donutland and eating all the foods in sight, but eventually the food loses its emotional charge. It’s like the first time someone says “I love you” to a romantic partner – there was probably a lot of buildup in terms of finding the “right time” to say it, anticipating a deep emotional connection as the short phrase somehow moves the relationship to the “next level”. Over time, however, “I love you” becomes just something you say; that’s not to say that it has no meaning, but there isn’t that same buildup as the first time. Food can be the same way.

But what if you are struggling with a chronic condition that is impacted by food and nutrition? Can you really give yourself unconditional permission to eat? Can you truly make peace with all foods?

When Not All Foods Fit

There are some conditions, like food allergies and celiac disease, where the impact of certain foods is clear cut—the foods trigger an immune response, which in the case of some allergies can lead to death.

There are many other conditions where the impact of food is less clear and consistent. For example, some people struggling with chronic pain or GI concerns might find certain foods trigger their symptoms, but each individual has different triggers. Sugars and carbohydrate-rich foods can increase blood sugar in someone with diabetes, but this relationship is impacted by different factors like severity of disease, medications, other foods in the person’s diet, physical activity levels and so on. Even in something seemingly obvious like lactose intolerance, different people are able to tolerate different amounts of lactose-containing foods, and some are even able to build some tolerance over time by having a bit of lactose every day.

In short, in most cases, all foods can fit. I believe that everyone can make peace with all foods and give themselves unconditional permission to eat. There is a catch: having permission to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it; making peace with something doesn’t mean you have to engage with it.

The Power of Choice

You might be thinking, wouldn’t it be easier to just say that you can’t have something? Why bother making peace or giving yourself unconditional permission for something that you’re not going to do anyway?

Unconditional permission gives you the power of choice. Instead of saying, “I can’t have X,” it becomes, “I’m choosing not to eat X because I don’t feel well after eating it.” Or, “I’m choosing not to eat X because I know it makes my blood sugars harder to manage.” Or even, “I know I usually feel bloated after eating X, but I choose to enjoy some right now and I know the bloated feeling will pass.”

In addition to taking the power away from food, giving yourself the power of choice also helps to build body acceptance and trust. Diet culture has conditioned us to turn to meal plans, diet guidelines, lists of foods to choose/avoid, and so-called experts to tell us what and how to eat. Taking back some of that power is essentially saying, “I trust myself/my body to tell me what, how much and when to eat,” another hallmark of intuitive eating.

The Importance of Intention

If after the above explanation you still find yourself hanging onto a dietary restriction or food rule, I invite you to explore the intention behind it. As I briefly mentioned in my post on rejecting the diet mentality, it’s not always necessary to get rid of all rules, as structure can be helpful for some. But if your food rules are coming from a place of fear or a need for control, then perhaps there is room to experiment with loosening your hold a bit.

Isabel Foxen Duke has shared some questions to ask yourself before you eliminate foods for health reasons, and here are a few that I would add:

  • Where is this rule coming from? Does this rule come from an external source, or is it one that you have made, based on your own observation of your symptoms, health status, lifestyle, etc.? Does this rule come from a place of control or compassion?
  • Is this rule absolutely necessary? As mentioned above, very few medical conditions require complete abstinence from a food. Is this one of the rare cases where you need to stop eating something entirely, or is there some wiggle room?
  • What does having this rule in your life mean to you? 
  • What would letting go of the rule make possible? 

(Totally stole the last two from my narrative therapist.)

Note that these questions are not meant to push you toward eating a food or breaking/letting go of a rule. They are simply prompts to help you create space and tune in to ask yourself what you really need.

Have you, or are you in the progress of, making peace with food? What are some of the strategies that have helped you? If you are struggling to make peace with food, are there some foods that you are finding more difficult to make peace with? Why? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

4 Comments

  • Kate on Aug 27, 2018 Reply

    Wow,

    Vincci, I have been reading your blog without blinking for hours.

    I have struggled with weight all my life, and have always been very big. My eating is incredibly disordered. After eight straight years in DoughnutLand, I’ve ended up in DiabetesLand instead. One of my aunts died of diabeties complications in her early 60s. With me in my mid-30s, that fate seems really scary and really possible, and I reacted to be diagnosis by being VERY restrictive with my eating. I’m completely off all simple and most complex carbs. I have a very supportive spouse who’s been doing it with me, and I really enjoy a lot of diabetes-friendly foods (cauliflower is a fave!) so it hasn’t been that hard… yet.

    But it wasn’t hard when I lost 100 pounds in my mid-20s, either. I felt good, at peace with my choices, and my health really was better. It was easy and effortless right up until the day my favourite uncle was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I rebounded back into my old habits and ended up 100 pounds fatter than I was before I started the change.

    I’m terrified it’s going to happen again.

    My first diabetes dietician appointment today left me cold, and I came home and started researching other ways of looking at diabetes management and weight loss. I came across your blog and I just haven’t stopped reading. I love the idea of HAES. I love the idea of intuitive eating. I don’t have any idea how to apply it to my life.

    I *FEEL* like I’m following some form of intuitive eating. I *DO* give myself permission to eat pasta, and I FEEL like I’m simply CHOOSING not to because it doesn’t seem worth the blood sugars. But I felt this way before, too, when I was 25 and lost one hundred points and then gained 200 back. I keep seeing my aunt in her hospital bed with no legs and being scared I’ll end up where she was.

  • Beva Dudiak on Jul 19, 2018 Reply

    I’m having trouble making peace with Nutella. A few months back I fell into a clinical depression and all I wanted to eat was Nutella. I was having it sometimes 3 times a day as my meal. I was trying to honour my body and give it what it was asking for so for a couple of weeks I ate an awful lot of nutella. I always make sure I have it on hand. The issue lies in the fact that now I haven’t seemed to lose my desire for excessive amounts of the stuff. I thought if I allowed it unconditionally I would stop craving it. I have it every single night for my bedtime snack. Will I ever get tired of it? I know it’s not very nutritious and it’s not the best for my diabetes. But I don’t want to restrict. So I have it. Am I doing something wrong? It’s going on 3 months now. Help!

    • Vincci Tsui on Jul 19, 2018 Reply

      Hi Beva,

      This is such a good question, so thank you so much for bringing it up. One of the most common misconceptions about habituation (and one that I believed myself) is that the goal is to “eat so much of it that you get sick of it”. As you’re probably recognizing right now with Nutella, that is not the case – you might always love Nutella, and that’s OK! What habituation is more about is taking away some of Nutella’s emotional power, and bringing it on the same moral plane as any other food, like rice or broccoli.

      I’m guessing since your Nutella craving kicked in around the time when you were in a really low mood, you probably associate it as a sort of comfort or treat. Maybe there are some happy memories that you associate with it. Nutella also takes no effort to prepare, so that might be a part of it too. It might be worthwhile to reflect on what Nutella sort of represents for you, and figure out whether there’s something else that can also “scratch that itch”

      Another thought I have is perhaps you’re not giving yourself unconditional permission – I’m sort of seeing a “condition” between the lines. “I can eat as much Nutella as I want, but only if I eventually get tired of it.” or “I can have Nutella every single night for my bedtime snack… but something’s wrong with me if I have or want any more.” What would it feel like to really believe that you can have as much Nutella as you want, whenever you want?

      Finally, I will also say that perhaps you are doing everything right and this is just your body’s way of trying to get better and really “test” that unconditional permission. It is normal for it to take months, even years to become an intuitive eater. Have patience – you are on the right track.

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