"I can't keep ice cream at my house without eating the whole carton." Does this sound like something you may have said or thought before? Maybe you yourself have turned down cookies from a friend or thrown out food from a party simply because you knew you couldn't control yourself around that particular food item. Perhaps you know what it's like to have a plate of cookies in your cupboard and to find yourself going back for thirds, fourths, fifths, etc, even when you're feeling a bit sick. Why do certain foods make us feel out of control, while others are "safe?" Here are three reasons why you may be feeling out of control around food:
1. You're Restricting Food In General
It's not uncommon for diet (or "fitness" - I'm looking at you, Beachbody!) plans to recommend throwing out all the "junk" food from your house so you're not tempted. They tell you that you can't be trusted and will "give in" if these foods are remotely accessible. One of the reasons these diets have to mandate this is that, in a state of energy restriction (i.e. weight loss endeavor), your body thinks it is starving. As a protective measure, it cues you to eat high-energy, high-carbohydrate foods which will most efficiently prevent you from starving. If you're underfeeding yourself, don't expect to feel peaceful around food. Your body won't stop trying to protect you. While you may think you're eating enough, eliminating certain food groups - especially carbohydrates - can cause the same response. You can eat all the salad and chicken you want but, if you don't have adequate carbohydrate coming in to meet your body's various energy needs, you'll absolutely feel out of control around food.
2. You're Not Giving Yourself Unconditional Permission
"Ah," you say, "But even when I buy ice cream and give myself permission to eat it, I still want to eat the whole carton. I never get tired of it, no matter how many times I eat it." There is a huge difference between allowing yourself to eat something and giving yourself permission to eat. Have you found yourself thinking things like, "I'll have some ice cream today, but tomorrow I'll eat better," or eating the ice cream but all the while thinking in the back of your mind about how "bad" you're being. Thoughts like these are signs that, while you're physically eating the ice cream (or whatever food it is for you), you're creating conditions around that food. "If I exercise, then I can eat ice cream," or "If I have a small enough amount, then it's okay." As a result, no matter how many times you eat that food or how sick you are physically from it, you will still find yourself craving it constantly because, at some level, it feels off-limits. When you can eat a food without any guilt or conditions, you are able to enjoy it and move on without feeling like the food is surrounded by a magnetic field that constantly pulls you back in.
3. You Haven't Allowed Time For Food Habituation
Why is it that it's common for us to crave cookies and ice cream but rarely crave a PB&J or something else we eat all the time? Why is it that eating seven bowls of chili in one setting sounds challenging and unpleasant, but eating seven brownies sounds exciting, even tantalizing? While some people would say, "It's because we're addicted to sugar!" it goes deeper than that. Oftentimes, the foods we eat daily lose their excitement because we eat them frequently. We know we can eat them today, tomorrow, next Tuesday, and a year from now. They'll always be there so they don't have a strong pull.
One person who has experienced food habituation told me, "Growing up, we used to have cinnamon rolls every Sunday morning. At first, all of them were getting eaten. But after a year or so, we noticed we were throwing away almost all of them. Everyone was tired of them!" Because this family knew this food would be available often, and because they treated it no differently from other breakfast foods, they lost their taste for this food, even though it is more decadent than other breakfast foods. Now, the family still likes cinnamon rolls, but they don't want them every week.
This is what food habituation and unconditional permission do. They level the playing field among foods, meaning that you can enjoy all of them without feeling out of control around any of them.