When you leave the world of dieting it can be quite daunting to know how to decide what to eat. When I work with clients to help them take the leap from dieting and attempts at control (of food intake and weight) into the realm of trusting their own bodies to guide them, there’s often a sense of overwhelm. Following a diet or a bunch of rules someone else made up, can seem a lot more simple (even though it’s incredibly fricking hard and unsustainable!).

We were all born knowing what, when and how much to eat. It’s innate. Sadly, some of the people I work with have no memory of an uncomplicated relationship with food or their bodies so they have nothing to draw on. Since they were young children, their bodies were shamed and their food controlled by adults. Others are a bit luckier. They only fell prey to diet culture later on and can at least remember a time when food was just food and they didn’t really think about their bodies – unless they got hurt, were ill or learning a new skill.

So how do we get back to that innocent and untroubled way of relating to food and our bodies?

In short – with intention, attention, practice and patience.

Step 1: Give yourself unconditional permission to eat

In truth, probably before or at least alongside this step, needs to come an understanding about how your problems with food and your body are deeply rooted in diet culture, beauty culture, patriarchy and capitalism-run-amok – how it isn’t and never was your body that was the problem: it is and was the cultural problems of fatphobia, healthism and neo-liberalism. I’m not addressing these here because this blog is about you, faced with food and making decisions about what to eat in the here-and-now.

Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat means ‘legalising’ all foods. It means removing the value judgements from food as good or bad; healthy or unhealthy. The only morality in food is the unequal access to it – not the merits of the food itself. No uncontaminated food in moderate quantities is going to have the kind of impact on your health that the health gurus tell you it will.

When people first start to give themselves unconditional permission to eat whatever they want, they often do so in the absence of bodily signals of hunger, fullness and satisfaction. That’s OK. When you’re at long last reclaiming body autonomy and letting go of the diet mentality, it can feel like you’ve just got out of jail. Letting go of the restrictions can mean a swing of the pendulum into eating more than your body might need.

When you can truly, mentally, emotionally and physically give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want (learn more about this concept here), then at some point, you’ll start to see all foods as food. An apple will be emotionally equal to a biscuit. You’ll choose what you genuinely feel like eating without judgement, and move on with your day.

At this point, my clients usually say to me – ‘ok, I’m not bingeing anymore. But I’m not feeling that great. I’m ready to start eating with more attunement to what my body wants.’

At this point, we start to move to the next step. I suggest to my clients to enquire with themselves whenever they feel the urge to eat – Am I hungry?

Step 2: Am I hungry?

For someone who doesn’t have a problematic relationship with food, this may seem like a strange question to ask oneself. Why would you be thinking of eating if you’re not hungry, right? The thing is there are often lots of other reasons why we might eat. We eat as a way to handle emotions; as a reaction to dieting, thoughts about dieting, or bad body image; for environmental reasons – like, the food is there, it smells good, it’s lunchtime, everyone else is eating; or to attempt to meet a variety of other human needs. It’s never wrong to choose to eat when you’re not physically hungry – and – if what we want is to eat with attunement to our body’s signals most of the time, then knowing if you’re hungry matters!

Once you know whether you’re hungry, there are a few questions you can ask yourself. For example, how hungry are you? Are you hungry enough for a meal, or do you need a snack? Then you can ask yourself what sorts of tastes, textures and temperature would be most satisfying to you at this moment: sweet, sour, salty, savoury or bitter? Would you prefer something warm, hot or cold? Something fresh and raw, or cooked? Something crunchy or smooth?

Step 3: How do I want to feel later?

This is something we often forget – to consider how what we eat now might affect us later. Will it give you enough energy to get you through the next few hours? Do you have a meeting where being focused is important? What sorts of foods help you with that? What hinders your concentration (if any)? Do you get headaches or migraines? Do any foods trigger that? Are you going to bed soon – if so, are there any foods that might give you indigestion and disturb your sleep or keep you from falling asleep? Do you have any health conditions that are exacerbated by or supported by certain foods?

This line of questioning is not to remove your unconditional permission to eat what you want! It’s to help you make decisions you’re happy with! You might well decide that you’re willing to accept the consequences of certain food choices on how you feel later – that’s fine!

Step 4: What do I have available?

This is where you try to marry up all of the above. What is accessible to you that will get the job done in as satisfying a way as possible?

What do I do if I’m not hungry?

Well, you have two choices: to eat or not to eat. It’s never wrong to choose to eat.

However, if what you want is to explore your relationship with food and to learn to meet your non-physical-hunger needs in ways that will more appropriately meet them, then it’s worthwhile spending a little time decoding your urge for food.

A free handy tool for you!

If you’d like the essence of this whole blog (except the first bit on unconditional permission to eat) on one printable sheet, download it here :).

I’d love to know if you found this and the aide-memoir helpful. Please send me an email and let me know!