I imagine you’ve had those thoughts – the worry-thoughts that eating a certain thing or eating ‘too much’ of that thing will make you gain weight? My client said this to me when we were having a mindful eating session over breakfast in a restaurant. Why would it be that looking at a menu, you’d be frightened that eating one item on it would result in you gaining weight?

It’s because diet culture tricks us into believing that:

  • being fat is bad
  • fatness = ugliness
  • being fat means you’ll die young
  • being fat is a synonym for being unhealthy
  • it’s impossible to be fat and happy and anyone who appears that way is pretending to themselves and the world
  • being fat is the worst thing a person could be
  • being fat means being lazy, chaotic and emotionally crippled
  • if you’re fat it means you don’t eat any foods that are health-promoting – ever
  • being fat means you clearly don’t care about yourself and that you absolutely cannot also be fit
  • certain foods are bad
  • eating any of these foods will be bad for your health and make you fat
  • that some people just have to deny themselves of certain foods forever to avoid becoming fat
  • your weight is purely a result of the types and quantities of food you put in your mouth and the types and quantity of exercise you do: in other words, your weight is in your control

I’m not going to debunk those diet culture messages here – save to say that every single one of them is not true. Yes, even the last one. With all of those internalised messages about weight coupled with the systemic bias against and prejudice towards people of higher weights, it’s no wonder that my client struggled to give herself permission to eat pancakes for breakfast.

Part of the work I do, is to help my clients understand that their bodies are not a problem to be solved, so that they can let go of pursuing weight loss, learn how to be in a healthier, kinder, more accepting relationship with food and their body, and allow their weight to fall where it does.

These are not easy things to let go of, because as a culture, we attach so much meaning to thinness and our media is awash with cues that prompt us into diet mentality again and again.

So how did I reply to my client’s verbalised fear that eating pancakes would make her fat?

Firstly, I acknowledged her fear of gaining weight and put it into context (meaning, the cultural context of fatphobia).

Then we talked about one of the principles of Intuitive Eating – Make Peace with Food (which I like to call ‘give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want’).

Unconditional permission to eat whatever you want

Unconditional permission to eat is giving yourself permission to have what you want, without guilt. It’s unconditional. I’m going to spell out what that means, not because you’re unintelligent, but because it’s so hard to get this when you’ve been entangled in food guilt and diet mentality for so long. What it means is that there are no conditions on it. Which means you don’t say:

  • ‘I’ll have this now because tomorrow I’ll be good.’
  • ‘I’ll have this now because I’ve been so good today and I deserve it.’
  • ‘I’ll have this now so it’s finished and I won’t have to think about it again.’
  • ‘I’ve earned this because I’ve just spent 2 hours in the gym.’
  • ‘I’ll have it because tomorrow my diet starts/ I’ll start again tomorrow/ I’ll be good tomorrow/ I’m giving up carbs and sugar.’
  • ‘I’ll have this now because I’ve had a tough day.’
  • ‘I’ll have this now because I will spend 2 hours in the gym afterwards to burn it off.’
  • ‘I can’t have this because it’ll make me gain weight.’
  • ‘I can’t have this because it’s unhealthy.’

In other words, there aren’t any things you must or should do before you have the thing in order to earn it, and there’s nothing you should or must do to pay/ make up for having had it. There are also no banned foods!

When you give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want, food loses its power. It just becomes another thing you either eat or don’t eat. It has no hold over you and it loses its magical powers and allure. Once you’ve made peace with all foods, then you are freer to explore whether or not you actually like the food. You might learn you don’t like some of the things you thought you liked quite as much as you’d imagined. You might learn that some foods taste delicious – but if you eat past a certain point, they make you feel a bit ill, sluggish, or bloated – and you might choose to stop just at that point – because you know without a shadow of a doubt that you can have that food again the very next time you want it.

When foods lose their forbidden qualities you are then more empowered to eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re comfortably full and satisfied – and move on with other things in your day and in your life.

Think of all the times you haven’t given yourself unconditional permission to have what you’ve wanted. Perhaps you denied yourself the dessert, the glass of wine, the roast potatoes – and later, the next day or the next week, all you could do was stand in the kitchen eating the forbidden food – as much of it as possible – waaaaayyyy past comfortable fullness and waaaaayyyy past the point of satisfaction. And more often than not, you didn’t stop at the one thing you’d forbidden yourself – you had the whole list of foods you judged to be bad, unhealthy and fattening. Right?

Unconditional permission to eat something doesn’t mean you must eat it! It means you can, without guilt, without provisos. But there’s no have to. There’s no imperative about it. You also have permission not to eat it if you don’t want it.

It’s a choice.

Unconditional permission to eat means that you can genuinely take it, or leave it. Because it will still be there later, or tomorrow, if you feel like having it. Since you won’t be ‘starting from tomorrow,’ you’ll know that you can choose to have it then, if you want it.

What’s important though, is not to use the idea that ‘it’ll still be here later or tomorrow if I want it,‘ as a crafty way of restricting yourself. It really is important to make sure that you do have those previously forbidden foods fairly often, especially at the beginning of this process, so that your deprivation mindset doesn’t easily get set off. As you learn to trust your body more, and your body learns to trust you more (meaning you’re in a more healthy partnership with your body) you will find that stepping into the empowering adult mindset becomes more and more natural.

But we all have our moments! There is no such thing as perfection with food.