For those who are in a perpetual cycle of dieting and food restriction, fear and mistrust has overshadowed your ability to enjoy the experience. Relearn how to trust yourself, and love food again.
“I don’t trust myself around that food.”
If this is something you find yourself saying regularly or if you’ve ever even had that thought, know that you are not alone. This is a sentiment that many people express, feeling deep shame and guilt around their struggles with food.
Many people often completely avoid the food they feel out of control with. It makes sense at first glance, but if we’re being honest about what restriction ends up looking like, it’s usually the opposite of what you’re going for.
Complete restriction usually leads to lack of control and feeling deprived — perhaps even bingeing.
However, know that there is hope – even if you feel your struggles with food are so deeply ingrained that there’s no chance for peace. In fact, there are things you can do to feel less chaotic and out of control around food.
So how can you work smarter to develop a balanced, mentally healthy relationship with food if you’ve struggled in the past?
It’s all about creating new experiences and associations with those foods.
Here are four simple steps to generate positive encounters with foods or situations you’ve previously struggled with.
STEP 1: IDENTIFY
Identify a food or situation you view as problematic that you’d like to be able to enjoy periodically, without guilt. This is probably something that’s easy to do and you likely already have the food(s) in mind.
For example, you may have had the experience of eating way too many chocolate chip cookies when they’re in the house. Each time you’ve baked cookies, you’ve found yourself completely sick from eating too much dough and then on top of that, too many warm, fresh cookies.
You know you’ve had too much not because of diet culture’s rules, but because of the cues your body gives you of feeling sick. Every time you’ve baked cookies, you’ve ended up with a stomach ache, and you’ve regretted making them in the first place. This has led you to tell yourself you will never do that again.
STEP 2: VISUALIZE
Sit down and visualize a positive experience with this food. Think about what thoughts will arise as you navigate this food or situation, and imagine yourself comfortably moving through this situation with ease. Imagine where you’ll struggle and visualize yourself confidently navigating it.
For example, Imagine yourself on a rainy day where you decide you’d like to make cookies. Imagine yourself combining the ingredients to make dough. See yourself enjoying the process and taking in the experience.
Think about how you will experience urges to sneak, binge or overeat the dough, but imagine yourself eating an amount that’s tasty and fun, and not so much that you’re sick. Contemplate how you will make a different choice and listen to your body’s cues of when to stop. Then, imagine those warm, freshly baked cookies, and think about how you will confidently and positively enjoy them. Now, think of how it will feel in your body to enjoy some dough and a warm cookie without the typically stuffed, too-full, sick feeling you typically have when you make chocolate chip cookies.
STEP 3: ACT
Act out what you’ve visualized. Now is the time to create a positive experience to associate with a food that you’ve struggled with before. As much as possible, clear your life of potential triggers even if it’s for the half hour you’re doing this exercise. Put aside the fears, worries, past experiences, emotions from the day and just make a positive experience happen.
This doesn’t need to be perfect, so don’t expect it to go exactly the way you imagined. But, allow the visualization to help you as you’re navigating real-life choices and thoughts that come up as you expose yourself to this food or situation.
STEP 4: REFLECT
Reflect on the experience by writing in a journal, talking with a loved one, telling your therapist or dietitian, or sitting quietly and reflecting to yourself. There is real value in this step, so don’t skip it!
Reflecting on the experience helps you learn from anything that you deem as less than ideal from the experience. It also helps you solidify the things that went well for you, and helps you view the new experience with a previously problematic situation in a different light.
This entire process aids in neuroplasticity — a biological process in which the brain has the power to adapt, change, learn, and overcome to break through barriers/
Once you’ve had a positive experience with something you’ve previously struggled with, you will now have the confidence in yourself for the next time.
Rather than feeling like the ending has already been decided before it’s even begun, you now have a new pathway in your brain that says you are capable of enjoying cookies without going completely overboard. You will have a real experience to draw from that reminds you that you are capable of making different choices. There is so much power in building new connections in your brain by having positive experiences, especially when it comes to food.
It’s easy to believe that you can’t coexist around your favorite foods, but there is hope. It’s all about creating new experiences and associations with that food. Try it, and soon you’ll find yourself truly enjoying the experience and gaining new confidence in your ability to practice permission with food.
Life’s too short to live in fear.
Adapted from the original article.
HEADER IMAGE: EMILY WILSON
Paige Smathers, RDN, CD is a nutrition therapist based in Salt Lake City who helps individuals find positive ways to overcome struggles they experience with food and body image. She specializes in practical, down-to-earth solutions for those in eating disorder recovery and chronic dieting through a weight-neutral positive approach. Paige hosts the popular Nutrition Matters Podcast and runs her private practice, Positive Nutrition.