Let’s get real about one of the most vilified types of foods: sweets.
The biggest issue I see my clients (and family and friends) struggle with when it comes to their relationship with food boils down to food freedom. At the root of this issue is passing judgment on foods. Such as, kale is “good” and donuts are “bad.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say they were “weak,” “naughty” or “bad” for eating X food. Or turned down dessert because they were “trying to be good.” This good/bad dichotomy of food, which is not limited to sweets, runs rampant in our culture and is quite damaging.
The more something is restricted, the more it is desired. The more you tell yourself you can’t eat cake, the more intense your sugar cravings become. On the other hand, if your kitchen had a scrumptious chocolate cake in it at all times, you’d likely lose much of your desire for cake.
Some people have foods they say they can’t allow in the house. “I have no self-control and I’ll eat it all,” they say. But what if the issue isn’t a lack of self-control, but too much? What if instead of trying to dictate what and how much we eat, we simply let our bodies decide? What if we ate what felt good? This concept is pretty scary to some people – they think they’ll eat “bad” foods with reckless abandon and never eat a vegetable again. They have no trust in their bodies to tell them what and how much to eat.
There’s a whole body of research investigating the outcomes of dieting and restrictive eating. Dieting is associated with poor health outcomes, such as increased risk for osteoporosis and cardiometabolic diseases. It also is more predictive of weight cycling and weight gain than weight loss. Not to mention the psychological stress and ensuing physiological outcomes, such as increased cortisol production.
This is why I don’t offer diets, meal plans or weight loss prescriptions to my clients.
On the flip side, intuitive eating is associated with better nutrient intake and body image and less disordered eating behaviors. Additionally, studies find that when people eat intuitively, they are not more likely to gain weight.
When we truly are in tune with our bodies and eat to feel good, the chances of overeating are less than when we’re yo-yo dieting. Think of how you feel when you’ve overeaten. Not good. Uncomfortable, bloated and perhaps even nauseous. So why do we do it?
This issue often is rooted in childhood, when we are taught that sweets are something to be “earned” and are so special that we only get them on holidays or if we’ve done something very good. On the contrary, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein foods are items that must be eaten first before dessert may be eaten. They may be used as a bargaining chip to get to dessert. Or, children may be taught to ignore their physical fullness cues and clean their plates.
The way our parents and society holds sweets up on a pedestal teaches us from a very young age that sweets are something we should strongly desire yet only get sparingly. Our bodies are hardwired to enjoy sugar, as it is a valuable source of energy – trying to fight natural instincts with restriction is illogical and unproductive.
When something sparse is offered, we gobble it up, regardless of if we’re truly hungry for it. Both real and perceived food scarcity impacts our eating behaviors.
Multiple people have shared childhood stories with me about visiting a friend’s house stocked with all the best “junk food” that their parents wouldn’t allow. They remember bingeing on these forbidden foods and noticed how their friends seem oddly disinterested. Because it was normal to have a house filled with a wide variety of food options, the friends didn’t seem to be as obsessed with the treat foods as the children who weren’t allowed to have them. I definitely remember having experiences like this.
Or how about the “last supper” mentality that dieters find themselves in on the eve of beginning a new diet – binge city. It’s the “I won’t be able to eat cookies anymore so I’m going to eat this entire package right now” concept.
How do we work around this? Food freedom. This may seem counter-intuitive to some, but by making peace with food, we’re able to obsess less and build trust in our bodies.
Ellyn Satter, MS, RDN, MSSW, an eating and feeding expert, suggests parents offer dessert to children with dinner, along with all of the other food groups. Giving children freedom to choose how much to eat and which foods (from the choices you offer), allows them the opportunity to eat the amount they need. By putting all foods on a level playing field, there are no arguments of what must be eaten first, and dessert is no more special than broccoli. We all are born intuitive eaters, and healthy children naturally will eat a balanced, adequate diet when given the chance.
Try keeping emphasis off food during parties and celebrations. Use non-food rewards such as stickers, toys and extra play time. The less special we make sweets, the less of an issue they become. Parents should refrain from making comments about their own or their children’s food choices and weight.
For adults, we work on giving ourselves unconditional permission to eat without passing judgment. This is challenging. Coming at it from a neutral place of observation is helpful. For instance, most days I have a small piece of dark chocolate after lunch. Some days I have no chocolate. One day last week, I had 2 pieces. I wasn’t satisfied with the first piece so I had another. Then I was satisfied. Rather than freaking out about eating more than usual, I recognized that I wanted more, ate more, and that was that. My eating later in the day and the following days was not thrown off by this extra piece of chocolate. My workouts didn’t change either.
The same goes for passing on food – if you’re at a birthday party and cake doesn’t sound appealing, decline a piece of birthday cake. No judgment, and certainly no congratulations for “resisting” a treat. When you give yourself unconditional permission to eat, you know that you can make or get a piece of cake whenever you please.
There are far more important things in life deserving of our attention and energy than obsessing over food. As much as I promote conscious consumerism, self-care is always the foundation.
If you’re struggling with your relationship to food, consider working with a registered dietitian nutritionist who has experience with intuitive eating. I offer private coaching and help clients learn to listen to their bodies, discover what feels good and how to eat without judgment.
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