One of the main battles in overcoming overeating is to stop thinking of some foods as "good" and others as "bad." Food is nourishment and hunger is a healthy, involuntary sensation just like feeling cold or tired, the thinking goes.
But like so many people with a history of dieting, I’ve struggled with knowing when I'm truly hungry, and I've had a hard time not judging myself harshly if I pass up a so-called "good" or healthy food in favor of something I've categorized as "bad," like an indulgent dessert. That puts me in a cycle of disordered eating, one I've dealt with for much of my adult life.
To finally address my overeating issues, I began seeing New York City psychotherapist Alexis Conason. Over two years in private and group therapy, I learned about mindful eating, which she describes as "eating what you want when you want it." Sounds so simple, but for most people, this is pretty revolutionary. We spend so much time depriving and judging ourselves, and one of the ironies of this is that even if you don’t struggle with your weight, food judgments are a constant yet ever-changing part of our culture.
Gluten, salt, animal products, sugar, carbs—we are barraged by conflicting information that flip-flops through the years. But by far the most painful to live with are the judgments we place on ourselves. Denying yourself food that your body is craving will never help you maintain a healthy weight long-term. In fact, it will almost always set you up for disordered eating, as I've learned the hard way.
Dr. Conason helped me understand why. “When we believe that our food will be restricted, we have a 'now or never' mentality, thinking this is our one opportunity to eat this food, so we should eat as much as we can in this moment because we’ll never allow ourselves to have it again,” she says. One of the many issues with this is that we will eat it again…and probably again after that. We hate ourselves not only for eating it, but for failing.
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Her advice to break this cycle? She recommends stocking your kitchen with as much "bad" or unhealthy food as you want—actually more than you think that you could eat at any one time—and then making sure to always keep your stash of it replenished. “When we truly believe that food won’t be restricted, the food usually loses its emotional power. Over time, we don’t feel compelled to eat all the cartons of ice cream in our freezer in one sitting because we trust that there will always ice cream in our freezer, and we can have more when we want it.”
When she suggested this to me, I thought it was bananas. The logic behind it made sense, but I didn’t trust myself remotely. If I had every “bad” food in the house at once, I would never leave, I thought. I told my husband about it though, and he thought I should try it out—and one night came home from the market with six boxes of brownie mix.
I remember my nervous laughter that turned into a cackle when I saw those boxes of brownie mix. I have tried many things to gain control over my eating, but this had to be the craziest. Then after I stopped laughing and thought about it, I suddenly felt liberated. I think this applies to anyone, whether they’ve struggled with their weight or not: Just imagine for a minute how it would feel to be able to eat anything you wanted, as much of it, whenever you wanted. It’s an almost unthinkable circumstance for most people.
This sense of freedom turned out to be life-changing. Okay, I tore through the first few boxes in a matter of days, making and eating batches of delicious brownies. But after the second box, the idea of eating brownies somehow truly became less exciting, less seductive. I realized how I was imprisoning myself with this idea of what I could and could not eat; how making some foods off-limits gave them a power over me. The worst part was that after years of this pattern of behavior, I was still fat. It was all a waste of energy.
Conason warns that allowing yourself to have whatever you want and managing to resist consuming it all immediately is not something that happens overnight. “It’s a process—you may eat through your whole stock of ice cream the first night. This isn’t indication that you have failed or further evidence that you can’t be trusted around ice cream. It is just part of the process of recovering from diet culture," she explains.
"If we stick with it, eventually one day—maybe the following day, maybe a week from then, maybe a month from then, but at some point, we realize that we don’t want any more ice cream right now, and we can have more later and the food loses its power,” she adds.
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It took about six months for this to happen to me, to accept that I could eat whatever I wanted and not give in to the compulsion to consume everything in one sitting. This freedom from a cycle of binging and depriving myself helped lead me to a light bulb moment: I came to realize that just because I can eat whatever I want doesn’t mean I should.
The key to this is not that I should or shouldn’t eat something because of calories or watching my weight. I “should” or “shouldn’t” from a self-care perspective. Taking away the power foods had over me helped me realize that I don’t feel well after I binge eat unhealthy foods—physically or mentally. If I don't like the way I feel after consuming them, I shouldn't eat them.
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With this in mind, I'm now choosing my well-being over a momentary sugar rush. To be clear, sometimes I still choose the sugar high. I’m still deep in my process, as Dr. Conason calls it. But after years of viewing certain beloved foods as forbidden, I’ve been able to indulge when I want, without thinking about it obsessively beforehand or regretting it after.
Cutting myself off from foods I wanted never made me skinny—it only made me miserable. Proving to myself that I can eat whatever I want has helped me take the power back and make genuine, mindful decisions that make me feel healthy both physically and mentally.