What does Unconditional Permission to Eat Actually Mean?
It means that we are willing to eat when hungry and not trying to “stave off hunger”. It means not feeling that we have to “earn” food. It means that we don’t categorize food as good vs bad, healthy vs unhealthy, clean vs junk. Instead, we recognize that all foods play a role in nourishing us, that food is just food and doesn’t have a moral value.
This process is based on the “Theory of Habituation”
Theory of Habituation
Theory of habituation suggests that when we stop seeing certain foods as “bad” and start to see them neutrally, they lose the urgency and intensity that they once held over us. The more we are exposed to a certain food, the more the desire to eat the food deminishes.
For example, in one study women were given Mac n cheese every day for a week. By the end of the week, the women ate much less than they did at the start (1). Makes sense right – if you’re always allowed to eat a food it’s less exciting?
Unconditional permission to eat reduces our feeling of deprivation around food, and our likelihood to binge and feel food guilt. One study stated that
“People who allow themselves to eat unconditionally are less likely to overindulge in food, engage in binge eating, and experience guilt when eating” (2)
It’s useful to note that the overall goal here isn’t to eat so much chocolate that we never want chocolate again. We’re not trying to tire out on certain foods. It’s just to take chocolate off the forbidden fruit pedestal so that we can crave it, eat enough to feel satisfied and move on with our day without food guilt.
Start slow with one food
Make a list of the foods you try to restrict or feel guilty after eating. Choose one food from that list and allow yourself to eat it. During eating, listen to your hunger and fullness and be present with how the food tastes. Allow yourself to eat as much of that food as you need to feel satisfied.
Remind yourself that you can have that food WHENEVER you want. Repeat this process, as many times as you need to reach that habituation and not feel guilt or out of control around this food.
1 Epstein et al, Long-term habituation to food in obese and nonobese women
2. Polivyet al, Distress and eating: Why do dietets overeat?