8 Apr 2021
Destructive Food Thoughts
8 Apr 2021
When I work with clients who are struggling to eat healthy, I begin by determining the root cause behind their struggles. While some people are in need of education about nutrition and meal planning, I find that many clients have a decent knowledge base in nutrition. Where the issue tends to lie is taking the steps to put nutrition knowledge into practice. One of the most common barriers to implementing recommendations is our destructive food thoughts.
You might think, “How can that be? My thoughts are harmless.” When people want to change their lifestyle, they usually focus on their behaviours. But it’s our thoughts that ultimately decide our behaviours. Our minds have to think about an action (even if it’s just for a fraction of a second) before we can do it. So, if we can change our thoughts, we can change our behaviours.
How can you change your thoughts?
The first step is to increase your awareness. You need to pay attention to what thoughts you’re having. And you need to evaluate whether they are helpful or unhelpful thoughts. I like to use the Intuitive Eating approach to help my clients label their thoughts about food. Our thoughts can be classified as different types of inner voices.
Within the Intuitive Eating framework, destructive food thoughts that prevent us from eating healthy fall into one of three inner voice categories: the Food Police, the Nutrition Informant, and the Diet Rebel. In contrast, the Food Anthropologist, the Nurturer, and the Nutrition Ally are all inner voices that empower us to make healthy choices. By getting my clients to identify their destructive food voices, they can understand what exactly is getting in their way of accomplishing their goals. When using certain strategies to banish these thoughts, they can eliminate the obstacles that were impeding their progress. By helping them cultivate empowering food voices, my clients are able to discover the internal motivation they need to change their behaviours and achieve wellness.
Perhaps you’re not sold on this concept of food voices and how they affect our behaviours. So let me explain each food voice and their impact. In this post, I’ll talk about the destructive food voices. We’ll explore the empowering food voices in my next post.
Distructive Food Voices
The Food Police
The Food Police is the loudest destructive inner voice and has the greatest impact on our eating decisions. This food voice develops in our minds as a result of diet culture and diet rules. It gets stronger and stronger as we hear and see diet messaging from friends, family, social media, magazines, TV, etc. The Food Police takes the diet rules it was built on and uses them to tell us if we are “good” or “bad” based on what we eat. The Food Police doesn’t help us – it only judges us. It makes us worry about whether we’re eating the right food or not. And it makes us feel guilty when we break it’s rules.
Here are some examples of things the Food Police might say to you:
- I’m so bad for eating that slice of cake at lunch! I’ll make up for it by eating less for dinner tonight.
- I ate pizza last night and I know I’ve gained 5 pounds from it!
- Better not eat that bagel – too many carbs.
- If I eat at night I’ll gain weight.
- I didn’t exercise today – I don’t deserve a snack.
- I ate too much (even if you ate to the point of comfortable fullness).
Though the Food Police tries to keep us in line, it ends up causing us to make unhealthy eating choices. For instance, let’s say the Food Police tells you that breakfast has to be a light, carb-free meal. So you decide to eat just 2 hard-boiled eggs for your first meal of the day. The Food Police approves of your choice – you’re being “good”. But then, by mid-morning your stomach is growling like crazy and you’re craving carbs. So you grab a candy bar for a snack.
But eating a candy bar breaks the food rule to not eat sugary junk food. And the Food Police is right on top of your rule violation, making you feel guilty. This inner voice expects you to make up for your “mistake”. “Now you have to skip lunch,” it says to you. Skipping lunch might temporarily ease your guilt for being “bad”, but then by the time dinner rolls around, you’re starving.
Not eating enough throughout the day has left you feeling tired and frustrated. You just need a quick meal. So you order a pizza. But rather than eating a couple slices, you finish off the whole pizza. Partly because you’re so hungry, and partly because you feel like you’ll never live up to the Food Police’s expectations. It’s scenarios like this that explain why the Food Police actually causes us to overeat and to choose less-nutritious foods.
The harsh criticism of the Food Police makes you doubt your ability to eat healthy. It puts you at war with food and your body. But when you identify the presence of the Food Police in your thoughts, you can begin challenging it and decreasing the power it has over you. As this voice fades, you’ll become more connected to your body’s hunger and fullness signals. It will become easier to choose the foods that will satisfy you and to stop eating when you’re at a comfortable level of fullness. Removing guilt from eating and getting in touch with your body’s signals is what will help you achieve your goals!
The Nutrition Informant
The Nutrition Informant is also a destructive inner voice, but it’s more sneaky than the Food Police. The Food Police makes overt comments to us to make us feel guilt and shame about what we eat. While the Nutrition Informant also makes us feel bad about ourselves, it does so by using nutrition facts. A portion of what it tells us is true, but diet messages are also mixed into this voice to keep us in line with diet culture. This inner voice uses nutrition to inform us of whether we’re being “good” or “bad”. But it isn’t really helping us to eat healthier.
To show you what I mean, here are some examples of comments from the Nutrition Informant:
- Bread has a lot of carbs (true), so eating it will make me put on weight (diet message).
- Cheese is rich in fats (true), which means cheese will make me fat (diet message).
- Plant-based foods are healthy (true), so I should go vegan to lose weight (diet message).
- Those cookies I ate were high in sugar (true) – I’d better work out extra hard tonight to burn it off (diet message).
The Nutrition Informant uses nutrition as a weapon to get us to diet or “eat clean”. It doesn’t help us to make eating decisions that will nurture our bodies. It tells us that we have to be restrictive if we want to get healthy.
This food voice does the opposite of helping us get healthy. Here’s an example: You’re working from home and you’re hungry for an afternoon snack. You check what you have for snack foods in your kitchen. You have some bagels in the pantry and in the fridge you’ve got cheese slices and carrot sticks. The Nutrition Informant says, “Bagels have lots of carbs and cheese has lots of fat – I shouldn’t eat those. But veggies are very nutritious; I should only eat raw vegetables for snack if I want to be healthy”.
So you just have the carrot sticks for snack. What the Nutrition Informant didn’t tell you is we need carbs to fuel ourselves throughout the day and fat keeps us full for longer. Though the carrot sticks might fill you up initially, on their own they have little “staying power”. That’s why, by dinner time, you’re ravenous. Which makes overeating much more likely to happen.
As a dietitian, I love teaching my clients about nutrition. But facts about nutrition should be used to empower you to make healthy choices. They shouldn’t be twisted to make you feel bad about yourself. Don’t let the Nutrition Informant get in the way of reaching health and wellness!
The Diet Rebel
The Diet Rebel is the angry inner voice that rebels against diet culture. It’s sick of being told what to do. It just wants to do the opposite of what diet messages are saying.
The Diet Rebel says things like:
- You’re telling me that I shouldn’t eat cookies? Well maybe I’ll eat the whole box!
- You’ll never get me to enjoy vegetables.
- I’ll never be skinny so what’s the point of eating healthy?
- How dare they criticize me for keeping chips in my pantry? I can’t wait until they’re gone so I can eat as many chips as I want!
While I’m all for raging against diet culture, the Diet Rebel is more destructive than helpful. This food voice prioritizes sticking it to diet culture, but doesn’t enable you to make eating decisions that will make your body feel good. It’s angry determination leads us to choose foods that don’t contribute to our nutrition needs. And it might cause repeated episodes of binge eating. However, once you’ve banished the Food Police, this rebellious voice can be transformed into an ally. The Rebel Ally will help you set boundaries with others so you can be free to make your own eating choices, based on what suits you best.
Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach. New York: St. Martin’s Essentials. pp 125 – 132.
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