Habituation: The reason why you can eat whatever you want.
October 26th, 2019 by Sara Upson
I took my daughter to see a plastic surgeon. That sounds like a shameful secret confession, but it’s not!
She was six months old and was born with a few skin tags on her face that needed to be removed. We consulted with several different doctors about removal and a plastic surgeon was one of them. (They didn’t end up performing the surgery though.)
When we walked into the plastic surgeons office I went up to the front desk, checked in and asked for the paperwork. You know- normal doctor office stuff. As I was returning the paperwork the girl behind the desk looked at it and said- “Oh I thought the appointment was for you, I didn’t realize it was for your baby.” (Real nice.)
Then as I was standing their waiting I got to listen to the office conversation. “Can you imagine if calories didn’t count? What would you eat? I’d eat everything. Cake, doughnuts, cookies, chips…” To which the other girl responded, “me too.”
All I could think was- Even if calories didn’t count- my eating would be exactly the same. I eat what I want, when I want, because of Intuitive Eating.**
Most people automatically believe that if they ate what they wanted they’d be eating cake, cookies, candy, doughnuts, chips, etc all the time and nothing else. Essentially the same kind of thinking the office staff had if calories didn’t count.
The problem with this thinking though is it’s not reality. Now I’m sure someone will immediately tell me that they’ve experienced this before- where they gave themselves permission to eat but never stopped. And that’s true. The problem is- you didn’t do it long enough.
I know it sounds crazy, but when you give yourself permission to eat several things happen:
1. Food and eating are super exciting- you may rebel- you’ll eat all the things
First- you get really excited. It’s like someone’s taken your shackles off and you can finally experience life. You can eat what you want when you want and it’s so exciting. Like Mel Gibson in Braveheart when he shouts “FREEDOM!”
Of course in this phase you’re going to eat all the things that you wanted to eat but wouldn’t allow yourself to eat when you were dieting. You may feel like you’re rebelling. You may feel exhilarated that you can have anything and you allow yourself- give yourself permission to do so.
This phase (also called exploration) can last quite some time and varies person to person. I find that the more you engage in pseudo-permission (allowing yourself to eat the foods but in your head telling yourself you shouldn’t have it and that you’re bad, etc) the longer it takes.
2. Food and eating become less exciting- food is still enjoyable and you begin figuring out what you really like and want.
Then as you move through the exploration phase you’ll find that your tastes may change. Some foods you thought you loved, you won’t like any more or they’re just okay. Some foods that you thought you didn’t like- you’ll love.
When you give yourself permission to eat foods you can actually taste them instead of just beating yourself up about eating the foods in the first place. It turns out that when food is served without a side of guilt you can actually taste and enjoy the food more.
Over time, as you begin to pay more attention to the tastes and textures that you like you’ll discover that eating becomes more varied. You won’t always want cakes, cookies, candy, chips anymore. You’ll still want them, just not all the time (like you initially thought).
3. Food and eating are not so exciting- food becomes just food.
My clients are often surprised when they have to throw away freezer burned ice cream or stale chips. When they don’t finish cookies or a cake. When they go the their favorite restaurant and want something different. They couldn’t believe that they would EVER be able keep “forbidden” foods in the house and leave them there.
This, though, is the power of permission and habituation. Permission is allowing yourself to eat what you want when you want it. It’s that straightforward. And it also has some nuance to it- like working towards listening and connecting with your body BUT if you’re wanting a food you can always have it.
Habituation is when you tire of eating the same kind of food (even cake, candy, cookies, chips, hamburgers or fill in the blank of your favorite food.)
Research shows that the more you’re exposed to a certain food, the less appealing it becomes. Habituation isn’t just limited to food though and sometimes it’s easier to think of it that way first.
Habituation happens with lots of things in life. Remember when your heart used to skip a beat when you saw your significant other? Overtime that fades. Habituation also happens with a new car, a new home, clothes, bags, shoes, accessories, toys, computers, a new haircut, perfume, a job, people. Essentially everything.
In the beginning it starts off soo exciting and special and it’s all you can think about. But over time- the specialness begins to fade. That new bag you had to have- now it’s in the back of your closet and you can’t even find it.
Believe it or not- the same thing happens with food. It may be hard to believe that you won’t just eat a whole pan of brownies or a whole bag of candy all at one time. But it’s true. (I couldn’t believe it for myself either until I lived it.)
Over time though- when you give yourself full permission to eat- to eat what you want- then your eating balances. Because you can have what you want- you won’t just eat the foods you feel most out of control with. But you’ll worry that you will.
And remember- the first part of giving yourself permission means that you’ll be excited and you will dive into those foods. This is the process of habituation. You have to eat the foods to get tired of eating them. Yes, it can be scary. Yes, it can take awhile. Yes you might eat those foods a lot. Yes, it might impact your body.
The focus is on the bigger picture- that as you have permission to eat foods, you become habituated with food, and food just becomes food. It really does balance itself out- and everyone (stuck in diet culture) will then wonder why you have so much will power (eye roll) or comment on how good your being (angry face). The reality is- it’s none of that. You just don’t want the food.
I had a client describe it like this- in the beginning it was like so exciting- “I can have anything!” Then as she progressed through the process it became- so boring- “I can have anything.”
This process is how you get to the place where your eating would be the same whether or not calories counted. Because you’re not eating for calories (or dieting). You’re responding to your body.
It’s how eating what you want improves your health! I know it seems unbelievable, but it’s true!
Check out the book Intuitive Eating for more information. And check out my free guide for tips on How To Become A Diet Culture Dropout.
**I do want to acknowledge the inherent privilege in intuitive eating. That I can afford food, generally eat what I want when I want, and the reality that I was able to work with a therapist and dietitian to get to this point. I also want to acknowledge that I have a significant amount of thin privilege.