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How to Eat What You Want In Moderation: Food Habituation

Oct 05, 2021
Nutella jars

Can’t understand how some people can keep a whole jar of Nutella or pack of cookies in the kitchen without bingeing on it in one day? Jealous of those that even forget they had those goodies in the pantry? Want to be able to trust yourself with your binge foods in the kitchen but just can’t fathom how?

I used to be just like that - envying those that seemed to have such self-control. It’s like they were so unbothered by food when all I could think about was food.

Turns out, they’re not superhuman, and you’re not some out-of-control pig. They have just consciously or without knowing, applied Food Habituation.

After applying this tool consistently, I am now able to enjoy the foods I love ‘in moderation’ (not a term I love but I’ll let it pass this time) without feeling out-of-control. It’s an amazing feeling to feel so calm and self-trusting with typical binge foods in the house.

 

In this post, we’ll talk about:

  • What Food Habituation is
  • How Food Habituation can help you feel more in control with food
  • 6 Top tips to implement Food Habituation successfully

 

Here we go!

 

WHAT IS FOOD HABITUATION - A DEFINITION

Food habituation is a form of learning where repeated exposure to certain foods help decrease your response to them (i.e. eating). Essentially, you’re habituating yourself to these foods that typically elicit a strong emotional/physical response within you. We’re normalising the foods. It explains why you get sick of eating the same leftovers all week and you don’t crave that dish for a long time.

HOW FOOD HABITUATION HELPS YOU EAT THE FOODS YOU LOVE

We habituate to a particular food as we give ourselves repeated exposure to it. This is partly because with sensory specific satiety, our senses get numbed or satisfied if they continually experience the same stimulus. With our taste buds, the first bite is always the best, the second a little less, etc.

Food Habituation was investigated in a study where a group of women were given macaroni and cheese 5 times; either 5 times in one week, or once a week over five weeks. The women given mac and cheese 5x in one week ate less than those who had it once a week for 5 weeks.

The lesson here is that restricting foods that you enjoy actually makes you want them more. It’s the whole ‘we want what we can’t have’ effect. Depriving yourself of certain foods doesn’t allow for Food Habituation to take place - your desire for those foods increases because it’s an ‘off-limits’ food.

 

So if you tried this out with your binge foods (while also making sure you’re not physically restricting yourself overall during the week), you could normalise your binge foods. The novelty factor will fade. You’ll soon be sick of always eating this food and actually crave something else. Soon your binge food will be an ex-binge food that has much less emotional attachment or response to it.

 

When you’re stuck in the binge-diet cycle, it’s likely you have a whole list of off-limits foods that you deprive yourself of. It’s really a Catch 22: when you diet to lose weight, you cut out ‘bad’ foods (which you likely  find delicious). Then you end up wanting those foods even more than usual because they’re not being normalised, then you end up bingeing on them when you get the chance and gaining even more weight back, then you decide to cut that food out even more extremely with more discipline going forward. And so the cycle continues.

 

Food Habituation can break this entire cycle - all you need to do is take that first step into full allowance instead of deprivation.

 

HOW TO PRACTICE FOOD HABITUATION

Put simply, to practice Food Habituation, you want to choose a food that you currently feel out of control with but want to feel calm around. Purposefully choose to eat it (expose yourself to it). Face any feelings of anxiety or loss of control. And repeat as often as you can. Remember, we need repeated exposure.

 

But most things are easier said than done, so below I’ve got a handful of tips to help make this process easier.

 

TOP TIPS TO IMPLEMENT FOOD HABITUATION SUCCESSFULLY

 

  1. Start Small - Food Habituation can feel scary for someone who has lost any ounce of self-trust with themselves around food. It’s scary to suddenly stock your kitchen with tons of ALL of your ‘fear’ foods. The last thing we want is to overwhelm you, fill you with anxiety, and lead to a freak out where you lose any belief in Food Habituation. So start small - focus on buying one packet of one binge food. Go from there.
  2. Don’t start with your most triggering food - Following on from the previous tip, we also don’t want to overwhelm you by making you jump in the deep end with your biggest trigger / binge food. Make a list of all the foods you’d like to normalise and start with the one that feels least emotionally intense for you.
  3. Eat with other people - Many people binge in secrecy alone. So add a safety net in as you delve into Food Habituation by eating in front of other people. You’re less likely to end up bingeing on the food. Plus it helps to normalise that food as something you can eat with other people - it’s not something ‘bad’ that can only be enjoyed without judgement of others.
  4. Eat at ‘safe’ times of day - Similar to who you eat with, focus on when you eat as well. Think about when you feel most out-of-control with your list of foods. Evening is probably a triggering time (it is for many people) and morning / lunch is likely to feel more ‘safe’. Really set yourself up for success with Food Habituation by starting to eat that food at times of the day you rarely binge / overeat. This will help you have more ‘successful’ Food Habituation experiences and therefore be more likely to continue with this process. The more successful moments you can have, the more confidence and self-trust you’ll build as well.
  5. Pair your binge foods with ‘safe’ foods - Again, we’re setting you up for success here. Instead of trying to normalise your binge food by eating it on its own, combine it with foods that feel totally normal to you. For example, if you’re trying to feel more in control with Nutella, pair it with some strawberries or bananas (assuming those feel ‘safe’ to you). 
  6. Build up over time - Once you feel more comfortable with the certain food you’re normalising, start to up-level by eating it alone or at night or on its own. Buy a couple jars/packets of it and store it in the kitchen. Keep proving to yourself that it’s just like any other food!

 

WHAT IF I BINGE WHEN TRYING FOOD HABITUATION?

It’s probable that Food Habituation won’t work the very first time. It’s a process. There will be ups and downs. So what do you do if you ‘mess up’?

 

  • Acknowledge that it’s part of the process - You didn’t start binge-eating overnight and similarly it won’t disappear overnight either.
  • Learn from the ‘mess up’ - Did you jump in too fast with Food Habituation? Had you not eaten enough food that day anyway so ended up bingeing because of that? Could you try a less intense binge food first instead? Identify what may have caused the slip up and rectify it next time. It’s all an iterative process of learning.
  • Notice your progress! It’s easy to focus on things going wrong, but what keeps motivation up is tracking and reporting progress. So do that!

 

If you’d like more help with the Food Habituation process, learn all about it in my 30 Day Reboot online course. The course has helped over 300 women already stop binge-eating and improve their food relationship. 

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