How You Can Eat The Food You Love In ModerationFeb 02, 2021
Imagine being at a place where you can buy your favourite binge food, take it home, put it in the pantry to eat, and then a few days later realise that you totally forgot it was even there!
Imagine then being able to take that food, go watch some TV with family while snacking on it, but not feel guilty or out of control AT ALL! You put it back in the kitchen before you even feel too full. You don’t give it a second thought.
Too good to be true right? It’s not! This can be achieved with the help of Food Habituation. That’s what I’ll teach you about today.
WHAT IS FOOD HABITUATION?
Scientists describe food habituation as a form of neurobiological learning, in which repeated eating of the same food causes a decrease in behavioural and physiologic responses (Epstein 2009).
Do you have a ‘bad’ list? Foods that you don’t allow yourself to fully appreciate. And when you do eat those foods, you feel guilty, stressed and anxious, and end up overeating or bingeing on them. You don’t trust yourself around these foods. Food Habituation helps you reintroduce these foods to your life - to the point where that chocolate is about as emotionally charged as an apple.
Understandably, there will be a lot of fear around this at the beginning. Concerns that you may not eat healthfully, that you’ll lose control and will only eat those ‘bad’ foods because they’re allowed now. These feelings are completely valid - but this is a totally normal reaction to deprivation. Feelings of urgency will dissipate over time. I strongly encourage you to approach this with a sense of curiosity as opposed to the attitude that you’ll be out of control as this can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Try and think of it more as a brave step you’re taking towards healing your relationship with food. And if you do overeat, I promise that this won’t last long, and your intuitive signals will kick back after several attempts.
TELL ME MORE...
“When you have permission to eat any food, you really get to ask yourself for the first time, do I really want it? Do I really want this food now? It removes the “Last Supper” mentality, wherein you eat as much of the forbidden food as you can, because tomorrow there will be another diet.” - Evelyn Resch, author of Intuitive Eating
Food Habituation happens when you allow yourself unconditional permission to eat any food item. Research shows that the more you are exposed to a particular food - it diminishes your desire to eat it. The idea is that forbidden or ‘bad’ foods are so attractive because they’re off-limits - it’s like the saying ‘we want what we can’t have’. So when you finally do give in and allow yourself that food, you go overboard and overeat. But giving yourself unconditional permission to eat helps normalise that food. Over time, it becomes just like any other food - no big deal.
Food Habituation doesn’t have to mean choosing only the ‘bad’ foods and gaining weight. Yes - the first few times you let yourself have forbidden foods, you may overeat. This is normal because you’ve restricted it for so long. But over time, it normalises. And yes - for a while you might only want to eat chocolate / ice cream / pizza / [insert binge food here!] but guess what, after eating that food every day for every meal, it gets boring! After eating those types of foods frequently, your body will actually crave normal meals!
You may not trust your body right now, but your body really does feel better in the long run eating healthier meals most of the time. And when you remove the “forbidden food” factor, those foods are no longer eaten in excess.
HABITUATION RESPONSE EXPLAINS WHY FOODS BECOME LESS ENTICING WITH EXPOSURE
Habituation explains why we quickly adapt to a repeated experience—and subsequently experience less pleasure each time. It’s a universal phenomenon that applies in many situations — such as when you buy a new car. At first, it’s super exciting, but then the novelty wears off. Or when you hear a special person say, “I love you” for the first time. It’s magical, but then it becomes routine, and even expected. Psychologist and author, Daniel Gilbert, aptly describes habituation as:
“Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderful-ness wanes with repetition” (Gilbert 2006).
Habituation is also one of the reasons why leftovers are less appealing, especially on days two and three. When you eat a food over and over, it simply loses its appeal.
Studies also show that the habituation response is delayed by eating novel foods and by stress and distraction. This works against chronic dieters, in particular. Dieting heightens the novelty and desirability for the forbidden foods. When they go off the diet, dieters often eat those forbidden foods in excess, in part because of the lack of habituation. When you combine low habituation with the fear of never being able to eat a particular food, it can become a powerful force in overeating, which we call Last Supper eating. It’s difficult to tire of eating a food, which you think you may not ever eat again!
Part of the purpose behind having unconditional permission to eat, is not to “get sick” or burn out on a particular food—it’s to experience habituation, in which the heightened novelty of eating a particular food wanes.
So! That’s Food Habituation for ya! I know that reading it probably makes logical sense but putting it into practice may seem scary. And you might just have zero trust that it’ll work. But if you’re ready to take that leap and experiment with it, I’ve got a takeaway task for you. The worst case scenario is you try it and keep bingeing on that food (which you already are, right?), or you try it a few times and it works!
Today we’ll dip our toe in the food habituation pond. In the long-term, the goal will be to become so normalised to your binge foods that they no longer make your mouth water, they no longer excite you so much. They’re just like any other food. And you’re even able to eat them alone without any feelings of loss of control.
That will take a bit of time though. So today, we will start slow by having you get one of your binge foods and eating it in front of other people. Eating it in front of others gives you a bit of a safety net. You’re way less likely to go on a full on binge (because most of us binge in isolation). This way it’ll feel less overwhelming. In this exercise, though, mindset is key - I don’t want you to feel like you HAVE to hold back because someone may be judging you (even though they most likely aren’t!). The whole point is to eat it freely with no guilt. It’s just like grabbing any other snack and eating it surrounded by people. Try to make it feel like no big deal.
What if I end up wanting to binge and take it back to my room after? That’s OK! This is all a process. It might not work out ‘to plan’ the first time round but we will get there! It can take many attempts at this to get it to work but it does work.
Comment down below or reach out to me on Instagram to let me know how your Food Habituation experiment is going!
A scientific experiment investigating the effects of food habituation: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3142716/
A really great blog post on food habituation and practicing it: https://www.juliedillonrd.com/tag/food-habituation/
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