“Scream a loud “No” to thoughts in your head that declare you’re “good” for eating minimal calories or “bad” because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in returning to intuitive eating.” – Intuitive Eating authors, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
The 4th principle of intuitive eating is all about how to challenge the food police. That pesky food police, that designates whether goods are “good” or “bad”!
As we’ve discussed in earlier posts in this series, it has become normal to associate eating certain foods with feelings of “guilt.” And this is with foods we like.
Think about how crazy that sounds – we feel guilt, shame and bad about ourselves after actually enjoying a food. That’s what diet culture has done to us.
It just fires me up! Life is short, and feeling guilt and shame for taking part in enjoyable activities and pleasurable food totally impacts the quality of life. So, challenging the food police is imperative.
A study out of the University of Toronto found that dieting in and of itself appears to emphasize the focus of guilt and guilt-free in terms of food attributes.
One out of every four dieters used both “guilt” and “no guilt” in their labeling of food, compared to just one out of 25 non-dieters.
In other words, dieting teaches us to feel guilty for eating foods that we deem “bad” or off limits, like highly caloric foods, or even foods we enjoy.
The act of viewing eating as a pleasurable activity (for which it is/should be) goes out the window with diet culture norms, dieting commercials and other influences.
The Different Food Voices And What They Mean
It’s helpful to understand some of the different voices that determine our food choices in order to really understand what the food police is.
- Food Police – The food police is an inner “bully” voice developed through dieting. We aren’t born with it, we learn it. It determines if you are “good” or “bad” based on your food choices, and represents the sum of your dieting and food rules. The food police voice is not helpful.
- Nutrition Informant – The nutrition informant will offer evidence to keep you in line with dieting. So while the information may have some degree of “nutrition” truth, the nutrition informant typically provides exaggeration and urgent claims, such as “All sweeteners are bad, don’t eat any of them.” Or, “You just ate an hour ago, you shouldn’t be hungry.” The nutrition informant voice is not helpful (it is rooted in diet culture) until it transitions into the nutrition ally voice. Keep reading.
- Diet Rebel – The diet rebel is just as it sounds. It’s our natural way of rebelling against diet culture or trying to defy rules that are imposed on us. If diet culture tells us not to eat cookies, the diet rebel may stuff in as many as possible, and then feel physically ill later. The diet rebel voice isn’t helpful because it often leaves you feeling powerless, carrying out “threats” that you may not actually want to carry out or feel good doing. The diet rebel is a spin off from the food police influence.
- Nutrition Ally – The nutrition ally is interested in healthy eating, like the nutrition informant, however, it has no hidden agenda. This voice is truly looking out for you. Consider you’re in the grocery store looking at different brands of greek yogurt. One is full fat and one is reduced fat. You may opt for the reduced fat version with less saturated fat since you have high cholesterol and a family history of heart disease. The ally would gently remind of this, without the restrictive mindset. The nutrition ally voice usually puts you at ease, rather than the informant voice, which is judgemental and critical.
- Food Anthropologist – The food anthropologist is the best example of neutrality as a neutral observer. This voice makes observations without any judgment. By tuning in to the food anthropologist and its observations, you may be able to grasp some takeaways. For example, “I’m not usually hungry at 12 but I skipped breakfast today and felt extra hungry.” There’s no judgment in that statement, but it’s telling that you realize you feel extra hungry if you skip a meal.
- The Nurturer – I like to compare the nurturer’s voice to that of my grandmother. It’s soft and gentle with a soothing quality. The nurturer can provide reassurance when you need it without judgment or scolding. An example would be reminding yourself that it’s okay to eat dessert, and eating dessert is normal. Or, taking time to acknowledge the progress you’re making every day even if food choices still feel difficult.
Here’s an excerpt diagram from my workbook.
You can read more about each voice with more examples of how they play into your positive or negative self talk through my hands-on workbook all about hunger and fullness.
Sample Food Police Thoughts and Comments
Now that you understand a little bit about the different voices, let’s delve more into some examples from the food police since they are today’s topic!
- “I thought you were trying to lose weight. How can you eat that?”
- “Sugar is so bad for you and addictive.”
- “Cheese is high in fat and loaded with cholesterol. You shouldn’t eat it.”
- “You shouldn’t eat after 8pm because then you’ll gain fat overnight.”
- “Walking doesn’t burn enough calories. If you didn’t hate the workout, you didn’t work hard enough.”
- “Eating healthy is a matter of willpower.”
- “Dairy is bad.”
Know that the food police voices aren’t exclusive for dieters. Meaning, even if you aren’t dieting, you may hear these voices sometimes.
You have to work actively to quiet them, challenge these thoughts and train your brain to go down a different path.
Cognitive restructuring helps!
How The Food Police Surfaces For Athletes
The food police is very pertinent in sports and running. For example, the comparison trap or believing your body has to look a certain way to excel is an example brought up by diet culture and the food police.
The food police will suggest that certain foods should be completely off-limits to athletes. We know through research that there is no one magic elixir or food, and eating a “fun food” once or every so often probably won’t impact your performance.
On the other hand, eating “too clean” (or indulging in cheat days) can be harmful for your performance. Not eating enough nutrient-dense AND calorically dense food will:
- impact endurance and strength performance (the time you can go until you hit the wall, the capacity for strength workouts and more)
- affect your hydration and electrolyte status
- prolong your recovery because your body doesn’t have enough injury for muscle buildup and glycogen restoration
- increase your risk of injury
- affect your hormones, which can mess with lots of bodily processes
- impact your mood and motivation for exercise
- and more!
You can see the linear line drawn between eating enough and performance. It’s so important and often the FIRST THING I start with with my athletes.
The food police may also surface when you’re out with your teammates or friends. Maybe they’re eating something that you deem off limits, and it affects your whole night or experience.
Or, maybe they are imposing certain foods rules and you find yourself comparing yourself to them. Meanwhile, you’re enjoying the food that they deem “off limits,” and you quickly start to feel bad about yourself and shameful.
The next thing you know, you’re blaming certain foods for your performance and setting up silly food rules to make yourself feel better.
The restrictive mindset comes up quickly and before we know it, the list gets longer and longer.
How To Challenge The Food Police
- Be Self Aware – Try to notice which voice is the strongest when you have a thought about food. If it’s the food police, firstly, jut recognize that it is the food police. You’ll feel attacked, judged or shameful if it is.
- Check In With Yourself – Some questions to try asking yourself include:
- Am I having intense feelings? Are they repetitive?
- What am I thinking that’s actually causing me to feel this way? What kind of self talk am I using?
- Truly think, what is actually true or correct about this food belief or thought? (Generally, there are some distorted beliefs that are exaggerating this food thought).
- Challenge the Distorted Thoughts to Something Rational – Challenge yourself to reframe and replace the distorted thoughts. So, if the thought is, “All sugar is toxic and will give me diabetes.” Maybe you could reframe it to, “Sugar can add a palatable taste to many foods. I know that eating sweets every now and then won’t give me diabetes.”
- Avoid Black and White Thinking – Generally, the food police is coming at you with a thought that is very black and white. How can you see it in the gray? Give yourself some grace and remember that nothing needs to be all-or-nothing.
Allow yourself to eat all foods, including foods you like, foods that are (used to be) off limits, and foods that make you feel good. Allow yourself to eat as much as you need to, especially in the beginning, as you work to re-establish trust.
With these tips, you will eventually find that the thrill of restricting and misery of out of control eating (as evidenced by the “white” and the “black”) is no longer enticing.
Want More Resources? Check Out The Other Posts In This Series:
- 7 Reasons Diets Don’t Work, According to Science
- Principle 1: How to Reject the Diet Mentality for Athletes
- Principle 2: How to Honor Your Hunger
- Principle 3: Making peace with food
Next time, we’ll explore Principle 5: Feel Your Fullness.
Check out my 60 page hands-on workbook all about hunger and fullness.
- Tribole, E. and Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating, 3rd edition. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
- King, G.A., Herman, C.P., and Polivy, J. Food Perception in Dieters and Non-dieters. Appetite, 8 (1987):147-158.