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  • Carly Onopa

Winning the Food Battle Within: Challenge the Food Police

Updated: Jul 7



Many people walk around with a long list of food rules telling them how to eat. Their rules tell them when to eat, what to eat, what not to eat, and how to feel after eating certain foods. I totally get it… rules can be nice. They give us structure, boundaries, and help our society on the whole function. But food rules are anything but nice.


What’s the problem with food rules?

We hear food rules all the time that we may think it’s normal and just how people relate to food. Take a couple of the following examples:

· Someone at a coffee shop talks about how they have been bad and are therefore only having coffee for breakfast

· Someone at the gym talks about needing to work out extra hard to “burn off” their piece of cake

· Someone talks about their “guilty pleasure foods.”

· Someone lauds themself for being “disciplined” and restricting themselves from foods that they desire.


Would you identify these as food rules?


The truth is: food rules are rooted in diet culture. Some food rules we pick up from friends and family. Some food rules we pick up from our own experiences with food. Some food rules we get from media we consume, whether on TV or social media.


The problem is that food rules keep us at war with our bodies and with food…Ultimately leading us to be reliant on diets to tell us what to eat, when to eat and how to eat.


The problem is that food rules keep us at war with our bodies and with food. This makes it challenging for us to listen to our body’s cues for hunger and fullness and eat in a way that is satisfying for our body. Ultimately leading us to be reliant on diets to tell us what to eat, when to eat and how to eat.


The Battle of the Inner Voices

As an eating disorder recovery dietitian, I am aware of the battle of the inner voices that my clients experience regularly around food. However, with our prolific diet culture, many individuals that are not diagnosed with eating disorders experience similar negative food talk. This negative food talk has three contributors:

· Food Police – this is the negative voice that enforces food rules and brings about food guilt and shame

· Nutrition Informant – this is the negative voice that generates food rules in the name of health and tattles to the food police when these rules are broken

· Rebel Ally – this is the negative voice that acts like a food vigilante. It recognizes the injustice of the food rules put in place but acts in ways that eventually lead back to punishment by the food police.


To put it all together, let’s explore a story that plays out all too often.


This person, fictiously named Anne for this story, has been dieting for ~2 weeks. She has been “really good” about sticking to her diet and not “indulging” in her cravings for carbohydrate foods, high fat foods, and added sugar. She is heading to a family reunion with people she hasn’t seen in a couple years and the following conversation happens between her and the three negative food voices.


Anne: I have been doing really good on my diet these past two weeks.

Nutrition Informant: You have been doing really good on your diet. There will be a lot of foods there, so you’ll want to not blow your diet by eating before you get there.

Anne: Okay. That’s right. I know there will be a lot of food there, so I won’t eat.

A couple hours before the event…

Anne: I’m so hungry. I just want something to munch on.

Nutrition Informant: You better not.

Anne arrives to the reunion ravenous. She notices that the event has buffet style eating and while the food looks good, this makes her nervous. She sees cookies at the end of the buffet.

Anne: I haven’t had cookies for weeks. Maybe I will just have one.

Nutrition informant: NO!! Cookies have sugar and fat. That will ruin your diet. I’m telling!

Food Police: Anne, how could you? All that hard work is ruined now.

Anne: Really?!? One Cookie and everything is ruined.

Rebel Ally: That’s it. I have had it with this diet. I cannot live like this. It’s ridiculous. I should be able to eat a cookie. I should be able to eat what I want. They can’t tell me what to do. If everything is already ruined, then why not have another cookie.

Anne then goes on to eat a meal and 3 more cookies.

Food Police: Look what you’ve done. You really did it this time. You clearly can’t be trusted with cookies.

Anne: Clearly, I can’t trust myself around food.

Anne restarts her diet following the family reunion.


This scene is one of many that may play out while the Food Police and the Nutrition Informant are running the show. Consider the emotions that Anne may be feeling at this moment: defeated, disappointed, panicked. She also leaves the experience doubting herself and this reinforces her need for the diet. This is the root of the deprivation cycle.


It doesn’t have to be this way.


I started this section by saying that there was a battle within. This means that we can build up our skill set to strategically fight back against the food police. This involves strengthening our intuitive eater voice by focusing on its 4 helper voices:

· Nurturer – to think of this helper voice, think of the kindest person you know and think of what they may say to you in the moment that you are struggling with your relationship with food

· Food Anthropologist – this helper voice is a neutral observer and asks questions without judgment to understand what is occurring biologically and emotionally.

· Rebel Ally – this helper voice occurs when the Food Police is dismantled as the lead food voice and helps set boundaries around food so that we are in charge of our food decisions

· Nutrition Ally – this helper voice occurs when the Food Police is dismantled as the lead food voice and helps us understand and find nutritious foods that we enjoy. This voice is that last voice that emerges as the Intuitive Eater Voice is developing.


To imagine these helpful voices, let’s reimagine Anne going to her family reunion with her Intuitive Eater voice in charge.


Anne has been exploring intuitive eating for ~4 weeks. She has been eating consistent meals and snacks, tuning into her hunger cues, and has been making strides with making peace with her food. She continues to struggle with negative thoughts about food sometimes, but is working to challenge these thoughts. She is heading to a family reunion with people she hasn’t seen in a couple years and the following conversation happens between her and all her inner food voices, both negative and positive.


Anne: I have been improving my relationship with food these past few weeks but am nervous about seeing people I haven’t seen in a while.

Nutrition Informant: You know your family will have a lot of foods there, so you’ll want to not eat before going.

Anne: Hmmm…there will be a lot of foods there.

Food Anthropologist: Based on past experience, when I have shown up to a meal really hungry, I have eaten past my comfortable fullness. Maybe eating consistently before I go makes sense.

Anne: Yes. I think I will have lunch and see if I’m hungry for a snack before going to the family reunion dinner.

Anne ate lunch but decided not to have a snack before coming to the event. She arrives at the event a little hungry and notices that the event has buffet style eating. The food looks good but this also makes her nervous. She sees cookies at the end of the buffet.

Anne: I haven’t had a cookie in a while. They look really good.

Nutrition informant: NO!! Cookies have sugar and fat. You can’t have that!

Food Police: Anne, don’t do it. They are so bad for you.

Nurturer: Cookies taste good. It is normal to want something sweet when overly hungry. It is okay to want a cookie and to allow yourself to have a cookie.

Intuitive Eater: The cookie looks good but I also know that I’m hungry for a meal. I think I will look at the entire buffet to see what all the options are. I will select foods that look good to me and will match my hunger, including plating a cookie because they do look delicious.

Anne is able to plate her food according to her hunger. She stops when she is comfortably full. Her aunt comes over to ask her if she tried the banana pudding that she made specifically for Anne and becomes insistent that Anne try it.

Rebel Ally: Thank you for thinking of me. I’m satisfied with my meal but would love to take some home to try later.

Anne leaves with her banana pudding and other leftovers for a meal on the next day. Anne leaves feeling connected to her body and satisfied with her eating experience.


The difference between these 2 versions is astounding. Anne leaves this experience feeling confident, connected, satisfied, and pleased. While the first instance is common, this experience can become common with practice.


You can find peace with food by challenging negative food thoughts and replacing them with different helper voices. Practice listening for your food rules this week and challenging them using a helper voice.


Challenging the Food Police and dethroning him is a major step in the intuitive eating journey and it takes time and repeated practice. What food rules are you working on this week?


If you’re finding you need more help in challenging the Food Police, please contact me for individual nutrition counseling.

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