What does unconditional permission to eat mean?
You may have heard it many times - give yourself unconditional permission to eat when healing your relationship with food. But what does that mean? And how can we sometimes revoke that permission without meaning to?
The word unconditional is basically defined as not subject to any conditions. It is absolute. In terms of food, this means eating what is satisfying to you without judgement or guilt as a by-product.
Now if I said you can eat as much pizza/ice cream/chocolate/insert favourite banned food here, how would you feel about it? Scared? Or that you’ll overeat and so can’t trust yourself? Take a moment to notice those feelings.
Here are a few thought points:
- Why do we go straight to pizza/ice cream etc. - these are the ones you might think of as ‘unhealthy’.
- The thoughts and feelings that arise from this - guilt, fear… all negative emotions relating to food.
- I am giving you permission - in a hypothetical way of course, but why should I be the one dictating that?
Building that trust with ourselves, and not relying on anyone else for that permission is a great feeling. And a remarkable step on your Intuitive Eating journey - unconditional permission to eat comes in here.
What unconditional permission to eat isn’t
- Eating to the point of discomfort.
- Having to finish all the food in front of you.
- Tracking how much you are eating.
- Categorising previously banned foods as better.
- Ignoring our body’s signals in favour of eating as much as we can.
It’s the premise of ‘I can eat as much of this food as I want and that satisfies me, but that doesn’t mean I have to'. There’s no ‘should’, ‘must’, or ‘have to’ - it’s rather listening to without judgement. It’s about making peace with food.
Why does unconditional permission to eat work?
Restriction, through dieting, doesn’t work. Being told you can’t have something makes it what you want. And it’s a lot on our brain to juggle that restriction and guilt in the diet cycle. I’ve written a few articles on why dieting doesn’t work, and unconditional permission to eat is the antithesis of a diet.
Knowing you can have an unlimited amount of something makes it less desirable. If we had Christmas every day, would it still be special? Or would it lose its sparkle after a while (cue the Disney cartoon groundhog day-esque chipmunk film - if you know you know)?
Unconditional permission to eat also means eating when hungry. A lot of us may not be eating when hungry because it’s not lunchtime yet or we’ve just eaten… the list goes on. Unconditional permission means eating when hungry - tuning in to hunger takes time. It's a process, without having to justify it to yourself.
Unconditional permission to eat isn't working for me
Are you giving yourself pseudo-permission? The most common issue people experience with unconditional permission to eat is this. It means you give yourself permission now, but not in the future. This often means I can eat as much as I want now but I’ll have a small dinner later. I can eat as much pizza as I want for dinner but I’ll go for a run tomorrow morning. And sometimes we don’t even realise we’re doing it! But notice patterns in your behaviour. If you find yourself saying the word "but" a lot, feeling guilty or compensating, then maybe it’s not unconditional after all.
Has it been five minutes? I’m sure you’re sick of hearing "give it time" but ultimately everything takes time and practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes progress. So if it’s been a day, a week, maybe even a month - know it might take more time or more support. And be sure to reflect - maybe you see no progress day to day, but compared to a month ago your entire mentality could have changed.
This is linked a little with the above. It may be that you’re moving away from an intense period of dieting- where everything was off limits. Like a teenager going to uni and drinking every night before the novelty wears off, your body is rebounding. It takes everyone a different amount of time to settle back to a middle ground.
You may need professional support. This isn’t just me sliding in some promo (cough cough hire me). When you have been deep in diet culture, you might need some external support to move away from that. Someone to notice when you settle back into black-and-white thinking and to ask "why" when you comment on not eating when hungry etc.
A caveat is that you can have an unlimited amount of something when food is plentiful. If you’re in a position where food is scarce and not in abundance, it may be that you have to take this approach at a slower rate and give yourself fully unconditional permission on a situational basis.
- Build some trust in yourself - this takes time, but you cannot give yourself unconditional permission if you’re always second-guessing yourself. Trust that you are building that ability to tune in and satisfy your needs.
- Check-in with your body - this process relies on you knowing what you want to eat, and knowing when you are satisfied. This takes time and will involve you in building your interoceptive awareness.
- Figure out what foods you actually like - I can eat as much pizza as I want "yay", but actually I’d much rather eat something seen as more conventionally ‘healthy’. So do I eat the pizza because I can? But ultimately feel less satisfied?
- Lose the food rules - whether it’s once a week/month. However, it works best for you. Move away from ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and what you should be eating.
As with a lot of Intuitive Eating steps, it’s a journey. You won’t decide, "Right, I’m going to give myself unconditional permission to eat" - and now all food is neutral and you no longer feel guilty. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this. It’s a process of looking inwards and working through some things. And sometimes that isn’t easy.
If you need support, I’m here. Tap into your support network, and if you need professional help book a discovery call or reach out.
Want to listen to this article - the podcast version can be found here: shows.acast.com/nourished-practice/episodes or search Nourished Practice on your preferred podcast platform.