3 Ways to Free Yourself from the Lies of Restrictive Eating and Embrace Joy

Young woman cooking healthy food in her kitchen.

For many years, I was trapped by toxic diet culture, believing that if I followed “food rules” perfectly, I would ultimately be thin, happy, and worthy of love. 

Thankfully, after discovering many resources that taught me about body positivity, intuitive eating, and the Health at Every Size movement, I have found peace with my body and become a body positivity and anti-diet culture advocate. I also run a monthly Body Positive Book Club for women to provide a safe space for body positive support and discussion.

When I was on my journey to body positivity, I found one of the damaging ways diet culture is present in our lives is the way it tells us to moralize food by encouraging us to believe some foods are “good” and other foods are “bad.” 

RELATED: Loving the Shape I’m in: A Nutritionist’s Journey Toward Body Positivity

In reality, food has no moral value. In fact, the only foods I consider “bad” are foods that are moldy or rotten. Below are three reminders to keep in mind the next time you find yourself categorizing food in an unhealthy way.

Remember that guilt is not an ingredient

Walking through the grocery store, I often see foods advertised with less fat or fewer calories as “guilt-free,” while foods richer in calories are advertised as “sinfully delicious” or something that would only be adequate for a “cheat day.” Despite these marketing tactics, we must remember that guilt is not an ingredient. Food does not hold a moral value.

If I were to ask someone which is healthier, an apple or a cheeseburger, the answer would be dependent on what their body needs. If you’re in need of a calorie-dense meal to fill you up with energy, it would be better to eat the cheeseburger. If you’re in need of a snack to hold you over in between meals, it would be best to eat the apple.

Moralizing food can lead to restrict-binge cycles as well as feelings of stress and anxiety. When I was still abiding by food rules, I declared brownies as “bad” foods. When my roommate made brownies one day, I declined to have one, only to think about the brownies all day long. I couldn’t focus on anything else. Then at the end of the day, I ate so many brownies I was uncomfortably full. I felt terrible about myself for overeating and engaged in negative self-talk about my body. 

If I considered brownies to be neutral, neither good nor bad, I would’ve been able to eat one joyfully and move on with my day. Now living in food freedom, I eat what sounds good to me at the time, food does not have power over me, and I don’t feel stressed or anxious about my choices. 

RELATED: How I Learned to Focus on My Health, Not My Weight

Throw preconceived food rules out the window

The wellness industry can provide confusing and contradicting health advice. From labeling certain foods as “good” and “bad” to telling us when and how to eat without taking into account an individual person’s lifestyle and dietary needs, diet culture tells us it knows more about our bodies than we do. Instead of following these food rules (which are often unrealistic and even dangerous to our health), it’s best to listen to and trust our bodies.

At first, when I attempted to break free from diet culture and gain food freedom, I struggled to let go of my food rules that restricted me from eating dessert. I was afraid that if I allowed myself to eat dessert, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from eating copious amounts of chocolate and sweets. 

However, I wasn’t giving my body enough credit for knowing what it needs to nourish me. While at first it was liberating to eat all of the desserts or “fear foods” of which I had once restricted myself, I grew bored of those foods over time since they were no longer off-limits. Now I crave a wide variety of foods from chocolate to salad. I eat them freely as I feel hungry for them, and I stop eating them when I’m full. 

If you’re looking to free yourself from diet culture, I encourage you to seek out resources such as anti-diet dieticians, intuitive eating counselors, or psychologists and medical professionals trained to treat people struggling with disordered eating. HAESCommunity.com, The National Eating Disorders Association, and IntuitiveEating.org are great places to start to find these types of resources. 

I also encourage you to seek out media that challenges diet culture such as the podcast “Food Psych” or the book “Anti-Diet” by Christy Harrison that teach you about intuitive eating and guide you to food freedom.

Know that health looks different on everyone

Nearly every ad I see for fitness clothing shows a petite white woman who is astonishingly both thin and muscular. While the media tells us that this is the image of perfect health, in reality, health is not one size fits all. The book “Health at Every Size” by Lindo Bacon explains how a healthy weight for me will look different than a healthy weight for someone else. We cannot tell someone’s health simply based on their outward appearance, nor is someone’s health anyone’s business but their own.

While popular images of “healthy” people tend to lack diversity in the models they use to advertise fitness apparel, I am inspired by the different shapes and sizes of bodies that exist among real Olympic athletes. From Sarah Robles to Serena Williams, we can see that athletes come in all different shapes and sizes, and it doesn’t make sense to compare our bodies to others when we are all built differently. 

The next time you hear someone classify a certain food as “bad” or say they’re “being good” for eating a certain type of meal, I hope you remember that food is not good or bad. Food is simply food. 

I love the way my grandmother’s pierogies remind me of my Polish heritage. I love how much fun I have when I get to bake with my sister or make dinner with my husband. I love when my mom makes her homemade mac and cheese that reminds me of my childhood.

Ever since I embraced food freedom, food has been a source of joy, comfort, nourishment, and nostalgia, and never a source of fear or anxiety. I am grateful for the resources relating to body positivity, intuitive eating, and “Health at Every Size” that have helped to free myself from diet culture and enjoy food again.

Originally published February 23, 2022.

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