The power of permission

Many people don’t know what it’s like to eat without diet rules or judgment looming in their mind. For people who follow diets, even when they allow themselves to eat more freely, there are always conditions they have to fulfil. Wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy the festive food this Christmas without having to compensate, and without having to take on board the guilt and judgement of your inner critic? Let’s talk through a common scenario and take a look at alternative ways of approaching the festive meal.

Scenario: Lee has a hectic schedule of work, friend and family celebrations. She is really worried about eating too much and gaining weight as she won’t be able to stick to her usual strict diet regime. Lee decides to severely restrict her food intake on the day of the Christmas celebration.

Lee arrives at the first celebration extremely hungry because she hasn’t eaten much all day. She finds it difficult to concentrate and to think clearly. Unfortunately, because of her hunger, she also finds it difficult to eat in moderation. In fact, she finds herself eating a rapid pace and eating more than she would normally. Whilst she is eating the food she is distracted by a sense of guilt as she thinks about all the diet rules she is breaking. This makes it difficult to engage in conversation and enjoy the company of friends. When she leaves the celebration she isn’t feeling joyous and relaxed; instead, she is weighed down by the judgement of breaking her diet rules and eating more than she wanted. For some people this might trigger a period of bingeing, restriction or some other form of punishment. Lee is thus robbed of her joy during the festive season.

Question: How could Lee approach the festive celebrations differently so she can enjoy the food and the company of her friends?

  1. She could choose to nourish her body with regular meals and snacks instead of restricting her food intake. If Lee chose this option, she would have arrived at the party with a moderate hunger rather than an extreme hunger. When someone is extremely hungry, no amount of will power can prevent overeating. Nourishing your body with enjoyable food throughout the day can prevent extreme hunger and deprivation. This would help Lee to think clearly, make considered choices and engage with friends.
  2. She could choose to give herself permission to nourish her body with enjoyable food. If Lee gave herself permission to nourish her body with enjoyable food she wouldn’t have the opportunity to break any diet rules and feel guilty. You might be thinking, “But doesn’t that mean she will overeat because there are no boundaries or rules to guide her?” You may be surprised to hear that it doesn’t! Firstly, if Lee arrives at the party having nourished herself all day, she won’t have extreme hunger – a common drive towards overeating. Secondly, if Lee has permission to eat and enjoy food, she will be able to eat the food in moderation, as she listens to her body rather than a judgmental mind. The permission to eat gives Lee the opportunity to actually taste the food, tune into her appetite and enjoy the experience. Knowing that she has unconditional permission to eat all foods enables her to eat in moderation because she doesn’t feel deprived; she knows she can have this food again at any time. When you have unconditional permission to nourish your body, you will learn that you don’t want (say) chocolate cake at every meal; you will then learn to have it in moderation and truly enjoy it.
  3. Permission prevents the punishing cycle of disordered eating. Finally, giving oneself permission to eat and nourish your body helps prevent restriction, bingeing, compensatory exercise, etc. If Lee allowed herself to eat and enjoy the festive food, then no diet rules would be broken and therefore there is no need for punishment such as restriction, bingeing or compensatory exercise. Therefore, permission to eat will help her to enjoy the festive celebrations rather than being caught in the disordered eating cycle.

Strategies: How can you apply these strategies this festive season?

  1. Be disciplined in providing yourself with regular and enjoyable meals and snacks on a daily basis.
  2. Try saying the following statement before each meal: “I give myself permission to nourish my body with enjoyable food”.
  3. If you are feeling anxious, try focusing on some deep breathing.
  4. Try to eat in a mindful way. Be “present” whilst eating, and notice the different elements and experiences of the meal without judgment.

If you have been caught up in the dieting cycle for a while, it will take time to make change and to accept the permission to nourish your body with enjoyable food. Be brave and give it a go. You may need support; I would therefore recommend contacting a dietitian who teaches intuitive eating skills.