So if you’ve heard anything about intuitive eating, you’ve heard the classic slippery slope argument - “But that means you’ll only want to eat “junk food” forever”. Is that true, though?
When you first give yourself radical permission to eat all foods (with no labels), it is true that you may initially go through a phase of wanting to enjoy all the foods that you were previously restricting. We’ll call this the “fuck it phase”. This is because when you restrict or feel fear around a food, all it really does is build the power or allure this food holds over you. Like a kid who has been waiting all year for Halloween, you may go all in on the candy or “insert fun food here”. This experience is completely normal, and to be expected for us humans who undoubtedly will always want what we “can’t” have, whether real or self-imposed (hey thanks, diet culture :/)
Butttt, how long does this phase last?
I find that I get asked this question a lot. Like many people, you may want to know how long you might feel “out of control” around the variety of food you now get to enjoy. Sometimes this feeling is reminiscent of the feelings that surround a binge episode, so it can definitely be uncomfortable. You’re exploring a whole new world, and new experiences can be just as scary as they are exciting.
Overall, the answer is “it depends, but it won’t last forever”.
One reason it won’t last forever is because of an inherent biological response, called habituation. Habituation happens when a certain food or food group is 1) no longer seen as “bad”, but considered morally equivalent to every other food, 2) this food is made available regularly and abundantly, and 3) this food is eaten with full permission, meaning you can have it whenever you want it AND have as much as you want. When food is neutralized, available, abundant, and guilt-free, its level of novelty and restriction starts to decrease, which means you begin to feel less out of control around it. And this my friends, is habituation.
Let’s think of this habituation process like a pendulum. On one end of the pendulum swing we have restriction (physical or mental) and diet culture, and on the other side of the pendulum swing we have our lovely “fuck it phase”. In the middle of the pendulum, there is food freedom. If you have been restricting carbs for what seems like forever, when you enter the “fuck it phase”, you will most likely swing to the extreme and go to town on… you guessed it, carbs (hello Carb Town, population Me).
With the next swing of the pendulum, you may feel the diet culture prescribed guilt or you may be tempted to restrict again to regain “control”. With repeated exposures (i.e. swings of the pendulum), you may not feel so extreme in your craving or eating experience.
Remember, a pendulum is pulled by gravity, and it will come back to its resting position in the middle. In the same way, to swing away from restriction, we have to swing to “fuck it” (terrifying, I know), and trust that the pendulum will come back to the middle - food freedom. As you continue to discover trust with your body, and know that there will be another chance to savor those “taboo” foods, you continue to build habituation.
So it won’t last forever, but how long will it take to reach food habituation?
Now that’s a tricky question to answer because it is truly individual. The “fuck it phase” can last weeks to months to a year or more. It may depend on how long you have been stuck in diet culture or the extent of restriction you have experienced. It is also very normal to move back and forth between “fuck it” and feeling ready to be more attuned in your food choices. One study found that food habitation may be reached sooner if previously forbidden foods are presented on a daily rotation rather than infrequently over the course of several weeks.* What I can tell you, is that this phase is very normal and very necessary, and the faster you try to force your body out of it, the longer it usually lasts.
Like I said, I can’t give you an exact timeline, or a perfect formula, but there are a few signs that might indicate you are moving towards the “attunement” phase. Attunement happens when you have practiced consistency, variety, and abundance with food, and you are now ready to be curious about your food choices. You may find that a previously alluring food just doesn’t taste as good as before, or that you become satisfied or even bored with a different amount of that food than expected. If you are offered a fun-food that you’ve been loving, but with a quick check-in, find that your answer is actually “meh, not now, but possibly later”, you are probably getting closer to food habituation.
The beginning of intuitive eating could possibly be the scariest journey you’ve ever embarked on with your body. While you’ve found the courage to reject the diet mindset and give yourself radical permission to enjoy all foods, you may also still be struggling with the sense of free-for-all that the initial “fuck it phase” brings. This phase is your foundation to free yourself from deprivation, re-establish a connection with hunger, fullness, and satiety, build trust with your body around all foods, and - most importantly - to rediscover the joy of delicious food. Even when it feels messy and out of control, remember that the “fuck it phase” does not last forever, and you deserve grace while you begin a relationship with food that is built on compassion and satisfaction.
* Long-term habituation to food: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3142716/