I take my dog into the woods for a walk at the crack of dawn every morning, and the other morning when we were walking, I noticed a squirrel running up a tree beside us.
I smiled at him and stopped to watch him for a minute. He jumped over to another tree and started munching on some berries on that one.
As I stood there grinning at this little squirrel, it struck me.
Isn’t it funny how this little guy manages to get through his life, eating meal after meal without ever needing a single book written by some other squirrel (or other squirrels on the internet) telling him what, when, and how much he should eat?
And yet, somehow, without all that outside input, he looked pretty healthy—running around, jumping from tree branch to tree branch to grab his breakfast.
Somehow, he manages to trust himself to just eat and live.
The dichotomy between that and our species’ relationship to food really struck me in that moment.
The single most common thing I hear from the women I work with when I ask them, “What do you think or feel about the phrase: unconditional permission to eat?” is fear.
Sheer terror at the thought of just being able to eat and live without always trying to control or micromanage every morsel.
A survey of American women done in 2008 found that something like 75 percent had disordered eating habits.
And based on experience, I’m sure the results in most of the rest of the industrialized world where capitalism reigns supreme would be pretty much on par with those.
One major way in which disordered eating habits manifest themselves in our lives is through distrust.
Distrust in ourselves and distrust in our own ability to decide what, when, and how much we should be eating.
Think about that for a second and let it really sink in. A very large percentage of our adult population doesn’t even trust themselves enough to decide what they should be eating.
They don’t trust themselves to make this most basic of human decisions for themselves.
In fact, they’re going through their entire lives terrified of even the concept of just trusting themselves to eat.
So they’re wasting their entire adult lives eating from fear, distrust, and “should bes,” ineffectively trying to force themselves to follow someone else’s idea about what makes their own unique body feel its best.
If you’re reading this right now, I’d be willing to bet that, on some level, you’re one of them, and I totally get it because I was too for most of my life.
We’re supposed to believe we’re this highly intelligent, more evolved, super special species, somehow different, better, smarter, and more capable than all other forms of life on this planet. While somehow simultaneously also believing that we are the only species on the planet that cannot be trusted to just eat and live without other people telling us what’s best for us.
Resisting, will powering, depriving, micromanaging, controlling.
How did we get here?
How did we ever buy that? Doesn’t it seem insane?
Now, you may go straight to the talking point of, “But Roni, squirrels don’t have access to all the ‘addictive’ food we do.”
That’s only half true. Sure, squirrels don’t have access to grocery stores with the same foods we do. That’s true.
But food is not an addictive substance; nope, not even sugar. At least not in the sense we’ve been taught it is.
It can be habit-forming, yes, but not addictive in the way we’ve been taught to think about addiction.
Headlines everywhere shouted from the rooftops that sugar has been found to be as addictive as illegal drugs, and all of a sudden sugar detoxes and cleanses and all that crap started.
But as usual with any kind of nutrition study, the facts get twisted, skewed, or flat-out misrepresented because what they actually showed was that the addictive-type behaviors were only present when the animals’ access to it was limited, restricted, or controlled.
When they could have as much as they wanted, the addictive-type behaviors completely vanished.
It’s not the food; it’s the fact that we’ve been taught we’re supposed to restrict it that makes us feel addicted to it.
So let’s circle back to this trust thing again.
If every other species on the planet trusts themselves to just eat and live, if we’re the only species living with distrust with all these ridiculously disordered eating behaviors, why is it so hard to trust ourselves with food? I started to touch on it a bit already, but let’s dive in even deeper and go back in time a little bit.
Every single one of us is born into bodies that know how to eat. They know when they’re hungry, and they know when they’re full.
They know when they’ve eaten something that doesn’t make them feel great.
And they have communication systems built right in to be able to tell us all those things so we can make choices accordingly.
And they want to feel their best.
We are born with the innate ability to trust, eat, and live—just like the squirrel and every other species on the planet.
And we know this.
When babies are born, we know they cry when they’re hungry. They stop crying when they get food, and they stop eating when they’ve had enough.
Can you imagine telling a crying baby that they couldn’t eat yet because it wasn’t supper time? Or forcing them to keep the bottle or nipple in their mouth when they clearly didn’t want anymore because they had to “clean their plates”? Or telling them they could only have a little bit of formula or breast milk because there’s sugar in it and sugar is a toxic, addictive poison?
That would all be completely ludicrous.
We implicitly trust babies.
Our parents implicitly trusted us when we were babies. But something happens as babies start getting older. We stop trusting them as much and start controlling what or how much they eat. It probably happened to you.
A few examples…
How many times did you hear things like, “Don’t eat that, it’s almost supper time,” when you were growing up? But what if you were really hungry right then and didn’t want to wait over an hour for supper? You were just taught, too bad, you shouldn’t be hungry yet so you can’t eat yet; that’s food restriction, and as we know, food restriction creates cravings, feelings of being out of control, or even overeating, or binge-eating behaviors.
How many times did you hear “You’re not getting up from this table until you’re done eating” when you were growing up? That just taught you that you can’t trust your own body to tell you when you’re full, so you better clean your entire plate, even if you’re not even hungry anymore. It also taught you that to be good and get approval, it required eating all the food; we’re a species that craves acceptance and belonging, so imagine what kinds of eating habits that lesson may create.
And then what happens if Mom, or a doctor, or a friend, or a family member starts to think we’re gaining a little weight? Uh-oh, we can’t have weight gain happen. Better start controlling their intake even more; think about the fear, trauma, and distrust in ourselves and our bodies that would create and continues to create as adults when doctors/people continue this type of propaganda.
We learn very early on that our bodies are only acceptable (or healthy) if they’re a certain size and that if they’re the wrong size, it’s our fault because we can’t be trusted to eat the right things or the right amounts, so we must be punished by restricting our intake. And even if we don’t gain weight, certain foods are often severely restricted. They’re special “treats.”
We’re only allowed small amounts at certain times, and someone else gets to decide how much and when that is.
I’ve heard many clients say their mothers would literally put the “treats” behind lock and key to keep them out of it.
What kind of message does that teach your kids? Even if they’re not under lock and key, our access to them is restricted.
Those are just a few examples; there are a million different ways our self-trust with food can be broken in childhood.
Then the older we get, the more we get out into the world on our own, the dieting, and healthy eating messaging really starts getting unbelievably intrusive.
It’s everywhere. It can find a way to bleed its way into practically every single interaction we have as we go about our day.
For me, it started in my teens with the Atkins diet and its healthy eating rules. An adult in my life gave me the book to help me learn how to eat healthy.
And that’s when my own self-trust went out the window.
But for many, the distrust started years early in the ways I mentioned (and more) and is only reinforced by all the diet and “healthy eating” food rules we’re exposed to every day.
Because what happens as soon as you try to make yourself eat what they tell you you’re supposed to eat and not eat the things you’re told you’re not supposed to eat? You cannot stop thinking about or craving the things you’ve been told you’re not supposed to eat or can only eat in limited amounts. That’s not happening because you’re addicted to those things or because you can’t be trusted with them.
It’s happening because you’re trying to control your intake. It’s happening because you don’t trust yourself, so you’re trying to force yourself to eat according to someone else’s rules and restrictions versus just eating what your own body uniquely needs and wants.
Our bodies are hard-wired for survival, and food equals survival. Whenever food is restricted, our brains go into survival mode to do whatever it takes to keep us alive and to get more of that food.
We go into a fear response. We disconnect from the wisdom of our bodies, the decision-making part of our brains shuts down, and all we can hear are the frantic fear-based thoughts, desperately trying to get us to just eat that thing so we won’t starve.
The more the food is restricted, the harder our brains work to get us to eat the food we’re trying to restrict.
That’s the cravings and caving cycle we know so well.
And what happens when we eventually cave and have the thing? Our brains get what they want. They get rewarded because they got the food that makes them feel safe again.
And they just learned how to get us to cave even faster the next time food is restricted.
Over time, that cycle of craving and caving or even just mindlessly munching gets wired into our brains as autopilot habits that we don’t even really notice or control anymore. That’s why it can feel so out of control. And that’s why it gets harder and harder to stick to anything the more times we’ve tried.
It’s also another reason trust goes out the window. Every time we promise ourselves we’re going to do better and end up caving, we trust ourselves just a little bit less. How much would you trust someone who made you the same promise every day for 20 years and broke it every single time? Exactly. Every time you promise you’re going to “do better” only to feel like you failed again because you “caved,” you’re breaking another promise to yourself.
That cycle creates or fuels existing distrust, which isn’t even fair because none of it was ever your fault. You were born knowing how to eat. You were born trusting yourself.
You just unlearned how from parents who were trying to do their best but didn’t know the impact those messages would have…and from a bunch of ridiculously profitable industries that depend on you distrusting yourself.
And it’s not only distrust. There’s trauma. And fear. All rooted in scarcity (not enough-ness).
There’s food scarcity that’s born from restrictive rules around food and literally creates those overeating patterns but also that underlying fear that we’re somehow not good enough.
Not good enough to make our own food choices.
Not good enough to be able to control our body size better.
Not good enough to be able to stick to anything.
And to bring it full circle back to the trust issue, how could you trust someone you didn’t think was good enough to be able to make her own food choices?
The point of all this is not to sound defeatist. It’s to help you understand that the reasons it’s so hard to trust ourselves—to trust yourself—with food are not your fault and they’re not because you’re actually untrustworthy.
You, at your core, know how to eat and are completely capable of finding your way back to that inner knowing.
You (through no fault of your own) just developed some conditioned patterns and beliefs that got piled on top of that inner knowing. Conditioned patterns that need to be excavated and shifted so you can find and reconnect with yourself again.
You don’t need to go through life scared of food or not trusting yourself with it. I promise you don’t.