Ask Bodyposipanda: Is It Irresponsible To Tell People To Eat Whatever They Want?
I'm all for people accepting their bodies, but I'm just not sure that I agree with messages telling people to eat whatever they want all the time – isn't that a little bit irresponsible? Shouldn't we be encouraging people to have self control while also loving their body?
Once upon a time I believed that if I let go of my self control around food then I would become an unstoppable eating machine. That if I truly ate whatever I wanted to eat there wouldn't be enough baked goods in the world to keep me satisfied. That the list of foods I'd always labelled as off-limits would take over my entire diet and I'd never see a vitamin again. I was terrified of what would happen without my self control. And that in itself is the problem.
Nobody should have to fear their own appetite. Nobody should be made to believe that their most natural instincts are the enemy. Nobody should have a relationship with food that's so rooted in guilt and shame that it takes over their life. But that's exactly the relationship with food that so many of us have, and exactly why messages telling people that they're allowed to eat whatever they want are so needed.
‘Eat whatever you want’ doesn't mean ‘exist solely on the foods you've been taught to label as “bad” and never consume another vegetable again for as long as you live’. ‘Eat whatever you want’ means you're allowed to listen to your body. It means you're allowed to explore a way of eating that isn't motivated by guilt and shame. It means you're allowed to build a new relationship with food that doesn't sacrifice your mental wellbeing. And it means that your food intake can be decided each day in a way that works for you, and your needs. No outside rules, restrictions or self control necessary.
That could look like being nutrient conscious and eating plant based foods because they make your body feel energised and help you function the best you can. Or it might look like prioritising food freedom above everything while you're in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder, and having daily doughnuts until you're not living in fear of the calories.
‘Eat whatever you want’ could look like a million different ways of eating depending on who you are because food relationships are deeply personal. We cannot prescribe a single way of eating to every person because we do not know their needs, mental or physical.
But do you know what we can do? We can teach people how to reconnect with and trust their own bodies, so things like hunger, fullness, cravings, and nutrient needs don't get ignored under the guise of 'self control'. We can help people to unlearn lifetimes of diet culture induced shame around food that's lead to the normalisation of disordered eating and ever rising numbers of full blown eating disorders. We can take the fear out of food choices. We can give people back the mental energy they spend obsessing over food each day so they can actually use that energy to live their lives.
And while we're doing that, we can also be sure to teach people that what other humans eat is their business roughly 0% of the time. How people eat is not a measure of their value, nor is it a justification for judgement and harassment. People are not defined by what's on their plate, and no number of nutrients consumed makes one human being better than another.
Allowing people to make peace with food isn't irresponsible, it's essential. Once so many of us aren't scared of the numbers in our lunch or living in endless cycles of restriction and bingeing because of how much diet culture has fucked up our food relationships, then we'll be able to have real conversations about nutrition. Ones that take into account the individual needs and circumstances of each person.
As long as people still have disordered relationships with food prescribing one-size-fits-all diets and 'self control' is putting a poorly made band-aid over a shark bite. Self control is not what's needed here, healing is.
So yes, people can eat whatever they want. And no, I will never tell them exactly what that needs to be while ignoring any harm I might be causing in the quest to get people to eat more kale. That would just be irresponsible.
Love & bopo,
P.S. If you'd like to learn more about intuitive eating then I highly recommend getting a copy of Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon, following weight neutral nutritionists like @laurathomasphd, @chr1styharrison, and @jennifer_rollin. Plus you can check out podcasts like Don't Salt My Game and The Food Psych Podcast.
P.P.S. If you like this column and want more advice like this, I wrote a whole book of it! You can find Body Positive Power here.