What Role Does the Diet Mentality Play in Your Eating?

Did you know that the first principle of Intuitive Eating is “Reject the Diet Mentality”?

This step is critical because having a dieter’s mindset disconnects you from your body's wisdom, including your own internal cues that tell you what, when, and how much to eat.

When you operate with a diet mentality, you eat according to external sources and rules (e.g., calories, points, macros, good/bad foods, fixed schedule, etc.) rather than honoring your body’s needs, desires and preferences.

Restricting the timing, amount, and type of food you eat is not intuitive, sustainable, flexible, pleasurable or empowering.

Ultimately, having a diet mentality erodes your ability to trust your body and your instincts, and negatively impacts your physical and psychological wellbeing.

Diet vs. Non-Diet Mentality
Even if you aren’t on an official diet or have never dieted, your eating may still be influenced by the diet mentality considering our pervasive, insidious diet culture. It’s the voice in your head that sounds like this:

Diet Mentality

In contrast, the non-diet mentality—that is, the Intuitive Eater voice—sounds like this:

Non-Diet Mentality

  • Am I hungry?

  • What sounds yummy and nourishing?

  • Do I want this particular food?

  • Will I feel deprived if I don’t eat it?

  • Will this food satisfy and sustain me?

  • Is this tasty? Does it hit the spot?

  • I trust my body to tell me what it needs.

  • I listen to and honor my hunger and cravings.

  • I deserve to enjoy eating without guilt.

  • I can have anything. What do I want?

  • Food is a source of energy, pleasure and nourishment.

Where do you stand with the diet mentality?

This Feels Scary!
Rejecting the diet mentality can feel pretty scary, especially if you’ve been trapped in this mindset for a long time. You may fear that if you let it go, you’ll lose control, eat “badly,” never stop eating, and completely go to pot.

These fears are totally understandable.

In time, however, they will start to fade as you realize that it's the diet mindset—the deprivation, restriction, micro-management, hyper-vigilance, moralism—that prevents you from having a peaceful, intuitive relationship with food and your body.

Your fears will further subside as you reconnect with your inner signals—your hunger, fullness, desires and satisfaction—and rediscover that your body is the only guide you need when it comes to nourishing yourself.

Source: Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program the Works, E. Tribole & E. Resch

Do You Put on a False Food Face?

Do you put on a false food face? It looks something like this:

The Healthy Eater
Leslie works hard to preserve her healthy eater image. At parties, she’s on her best behavior and only snacks on what she considers to be "good" foods, like crudité, hummus, shrimp cocktail, and the grapes decorating the cheese platter.

Once she leaves, however, she often stops and buys a big bag of chips or picks up a pizza, which she scarfs down in the privacy of her own home.

The Light Eater
When dining out with her girlfriends, Crystal always orders something light, like a garden salad or baked fish, and declines dessert, even when she’d much rather have a plate of pasta and slice of cheesecake.

When she gets back to her apartment, she heads right to the freezer, grabs a pint of ice cream, and quickly eats spoonful after spoonful while standing in the dark.

The Restrained Eater
Trained to be a restrained eater by her mother, a chronic dieter, Polly always asks the waiter to package up half her entrée in a to-go box before she eats a bite. Her family and friends frequently comment on how “good” she is.

More often than not, Polly leaves the table feeling hungry and unsatisfied. The minute she walks in her front door, she dives into her leftovers then goes hunting for more food.

Ultimately, she eats far more than she would have if she had just eaten what she wanted and needed at the restaurant.

Can you relate to any of these stories?

Putting on a False Food Face
In Intuitive Eating, this is called putting on a false food face—eating only what’s considered “proper” when dining with other people.

There are many reasons why you might put on a false food face, such as:

  • You’re worried about other people negatively judging your choices

  • You don’t want to tarnish your reputation as a “healthy” or “clean” eater

  • You feel you don’t deserve to eat certain foods (especially in public) due to your weight

  • You’re afraid of receiving disapproving looks or comments from external food police, such as “Are you sure you should be eating that?” or “Do you really need another slice?”

  • You don’t want to stand out from your diet-conscious dining companions by ordering something “bad” or “unhealthy” or "fattening" or "carb-y"

  • You’re ashamed of publicly breaking your food rules, which you take a lot of pride in adhering to (e.g., I don’t eat gluten; I never eat after 7 p.m.; I’ve sworn off sugar and carbs)

  • You like the ego boost you feel when you demonstrate self-restraint, especially when others compliment you on your "virtuous" behavior

Always Backfires
While putting on a false food face is completely understandable given our diet-obsessed, weight-focused and wellness-infatuated culture, it typically backfires.

When you deprive yourself of the foods you really want, don’t get pleasure and satisfaction from your meal, and/or don’t eat enough, the natural response is intense cravings, overeating and binge eating.

It has nothing to do with a lack of willpower or self-control. It’s simply human nature.

Most likely, your eating backlash leads to feelings of guilt, disappointment, despair and shame. As a result, you may feel the need to compensate for your food “sins” and pull the reigns in tighter, which only fuels the endless cycle of restrict-binge-repent-repeat.

Self-Compassion is Key
If you have a history of putting on a false food face, I urge you to be compassionate with yourself.

Every action has a positive intention. It's possible your false food face may be a form of self-protection, a way to keep yourself safe.

Or maybe it's a way to maintain your identity or feel a sense of control. Perhaps your desire is to feel accepted, to fit in and belong.

Regardless of your intentions, as you likely know, playing this role is exhausting! 

It sucks all the joy, pleasure and fun out of eating. It distracts you from being fully engaged with the present moment. And, it keeps you stuck in a vicious cycle.

Fortunately, there is a better way: Intuitive Eating.

Internal Cues Vs. External Rules
With Intuitive Eating, your food decisions are based on internal cues (e.g., hunger, fullness, satisfaction) and personal preferences versus external rules, influence or expectations.

You listen to, trust and honor your own body wisdom, instincts and desires. 

As a result, you no longer feel compelled to put on a false food face. You eat for you—and only you.

What's Your Experience with Last Supper Eating?

Some years ago, I went to see a naturopath about some health challenges I was having. As part of my treatment, she asked me to eliminate some foods from my diet, including gluten. Desperate to feel better, I agreed to do so.

I gave myself one last week to eat all my favorite gluten-containing foods.

During those last few days, I vividly recall feasting on artisanal sourdough loaves from my beloved local bread maker.

I also raided all my favorite bakeries loading up on blueberry scones, chocolate-chip cookies, veggie focaccia and chocolate-fudge cake.

The idea of future deprivation drove this intense phase of one-last-shot, now-or-never eating. I happily gorged on gluten while simultaneously grieving the end of our relationship.

Can you relate to this behavior?

It’s called Last Supper Eating.

Farewell-to-Food Feast
Before embarking on a new diet, plan or program, have you ever found yourself eating everything in sight, especially the foods that will soon be forbidden?

Or perhaps you planned one last elaborate meal featuring all the dishes that would be off limits starting tomorrow.

If you’re a yo-yo dieter, you’re likely very familiar with this pre-dieting ritual.

Like many of my clients, you may view this period of intense, frantic consumption—which is often followed by overwhelming guilt—as “proof” that you need to restrict your eating because you simply can’t control yourself around food.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The threat of food restriction can naturally trigger a farewell-to-food feast. It’s human nature to respond this way to deprivation.

Yet, it’s so easy to go into self-blame and shame.

How to End Last Supper Eating
Intuitive Eating puts an end to Last Supper Eating.

With Intuitive Eating, there is no deprivation. You have unconditional permission to eat whatever looks good, tastes good, and feels good in your body.

Instead of depriving yourself and eating according to a set of rules, you ask yourself: Do I like the taste of this food? Do I like how this food makes my body feel? Would I choose to eat this again or feel this way again?

What Works for Me
When I started reclaiming my Intuitive Eater, I asked myself if I actually liked the gluten-free foods I was eating.

The gluten-free bread, for example, was tolerable. It wasn’t delicious; it was simply an expensive vehicle for nut butter.

Since it wasn’t medically necessary for me to eliminate gluten (i.e., I don’t have celiac disease), I experimented with eating my beloved breads again, along with other gluten-containing foods—and my body felt just fine.

Although well intentioned, the diet the naturopath put me on didn’t improve my health condition. It just left me feeling deprived and unsatisfied, which always backfires.

As an Intuitive Eater, I now determine what works best for me by staying attuned to the messages my body sends.

If I skip a particular food because I don’t like how it tastes or feels in my body, I don’t view it as deprivation but rather as self-care and body kindness.

It feels really good to know I’ve had my last Last Supper.