What to Do If You Feel Like You Can’t Stop Eating Certain Foods

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When people ask what I do for a living, I don’t always tell the whole truth. I might say I’m a journalist (used to be true) or that I work in the eating disorder field (true but vague), but I rarely admit to someone I’ve just met that I’m a dietitian. Why? Because almost everyone has strong feelings about food, nutrition, and their relationship to both—and, frankly, I don’t want to spend my off-the-clock time listening to people talk about their latest diet or the bizarre nutrition advice they got from the most recent episode of their favorite bro science podcast.

On the rare occasion that I do cop to being an RD, I’ll make clear right away that my work with clients is actually the opposite of what most people expect dietitians to do. I don’t give people food rules and diet plans (because they don’t work); instead, I guide them towards intuitive eating, where all foods are allowed and there are no hard-and-fast rules about what and how much to eat. 

Usually, this is enough of a deterrent for anyone who might have otherwise tried to engage me in the topic of, say, Joe Rogan’s all-meat diet. But inevitably, at least one person in the group will say something like: “Oh intuitive eating sounds great, but I could never do it. If I let myself eat [insert delicious food typically thought of as ‘bad’] whenever I wanted, I’d eat it all day long/gain so much weight/never stop eating!”

I’ll let the conversation end there because this person isn’t asking for my professional opinion on their relationship to that particular food, so it would be unprofessional of me to give it. But since this is a nutrition article and not an awkward small-talk situation, I’m happy to tell you what I’ve learned from the research and my clinical experience: People who give themselves permission to eat all foods without judgment, and who eat enough overall, are much less likely to feel out of control around food than folks who live by rigid food rules or try to only eat “healthy” foods.

If you’re still thinking, “No way, I’d absolutely lose control if I kept cookies in the pantry,” know that this fear is valid. 

Often, people feel this way because their past experiences prove it to be true. “When someone says, ‘I can’t keep X food in the house,’ what they typically mean is, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to eat all of it in one sitting,’ since that’s happened before,” Leah Tsui, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor based in Los Angeles, tells SELF. “Often, because they don’t eat this food regularly, as soon as it’s there, they have the feeling of ‘I have to eat it all now because it won’t be available later.’” 

An example, based on my experience with clients: Someone who typically avoids buying ice cream for fear of eating the whole pint at once will have an intense craving one day and decide to just go for it. They eat a bowlful, then take a couple more spoonfuls out of the container. Midway through that second extra bite, they think, ‘I’ve already eaten way too much of this, I should just finish the pint so it’s not around tomorrow.’ They then feel guilty (and maybe physically ill) for “overdoing it” and tell themselves some version of, See, I can’t eat dessert like a ‘normal person.’ They go another several months without having ice cream, then eventually buy another pint, and the cycle continues.

The thing is, restriction tends to make people feel more “out of control” around food, not less. 

Often, the terms “food addiction” or “sugar addiction” come up in conversations about feeling out of control around certain foods, and both Sutton and Tsui acknowledge that it’s absolutely possible to feel addicted to, say, brownies or pizza. But this feeling likely stems from restricting these foods—or food overall—and not from some inherent inability to eat them mindfully and without compulsion. 

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