Reviving the Intuitive Eating FAQ Series! It’s been a minute since we did some good old fashioned Q&A around intuitive eating and Health At Every Size (HAES®) topics. This one came from a message on Instagram and I initially shared the response in my IG Stories. But worth getting it into a blog post so it can serve as a resource for the future!
QUESTION: I keep seeing posts talking about food preferences, but it all seems so confusing to me. I know this might be a dumb question but what if you don’t know what you prefer?? How do I know the difference between food preferences and food rules?
ANSWER: First, there is no such thing as a dumb question! It can feel silly to question these things since it’s assumed we would know the answer to something seemingly simple. But diet culture takes something simple like a food preference and layers on things that have absolutely no place in the mix – things like guilt, shame, judgement, or other things that add morality to food and eating.
So, all that to say that there is no judgment here. Asking questions is how we get curious and it’s a really important piece of intuitive eating and healing your relationship with food. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s break it down…
Dieting Can Be Confusing AF
Between the meal plans, special ingredients, off-limit foods, and endless label checking and food logging, diets can very quickly teach us how to override our true food preferences. We get caught up in thinking we have to stick to the meal plan without deviating, or else we “fail” and thus do a disservice to our health.
But yet we still do it over and over. How many times have you used terms like “guilty pleasure” or “sinfully good” or just said something along the lines of, “Oh, this is too good, I know I shouldn’t be having it but…”
Yeah, I thought that might sound familiar. I said all that stuff, too. And it’s because I thought I had to ignore or numb out what I really liked about food for the sake of what? Sticking to a diet? To try to be healthier? To play the part of the “good” dietitian? Um, no. Done with that.
If you want the TLDR version, consider this: How do you answer when you ask yourself “If I didn’t know how many calories/carbs/nutrients were in this food, would I still like it?”
If the answer is yes, probably a food preference. If the answer is anything, else…well, just keep reading 🙂
Another great way to explore this is using the Way app. I helped develop the sessions designed to help you explore things like taste preferences, old food rules, and your relationship with food. Click HERE to check it out!
Mindful Eating and Mindfulness While Eating
Not to be confused as being one and the same…although similar, mindful eating can be tricky territory because it might actually morph into “careful” or “restrained” eating for some people (AKA the “mindful eating diet”). Although mindful eating can be similar to intuitive eating, there are some differences.
Read more on mindful eating vs. intuitive eating in this post.
It’s not necessary or realistic to be 100% mindful during eating 100% of the time. Life happens. You might try including mindfulness as one more tool in your toolbox that you can pull out and use when you need it, and if you notice you’re able to incorporate it more often, great. But never feel badly about being distracted, flustered, or otherwise a little tuned out while eating.
Another part of mindfulness (taking it beyond just “eat with all five of your senses”) is letting go of judgment. With a lot of food rules, there’s morality wrapped up in that. It’s very black & white and assumes there’s a “good” or “right” way to eat and implies anything other than that is “bad” or “wrong”. It’s not that simple, so practicing mindfulness might help you see where that comes up for you. Are you assigning judgement to you food because you feel you should be having something else? Do you feel guilty or shameful because you like something you don’t think is “healthy” enough?
[click_to_tweet tweet=”We like what we like, there’s no shame in that. Food preferences and cravings are an important piece of intuitive eating. Read more in this latest edition of IE FAQs” quote=”We like what we like. There’s no shame in that.”]
Mindfulness can help you notice which aspects of a meal are enjoyable to you and which are not. This is completely subjective and something only you can answer for yourself. You might pick one thing to focus on, like texture or temperature, then eventually shift focus to something else, like flavors or the setting you’re eating in. Get curious and ask those questions like, “What is it that I like about XYZ?” or “What doesn’t seem as satisfying as I thought it would be?”
You Might Not Like What You Thought You Liked
I’ve worked with a lot of clients who were very into certain foods. I’m not going to name brands or products because that’s no relevant, but suffice it to say that there are straight up cult-like followings for some of them. When we start exploring food preferences, it’s always interesting to hear someone explain why they like a certain food. If it’s based on a preference, they might start with the flavor or texture or share how it makes them feel happy while enjoying it. But if it’s a food rule they often lead with the nutrition highlight or label claim.
“Well, it’s got XX grams of protein per serving so I like that it helps keep me full.”
“It’s all natural and made without [insert vilified ingredient].”
“My trainer recommended it to me and I found it on sale so I stocked up and now I have to finish it all.”
We all like to feel full, but does it also make you feel satisfied?
We like the idea of a natural food, but what even is that these days?
No one likes to waste food but do you really like it enough to finish it just because you already bought it? (NOTE: There’s a lot of privilege wrapped up in that, so if you’re budget conscious and really prefer to make use of what you’ve already got, go for it. That’s another example of the nuance of intuitive eating)
Those might seem like valid reasons (and maybe they are, maybe they aren’t) but they have little to do with an actual true food preference that’s based on taste, texture, or how a food is prepared or eaten. If you can separate those things from the flavor of a food, you may realize that you’re choosing what to eat based on something other than a taste preference, and some or all of that might be due to a food rule or the influence of diet culture.
And on the other hand…
You Might Like Things You Thought You Didn’t Like
Or were told you shouldn’t like by diet culture.
Fad diets and trendy “wellness” programs love to make us think the conventional or processed/packaged version of a food is like, the worst thing ever. But don’t let that determine your food preferences. It’s OK if you like white bread and not the 100% whole grain sprouted loaf that stales in 1 1/2 days and costs more than twice what you normally pay. It’s OK if you like white potatoes instead of sweet potatoes (or if you don’t like potatoes at all, unless they’re in the form of a French fry or potato chip). If you find these things to be genuinely enjoyable and satisfying, there’s nothing wrong with having them. You don’t have to seek replacement foods for the things that have been demonized by diet culture.
Want to read more on that? I wrote about replacement foods in this post about Fiber One bars.
Try thinking about how you label foods and whether those match up to what you really enjoy. Which get us to the next tip…
Clue Into Cravings
Cravings are things we love to hate in diet culture. But have you ever wondered why cravings seems to be more intense during periods of restriction? It’s because we become more tempted by what we avoid or restrict, and if we’re using replacement foods for things we’re actually craving, we never end up feeling satisfied and the cycle continues.
I would argue that cravings are actually really helpful for understanding which foods you’re going to find satisfying – thus, letting you know more about what your true food preferences are. If you never find yourself craving the gluten-free, whole grain, naturally sweetened high fiber psuedo-cookie from the boutique bakery, but you dream about your mom’s homemade chocolate chip cookies and instantly start drooling…then yeah, I’d say there’s a clear distinction between what you prefer and what you might feel “safe” allowing yourself to have when dieting.
OK, So Now What?
Keep in mind that true food preferences can be flexible. They might change depending on where you are or who you’re with. If you find that you prefer something different when eating in a restaurant vs. cooking at home…totally fine. If you think something tastes better when you’re calm and relaxed, vs. feeling highly stressed or emotional…also fine. If you enjoy something more based on who you’re with when you’re eating it or because of how it was prepared…that’s definitely something that can shift or change.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”Food rules are rigid. Food preferences are not. Learn more about recognizing your true food preferences with intuitive eating and mindfulness” quote=”Food rules are rigid. Food preferences are not.”]
Here’s a quick rundown in the graphic I shared to Instagram in response to this question. Although this is another post for another day, it’s worth noting that eating in a way that respects your body (like not eating a food you’re allergic to or that might make you feel miserable, even if it is your preferred food) is NOT a food rule…there’s a place for that in intuitive eating. But if it’s not based on a true preference, and it’s not chosen out of respect for your body and what helps you feel your best, it’s probably a food rule.
To summarize it from the caption:
If eating something feels like breaking a rule, “being bad” or a “guilty pleasure” it might be time to rethink how you frame your food decisions and whether or not they’re actually helpful for what really matters to you.
One last thing.
It’s OK to get it wrong. It takes some experimenting to figure out what we really enjoy, especially if dieting confused us over what we actually prefer. That trial & error phase mighttake even longer if you’ve been dieting or restricting your whole life and maybe never had a chance to figure out your food preferences in the first place.
Be kind to yourself – you’re still learning and so am I. It’s an ongoing thing so while we keep working at it, just keep these thoughts in mind as you go about relearning your food preferences vs. your food rules.
To sum it all up: challenging food rules can be uncomfortable, but an important part of that healing process if you want to make peace with food. Discovering (or rediscovering!) your food preferences can be an exciting time but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, reach out to a non-diet dietitian for some support.
Want to learn more about intuitive eating? Be sure to check out our IE Frequently Asked Questions series where we tackle some of the most asked questions on the topic. Here are a few reader favorites:
And if you’re looking for more support for a non diet approach and intuitive eating, be sure to check out my Intuitive Eating Workbook. It’s full of resources and tools to help you kick the dieting mentality and find food freedom!