Anti-Diet Culture

Why “Just Let Yourself Eat” Isn’t Working For You

June 25, 2024

Self-Paced Course: Non-Diet Academy


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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

Welcome back to Rebuilding Trust With Your Body, I’m Katy Harvey your host. Today on the show we are going to be talking about why the approach of “just let yourself eat” probably isn’t working for you (and of course, I’m going to help you out with what to do instead).

“Just let yourself eat” is a lovely sentiment when you’re trying to ditch dieting and move away from diet culture. It also falls short of actually leading someone to becoming a true intuitive eater. 

“Just let yourself eat” tends to result in eating that’s all over the place – undereating because you’re either not paying attention, or you’re not tuned into your hunger signals, and it can lead to overeating because you’re just eating whatever, whenever, and it turns into what I call IMPULSIVE eating, not intuitive eating. That distinction is a big ah-ha moment for a lot of my clients. 

So in this episode I’m going to teach you how to slow down and connect with your hunger, rather than just eating whatever/whenever, so that you don’t stay stuck in the “just let yourself eat” trap. 

How Dieting Leads Us Astray

Dieting teaches us to disconnect from our appetite signals. Here are some examples:

  • “Drink a glass of water before you eat” = trick yourself into not being as hungry
  • “Portion out your food according to these calories/points/macros.” = disregard your hunger and only eat this prescribed amount of food
  • “If you’re really hungry, you’d eat an apple.” = dismiss your body’s food cravings and desires
  • If when you were a kid your parents or maybe an aunt or uncle, or your grandma or grandpa would say things during family dinners like, “Do you really need 2nds?” or “Eat your veggies or you can’t have dessert.” = Don’t listen to your hunger/fullness, and you have to earn dessert.

If you ditched dieting, and now you’re trying to eat intuitively and listen to your body – chances are it’s tricker than you thought it would be, and you might be feeling stuck, frustrated or discouraged.

It takes time to re-wire and reconnect with your appetite signals and food desires, and to undo the damage caused by dieting and the diet culture messages we’ve been living with. 

So today we are going to be digging into a strategy for how to slow down and actually connect with your body, rather than “just letting yourself eat” and having it be a free-for-all with food.

I’m going to walk you through my 5-step framework for reconnecting with your hunger and fullness signals that you can use in the moment while you’re eating. 

First things first though, let’s start with a little bit of semi-structure with food that is actually going to allow you to connect more easily with your hunger and fullness signals.

Creating A Semi-Structured Eating Schedule

Your appetite is tied to your circadian rhythm, aka your “biological clock.” This rhythm is why as humans we most naturally prefer to sleep when it’s dark and be awake when it’s light outside. Now, yes, some people are night owls, but as a species we’re not nocturnal.

Just like your body prefers to go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same times each day (all of the sleep experts say this based on lots of solid research), the same is true for our eating. Your appetite is also tied to your biological clock, and your body prefers to be fed around the same times each day. 

When this happens your body starts to know and expect when food will be coming, and you’ll feel hungry around those times. It also essentially trains your digestive system to be ready to accept food and produce all of the digestive enzymes and things that help your food get utilized within your body. You’ll not only have far fewer digestive issues when you have a consistent eating pattern, you’ll also be more connected to your hunger and fullness signals because they’ll be more reliable and predictable for you. 

When you do this, you won’t have to question or second guess whether you’re really hungry because you’ll know for sure that it’s physical hunger you’re feeling. 

Here’s what I recommend as far as having a semi-structured eating schedule:

  • Eat breakfast within about an hour of waking up
  • Try not to go longer than about 3-4 hours without eating something
  • To the best of your ability, eat your meals and snacks around the same times each day

You might have to set alarms to help you remember to eat at these times for the first couple of weeks, and typically after that it becomes second nature because it’s gotten your appetite essentially calibrated to your circadian rhythm.

Let me give you an example of what this eating schedule might look like: 

  • 7am Breakfast
  • 10am Snack
  • 12pm Lunch
  • 3pm Snack
  • 6pm Dinner
  • 9pm Snack

Or perhaps your breakfast and lunch are close enough together that you don’t need a morning snack, that’s fine.

  • 8am Breakfast
  • 11:30am Lunch
  • 2pm Snack
  • 5pm Snack
  • 7pm Dinner

Maybe you work 2nd shift and you don’t eat your first meal of the day until noon, or you have a teenager at home who is on summer break and they sleep until noon. The same principles still apply: 

  • 12pm Breakfast/Lunch
  • 3pm Snack
  • 6pm Dinner
  • 9pm Snack
  • 11pm/Midnight Meal

I know this sounds very counter to intuitive eating, but we can think of it as a stepping stone towards being more connected with your appetite signals, more trusting of your body, and it’s basically a form of gentle nutrition (which is principle 10 of intuitive eating) to be intentionally giving your body the fuel it needs throughout the day. 

(Don’t worry about taking notes on all of this because I’ve put all of this together in a free guide that I’ll tell you how to get at the end!)

Now let’s move into the 5 simple steps to follow in the moment when you’re eating that are going to allow you to be connected with your hunger and fullness and to let those signals guide your eating. 

Step 1: The Powerful Pause

This is a technique you may have heard me talk about before. It’s where you literally pause before you start eating your food, and you take 3 long, slow, deep breaths. What this does is it stimulates your vagus nerve, and it activates your parasympathetic nervous system. That’s the part of your nervous system that we sometimes refer to as “rest and digest,” and it’s basically the opposite of when your sympathetic nervous system is activated in “fight or flight” mode, which a lot of us are walking around in that stressed out mode all day long. 

The Powerful Pause is going to counteract the stress, and any degree of fight-or-flight that your nervous system is in, and it’s going to help you to slow down and be more mindfully present in the moment, which is quite literally going to make it easier for you to eat intuitively because those signals are going to be firing more accurately, and you’re going to be more tuned in with your body and not just shoveling food in impulsively like we tend to do if we’re eating quickly and mindlessly.

Step 2: Befriend Your Hunger

Diet culture teaches us to be afraid of our hunger, and to try and trick ourselves into being less hungry by doing things like drinking a bunch of coffee (PSA: coffee, while delicious, is not a meal), or drinking diet soda, or drinking a ton of water. You know that saying, “You’re probably not hungry, you’re just thirsty”? I’m calling BS on that. We have thirst signals that tell us when we’re thirsty, and hunger signals that tell us when we’re hungry. We can trust these signals if we are connected to our bodies. 

Befriending your hunger means embracing the fact that hunger is a normal, natural and beneficial biological signal from your body. It isn’t something you need to be afraid of or distrust. Hunger is your friend. Hunger is helpful, wonderful and necessary for you to know when to eat and how much to eat in order to be the glorious living, breathing human being that you are. You don’t need to be afraid of this. Hunger rocks. It’s just your body telling you that you need energy. 

You probably don’t notice the signal from your body to pee and think, “I can’t possibly have to pee right now, I just peed an hour ago.” And you probably don’t try to trick yourself into not needing to pee (unless you’re like me on a road trip and you’re trying not to stop unless absolutely necessary). In general, day-to-day life, most of us have a pretty neutral reaction to needing to pee. Let’s channel that same neutral and accepting energy towards our hunger.

Step 3: EAT – Unapologetically

It pains me that as a dietitian such a big part of the work I do involves telling people that it’s ok to eat when they’re hungry. If we step back and think about it, it’s really messed up that we’ve been led to believe that eating is a bad thing to do, and that we feel guilty so often when we do it. 

So that’s step 3 – after you have paused to check in with your body, you’ve befriended your hunger, and the next thing to do if you’re feeling hungry is to EAT. Unapologetically.

You don’t need to be afraid of eating or ashamed to eat. (Spoiler alert: Everybody eats. Just like everybody poops. It’s part of being a human.) 

I want to empower you to own it and eat when you are hungry. No more sneaking around and eating in secret. No more tiptoeing down to the kitchen after everyone else is in bed to cut off slivers of the brownies that you said you said earlier you didn’t want when secretly you did. No more hitting the drive thru to get your favorite sandwich in secret and disposing of the evidence so nobody else sees it. No more hiding in your office or your car to eat your lunch at work just because you’re ashamed of being seen eating by your coworkers.  If you’re hungry you 100% deserve to eat, without shame. (I know that you might have very good reasons for feeling ashamed based on things people have said and done to you, especially if you live in a larger body, so I don’t want to minimize or invalidate that. My hope here is to give you PERMISSION and ENCOURAGEMENT to eat without fear and shame.)

Step 4: Create a Speed Bump

This is another technique that I often teach to my clients. I call it a “speed bump” because we are intentionally creating a way to slow down and check in with yourself while you’re eating, just like a speed bump on the road forces us to slow down our cars. 

There are several ways to create this speed bump while eating. The idea is to take a moment to pause while eating to check in with your body to see if you’re getting full (rather than just automatically cleaning your plate like you might have been taught to do). This is going to help you become more attuned to something called your “last bite threshold” in intuitive eating, which is when you recognize that you are nearing your last bite after which you’re done eating because you’re satisfied. 

I recently asked the members of my FB group, Intuitive Eating Made Easy, what has been the best piece of advice they were given when they first started out with intuitive eating, and one person said: 

“When I was told to stop part way through my meals and snacks and ask my body if it is satisfied at that point. This made me realize how being on a strict program for decades taught me to distrust my own body cues. Now I listen and am more peaceful and content with my actual food and my eating behaviors. My body is happy again.”

Step 5: Honor Your Fullness

This is again where “just let yourself eat” often falls short, because it kind of implies that you don’t need to pay attention to your hunger and fullness. I’ve seen a lot of people get tripped up with this where they’ll treat intuitive eating as “just eat whatever you want, whenever you want,” and that’s not intuitive eating – THAT’S IMPULSIVE EATING. 

If you’re truly eating intuitively, you are slowing down and checking in with your body before and during while you’re eating, to see if you’re hungry, what you’re hungry for, how hungry you are, and when you’re full. That’s a bit more nuanced than “just let yourself eat.” Again, I understand and appreciate the sentiment behind “just let yourself eat,” and there’s some truth to it. 

Part of what I teach people to do is to ditch the rules and judgments about food from diet culture, and to a certain extent you do have to “just let yourself eat” in the sense that we want to move towards normal eating – and this process will help you figure out what that means for you.

So step 5 is to honor your fullness, and not force yourself to stop eating just because you think you should, or because the package told you what a “serving” is (side note – serving sizes are not meant to be the recommended portion size)

Honoring your fullness means paying attention while you’re eating, and allowing yourself to eat a satisfying amount of food, and then stopping when you are comfortably full (even if part of you wants to keep eating). In fact, I just did a podcast episode about what to do if you’re full but want to keep eating a couple weeks ago, so if that’s something you struggle with go check it out. It’s episode #133. 

BONUS Step 6: Go Live Life

Once you are done eating, and once you’ve honored your hunger and fullness, the next thing to do is go out and live your life. Don’t sit around dwelling on what you just ate or calculating how many calories it was. Take a moment to appreciate the food you had, the energy it’s going to give you, and the pleasure it brought you. Then move onto your next thing. Food is only one important area of our lives; it shouldn’t be the main focus of our lives. 

Let’s recap those 5 steps for reconnecting with your hunger and then I’ll tell you how to get the free guide that covers it all:

  1. The Powerful Pause
  2. Befriend Your Hunger
  3. EAT – Unapologetically
  4. Create a Speed Bump
  5. Honor Your Fullness
  6. BONUS: Go Live Life

I’ve put all of this together for you inside my free guide called 5 Simple Steps to Reconnecting With Your Hunger and Fullness. Now, if you have downloaded a copy of this guide in the past, you’re going to want to go grab it again because I’ve updated and refreshed it, and added in some additional resources that I know you’re going to LOVE! 

In case nobody has told you today – you are worthy just as you are. We’ll talk again soon.

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Search for Episode 129: How to Increase Your Odds of Binge Eating and Gaining Weight

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