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Can vs Can't Eat Foods + A Healthier Way To Approach Food

habits healthy eating self trust

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who's been having some distressing digestive issues and just got a list of things she can and can't eat from her naturopathic doctor.

I died a little inside when she started talking about her "can and can't eat" list. 😕

Luckily, she's pretty much always been in a good place with food and her body and didn't really need my input but it made realize it's been a while since I talked about why this whole concept of things we "can vs can't eat" is so unbelievably toxic.

So if you're not new here, this is your reminder.

If you are new here, I want to offer you a new way to start thinking about the whole "healthy eating" thing and briefly share a beliefs switch that seems insignificant but is actually vital.

Even if you don't personally struggle with food, I guarantee you know someone who does so I hope you'll continue reading for their sake because food conversations, in general, can be very triggering, especially when they have to do with foods that are "allowed or not-allowed" to eat.

Anyway, onto the point... 

We've been taught that healthy eating means we can't just eat whatever we want.

That there are certain things we can eat and certain things we can't eat if we want to be healthy.. or skinny. And we've been taught that being skinny is being healthy which is complete BS but that's a subject for another day.

Back to can versus can't eat.

The problem lies in what happens whenever we think, "I can't eat that..." especially when it applies to a food we love and have been used to eating most of our lives.

We mourn it. Truly. It creates a feeling of sadness to think about never being able to eat something we love again.

It may even trigger anger, and resentment towards our bodies if we're trying to treat a specific medical condition.

We almost even worry about life without it and how we're going to "resist the temptation" of it or willpower our way through cravings for it.

And ohh boy, does feeling like we can't eat something ever cause cravings - because our species is not biologically wired to restrict food. 

Trying to restrict actually causes cravings and feelings of being out of control around food - especially when we feel like we can't ever eat again.

So, the "I can't eat that..." thought or belief fuels and even creates food restrictive patterns of thoughts and behaviors that are incredibly harmful

Most often that means, whenever we think “I can’t eat that”... we’re at the risk of eventually “caving” and overeating or even bingeing on the things we think we can’t eat.

Which also results in harsh self-judgment and shame whenever we "fall off track".

I know that our culture has turned the act of "falling off the healthy wagon" into an enormous joke but the reality of what that means is anything but funny or harmless.

This is one of many reasons diets fail - because most people can’t stick to “can vs can’t” food rules for very long and over time, every time they “cave” it wires their brain to cave faster and faster - and creates more distrust in themselves and shame.

I don't care how supposedly "healthy" a specific way of eating might be (don't even get me started on what a shitshow the world of nutrition science is) it's useless if you can't stick to it - and it's actively unhealthy if it causes feelings of anger or resentment towards your body or feelings of shame, binge and overeating behaviors as a result of trying to "stick to it".

Sure, some people can stick to things easier than others - but most people just can’t "stick to" anything for very long, because it’s not how our species is wired.

Then when we can’t, we get stuck in patterns of distrusting ourselves, trying to “be good” only to continue failing and hating ourselves - and all this disordered eating & thinking is not only actively harmful but it can even (often) develop into full-blown eating disorders.

 “Can versus can’t”, "allowed vs not allowed", even "healthy vs unhealthy" thoughts and beliefs around food are incredibly toxic.

You are an adult. You can (and should) eat whatever you want, whenever you want. 

So, the only thing that matters is what you want to eat ...in this moment.

THIS moment alone.

Tonight doesn't matter. Tomorrow doesn't matter. 

Release the worries over what choices you may or may not make later. Right now, and what you want right now, is all that matters.

And right now, you're allowed to eat whatever you want.

So... what do you WANT? WHY do you want THAT thing? How is eating THAT thing going to make you feel right now? 

That's IT. 

That's all that matters. Forget the can and can't ever eat again lists. 

Stay in THIS moment with the knowledge that you can eat whatever you want.

Now, if wanting to eat foods that make you feel your best is something you struggle with, if you find yourself always gravitating towards wanting to eat foods that make you feel like crap, that's highly instructive - meaning, we can use that information to dig into WHY you struggle with wanting to eat things that serve the best interests of you and your body.

Because your body is communicating with you 24/7 and it will tell you, usually pretty quickly, when you've eaten something that doesn't make it feel its best.

So, if you're not wanting to eat things that support it in feeling its best, the why behind THAT is what needs to change. 

When you eat, start paying attention to how you feel after you eat. You'll start to see patterns emerge. You'll start to become more aware of the impact your choices are having on how it feels to live in your body.

Then the only questions are:

What do you want to eat?

Why do you want it?

And importantly, how is eating that food going to make your body feel? (because of course your body responds to some foods differently than others and different things will have different sets of consequences on how you will feel when you eat them. You are free to eat whatever you want, but you are not free from the consequences of those choices. That's important to remember.)

And then consider… 

Do you want to feel that way?

Now, sometimes we struggle to love or even like ourselves and wanting to make choices that help us feel our best can be a challenge. That was certainly the case for me.

So when I'd ask myself, "do you want to feel that way?" I'd hear myself say, "I don't care".

If you notice that happening for you, the next questions to consider are, "Why don't you care about eating something that's going to make you sick? Don't you want to feel good?"

The first time I asked myself that question, I heard, "Nope."

Which surprised me so I asked, "why not?" 

To which I heard myself reply, "you don't deserve to."

Ouch. That hurt to hear but it was incredibly powerful because it gave me direction.

I realized, if I don't believe I deserve to feel good, I'm going to struggle pretty hard to treat myself well, right?

And if I'm struggling to want to treat myself well, why would I want to make food choices that made me feel my best?

I wouldn't.

So the fix? Learn how to value myself enough to believe that I deserved to feel good so I'd want to treat myself well -- which includes actually wanting to eat things that made my body feel its best.

If this is something you struggle with and you often hear yourself thinking, “I don’t care” in answer to the question, “do you want to feel the way eating that is going to make you feel”, it doesn't mean that this way to approach "healthy eating" won't work for you - it just means you probably need to relearn how to want to care for yourself and your body.

And in fact, when you do... your food choices will naturally start to fall into place.

And if I can do it, you definitely can.

This switch in how we think about food and healthy eating is SOO powerful because it gives us back the power to make this most basic of human decisions for ourselves - and eliminates the destructive patterns of eating that are caused by restrictions and rules.

But - what about treating actual health conditions?

So, what if you're like my friend? What if you're experiencing health issues that may require specific dietary treatment and your doctor or registered dietician has given you that list of cans and can'ts?

It's exactly the same thing and I'd argue it's perhaps even more important to approach it in this way because if not, the sadness, mourning, anger, resentment is likely to be even stronger if you focus on all the things you feel like you can never eat again.

And the reality is, if you can't stick to one diet, you can't stick to another - it doesn't matter who passes it to you or why you're trying to stick to it.

Which is why it's vital to not think of it like a diet - to not think of it from the perspective of can versus can't eat or something that you have to try to "stick to".

 You still can, and should, eat whatever you want, whenever you want.

(Again, keeping in mind that it's about genuinely wanting to eat in ways that support your health and well-being - and that you may need to relearn how to want to make choices that help you feel your best to support these things.)

You absolutely can - the question is, do you want to?

Do you want to suffer the consequences of eating something that will potentially be harmful for your body? If so, why?

That "why" question is super important because therein lies your power to start understanding what's driving self-destructive choices.

If you hear, "I don't care" ...that's not a sign that you're hopeless and the process won't work for you, it's simply a sign that some inner work on the way you feel about yourself is likely needed (but can also be a sign of food restriction habits driving your choices). 

This is why it's so important to understand WHY we eat the way we eat, instead of obsessing over what we're eating.

So okay, let's get specific about how to practice this:

Eg. If you're looking at that list of can and can't foods, trying to decide what to have for lunch, avoid looking at it from the perspective of, I can only eat the things on the "allowed" side and trying to find something in there because what will almost certainly happen is that your brain will start drifting over to the "can't" side and you'll start ruminating or even obsessing over all the things you "can't" have.

Instead, practice looking at it from the perspective of - I can have anything I want on EITHER of these lists.

From there, if you start noticing that you want something from the "can't" side, then go back to our questions: "how do I want to feel when I'm done eating?" and "do really want to feel the way eating that is going to make me feel?"

At this point, just pause for a second. Get out of your head and bring your attention down into your body - think about how felt the last time you ate that thing.

I mean really think about it. With your attention still focused in your body think about what you felt last time you ate that thing - bloated? Excruciating heartburn? Nauseous? Diarrhea? Headache?

That's your body communicating with you.

It's telling you - "Hey, you! Listen... that is just NOT working for us. Don't eat that again, okay?"

And it's always communicating with you in this way - you've probably just gotten out of the habit of listening to and honoring it (because you've been trying so hard to force yourself to follow the rules).

The problem occurs when our brains high-jack the decision-making process and they do this because they get conditioned with all kinds of thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behavior in life in general, and around food. 

Many of which are really unhealthy, especially the ones that are literally created by the whole "can vs can't eat" philosophy.

So you're there - staring at this list from your dietician and trying to decide what to eat for lunch.

You know you're an adult and can have anything you want. NONE of the foods are actually off-limits.

But some may have consequences you won't enjoy and you know that. You know that your choice will have an impact on how you feel - you didn't need a list to tell you that.

You're also connected with your body and listening to when it tells you what it wants to help it feel its best.

So, you're making decisions not based on what someone else says you can or can't eat but rather from an empowered place. A place of love and connection with your body.

You're honoring what your body actually wants while simply using the list as a gentle guide. 

Like I said, even if food isn’t something you struggle with, I promise you someone who does so please try to keep this in mind when you’re talking about food with others.  

That's why I wanted to talk about this; because I know how triggering food conversations can be for soooo many people.

What I didn't realize until just this morning was how triggering that specific conversation was for even me.

I consider my relationship with food to be very healthy now. I haven't binged in probably 8 years or more, I almost never use food for comfort anymore (not that it's a bad thing if you do, but in my case I used to use it in extremely unhealthy ways). I almost never even overeat to the point of discomfort anymore.

I just eat and live in ways that support what I need to feel my best.

It's beautiful, easy and peaceful - and I'm grateful for that every single day.

But I obviously still have some trauma stored in my body over my history with it all that I need to spend some time looking at. Because what I realized I was feeling was fear.

You have to understand the years I spent not only suffering myself but seeing and hearing sooooo many other women suffer as a result of the messaging we've received around food.

So. Many. 

Suffering. SOOO. Bad.

I'm talking about grown women, brilliant, smart, talented, capable women, running households, raising families... sobbing hysterically in actual pain because they're literally scared of carrots, hate themselves if they touch a cookie and bingeing to the point of feeling like they're going to explode when they can't hold on and stick to the "can eat" list anymore.

That reality is sooo very much more common than you can even imagine.

Based on a survey done in the US in 2008, something like 75% of women surveyed expressed disordered thoughts and habits around food.

It's heartbreaking, and infuriating because we aren't born like this - we learn it.

And where do we learn it? From "can vs can't eat" food lists that are supposed to be promoting health.

From the things we learn about how to eat "healthy" (ie. low-carb, gluten-free, clean eating, organic, Weight Watchers, Keto, Paleo, Whole30, etc).

From every single message we've gotten since we arrived on this planet that taught us to distrust our own bodies and only eat what we're "allowed".

I realized I was triggered because I've seen low-carb rules not only destroy my life but way, way, waaaay too many others, and, as a result... low-carb talk, well, it scares me.

It scares me because I worry, whose life will it destroy next?

We have GOT to change the way we think and talk about "healthy" eating.

It's NOT defined by how many rules we can follow or "good with food" we can be.

You never know who is struggling and how your words may trigger them.

Cognitive Eating Can Help You

The Cognitive Eating Academy combines a wide range of scientifically proven modalities into an easy-to-follow step-by-step process that helps you understand why you can't stop eating in ways that don't serve your best interests and how to change it. It has been meticulously crafted and tested for almost three years with one goal in mind - helping you move past all the things that are keeping you stuck repeating the same self-destructive patterns so you can find peace and start living and feeling better.

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