Ep. 155: Reclaiming Fullness (with Coach Julie)

Ep 154: Eating Disorders and Recovery in the LGBTQ+ Community

Ep. 153: Noticing Progress (with Coach Julie)

Ep. 152 No Matter WHat

Ep. 152: No Matter What (with Coach Julie)

Emotional Not Eating

Ep. 151: Emotional Not Eating

Eat Whatever You Want, Whenever You Want

Eat Whatever You Want, Whenever You Want?

The idea of eating “whatever you want, whenever you want” is an often-discussed topic in the eating disorder recovery space. Some use this directive to encourage people to give up food restriction and food rules, and others speak out against the idea of eating “whatever you want, whenever you want,” saying that it’s unrealistic or will lead to overeating and poor food choices.

This phrase is also (incorrectly) used to describe the popular Intuitive Eating approach, which is much more nuanced than simply “eating whatever you want, whenever you want.” The original philosophy of Intuitive Eating was developed by Evelyn Tripoli and Elise Resh, and the basic premise is that your body knows what foods are best for you and how much you need to eat. So, if you can learn to follow that inner guidance, you’ll eventually be able to eat in a natural way and your body will be at the unique size that’s right for you. Intuitive eating involves tuning in to taste preferences and to how foods make you feel; it’s not just about following every food desire that you have.

If you are unsure if an intuitive approach to eating is right for you, you can listen to Episode 16: Eating Intuitively: Is it Right for You in Recovery from Binge Eating? or read this blog post: Is Intuitive Eating a Remedy for Binge Eating?. Also know that what I talk about in the rest of this post is not meant to be a reflection of the Intuitive Eating philosophy. I only wanted to mention it up front because it’s so strongly linked in many people’s minds to the idea of “eating whatever you want, whenever you want.”

Rethinking the Idea of Eating “Whatever You Want, Whenever You Want.”

Taken at face value, “eating whatever you want, whenever you want” seems to lack sound judgement and wisdom, but I’m going to turn the tables a bit here and say that maybe we should all be eating “whatever we want, whenever we want”…but only if we reinterpret this phrase.

Admittedly, throughout my years of working with binge eaters, I’ve been more on the side of people who say that “eating whatever you want, whenever you want” is unrealistic and can lead to eating an overabundance of highly stimulating, processed food. However, I’ve recently had new insights about this, realizing that I was interpreting this phrase in an overly simplistic way, and realizing it holds more truth than I’ve thought in the past.

Re-Examining the Meaning of “Wants”

As humans, we naturally have many desires and wants, and this is an absolutely normal part of our existence. Much of this wanting is fueled by our primitive brain and its reward/pleasure center, which naturally drives us toward behaviors that are going to keep us alive, help us experience pleasure, and allow us to avoid pain. Eating is a behavior that does all of the above.

Whether or not we struggle with a binge eating habit, we are going to want often and we’re going to want food often, and especially tasty food. It’s simply in our nature, and if we didn’t have this strong desire for food, we might not have survived as a species. Add to that the abundance of highly stimulating foods available to many of us today, and it’s easy to see why our normal cravings for food can get amplified. Some of us have stronger desires than others when it comes to food or other pleasures, and binge eaters have a glitch in this primitive reward system that makes them want massive amounts of food.

Primitive Wanting vs. Truly Wanting

What’s important to know is that having the experience of wanting something in the moment (because of our primitive drives) does not have much to do with what we actually, truly want for our lives.

Wanting is a feeling, a sensation, a type of energy that moves through us…but it is not us.

If we take another look at the phrase, “eat whatever you want, whenever you want,” you can see how this philosophy could potentially be harmful—because we do “want” often and we “want” food often. This can create a dilemma if we are fortunate enough to have access to food often, because even if we’re not actively eating—we may be smelling food, passing by it, seeing others eating it, and viewing advertising for it.

Normal eaters experience this too, but most people aren’t out there eating whatever they see, smell, or think about, or whenever their body creates the sensation of wanting around food. What normal eaters get good at is distinguishing what they actually, truly want from what they feel like they want in the moment.

Basically, a normal eater decides what “wants” to follow and what “wants” not to follow based on balancing their momentary desire for pleasure with their desire to feel good and to be able to function well in the world. A normal eater will certainly choose to eat just for pleasure sometimes and even do this more often than is ideal for health, especially in our modern food environment. But even when they eat purely for pleasure, it does not feel vastly out of line with their true self and the choices they want to be making.

I want or I want

Someone who is not making those conscious choices with food and instead feels driven by their momentary desires and cravings may say: “I eat whatever I want whenever I want.”

But someone who is making those conscious food choices would instead say, “I eat whatever I want, whenever I want.”

The difference is in what word is emphasized. If we emphasize the word I, it changes the whole experience and puts you back in control.

If you are instead focusing on the word want, and you are therefore eating every time you feel “wanting” around food, you are not allowing your true self to choose how you really want to be eating.

For example, your lower brain may want to constantly graze all day, but that doesn’t make you feel good. You realize that you actually feel better and more in touch with your appetite cues when you eat a few nourishing meals plus a couple snacks during the day, at generally the same times. That’s what you want to eat and when you want to eat, so when you eat in that way, you are in fact eating “whatever you want, whenever you want.” You’re making wise choices for yourself, and your additional, excessive wants and primitive brain desires are just along for the ride.

How Do You Handle “Wants” in the Rest of Your Life? 

Think about all of the other things you don’t do (or don’t do exactly when you want to) because your higher brain has greater goals—goals not to go broke, or ruin your relationships, or lose your job. We all disregard momentary desires sometimes for more important wants, and honestly, sometimes we do the opposite in that we disregard our greater goals for some guilty pleasure…and that’s okay too! But it’s about choosing that balance for yourself—by connecting to what you actually want for your life and for your eating, and leaving room for enjoyment too.

This is never about banishing food pleasure, and conversely, it’s also never about trying to convince yourself that you really want to be on a strict eating plan that deprives your body of enough food. If you struggle with wanting to be too restrictive, listen to Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?

How Much Space Are You Giving Your “Wants”?

As I was thinking about this topic, I ran across an insightful and relevant post—part of which I’m going to share here—from one of my favorite authors and podcast creators, Forrest Hansen. He said…

Much like dishes, laundry, and email, our wants never end. They expand to fill the space they’re allowed. We can never get to the bottom of dishes, laundry, or email. Doing email simply leaves us with more email to do as sending email means receiving more in return. Doing dishes today still means more tomorrow, and unfortunately, I never seem to run out of dirty clothing.

Our wants work the same way. Most people carry around this sense that if they could just get to the bottom of their wants, they’d finally be happy, but the truth is that our wants expand to fill the space they’re allowed. As we satisfy old wants, new ones appear to take their place and even when we’re currently enjoying that thing that we wanted, we can notice ourselves teleporting into the future, anticipating, planning, and desiring some new and slightly better version.

The problem isn’t just that our wants are never ending and constantly expanding, it’s that we can’t solve this problem by abandoning wants altogether. Important boxes must be checked for us to feel fulfilled. There is space for our wants, but the trick is to be thoughtful, not just about what wants we’re filling that space with, but how much space we’re allowing our wants to have. Are they in the passenger’s seat of the car or the driver’s seat?”

I hope that these words from Forrest Hansen and my discussion helps you see that you no longer have to be driven by your wants—in relation to food or anything else in your life—but you can get skilled at determining what you truly desire. You can learn to give yourself ample pleasure when it comes to food, while still not following the endless wants that are part of the human condition.

________________

If you want more help as you navigate this and as you create a way of eating that works for you, you can utilize the following Brain over Binge resources:

One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private and highly personalized session with Kathryn or Coach Julie. You will learn to change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.

Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.

Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $18.99/month. Includes over 125 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating.

Ep. 150: Making Peace with Your Body