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Without food rules, is there chaos?

So you’ve read a few articles about things like the non-diet approach and intuitive eating. Maybe you’ve even read our Guide to Non-Dieting Nutrition book (thank you!). You might not feel quite ready to change your beliefs yet, but you’re reading this because you’re open to learning more. That’s ok, the ideas are pretty contrary to just about everything we’ve been taught about ‘controlling’ our lifestyle! For the record, I didn’t get it the first time I came across non-dieting principles, either. (Hardly surprising, though, when it was brought up at only ONE lecture at uni…).  Even if you feel that you completely agree with all of the ideas you’ve read about the non-diet approach so far, it’s normal to still have some niggling questions or doubts about how some of the non-dieting principles pan out when real people try to implement them in real life.


There are NO bad foods. Seriously. Eat all the things

One of the top worries about the non-diet approach is this idea that it really is okay to eat whatever you want to eat. Some people (and amazing authors) call this the ‘permission to eat’ principle. The basic idea is this:

“We need to remove food rules, so that we can avoid guilt about breaking said rules, so that we can get out of the ‘restrict/ overeat’ cycle that diet thinking causes.”

Cool, sounds good. But hang on, we’re not just talking about letting go of restrictive (and nonsense) rules, like “never eat carbs past 5pm”. We’re actually talking about completely letting go of all the internal chatter about which foods are perceived as ‘good’, and which ones are ‘bad’. We are literally talking about viewing ALL foods as equal. Not even ‘healthy Vs unhealthy’. All food is just food, with no moral attachments. A cookie is just as good an option for your next meal choice as a carrot. So yes, this is pretty darn contrary to everything we’ve ever been taught about nutrition! It’s pretty understandable that the majority of people who come across the idea have a bit of a ‘huh, but then I’ll just eat all the junk food?!?’ moment!


But it really works, and it’s a crucial step if you want to let go of dieting

(…and be free of the post-deprivation overeating, emotional eating, poor body image, anguish around foods… and dozens of other things dieting causes…)

Let’s take a look at the rationale for ditching the ‘some foods good/ some foods bad’ thought filter in more detail.

The reason for removing food rules and advising people to eat foods of their preference is to remove the guilt phase of the diet cycle. When you’re able to give yourself unconditional permission to eat any and all foods you truly want to eat, the problem of assigning moral value to foods, and feeling guilty when you make the less virtuous choice, is out of the way. This frees you to truly get enjoyment from the foods you might have previously felt ‘bad/ guilty/ wrong’ for eating.

How to break the diet cycle. Ditch 'good' Vs 'bad' thinking to stop food guilt.

Breaking the vicious cycle

It’s such an important change in thinking, because enjoyment of foods without guilt leads to increased satisfaction from eating. This is a GOOD thing! Contrary to what you might think, enjoying the food more actually tends to leads to LESS of the food being eaten. (But it doesn’t have to, and you won’t always feel satisfied by the same amounts of food. The point here is that when we’re not eating mindfully, and feel guilt about our food choices, we tend to overconsume those foods, as explained below).


How ‘permission to eat’ breaks the diet cycle

For those in the diet cycle way of thinking, the next thing that happens after the guilt of eating a ‘bad’ food is: restriction. It might be a vow to ‘never eat that again’, ‘not eat it again until my birthday’, ‘just stop buying that food so it’s not in the house any more’, or ‘ put it in a container in the back of the cupboard out of sight’ or any number of rules and conditions you place on yourself. The bottom line, though, is that consciously or subconsciously, you’re planning to deprive yourself of that food in future.

Unfortunately, this strategy backfires royally for the vast majority of normal people. The feeling that you are/ are about to feel restricted actually increases desire for the restricted foods. This causes more overeating of the food when you do get your hands on it. It’s the same as the ‘last supper’ effect, where you eat all your favourite things the day before starting a diet! When you can really give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, there’s no longer any need to restrict certain foods, now or in future. This makes it a whole lot less of an issue when you’re faced with open packets in the house. You don’t need to finish the lot today, because you can have some again tomorrow, if you still want it then. And you could even have some again the following day. That food really isn’t going away again, it’ll always be an option for you! When all foods are truly equal to you, no food has the ‘forbidden fruit’ allure, so the drive to overeat forbidden foods while you have them fades away.


If all foods are okay, don’t people eat less healthily?

This is really the biggest worry, isn’t it? If we take away the rules, you won’t be able to control yourself, and will eat all the sugary, fatty, ‘bad’ things, all the time?

So far, we’ve looked at the worry that ‘permission to eat anything you want’ will mean unbridled overeating, and talked about why this doesn’t happen. But even if you’re able to enjoy your previously banned foods without finishing the packet, there’s still the worry that you’ll just eat ‘unhealthy’ foods at every meal, if you let yourself eat whatever you really feel like at the time. Here’s two reasons why that doesn’t happen:


  1. Evolution

Us humans have been around for a while now, and we’ve managed to stay reasonably well nourished for most of our existence with no dietary guidelines or whole 30 or body transformation programs… That’s because we’ve developed a natural instinct to eat a wide variety of different types of foods. This evolutionary adaptation specifically exists to ‘hedge our bets’ that we meet all our nutrient requirements.

You might wonder how this instinct holds up today when any and every food known to man is available at your local Woolies and there’s a fast food restaurant on every 3rd corner, but it does. Even in today’s food environment, research shows that people who eat ‘intuitively’ (meaning, they eat what they’re craving, when they’re hungry, and stop when they’re full), actually eat a better overall diet than the majority of people. They eat more fruit, veggies, whole grains and legumes, and less discretionary foods, compared with others.


  1. Dieting has taught us not to trust ourselves.

If we’ve grown up in a culture where dieting is normal, what we’ve learned is the idea that we need to override our body’s cues about when, what & how much to eat. We follow the rules or the meal plan, whether we like the food or not, trying our best to ignore the hunger and ‘be good’! With practice at dieting (or even watching people around us diet, like our parents), what we’re actually doing is reinforcing to ourselves that our bodies aren’t to be trusted. It makes sense, then, that we’d lose touch with our body’s cues over time. Our hunger becomes something to fear, because we no longer know how to satisfy it within the constraints of our food rules.

Another reason we might be hesitant to trust ourselves to make balanced decisions about what to eat is the effect of deprivation on the brain. Restriction of ‘bad’ foods artificially increases our desire for those foods. So when we do find ourselves with open slather (how did you feel the last time you stood at the dessert bar at a buffet?), we can initially find it really hard to hold back. But these strong urges do diminish, once we remove the rules and guilt.

It can take time and patience to convince yourself that previously banned foods are back on the menu, and it’s really normal to go through a short period of eating more of those foods you’ve missed so much*. But honestly, a short phase of eating more discretionary foods than you used to isn’t a big deal when the result is a lifetime of natural eating. Feeling no guilt, eating exactly the right amount for your body, and truly enjoying a wide variety of nutritious foods.

* A lot of people find comfort in working through this with a Non-Diet Dietitian. There are ways to reduce the impact of the ‘making up for lost time eating’, and we can keep you from feeling out of control as you liberate your food choices.


Easier said than done, I know.

I realise it’s a pretty radical concept to let go of diet rules, since it’s so contrary to everything we’ve been taught! However, if you want to move toward a healthier, happier relationship with food, why not experiment with a few changes to test the waters and see if this way of thinking might be a positive thing for you? Here’s some ideas to get you started:

1.Become aware of your language and thoughts about food.

For example, when you find yourself labelling foods as ‘bad’ or ‘good’, feel guilty for eating them, or have thoughts about how you’ll compensate for eating certain foods later with smaller meals or exercise. Try replacing these thoughts with a more constructive one, such as “all foods have their place in a healthy overall eating pattern”, or “my food choices do not make me a good or bad person”.

2. Stop counting calories.

…or macros, or putting any other numerical value on your food. Some days you’ll be hungrier, and some days you’ll need less food. Your body will tell you the right amount when you work towards building the skill of listening to its cues.

3. Take a moment before each meal to check in with your body.

What’s your body telling you about what it needs? How hungry are you? What type of foods would satisfy you the most right now?

4. Make an effort to consciously savour your foods as often as you can.


As always, I recommend picking one thing to work on at a time. If you’re finding it hard to work on these ideas, or if they’re bringing up difficult thoughts and feelings, it’s well worth working with a Non-Diet dietitian or psychologist!


Are you going to experiment with any of the ideas I’ve given you? Please let me know how it goes! You can email me with any questions, feedback or ideas using the form below 🙂 And if you have clients who would benefit from learning more about the Non-Diet Approach, consider whether a license to distribute our ‘Guide to Non-Diet Nutrition’ client workbook could be good for your PT business.


Thanks for reading!



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