What Should I Actually Eat?!

It is so easy to get overwhelmed by food decisions. Whether it’s an absurd number of options at home and the workplace or our options seem limited, we tend to rationalize the heck out of deciding what to actually eat.

The problem is that the rational mind alone doesn’t do a great job of feeding the body.  It is awash with rules and shoulds and limits that often interfere with the part of us that truly does know what to eat: the body itself. The ultimate goal of eating intuitively or mindfully is to be present in the body in order to use its feedback when making food decisions, tempered by the logic of the rational mind when necessary.

Essentially, food decision-making comes down to balancing wants and shoulds, with the primary mediator being the body. For example, maybe your mouth genuinely wants ice cream all the time, but you know you really ought not repeatedly indulge that desire because that won’t promote good health in the long run (and you might get a tummy ache). The truth is that if you are really listening to your body, it won’t want ice cream all the time.

Below are some common struggles I hear from my clients in recovery. I provide clues as to where these fears might come from and offer replacement thoughts.

You are afraid of making the “wrong” choice. Imagine reading a restaurant menu trying to decide what to order. A few things sound really good, but how do you know what to get? If you order the linguine ai frutti di mare what if it turns out that the penne alla puttanesca is actually better? What if one is more nutritious? What if you pick the wrong one?

I have had clients tell me that they perseverate for hours after a meal if they suspect that there was somehow a better choice to be made. It’s decision regret crossed with severe FOMO. Here’s the deal though: they are all just choices! Sometimes you will get lucky and pick the yummy, nutritious, satisfying thing and sometimes you won’t. Oh well. It doesn’t matter. You know why? You can have the other thing some other time. Or not. You have literally thousands of eating opportunities ahead of you and, statistically speaking, they won’t all be perfect.

You worry you won’t like it. There is a phase in recovery for some people that embodies the maxim, “If I’m going to eat it, I’d better like it.” What a set up!

Just like in the example above, it is impossible for you to always love everything that goes into your mouth. I have had clients tell me that they actually get angry if their food doesn’t taste good. Luckily, this phase passes and most people come to understand that they have set some seriously unrealistic expectations for their food. One way to coax this phase along is to recognize the distorted binary thinking inherent in this proposition: we don’t either love it or hate it all the time. Sometimes it’s “meh,” but edible. That’s life. The good, the bad, and the neutral with all points between.

You have unchallenged rules or beliefs about a food you want to eat. Often, self-imposed rules arise out of the mere fact that there are too many options. We think that having more rules will narrow the field. But the reality for people in recovery is that the more dietary restrictions you have, the tougher it is to find something to eat. Even simply being a vegetarian rules out a lot of menu items. And so does being a picky eater or having a nutrition-related disease like celiac.

We all have to understand what is and is not within our control when making food decisions. Strict preferences are within our control to a large degree. Diseases are less so. One strategy that helps to let go of self-imposed restrictions is to assess whether the rule is making your life harder or easier. For example, if you won’t eat cheese because of some unsubstantiated belief, then you are adding an immense burden to your recovery. On the other hand, if you have a casein allergy, then not eating cheese is an act of self-care and respect for the body. The bottom line is you must be totally honest with yourself and align with the truth, not bogus nutrition information.

What Should I Actually Eat?

You are afraid of feeling guilty if you get the thing you really want. One of the core tenets of eating intuitively is giving yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want. And you so want to practice it! So you take a risk and order dessert believing full permission was granted. Then slowly, the guilt creeps in. It feels like you just did something you really weren’t supposed to.

Honestly, guilt from eating can be one of the more pesky hurdles for some in the recovery process. There are lots of ways to work with guilt, but one of the simplest starting points is to be sure to slow down and enjoy the food that was so hard to feel OK about. And after eating, if guilt shows up, change the internal script from, “Uh-oh,” to something like, “Even though that was a little scary, I really did enjoy that food. And it’s normal for people to eat all kinds of foods. It’s OK. I fed my body something I wanted and made a pro-recovery choice.”

More on food guilt and how to handle it here.

You worry about what others will think about your choice. You may have spent an inordinate amount of time lurking over other people’s plates, peering into their grocery baskets, and judging them on their choices. And in doing so, you probably developed some opinions about yourself as well. You figure everyone else is probably judging you, so you always want to make a good impression. Even worse, you fear people link what you are eating to your body type.

First, it’s true. People are judgey. We just are. We constantly take in information and evaluate it. It’s human nature. But are people actually making the types of judgments and conclusions you think they are? Probably not. We all have our own points of reference and ideas about how things are or should be. The bottom line is that any effort to try to control how others perceive us only goes so far. So get what you want to get. I promise, there’s always someone who won’t be pleased with your decision.

Everything just looks so good and you don’t want to feel deprived! Maybe you are having dim sum in Chinatown. Or you are at the finest Parisian cheese shop. The sad truth is, you can’t eat all the things. Even if you have tried to before, I’m sure it didn’t end well.

Some people just make a choice and leave the rest. No biggie. But for others, the agony of those that were left behind untasted can feel akin to a loss. It’s OK to be disappointed, but only for a moment. Quickly remember that you only have enough space in your life (and stomach) for a few well-chosen items. Make your choice and stick with it. You can always come back again.

Do you have a scenario in which you really struggled to make a decision, but were able to work it out in the end? Leave a comment below to share your success story!