Editor’s Note: This essay discusses eating disorders and eating disorder recovery. Please take care of yourself if those topics could be triggering.
Disclaimer: I’m writing this story while sipping on a cup of hot chocolate. No, it’s not because I’m throwing all caution to the wind when it comes to nutrition. It’s also not because I’ve run out of coffee. It’s not even because my sugar cravings have gotten the better of me. I’m drinking hot chocolate because there’s a crisp chill in the Chicago air and my entire being wants to be wrapped in the comforting warmth of a cozy, chocolatey bev. In the past, I would’ve considered it an indulgence. Partaking in it would’ve been met with negative self-talk and criticism. I would’ve convinced myself to feel guilty for not opting for green tea instead.
But I’ve since been introduced to the “all foods fit” model, and it’s radically changed how I view my eating habits and mindset. I’ve spent years trying to heal my relationship with food. It’s taken the combined efforts of therapy, medication, and educating myself on eating disorders. Yet, there was a missing piece: reframing the judgments and associations I’d made with food.
What is the “all foods fit” model?
The “all foods fit” model supports a distinctive view: Every food item can be a part of a person’s daily eating plan and meal prep. It’s no secret we live in a culture where labeling foods as “good,” “bad,” “healthy,” and “unhealthy” is the norm. So, it’s all about removing cultural meanings from foods to listen to what your body wants. You may be thinking, “If I eat what I want, won’t I just eat ‘junk’ food all the time?“ While you might first crave the foods you didn’t let yourself eat previously, I can confirm from experience: Variety will find its way back into your daily eating habits. When you don’t label any food groups off-limits, you’ll begin incorporating a wider array of nutrients into your meals and snacks.
Removing restrictions is not just about mental health. It’s beneficial for your physical health, too. By following this model, you’ll begin to trust your hunger cues again. This, in turn, becomes body wisdom. Instead of fixating on limitations, you can lean in and listen to what you need. Sometimes that might be carrots. Other times, it might be a cookie. Beauty exists in ditching the rules and letting your needs lead the way.
Though I found the “all foods fit” model refreshing, it was hard to let go of my ties with fad and elimination diets. Additionally, it was hard to let go of my habitual need to categorize food as “good” or “off-limits.” Below, I dive into the strategies that helped me integrate this model into my eating patterns. What worked for me may not resonate with you, and that’s OK. Before you begin, remember this: Everything in life is a journey. And when it comes to something as individual as our relationship with food, consult a medical professional if there are changes you’d like to make.
Strategies that helped me integrate the “all foods fit” model:
I reflected on why I wasn’t eating certain foods
It took years to unpack why I had been a vegetarian for six years. It was more socially acceptable to cut out an entire food group (that my mind labeled “unhealthy”) in lieu of constantly turning down whole meals. With support from my therapist, I was able to see the bigger picture of how this eating pattern—and coming to it for the wrong reasons—built a preoccupation with the foods I was cutting out. What’s more, I felt a certain uneasiness around these foods. I no longer trusted my own innate hunger cues. A seemingly simple label such as “unhealthy” suddenly blew up into a full-blown obsession.
I had to release the false claim that I was a vegetarian for health reasons to begin to heal my harmful view of meat. And though it’s taken years, I’m now incorporating animal protein sources into my meals a few times a week. I encourage you to take a step back and consider the food rules you’ve made for yourself: Why are you cutting out or avoiding certain foods? Why do you no longer keep certain types of food in the house? If you feel uneasy or unclear about the answer to those or similar questions, it could be time to re-evaluate.
I focused on balance instead of perfection
At one point or another, perfection has influenced almost every part of my life—from my workouts to my work to my cleaning habits. So it comes as no surprise I would let perfectionism dictate my eating habits. But I wanted to escape that feeling, and I craved a sense of freedom and ease.
By working with the “all foods fit” model, I accepted that while nutrition is an important need to address, foods can satisfy us in other ways, too. I began to focus on how sated and energized I felt when I had eggs, greens, and toast for breakfast. And I started to see the truth of my cravings for connection and seasonal comfort when I ate spice cake and cider on the couch with a friend. Incorporating this element of mindfulness into my meals helped me. I ate more nutrient-dense foods and chose sweets and treats that nourished me in other ways.
I realized I could determine how I wanted to feel about foods
I began to look more closely at the critique and virtue I associated with other foods. Additionally, I noticed my language and others’ comments during my meals always seemed to linger with judgment. I was either “good” for opting for a salad or expected to feel guilty because I said “yes” to dessert. It became clear to me that the words we use to describe foods perpetuate the harmful narrative we place on food.
I taught myself to look outside the phrases that had been ingrained in me. So, I started to shape a new language regarding food. There was nothing more empowering than realizing that I determine how I feel about what I eat. Food became energizing and soul-soothing. It became a source of connection and conversation.
My advice: Little by little, bring awareness to the judgmental thoughts when they come up. Reflect on them and perhaps what they’re trying to tell you. An intuitive eating journal can be supportive here. Of course, it’s not always possible to break out a notebook every time you sit down for a meal. However, it can be an effective way to transform judgments into a more neutral, non-judgmental experience. Focus on how satiating a meal is or the aesthetic joy of diving into a dish as opposed to the caloric content or societal associations of that food. You may find that you start to trust your personal decisions around food—from portion size to hunger cues and everything in between.
I began to consistently introduce foods my past self would have turned down
While it took time and support, I managed to work my way up to introducing the packaged and processed foods I once feared. I had Pop-Tarts for snacks on occasion and reclaimed my dormant love of ice cream. Similar to my experience with meat, I began to notice that eating these foods more regularly led to a decrease in cravings. Plus, my bingeing habits subsided, and I trusted myself around foods I previously wouldn’t have. If you notice this is an issue for you, try working with a dietitian or consulting a healthcare provider who can guide you along this challenging journey. Together, you can talk about what strategies will work best for you.
I accepted that everyone eats differently—and no way is “good” or “bad”
Our culture has long adopted the belief that what you eat defines who you are. Personally, I cringe at the “you are what you eat” adage. Let’s be clear: Nothing about what’s on your plate represents who you are as a person. Learning to embrace the truth that all foods can be part of your eating habits can help you jump off the fad diet wagon. Remember: Ingrained beliefs about food won’t shift overnight. But little by little, as you practice the tenets of the “all foods fit” model, you’ll start to feel food freedom for yourself.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder or with disordered thoughts or behaviors regarding food and eating, please seek help. Call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support, reach out to a qualified medical professional, or, for a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.