08/16/2012 10:46 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

Fearless Eating

How did eating, a natural and essential process, become so tainted with fear?

  • Fear of not getting enough.
  • Fear of eating too much.
  • Fear of eating the wrong thing.
  • Fear of eating at the wrong time.
  • Fear of gaining weight.
  • Fear of getting caught.
  • Fear of losing control.

The Origin of Food Fear
Many people struggle against fear to find balance in their eating. We're bombarded with confusing and sometimes conflicting nutrition information -- even mom said "clean your plate" and "save room for dessert." We're told we should always eat breakfast, eat every three hours to prevent hunger, and never eat after 7 p.m. We're given lists of "bad" foods to avoid and "good" foods to eat to prevent premature death. We're told to count calories, grams, exchanges, or points to control our weight. And if that doesn't work, we're prescribed diets of pre-packaged food, liquid meal replacements, or other drastic means to enforce the rules.

The Consequences of Food Fear
If we crave something we've been told is bad or feel like eating when we shouldn't, we feel fearful, even distrustful of our body: "Why do I want to eat if it could make me unhealthy?" When feelings of deprivation lead to increased cravings for forbidden foods, we eventually give in, feel guilty, then overeat, confirming our greatest fear: We are out of control.

Over time, rule-following disconnects us from our innate hunger and fullness cues and forces us to deny our natural desire to eat in a way that is pleasurable. We develop a rocky love-hate relationship with food that drives the self-perpetuating eat-repent-repeat cycle.

The Triumph over Food Fear
The truth is evident: Diets just don't work long term for the vast majority of people. The awareness that our eating decisions are based on fear rather than health and enjoyment is the first step toward freedom. Time and time again over the last 13 years, I've seen that once the participants in our Am I Hungry? Workshops are no longer consumed by fear and constant thoughts of dieting, weight, and eating, unexpected and profound changes begin to occur:

  • They are able to rediscover their intuitive wisdom about when, what, and how much to eat.
  • They recapture the joy of eating. No more fabulous meals ruined by guilt.
  • They find it easier to stop when they feel satisfied and content rather than stuffed and miserable.
  • They are able to apply nutrition knowledge in a flexible manner that serves rather than enslaves them.
  • They consider balance, variety and moderation when deciding what to eat, rather than "bad" and "good."
  • They stop using exercise to punish themselves for eating or to earn the right to eat. Instead, physical activity becomes an essential way to nurture and energize their bodies.
  • They realize that fearless eating is not about being in control; it is about being in charge.

For more by Michelle May, M.D., click here.

For more on Becoming Fearless, click here.