“You have permission to not eat.”

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Some of my patients who are relearning how to eat intuitively find it helpful to utilize a mantra, a phrase they can say to themselves to help them through a challenging situation. Because we often discuss the concept of unconditional permission, “You have permission to eat” is a refrain that my patients commonly use. One of my patients though flipped it on its head and began to use “You have permission to not eat.” At first, I was a bit perplexed, but the more I listened to her and reflected on these words, the more I realized their power.

Having the freedom to allow ourselves to eat whatever we want, whenever we want, and however much we want – otherwise known as unconditional permission – is central to intuitive eating. Without this foundation, everything else we study can easily warp into dieting tools. Given that, I initially bristled at “You have permission to not eat” because I thought it might be a veiled attempt at restriction, but that is not the case at all. Rather, the power in these words comes from acknowledging the times when we feel obligated to eat even when our bodies are saying no and freeing ourselves from the burden of feeling powerless.

As a first example, consider the scenario that my patient told me about when she was explaining the power of her mantra. She was at dinner with her extended family, and all of the latter were leaning towards ordering dessert. While my patient did not feel like having dessert, she also felt a social obligation to order it since others were. Then she reminded herself, “You have permission to not eat,” which reaffirmed that whether or not to order dessert was her prerogative, and she could act in her own best interests regardless of how the rest of her family went about their eating.

Thinking about other possible applications, I realized how helpful this mantra can be for people who feel pressure to not “waste” food. We are familiar with guilt-inducing refrains to clean our plate, such as “There are starving children in the world,” as if whether or not we finish the food in front of us has any impact whatsoever on the global politics of food insecurity. In these moments, “You have permission to not eat” reminds us that we do not have to be human garbage disposals for the sake of some theoretical benefit to others.

My thoughts then went to how this phrase could be useful for people working through compulsive overeating. Recovery is, of course, more complex than simply reciting a mantra, but just as the concept of unconditional permission is essential for diet survivors who are building healthy relationships with food, “You have permission to not eat” reminds compulsive overeaters that they have the freedom to move away from the urges to overconsume that have felt so irresistible.

Lastly, I considered how “You have permission to not eat” can aid those who overconsume due to habit or tradition. Maybe we eat to the point of physical discomfort every Thanksgiving because we have come to accept that this is the norm on the holiday, or maybe we buy popcorn every time we go to the theater regardless of whether or not we are hungry or feel like popcorn just because eating the snack feels like an intertwined and essential component of movie watching. “You have permission to not eat” reminds us that even if we have long engaged in certain eating behaviors, we have the freedom to move away from them if we feel that they no longer serve us.

You may discover other applications in which “You have permission to not eat” is a helpful mantra, but guard against the temptation to use it as a tool to restrict because that would likely backfire and be counterproductive. If you feel yourself tempted to go down that road, remind yourself of the phrase from which this mantra came: “You have permission to eat.”

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