How to eat, in a nutshell – lesson one: Permission.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.


I spend a lot of time and energy trying to teach people to eat normally. It’s amazing what a difficult process it can be, and I blame a lot of that on the severely disordered culture we’re all swimming in.

It can be a long, drawn-out process, full of tears and frustration and mistakes. There’s also good stuff in there, but make no mistake, it is not an easy task.

And that’s why writing is so nice. It’s more abstract, it’s less emotional, and it helps me to reinforce the nuts and bolts of what I do. So, both for myself, and for all of you out there who just want to know how to do it, already without all the hand-holding and emotions, here you go. Here’s how it works.

Lesson One: Permission

There is one golden rule to normal eating, and it is this: no one decides what or how much goes in your mouth but you.

You are an adult. You are an autonomous human being. You make your own choices with food. I do not care how much you weigh, or whether you have a disease or an allergy – you have unconditional permission to eat anything in any amount.

There are no laws, legal or moral, to stop you.

That’s what being an autonomous human being is all about.

Even if you have a disease or an allergy, it is your choice to either follow the therapeutic dietary recommendations for your condition, or not. (It is also your choice to figure out what works for you, personally, since not all therapeutic diet recommendations are written in stone. Some may not even be based on good evidence.)

Would I recommend that you eat something that will cause you immediate death or illness? No, of course not – but that is not my choice to make. It is yours, and only yours.

Even in the most extreme scenario, you make that choice. Is it a fun choice? If it’s between peanuts or death, no. It’s not fun at all. But from a philosophical perspective, it is still a choice, and you are still the only one who can make it.

You also have the unconditional right to eat. Eating is a human right, no matter how fat you are, no matter how screwed up around food you think you are, no matter how much you know or don’t know about nutrition, no matter what your concerned family or friends say, no matter who harasses you on the street.

You have the right to eat, because you are a human being.

You also need to eat, because you are a human being. There is no person out there, fat or thin, who can live a healthy, functional life without eating a reasonable amount of food.

There is a misconception that somehow being fat beyond a certain arbitrary line drawn in imaginary BMI sand means you have the superhuman ability, and the moral obligation, to live without food. Which is total BS.

Quick nutrition interlude: your body, every cell in your body but particularly your brain, runs on sugar. Glucose is the preferred day-to-day gasoline that makes you go. And, believe it or not, our body only has a short-term store (usually measured in hours) of glucose to draw on.

Which means? You need to eat. Regularly. You’re not going to be able to think clearly for very long without it, and you’re going to feel like ass, physically.

To sum up:

  • You need to eat.
  • You have the right to eat.
  • Only you can choose what you eat.

All of which can be distilled into a single concept: permission. Unconditional permission to eat whatever, and however much, you want. Healthy food? Junk food? A lot? A little? It’s your choice. You have permission.

Because we don’t live in a world that naturally encourages your autonomy around food, you will need to put this into practice. To put permission into practice, you need to say it to yourself every time you sit down to eat:

“I’m allowed to eat this, and I can have as much as I want.”

Permission works both ways, too – you do not have to eat anything you don’t want.

Ever see a toddler spit out strained peas against his mother’s best efforts? That’s you.

You do not have to eat anything you don’t like, don’t want, or aren’t in the mood for. No matter who is pushing it, who thinks it’s for your own good, or what magazine says it’s the new superfood. You do not have to.

You don’t have to count calories, or Points, or measure portions out and leave the table feeling hungry. You also don’t have to get so full that you feel uncomfortable, just to assuage someone’s insecurity about their cooking, or their guilt for being an absent parent, or whatever.

You do not have to clean every plate in sight because someone, somewhere in the world, doesn’t have enough to eat. You are not the Human Garbage Disposal, and you can’t solve world hunger by eating leftovers.

You are responsible only to yourself, and your stomach. You are allowed to eat only what feels right, in amounts that feel right.

Say it to yourself – “I’m allowed to eat this, and I can have as much (or as little) as I want.”

Say it like you’d say grace over your food. Even if you don’t believe yourself at first. Even if it feels stupid and pointless. You do it, and you do it again and again and again.

Why? Because it is absolutely true.

So, here’s the takeaway – write a permission note to yourself, right now. Put it on a Post-It, or make a big sign, or embroider something. It doesn’t matter.

Put it in your own words. Put it somewhere you’ll see it and remember it. And then say it, either out loud or in your head, every time you eat, as often as you can remember.

How do you give yourself permission, in your own words? Tell us why you’re allowed eat in comments.

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