This is a deep-seated fear many of my clients encounter when they contemplate letting go of an eating disorder rule or stopping to diet. If you feel like your diet or eating disorder rules (and they're not all that different) are protecting you from overeating, you're in good company. It's common to believe that without your rules you would lose all control, wholly and completely. This is very ironic, because it's usually the rules themselves that lead to an eventual loss of control around food. But this can be a hard truth to face, especially when the dieting world tells you that your hunger is a problem. And this is why we have so many people who exclaim, "Eat every time I'm hungry? Then I'd never stop eating!" If you are walking around hungry all the time, then of course it feels like without any rules, you'd eat all day! But if you didn't have so many self-imposed restrictions, you probably wouldn't be walking around hungry all the time.
One of my favorite chapters in the book Goodbye Ed, Hello Me by Jenni Schaefer is called, "What If Never Stop Eating?" I so appreciate that chapter because Jenni does such a wonderful job of explaining how restriction fuels food obsession and overeating. She writes about how it took time to recognize more subtle signals of hunger and fullness because she was so used to experiencing only the extremes. She also describes the difficulty in learning to trust her body with food again and how there were ups and downs but eventually things evened out to intuitive eating.
One of the basic tenets of intuitive eating is that your body's signals can be trusted. This includes hunger! In diet culture, hunger is the enemy. It's that terrible dragon that must be vanquished - otherwise you'll eat too much! This is so disrespectful the human body. Humans were installed with the hunger program because it helps keep us alive. It is precious and wonderful and should be listened to, not squashed down. In the absence of specific medical conditions, physiological hunger is a valuable signal that helps us know when to eat so that we can provide our bodies with nutrition and fuel. Our bodies are equipped with a sophisticated system that not only lets us know when we're hungry - it also let us know when we've had enough. When system has been disrupted due to dieting and/or binge eating, it can take time to learn to sense hunger and fullness properly again. Meal plans and what we call "mechanical eating" have a place. But ultimately, whenever possible, we aim to establish a pattern of eating that follows hunger and fullness.
There are many other reasons why people choose to eat and choose to stop eating, such as emotions, environmental triggers, social pressure, medical conditions, and more. It is very helpful to learn to identify the reasons for your choices. But if you are in the process of un-dieting (or eating disorder recovery), it is crucial to know that physiological hunger exists for a reason and that with enough food, it will be sated. If you doubt this, I wonder if you're ever really letting yourself eat until satisfaction. So often, people leave a meal only partially full and then think there's something wrong with them when they are hungry again shortly afterward. It's not a hunger problem; it's a meal size problem! An amazing thing happens when you eat enough: YOU GET FULL.
It takes courage to learn to trust your signals when you may have been squashing them down for so long. It can be surprisingly difficult, but know that it is possible to return to a trusting relationship with your body, even if it's been many years. The work may be hard, but the rewards are great.
As Jenni concludes, "To answer the question, "What if I never stop eating?" I never intend on stopping. I intend to eat every day for the rest of my life in an intuitive way. Today eating every day is not a nightmare. It's freedom. No, I will never stop eating, not again."