The phrase, “you have self control / discipline / willpower around food.”

During my dietetic internship I was placed at a rotation under 2 dietitians at a long term care facility who liked to say that the people we were meeting with, “had no self-control with food.” I spent most of my dietetic internship pretty conflicted because the mentalities of the RDs I was working under just felt wrong.  One of the RDs was on Weight Watchers and counted the number of grapes she ate at a snack. (Like, what?)  I have a lot of empathy for that RD now because she was around menopause age and I’m sure her body had changed (as it does when you hit menopause) and it sucks she felt the need to have to be on Weight Watchers, instead of pursuing a more life-giving and self compassionate approach like Intuitive Eating. 

At this time I had never heard about intuitive eating or HAES but I was putting it together that 1) restricting (aka dieting) only helped me overeat, 2) having a list of good and bad foods left me overly full of foods I had labeled as bad and 3) having to exercise so much wasn’t going to be sustainable for much longer and I needed to figure out a way to be okay with the body size I was meant to be.  At the time I was still figuring out what being truly healthy meant, but I knew counting the number of grapes you ate was neurotic and not what healthy meant for me.

I believe having willpower or self control around food is a euphemism for –> “I have a massive set of food rules that says I’m not allowed to eat X”.  Like, I wonder…do you also have rules that micromanage other instincts? Do you put a limit on how many times you get to breathe that day or how many times you get to pee that day?

I don’t believe having food rules that say you can’t eat x food makes you a healthier person, therefore I think it’s strange that our society will say “oh you have such self control around food” as a positive thing…when having self control around food means you are micromanaging an instinct that isn’t meant to be micromanaged. 

I now know that it’s not self control / discipline / willpower with food we should be going for…it’s awareness.  We should work towards:

  • awareness of hunger and fullness cues
  • awareness of what level of movement is sustainable and nourishing for your body
  • awareness that sometimes eating just to eat is a perfectly normal way to cope
  • awareness that always going to food or always going to restriction of food for comfort from uncomfortable emotions isn’t effective long term
  • awareness that you’ve been taught that having pretty much any fat on your body is a flaw and something you have to be working to change
  • awareness that cellulite is a made up disease
  • awareness of how crazy it is that the idea of letting your body find it’s natural body size is a radical concept

As an RD, I think it’s helpful to teach people about having awareness around their food choices rather than teaching someone to constantly deny or feel guilty about their instinct to nourish their body.  I believe that having awareness is an act of self care, while constantly depriving yourself is self control.

Another thought I have about controlling your food and not listening to your hunger/fullness/cravings is…

You know when you think about breathing too much you forget how to breathe normally? It’s no different with food.  When you think about micromanaging your food you eventually forget how to eat.  Week after week, month after month, year after year of disordered eating likely will lead you to feeling neurotic about feeding your body.  Food rules take away your ability to be a competent eater.  Slowly but surely eating becomes more complicated.  A delicious dessert gets transformed into a certain number of calories that you feel guilty about eating.  A slice of pizza starts to be viewed as a villain rather than the excellent source of carbs, fat and protein that it is.  You start to minimize wellness to how much quinoa and vegetables you ate that day, because that “healthy” living blogger you follow sure looks happy and she’s a self-proclaimed wellness expert and that’s all she eats (well, that, and Pressed Juicery fro yo).  (<– clearly I have some annoyance towards wellness bloggers who water down wellness to clean eating and attending Soul Cycle.)

Just know that…

having willpower to say no to certain foods isn’t something to praise someone for.  If you are able to physically or mentally restrict your intake due to an intense fear of gaining weight or because your self worth is highly influenced by your body shape or weight, that is not “taking care of your health,” “practicing self-control,” or “just a diet”…that is a disease.  

I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on any of this! 


  1. I’d love to hear more about your dietetic internship and how you went through all your rotations having to practice ideas that are steeped in diet culture. I’m not yet an RD but as I look at internships, I feel anxious about how to go through them with an anti-diet mindset. I hate when I hear people say “Oh, you have so much self-control, I can’t be around *certain type of food*” 

    • Hey Ashley! Great idea for a post!!

      • I 100000% agree with this!!!! I’m currently a dietetic intern and would LOVE to hear your thoughts on this. It’s such a struggle!

        • I am also currently in my DI and am in the same boat as well. Would appreciate any tips you have for working with preceptors who promote diet mentality!

    • I would love to hear more about this as well! I just finished a coordinated program, and diet culture was rampant throughout the entire program and most of my rotations/preceptors, which i found very triggering for me!. I loved my program, but i wish we were at least exposed to the ideas of HAES and IE, which we weren’t, unless we sought them out ourselves, or scheduled rotations with people we knew were HAES friendly.

  2. Bah I always love your posts! Coming from a background of extreme ‘dieting’/restriction (bikini competitions), I pretty much had to have “willpower” around (almost all) foods for my goals at the time.

    Fast-forward to now when I have so much more freedom (thanks in part to reading your blogs!! So grateful.) and I still get comments when they have pizza at work and I choose fruit over mini Halloween candy and I get praised for ‘self-control.’ (I just preferred fruit in that moment, that was it!) Thanks to your blogs, I am very aware of the disordered eating behaviours/language that happens basically everywhere. Keep spreading the knowledge!!

  3. YES regarding the comment about soul cycle and Pressed Juicery. All that does in my opinion is perpetuate the idea that wellness if for the elite.
    This post gets my applause!

  4. Diets a lot of times are what creates the need for self control in the first place.  I never had a problem with eating too many oreos until I made them something I shouldn’t eat (:  Love Intuitive Eating!!!  

  5. That’s so interesting about the comment about the people they were meeting with at the LTC center! I’m an RD now working in LTC mostly because I DONT have to push “diets” and “weight loss” (well most of the time at least! Much less than the hospital setting). We want these people to eat and not lose weight! It was great for me coming out of disordered eating to work in LTC for that reason! All that to say, love your blog and have a great weekend! :)

  6. Absolutely! This is SO GOOD! It definitely reminds me of a time when I was very much in my disordered eating behaviors and many of my coworkers and friends would praise me for having “so much willpower.” Little did they know I was suffering silently everyday – counting grapes, carrots, almonds, etc. While I think willpower can be a strength and skill in other areas of life (work, for example), I don’t believe it should be attached to an instinct. Great message!

  7. YES, yes yes! I always side-eye the Instagrammers who have no actual credentials or qualifications when it comes to health, nutrition and/or fitness and think that a large following justifies their non-factual spewing and makes it okay. I am also so sad for the younger generation that follows these people so closely and think that their lifestyle is appropriate, and think that is creates a lot of false assumptions about what healthy really is.

    Your posts are always a breath of fresh air in what can sometimes seem like an extreme, black or white social community. Happy Friday! :)

  8. I used to look at people who had ‘a lot of self control around food’ as my ‘goal’. Now I look at people who eat whatever they want, whenever they want, and use up MUCH MUCH less brain space for food-related thoughts (and the thoughts around food are mostly are ‘ooh I’m in the mood for x’ and zero brain space for calories) as the person I want to be. 

    Thanks for your posts as always Kylie!

  9. Such a good post. I knew someone who counted peanuts every morning to put into a snack cup for later in the day and being really disturbed by witnessing that. Thanks for the insight!

    • Thanks for commenting, Marnie! It’s just like, the body doesn’t need one to be so precise and restrictive. One’s ED does…but the body can manage a different number of peanuts coming in each day.

  10. I used to be guilty of saying that all.the.time. Face palm. But now I have changed my approach to nutrition thanks to you, IE, HAES, etc.! It’s not self-control. It’s giving oneself permission to enjoy life and nourish his/her body as is needed. Diet culture makes foods so black and white that people often think they can’t be around a certain food, but it’s only because it’s been off-limits. Freeing oneself and just living means discipline and control have no place in eating. I was just telling someone how it’s strange to go from being a child who eats intuitively, to developing disordered eating, and then to finally discover IE once more. It’s a cycle that leads us back to how we were meant to care for ourselves.

  11. I really enjoyed this post. I think for me I was only able to start being more relaxed about food when I put the driven/disciplined part of my personality into a project I am passionate about (in this case my undergrad degree; I switched majors to pursue a field I love). I had to accept that I probably will never be a laid-back person and that’s ok. Now I try to channel my type A-ness into meaningful things I enjoy rather than making BS food/exercise rules for myself. Now I feel think that eating xyz meal that is convenient and satisfying will give me energy to study or work or whatever instead of making me fat or bloated like I thought before. 

    • Hey Eileen! Yep yep yep. I hear you. Channeling your energy into something more productive than restrictive eating is a great mental shift! Glad you brought this up. Blogging is one hobby that helped me make that shift.

  12. I am curious as to how you would suggest managing type 1 diabetic (I am one) with this sort of philosophy. As a diabetic who HAS to count carbs and measure food in order to most accurately manage the disease, where do you draw the line? As a diabetic I can eat anything I want as long as I do insulin to cover it, but it is really hard on my body if I eat high carb things. Interested your thoughts!

  13. Those “wow I wish I had as much willpower as you” comments used to FUEL my eating disorder and make me feel really good about myself. Now I don’t listen to my ED, and I have a normal relationship with food and don’t really hear those comments from others anymore.

    But I don’t miss that sort of external “praise” because through recovery I’ve learned to find value in myself regardless of what others think! BEST THING EVER. Would 10/10 recommend. 

  14. I think when I first opened my eyes to diet culture I was amazed how many women around me had lives that were seeped in diet culture: women who counted grapes, felt guilty about desserts, ran like they were going to explode, talked about their dress size.

    About 2 years into my IE journey, I have recently been amazed at how many women around me have found intuitive eating naturally without even knowing it. I am now surrounded by so many women who eat when they are hungry, stop running when they are hurt, and eat food they love. They don’t feel like the minority anymore, IE just feels so normal. It should be normal so it is nice that it is starting to feel that way. Maybe I’m attracted to different types of people or maybe my awareness has shifted, but its lovely :)

  15. I used to hear so many comments like, “I wish I were as strong as you” and “I wish I could eat healthy like you do.” The truth is, when I had the most “willpower,” I was the most unhappy I’ve ever been. I was in the darkest place of my life–not AT ALL healthy. Eating food that satisfies me, tastes amazing, and that I can eat without judging it as good or bad has made me 1000x happier!

  16. Hi kylie,
    Thank you yet again for another deeply resonating post. As a teacher of nutrition to high school students, I hold a lot of responsibility as to what message I pass onto young impressionable adults on what constitutes healthy eating whether it be through a lesson on governmental healthy eating guidelines or simply them observing my own personal behaviour around diet and exercise. Unfortunately, only now is the curriculum beginning to incorporate wellbeing and a holistic approach into what it means to be “healthy”. Having myself come through an education system that only focused on nutrients and numbers, I have struggled for many years with the torment of head versus heart/internal cues, and up until very recently, my head and regimental nutrition knowledge always won out- most of the time throwing my eating habits into disarray, in turn having majorly negative effects on both my physical and mental health. My new and improved relationship with food is still something that requires reevaluation and support – especially when I’m under stress from work, family etc but thankfully I’m consistently getting better at dealing with these stressful situations directly rather than through the temporary comfort of food. Your blog is a constant support and inspiration for me and especially so during more trying periods. I’m so glad I found your work and keep it up!

  17. It makes me so so angry when people say things like this! I couldn’t tell you how many times during my eating disorder people would praise me for my “willpower to avoid junk food” or say they wish they could resist bad foods like I did. LIKE NO, I don’t want this amazing “willpower”!! It’s making me miserable! 

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  21. Oh my goodness, YES YES YES to all of this! So well said and how important that you are saying these things using your platform. I think so many women (and men) need to hear this. Will definitely be sharing this! :)

  22. “awareness that always going to food or always going to restriction of food for comfort from uncomfortable emotions isn’t effective long term”

    This hit me like a ton of bricks! I’ve fallen back into restrictive patterns so I am trying to bring my mind back into an actual healthy place. Thank you for these words. It’s great to think about. I had been restricting my food for comfort without realizing it.

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  24. Yes, yes, YES!! I hate the idea of having to have “self control” around food. In fact, I think people should strive to achieve just the opposite: EASE around food. Food shouldn’t be something to feel anxious or pressured about. When you get rid of food rules and restriction, you can truly achieve the sense of ease to say “Hey that pizza looks super good, I wanna try some!” or even “Man this cake is really delicious, but I’m satisfied and I don’t really want to finish it right now.” I’m so, so, so proud and happy to say that I’ve grown tremendously in my ability to find eating ease and just tune in to what my body tells me.


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  26. I love this so much. I discovered intuitive eating this summer when I was just so done with dieting and constantly obsessing over food. My life has changed! Last night I ate a lot more than I normally do And my response wasn’t overwhelming guilt or an urge to “work it off” but rather a “hmmm, I must have been hungry.” I wish everyone knew about intuitive eating. Thank you thank you thank you for this post!

  27. This post is so helpful and true! I actually find that it takes “will power” for me to eat foods that i have deemed “unhealthy” due to the shame i have internalized throughout my eating disorder. It has actually taken self discipline for me to challenge foods that diet culture has labeled “bad”.Thanks for sharing!

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