[content warning for discussion of food, dieting, and moralizing around food]
To the best of my knowledge, the only place that my approach to scrupulosity has been independently worked out (by a person who is not an effective altruist) is food/dieting, under the name “intuitive eating.” It makes sense that that would be the case: food and dieting are something a lot of people have dysregulated shame and guilt about. So in this post I’m going to write about intuitive eating as a case study, and then expand it in a later post.
Many people have a very, very unhealthy relationship with food. They might try diet after diet after diet, searching for the one that will cause them to finally lose weight, or they might stick to a single rigid diet, or they might feel constantly guilty about how they should be on a diet (but somehow that never actually stops them from getting the second slice of cake). They might restrict food for weeks or months, but then it’s a holiday or a vacation, or they feel like they “deserve it,” or they’ve given in and had one cookie and now their diet is Ruined. They might not feel able to refuse food that they don’t want; they might feel guilty about eating the food they don’t want, especially if it’s “unhealthy.” They might eat without intending to, or feel like they have to clean their plates. The very thought of a diet might make them eat until they’re stuffed; after all, they might diet tomorrow and then they won’t get any of this again!
Diet is a very personal matter and lots of different things work for different people. I don’t mean to say that the thing I describe is right for everyone. I have no particular expertise in eating disorders; if you have a history of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating, talk to someone who knows more than me before deciding to eat intuitively. But one thing that works for many people is intuitive eating.
The core of intuitive eating is unconditional permission to eat. If you want to, you can have ice cream for dinner. You can eat a six-course meal and clean your plate every time. You can have whatever your forbidden food is: Twinkies, hot chocolate, cheese, bread, fettucine alfredo. And you can have salads, steamed broccoli, tofu stir-fry, and boneless skinless chicken breast. You can turn down Aunt Ida’s disgusting meatloaf even if it will make Aunt Ida sad. You can have a bite of dinner and decide actually you’re still full from lunch.
If you’re good at intuitive eating, you can do some things that look a little bit like restriction: for example, I notice I compulsively eat certain kinds of candy when I keep them in the house, so I walk to the store when I want them. But if your relationship with food is a batshit mess, people who practice intuitive eating usually recommend you go to pretty extreme lengths to communicate to yourself that food is actually unrestricted. Buy the foods you used to not let yourself eat in enormous quantities, far more than you could actually eat, and whenever you run low restock. Carry a bag of foods you like around with you so that you can eat whenever you’re hungry. If you want fried rice for breakfast, pull out the wok and make some.
Now, maybe you’re the sort of person who, if you’re granted unconditional permission to eat, will proceed to eat nothing but brownies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don’t mean to argue with people’s experiences of themselves; I’m just describing one strategy that works for many people.
But many people will eat enormous quantities of brownies for a while– maybe a few days, maybe a few weeks. And then they will finally understand, on a gut level, that the brownies are always going to be there. This is not the last hurrah of brownies; there is not going to be a diet and then no more brownies ever again. You don’t have to save up brownie-eating experiences because someday you will never get to have another brownie. You will always get to have another brownie.
And once you’ve left the Brownie Scarcity Mindset, you can notice things. Like… eating until you’re stuffed actually doesn’t feel very good, it actually makes you feel kind of sick. And “brownies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner” leaves you feeling kind of shaky and unsatisfied. And maybe you’re never going to be a big fan of kale, but you find yourself eyeing the cucumbers and going “you know, what would really hit the spot right now? A big salad with a bunch of different vegetables, drizzled with olive oil and covered in nuts and cheese.”
The question a lot of people are going to ask at this point is “but do you lose weight?” In my anecdotal experience and the experience of people I know who practice intuitive eating… sometimes? If you have been eating past the point of hunger for a long time, or eating on autopilot when you’re not full, then you might find yourself losing weight when you stop doing that. If you have been ignoring your hunger signals and undereating for a long time, then you might find yourself gaining weight. But most people seem to settle at a stable equilibrium which may shift permanently after medical events such as pregnancy or serious illness.
On the other hand, that is exactly the result most diets give people too. And intuitive eating has a lot of other advantages. You get to have brownies, which is important. The diet you’ll wind up eating is probably healthier. You’ll enjoy your food more. And most importantly of all you get to take all the shame and guilt and self-hatred you’ve associated with food, all the emotional energy you have wrapped up in your diet, and just… stop. You can do something else with it.
There’s a common framing around food where everyone is constantly tempted to make the worst diet choices possible. If left to their own devices, everyone would eat nothing but pizza topped with cheesy chicken nuggets topped with pasta with alfredo sauce. The only way to have a healthy diet is a constant effort of will where you nobly resist even having a bite of donuts, and whenever you do eat a donut you self-flagellate appropriately. (Be sure to comment a lot about how bad the food is and how fat you are while you eat it: punishing yourself for eating “bad” food is the only way to make sure you don’t do something horrible like enjoy it.)
And, in fact, you can just… not? There is no Food Police who will arrest you for having a hamburger. The food you eat doesn’t have to mean anything about your worth as a human being, unless you decide it does. You don’t have to feel shame or guilt about what you eat. And if you choose not to beat yourself up about food choices, you will probably not have some pizza/chicken nugget/pasta chimera for dinner every night, because… that’s kind of gross actually?
It is actually just okay to eat the food you want and that makes you feel good. Maybe that will cause you to eat more chocolate than is best for ideal health, but over time it will probably result in a reasonable and balanced diet. You don’t have to hate yourself.