What is Habituation?
Habituation is the concept that when all foods and beverages have the same permission to be consumed, cravings for them will diminish. But a crucial step to achieving this is practicing unconditional permission to include all foods. It cannot simply be that foods are physically being consumed that maybe once felt “forbidden” or “off-limits” - if there is still mental restriction happening, you can still remain stuck in the ever-so-common binge/restrict cycle. Common forms of mental restriction include:
Feeling guilty or shameful about when, what or how much you have eaten
Compensating or “saving up” in any way for food you have consumed (i.e. through restriction or compensatory physical activity)
Planning ahead to restrict or start a diet in the near future
Physically allowing foods but only in certain portions or circumstances such as special occasions
Avoiding certain situations that may involve food
Continuing to categorize food as good vs bad, healthy vs unhealthy, clean vs dirty, acceptable vs unacceptable
Eating only when hungry and stopping only when full with zero flexibility
Judging yourself for eating decisions (such as eating a snack soon after a meal or wanting a sweet after dinner)
Continuously telling yourself that “tomorrow I will eat better”
So let’s break it down a bit further: Habituation is a form of learning that involves repeated exposure to a stimulus (which in this case is the food or beverage), that then leads to decreased response (in this example, eating or craving the item in a chaotic fashion). With this information, it makes sense that repeated food exposures need to occur for the response to diminish. So as above, first unconditional permission around eating and food decisions needs to be granted as it would be very hard to have repeated exposures if you are not giving yourself permission. Then introduce the once “forbidden” foods into your diet. Incorporating them into meals and snacks helps to normalize their consumption and take them off of the pedestal of “off limit”. Continue to increase and vary the exposures - have it more repeatedly, have it in different situations or with meals versus snacks and so on and so forth. Long-term exposure of these foods will increase food habituation, resulting in diminished fear, discomfort, and cravings around these foods*.
Does this mean you will never want foods you have practiced food habitation with? Absolutely not. The goal of this is not to take away cravings entirely, or make yet another list of foods that you are now habituated to and don’t want - it is to keep all foods on the same playing field and drastically improve your relationship with food.
Think of this example with leftovers. Maybe the first night is “yay great, I don’t have to cook!”. Second night, still nice but not as exciting. Third night and so on, starting to feel kind of boring. You will certainly have and desire these foods again, but maybe not for a few days, a few weeks or even longer. You have unconditional permission to have them whenever, so when they seem appealing and satisfying again, you will choose to include them.
*Practicing food exposure with a Registered Dietitian or therapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders and disordered eating can help to provide support throughout the process.