Krispy Kreme’s Intuitive Eating/Habituation Lab

You’ve heard about Krispy Kreme’s campaign to support Covid-19 vaccinations-and the fat phobic backlash, right? If I ever needed more evidence that our culture has a disordered relationship with food and bodies, here is another painful illustration. I’m not going to contribute to that conversation. I refer you to the brilliant @fatmarquisele and @kbermyk for more excellent writing about what this backlash reveals about the deadly weight stigma and fat phobia in our country. I want to offer another perspective.

When a dear friend of mine texted about the Krispy Kreme campaign Monday afternoon, I could taste that “hot now” doughnut and quickly shared the text with my friends. Yes, many of my friends are fellow providers in the Eating Disorder treatment community. The responses ranged from, “I’m getting in my car now!” to “how cool!”. Not a single worry or judgment surfaced. Not even a hint. Then when I held my Embodied Eating Group the next morning, we used this as a jumping off point to discuss the concept of “habituation”. Habituation is a key concept in Intuitive Eating!

The Concept of Habituation

If you are working toward healing your relationship with food and your body, you have likely come across the concept of Habituation. The definition found in the APA dictionary of psychology is:

1. in general, the process of growing accustomed to a situation or stimulus. 

2. the diminished effectiveness of a stimulus in eliciting a response, following repeated exposure to the stimulus.

I first learned about the concept of habituation, as applied to eating, from Jane R. Hirschmann, MSW and Carol M. Munter in the late 80s. They told a story about parents who brought their young daughter in for treatment due to her interest in sweets. Hirschmann and Munter created an experiment for them. They provided an abundance of candy, specifically M and M’s, by filling a pillowcase full of these candies. The child was allowed to have this pillowcase whenever she liked. In a surprisingly short amount of time, this kiddo lost interest in the “treats” and abandoned it in a corner of her room. As a new Registered Dietitian, this made quite an impression on me, an impression that informed my own client care and parenting.

As an aside, if you want to learn more about Hirschmann and Munter and the early days of the anti-diet movement, check out https://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/12/us/a-growing-movement-fights-diets-instead-of-fat.html

Habituation in your life

So what’s it like to allow yourself to experiment with applying this concept in your life? One of my clients describes observing habituation unfold in their kids. They told me a story that perfectly illustrates this process. As a mother of 3, they decided to take their kids out to a particular fast food restaurant, one that carries a social narrative around being “bad”, for breakfast every Friday. This choice was out of extenuating circumstances requiring them to be out of their house on Friday mornings during a pandemic. My client was struggling with feeling guilty about feeding her kids this way. The kids however perceived this as a major “treat” and responded with excitement and celebration, as you can imagine. My client was surprised when the kiddos became less interested over time. They even began to complain and asked for a return to the choices they had prior to this “fast food treat” breakfast. The mom was astounded by this-and learned a helpful lesson in habitation.

So, what do you think would happen if you gave yourself permission to have a doughnut every single day? I recommend developing an internal scaffolding to support stepping into your own habituation process:

1-Neutralize your judgement of the doughnut. Remind yourself that the doughnut is simply a source of energy that your body will utilize as just that-energy. Try to drop out of the social narrative that a doughnut is “bad”. This is likely a piece of a much bigger process to make peace with food. Please give yourself plenty of compassion and grace here.

2-Remind yourself that you can have this doughnut every single day. No one is going to take this away from you. It is only when you remember that you will not be deprived of this food that you will be less triggered to “go for it”. Past, present, and future deprivation drives the binge. Dropping into permission allows you to be present and remember that you can enjoy this food again soon. Again, this is moving against a narrative that you have likely internalized. Thinking that you “should not” be eating this doughnut is likely part of that internalized narrative, so be kind to yourself here.

3-Slow down and really taste the doughnut. Do you really love it as much as you thought you would? Sometimes it is surprising how much the story about a “forbidden” food does not align with our actual experience. Our culture and our lives move at a very fast and distracting pace, so again, simply do what you can, one day at a time.

4-Stay curious! Does your body give you any feedback about what it feels like to eat a doughnut every day? Can you get out of your head enough to notice what information your body is sending your way? There are many barriers to connecting to your body-trauma, previous dieting, food rules, eating disorders, stress and anxiety. So ease up on your expectations and allow yourself to simply notice and drop your judgement. You are doing the best you can.

So let’s allow Krispy Kreme’s doughnut a day campaign to become an experiment with habituation, one with a strong side of playful curiosity. Hot Now!

*Side note: Celiac Disease or other specific disease processes may prohibit doughnuts from your diet. If you are managing your diet due to a disease process, such as Diabetes Mellitus, I encourage you to discuss this with your RD.