Updated: Mar 18
Medically reviewed by Serena Benali, Registered Dietitian March 12, 2023
Developing a healthy relationship with food can be a difficult journey, it can be even more challenging for those struggling with disordered eating patterns and eating disorders.
Fortunately, there is a unique and effective approach to address the underlying emotional triggers that contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food: Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy.
In this article, we will explain what IFS is and how it is used to help individuals with disordered eating and eating disorders heal. We will discuss the concept that there are no "bad parts" in IFS, as well as the important role of self-leadership, plus we’ll leave you our top picks for IFS self-help resources.
What is Internal Family Systems (IFS)?
IFS focuses on the idea that we all have different parts within us, each with their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. These parts can sometimes conflict with each other and cause emotional distress. By understanding and addressing the needs of each part, individuals can make more conscious choices about their behaviours around food.
These parts can be organized into three categories: managers, firefighters, and exiles.
Managers are responsible for maintaining control and making sure we function well in society.
A manager part might control what we eat, when we eat, or how much we eat in order to maintain a certain body image or weight. A manager part might also set strict rules around food intake or exercise, leading to rigidity and obsessive behaviours.
Firefighters are responsible for dealing with emotional crises by engaging in behaviours that distract us, such as binge-eating or emotional eating. For example, after a stressful day at work, a firefighter part may lead us to eat an entire pint of ice cream to temporarily numb or distract us from our emotions.
Exiles are the vulnerable parts of ourselves that we try to keep hidden from others, and they often hold pain, trauma, and other difficult emotions. An exile part might feel ashamed or guilty about eating or body image, and therefore keep those feelings hidden from others.
Through IFS therapy, individuals can work with each of these parts to develop a healthier and more compassionate relationship with food, their body, and their emotions.
The short film: Women of a Certain Age produced by and starring Kate Dearing perfectly depicts IFS and the common parts related to food and body that are often present.
How IFS is used to facilitate healing with disordered eating
In IFS therapy, the goal is not to get rid of any parts, but rather to understand them and work with them in a more productive and healthy way. By developing a relationship with each part, the individual can learn to recognize and manage their emotional triggers, leading to a healthier relationship with food.
When someone has a "part" that engages in binge eating or disordered eating behaviours, instead of trying to suppress or ignore this part, in an IFS session, the individual would be encouraged to get to know this part, understand why it engages in binge eating or whichever unhealthy behaviour, and work with it to find healthier coping mechanisms. Through this process, the individual can develop a deeper understanding of their emotional triggers and find healthier ways to meet their needs.
Why there are no bad parts
One of the core principles of IFS therapy is that there are no bad parts. Each part of us is simply trying to do its job to keep us safe, and sometimes that job can manifest in ways that are not healthy.
Someone may have a "part" that engages in binge eating behaviours as a way to cope with stress. This behaviour may not be healthy, but the part is not bad or wrong; it is simply doing what it thinks is necessary to protect the individual from emotional pain.
The role of self-leadership in IFS
In Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, the concept of self-leadership plays a crucial role in the healing process. Self-leadership refers to the part of us that is compassionate, curious, and non-judgmental, and it serves as a guiding force to help us navigate our internal system of parts.
The goal of IFS therapy is to access and strengthen this self-leadership capacity so that it can effectively lead and heal other parts of ourselves. When working with disordered eating patterns, self-leadership is especially important in fostering a healthy relationship with food and our bodies.
By cultivating self-compassion and understanding, individuals can begin to gently explore and work with the different parts of themselves that contribute to disordered eating behaviours. Self-leadership can also help individuals resist the urges of firefighter parts that may seek to distract or numb emotions through food or other behaviours.
Overall, IFS therapy emphasizes the importance of self-leadership as a powerful tool for healing and personal growth.
Self-help IFS Resources
If you're interested in using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy for nutrition and food-related issues, there are several self-help resources available that can help you get started:
The Self-Compassion Diet
Written by Jean Fain MSW, LICSW
This book combines IFS with self-compassion practices to help individuals cultivate a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
Fain, who is a licensed clinical social worker and Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist, draws from her own experience with disordered eating and extensive clinical expertise to provide readers with practical tools and exercises to overcome emotional eating, self-criticism, and negative body image. The book also includes delicious and nourishing recipes to support readers in their journey towards a healthier and more balanced relationship with food.
Good Food, Bad Diet
Written by Abby Langer, RD
This book explores the myths and misconceptions surrounding nutrition and diet culture and provides practical advice on how to cultivate a more balanced and healthy approach to food, using the principles of IFS. It also delves into the psychological and emotional factors that often contribute to disordered eating patterns and provides guidance on how to address these issues using the IFS framework.
Abby Langer, a registered dietitian, draws on her extensive experience in the field of nutrition and her knowledge of IFS to provide a unique and valuable perspective on how to nourish your body and mind in a sustainable and compassionate way.
Befriending Your Body
Written by Ann Saffi Biasetti, PHD, LCSW
This book combines the principles of IFS with mindfulness and self-compassion practices to help readers cultivate a more positive and accepting relationship with their bodies and food. Through this process, readers are able to identify and understand their own "parts" - the various thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that influence their eating behaviours - and learn how to approach these parts with curiosity and compassion.
The book includes meditations, journaling prompts, and other helpful tools to support readers on their journey towards a healthier relationship with their bodies and food.
These resources can be a great starting point for individuals looking to use IFS for nutrition-related issues. By utilizing these resources, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of the IFS model and begin to develop skills for working with their internal system of parts.
Working with a Dietitian & IFS
Working with a dietitian that offers IFS counselling provides a unique and valuable experience for those looking to heal their relationship with food and body image. This means that the dietitian will not only focus on what a person eats but also how they think and feel about food.
By working with an IFS dietitian, individuals can develop a deeper understanding of their emotional triggers and how they impact their eating behaviours. The dietitian can help them identify and work with their internal "parts" to develop a healthier and more sustainable relationship with food. This can lead to a greater sense of empowerment and control over their eating habits.
Serena Benali is a registered dietitian who offers nutrition counselling using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. By exploring the different parts of the self that may be contributing to disordered eating patterns or negative body image, Serena uses IFS to help clients develop self-awareness, self-compassion, and a deeper understanding of their relationship with food. By incorporating IFS into her nutrition counselling practice, Serena provides a holistic approach that addresses both the physical and emotional aspects of nutrition and eating, ultimately helping clients to improve their overall well-being.
Get in touch with us to schedule an IFS session with our licensed nutritionists and dieticians.
Benefits of IFS therapy
Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy has been shown to provide a number of additional benefits beyond its applications to addressing emotional triggers related to food and body image.
By helping individuals develop a more compassionate relationship with their internal "parts," IFS therapy can improve overall mental health and emotional well-being. This is because IFS therapy encourages individuals to explore and acknowledge their different parts in a non-judgmental way, allowing them to understand and work with their emotions more effectively.
Through the process of IFS therapy, individuals can develop greater self-awareness and self-compassion, leading to increased self-confidence and self-esteem. This, in turn, can help them cultivate healthier relationships with others as well as a more positive outlook on life.
IFS therapy can also help individuals develop better coping mechanisms for managing stress, anxiety, and other emotional difficulties. By working with their internal parts and addressing the underlying emotions that contribute to their struggles, individuals can learn to manage their emotional triggers more effectively and develop healthier ways of coping.
Overall, the benefits of IFS therapy extend beyond just its applications to addressing issues related to food and body image. By helping individuals develop a more compassionate relationship with themselves, IFS therapy can promote greater mental and emotional well-being, increased self-confidence and self-esteem, healthier relationships, and improved coping mechanisms for managing stress and other emotional challenges.
Key takeaways: Navigating your parts to develop a healthy relationship with food
Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy provides a unique and effective approach to addressing the underlying emotional triggers that contribute to disordered eating and eating disorders.
IFS provides a holistic approach to understanding and working with our inner world, which consists of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviours. IFS therapy suggests that each person has an inner system made up of different parts, each with its own unique perspective, feelings, and memories. These parts often develop in response to early experiences, trauma, and environmental factors, and they can either help or hinder our functioning in the world.
When it comes to our relationship with food and our bodies, IFS therapy can help us better understand the underlying emotions and thoughts that drive our eating habits and furthermore understanding why we eat when you're not hungry.
For example, a part of us may turn to food when we feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. This part might feel like it needs to "numb out" or distract us from uncomfortable emotions. In IFS therapy, we learn to approach this part with curiosity and compassion, rather than judgment or criticism. By acknowledging the part's positive intent and working with it, we can find alternative ways to meet its needs that are healthier and more sustainable in the long run.
IFS nutrition therapy can be especially helpful for those struggling with disordered eating patterns, such as binge eating, emotional eating, food restriction and eating disorders.
By exploring the internal parts that contribute to these patterns, we can begin to understand and heal the underlying emotional wounds that are driving them. Through this process, we can develop a more integrated and harmonious relationship with our inner world, leading to greater emotional and physical wellbeing.