the HAES® files: The Dangers of Living in a Safe House

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Stacey Nye, PhD

This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.

I recently presented a workshop at a local spa on healing disconnected eating. As a guest presenter, my husband and I were treated to a weekend of complimentary food, exercise classes and other presentations by the spa’s staff. He attended a workshop given by the staff nutritionist on eating healthy. I was having my complimentary massage at this time, so had to come late. By the time I arrived, he was incensed.   “She’s teaching people to have a “safe house!” he exclaimed under his breath. “And they are all smiling, asking questions and shaking their heads in agreement!” After living with me for over 15 years, he knows better. He’s been educated about the dangers of dieting and the alternative wisdom of the HAES®/ Intuitive Eating process (1,2).

I was raised in a “safe house”. There was simply no candy, chips, or junk food of any kind. My mother was a chronic dieter and did not allow it into the house. As a result, whenever I went out and this food was available, I ate it, a lot of it. Friends who kept Fritos, Cheetos and Oreos in their pantry were treasure havens to me. The families of the children I babysat for likely had far fewer candy bars after I was there than before. If there were M&Ms at a party I attended, I parked myself right next to the bowl. Obviously, growing up in a safe house did not teach me to no longer crave junk food; it just taught me that I had to get it elsewhere and to eat as much as I could while I was there, because who knew when I would be invited over again?

I do not blame my mother. Her intentions were good. The prevailing wisdom at the time (and unfortunately still today) was that fat people needed to lose weight and stop eating food that they enjoy. So, my mother took my sister and me with her to Weight Watchers, and cleaned out the house of its goodies. It didn’t work. Oh sure, we lost weight on Weight Watchers. Lots of times. Lost 10 pounds, gained 15. Lost 20 pounds, gained 25. Lost 30 pounds, gained 40. Most of my patients can attest to the fact that they weigh more now than when they started dieting. In fact, research (3,4) has shown that yo-yo dieting and chronic weight fluctuations are unhealthier than simply maintaining a higher weight. The nature of dieting is the problem. People go on a diet, stop eating the food they love, lose weight, and then either go off the diet, returning to their old habits, or have breakthroughs of binge eating while on the diet, secondary to hunger and feelings of deprivation. Studies show (5,6) that only 5% of people who go on diets are able to maintain their weight loss long term. Plus, despite a booming multi-billion dollar diet industry, Americans are fatter (7) than they used to be. So obviously, safe houses aren’t keeping anyone “safe” from getting fat.

So what, you may wonder, is the alternative? The HAES® approach encourages us to “eat in a way which balances individual nutritional needs, hunger, satiety, appetite, and pleasure”. For example, my kitchen is no longer a safe house. The refrigerator is stocked with cheese, yogurt, fruit, lettuce, condiments, leftovers, etc. In my cabinets you will find nuts, peanut butter, potato chips, rice crackers, cereal and candy. Lots of candy. Chocolate, even. Except for diet soda (which my husband loves), you won’t find any non-fat, low-carb, sugar-free items.

Skinny cowTake a good look at the ingredient list from a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich. Are there things on this list that you don’t recognize as food? How can eating something that contains “acesulfame potassium” improve your health? And, they certainly don’t increase the likelihood that you will lose weight, either. What they take out of items like these are the very things that contribute to how satisfying they are, usually the fat. Substituting diet ice cream for real ice cream won’t fool your body, and you’re more likely to more of it. The label even warns of the “laxative effect” from excess consumption!

You may be worried, though, that if you bring real ice cream (or chips or candy, etc) into your house that you will overeat them. Well, let’s do an experiment: think of your favorite food. A forbidden food, one that you don’t allow yourself to eat very often. Now imagine that this food suddenly has no calories, and now you can eat as much as you want without fear of gaining weight. As an example, let’s say you choose potato chips (one of my favorite foods). How many potato chips do you think you would eat? A whole bag you say? How often would you eat a whole bag of potato chips? Once a day, twice a day? And how many days in a row do you think you would eat a whole bag of potato chips? Probably not many. Eventually, you would probably get sick of potato chips. Not that you would never want to eat potato chips again, but as soon as the power was taken away from them, the threat of eventual deprivation gone, they would become like any other food in the house.

Don’t believe me? It’s true. If we listen to our bodies, it will tell us what we need. Like in the movie Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come”; if we listen, our bodies will tell us. The problem is that no one is listening. We’re too busy listening to Oprah, or Dr. Phil, or Suzanne Somers, or Dr. Atkins. When we rely on external cues to tell us what and when and how much to eat, we lose touch with our internal cues; cues that we were born with, and that work pretty well until someone comes along and takes us to Weight Watchers. Can you think of a time that you went off your diet, really splurged for an extended period of time, like on vacation, and came home and just wanted a salad and a chicken breast? This is an example of your body telling you what you need. And what we need is to eat when we’re hungry, stop when we are full, eat a variety of foods and not eliminate any food groups.

As proof, look at how some kids eat. Unless they are in a “safe house,” kids eat completely based on their internal cues. They eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. They don’t rely on the clock on the wall, or the calories listed on the label or the article in Self magazine to tell them when or what to eat. If it doesn’t taste good, they simply won’t eat it. And they could leave one chocolate chip on the plate because when they are full they are done eating. Can someone who lives in a safe house do that? I never could, at least not until I opened my house up to formerly forbidden foods, that is. Now, I can leave one bite on my plate, and it drives my mother crazy.

So, do you have a safe house? And if yes, what do you really think you are keeping yourself safe from?


  1. Elyse Resch, Evelyn Tribole (1996). Intuitive Eating: A Recovery Book For The Chronic Dieter; Rediscover The Pleasures Of Eating And Rebuild Your Body Image. New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
  2. HAES-Health at Every Size
  3. Bacon L. (2008). Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. Dallas, TX: Benbella, pp. 47-49.
  4. Karelis AD, et al. (2008). Metabolically healthy but obese women: effect of an energy-restricted diet.
Diabetologia, 51:1752-1754
  5. Garner DM, Wooley S. Confronting the failure of behavioral and dietary treatments for obesity. Clinical Psychology Review, 1991; 11:729-780.
  6. Mann T, et al. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, 62(3), 220-233.
  7. Flegal, K et al (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among US adults, 1999-2010. JAMA, 307(5):491-7


DrStaceyNyeStacey Nye is a Clinical Psychologist and Founding Fellow of the Academy for Eating Disorders. She does individual and group psychotherapy specializing in eating disorders, body image, depression, anxiety and women’s issues. Her practice is in Mequon. Check out her website at


24 Comments to “the HAES® files: The Dangers of Living in a Safe House”

  1. I grew up in a normal house — except we ate more whole foods and better food than most people — and then it became a safe house. My sister stole a loaf of bread from the neighbors and ate the entire thing. I do blame my mother; she knew better and rather than confronting her emotional problems dealt with them by trying to control her daughters’ food intake. My mother actually forgot this entire idiocy, including letting my sister take me to a diet doctor when I was 10 or 11, with the subsequent prescription amphetamines (?).

    I believe in a whole foods, healthy diet, but I would never deprive children of goodies. When my mother deprived me of food, including necessary food, did I steal steaks? No, I bought candy and sweets, and being deprived of nutrition while my body was growing has had lifelong consequences.

    • Thank you for your comment. I suppose I should have said that I “no longer” blame my mother. I think she thought she was doing what was best for me. She just wanted me to be happy, and we all thought that was the way to achieve it. Now I know better, not only that I can enjoy good food, but I’m not unattractive just because I’m fat. But that’s a story for another day 🙂

      • Thank you, Stacey, for your reply. I think I might not blame my mother if I thought she was doing what she did to make me happy. But when she went into this phase — quite clearly a midlife crisis — she was not at all concerned about her two daughters’ well-being. What amazes me is the total amnesia regarding her own behavior.

        I also think my mother feared her daughters’ attractiveness, though she placed undue emphasis upon appearance.

  2. I used be a dietitian at a health spa. I thought it was my dream job and I was just out of school. I listened in horror as the dietitian training me suggested to a healthy young man – who had gained a few pounds because of inactivity after an injury- that he cut his restaurant dinner in half and drown one half with sugar or salt or ketchup or whatever it took to make it inedible. She had many other tips to instill a fear of food in people. I doubt it’s a small enough world for your husband to have met her during your trip to the spa. Sadly there are many of us out there promoting disordered eating as normal.

    • Hi Ann. Thanks for your comment. I’m afraid that you are right…the information being given out at spas (and gyms, and doctor’s offices, and…) are indeed horrifying. Any time someone needs a dietician, I refer them to an eating disorder dietician, even if they don’t have an eating disorder. I believe that eating disorder dietitians are more likely to be trained in an intuitive eating approach, thereby reducing the risk of creating any new eating disorders in the process!

  3. Mom,

    This article is too good not to send you, and a little peek at our family’s view and practice with regard to eating…

    Here’s to helping shift the world’s prevailing and destructive eating paradigm!


    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Great post! I am completely in agreement. I grew up in the unsafe house other kids came to binge at. I didn’t start having issues with junk food (play food or fun food, whatever you like to call it) until I started studying nutrition. Once I started feeling guilty about certain foods, I felt torn between deprivation and guilt, denying and binging. Intuitive eating to the rescue! Now my pantry is once again stocked with whatever treats I might feel like, and I trust my judgment about how and when to eat them.

    • Hi Daxle, what an interesting perspective. I don’t think anyone has ever told me that they were the “unsafe” house before. I also found your comment about how studying nutrition led to deprivation and guilt, basically diet mentality. As I noted in a previous reply, I refer everyone to dieticians who specialize in eating disorders, even if they don’t have an eating disorder. Seems to me like we need to make intuitive eating part of the ADA’s curriculum.

  5. I too was raised in a mostly “safe” house. Treats were very few and far between. And yes, I too used to pig out at my friends’ homes. It was not good.

    I now have two children (well, actually young adults) and I have made a huge effort to not do the same thing in my own home. We don’t tend to have a lot of junk food around, but there are often cookies and ice cream to be found, as well as the odd bag of Tostitos from time to time. My older son is a model intuitive eater. He will literally leave one cookie in the bag if he’s had enough. No one ever tells him to stop eating. He knows exactly when to start and when to stop. My younger son has a much stronger sweet tooth than his brother, but I don’t say anything.

    In the final analysis, the best thing is that my kids like all kinds of food–from cucumbers to chips and everything in-between. They’ve asked my husband (who’s a terrific cook) and I to make them a family cookbook for when they leave the house. I’m sure that when my boys leave home, they will be successful eaters, enjoying their food and nourishing their bodies.

    • Thanks, Wendyrg. My 2 grown sons sound very similar to yours. They are very healthy, very intuitive eaters; eating things like salads, sushi, chicken and cookies. They eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. I don’t think that they have to think much about it. I have learned many things from watching them.

  6. My tween daughter’s friend is growing up in a safe house. When she is over at our house she gobbles up canned pineapple (fruit is full of sugar, don’t you know) and begs for my home-baked cookies and bread (carbs! carbs!!!!). She says that all there is to snack on at her house is packaged diet food. She tries to sneak in one last snack before she leaves. We had to flat-out tell her that while we are happy to provide food for our children’s guests, it was upsetting my daughter that she seemed to be coming over just to eat. And now I greet her at the door with the offer of a small meal before she starts hanging out with my daughter and then abruptly ditches her for the kitchen when her hunger pangs grow too strong.

    But I can’t confront her mother about it because I’m faaaaaat.

    (Meanwhile her mother has no problem with putting up quarts of homemade fireweed syrup and salmonberry jam. I guess it’s different when you’re eating something “all natural.” Whatever.)

    • Jennifer, you raise a good point about worrying that you won’t be taken seriously because you are fat. The reality is, that you cannot tell how healthy a person is from the outside. There are many fat people who are healthy and many thin people who are unhealthy. For example, my husband is a lifelong athlete and very healthy eater who inherited cholesterol issues from his family. Ultimately he needed to take medication. I am a very healthy eater as well, with more of a sweet tooth than him, and although I work out regularly, no one would call me an athlete. I even have a mother with high cholesterol, but I myself do not have cholesterol issues. Go figure!

      I cannot promise that she will or won’t listen to you, but what that mother is doing is not healthy, and not helping her daughter, either. Good luck!

  7. What’s wrong with a safe house? I WISH my parents had banned all candies, cookies, and soft drinks. Well, they did a pretty good job, which is why I’m on a varsity swim team and in the best shape of my life. I can’t say the same for parents who let their children eat trash all day and turn a blind eye when their children balloon in size.

    The whole “Your body telling you what you need” nonsense is just that, nonsense. Would you ever tell that to a crack addict or a chain smoker? NO! So why tell that to someone who is addicted to sugar (proven to be more addictive than cracked cocaine)? A child given anything he wanted wouldn’t eat healthfully, he would shovel candy and cookies down his throat all day long! Do you expect me to believe that his body “needed” that to survive, when he is, in fact, simply addicted to it? Not to mention that vegetables like lettuce and zucchini are more filling than burgers or cookies. Denser foods like burgers expand the stomach’s capacity, increasing someone’s appetite. Then, they DON’T “just stop eating” like you say.

    HAES is meant to help people with anorexia or bulimia accept their weight, not ignorantly justify bad behavior like it is in this article.

    • Three things. First, eating a lot of junk food in one sitting (on rare occasions) is no problem if your overall diet is healthy and you get plenty of exercise. What is a problem is when all you eat is junk food. Second, I agree about yo-yoing being bad for your health. Which is why any and all dietary changes for the better need to be PERMANENT. They have to be LIFESTYLE changes if you want your weight to stay down. Third, if children not only need sugary foods to survive but will actually be healthier if they are allowed to eat as much as they want, then why were there very few obese children 50 years ago? Why are children who ARE allowed to eat as much junk as they want even larger than children at “safe” houses?

      • Hi Chuckles, I think you bring up several important ideas. First, the question of how much children’s weights have changed is interesting, because before 2007 the definition of “overweight” was the 95th percentile (based on mid-70s norms) and up. In 2007 they tripled the range of weights that were “overweight” to anything above the 85th percentile. Also, the child BMI charts use not just height and weight, but also age. If a child grows faster they are in a higher BMI even if they are not fatter. So any kids growing faster than the kids did in the mid-70s has a higher BMI, and the range of weights that are considered problematic has tripled. Finally, the rise in weights that began in 1980 stopped around 2000 for girls and around 2005 for boys, and has not changed, so if something in the environment caused the surge, that does not easily map to the times that “junk food” has been easily available (since it is still around 10-15 years after the weights stopped changing).

        Second, you are raising the question of whether there are foods that are addictive. I think the jury is still out on this, and as a clinician I can tell you from my experience working with patients that there are certainly people who try to do intuitive eating (IE) who just find it does not work, and that following a more structured approach is better for them, as well as a majority of people who come into treatment believing they must have a food addiction who try IE and find their relationship to food easing and ultimately becoming very different, where they have preferences but are otherwise calm around the supposedly addictive food. Since both of these outcomes happen I am trying to stay humble about what we do not yet know, and let the people who have the struggle educate since they are the experts on their own experience. But I do want to make the experience of the people who don’t get represented show up when there is an argument about it being all one way or the other.

      • Hi Chuckes. Thank you for your comments, but I’m worried you have misunderstood the point of my article and the non-diet perspective. HAES® and Intuitive Eating are not the same as “letting one’s child eat trash all day ”. They are based on the premise of becoming more attuned to one’s body’s natural hunger/fullness signals; a process that is intended to create a healthy relationship with food, mind and body for people of ALL SIZES. Most, if not all, kids are born with this intuitive sense of what they should eat, but it can get lost through too much focus on external cues, such as overemphasis on food for reward, learning to use food to cope with emotions, or diet mentality, to name a few.
        Also, I think the jury is still out on whether sugar actually leads to a physiologic dependence, as it does with drugs and alcohol. I’ve treated many former OA members who have ultimately learned that they were not actually addicted to sugar once they took all of it’s power away.
        Also, your point about vegetables vs. other foods and how filling they are. Different foods are filling in different ways. Vegetables and carbohydrates tend to be filling by adding bulk, but are not always satisfying. Protein and fat are denser and lend themselves towards more satisfaction. For example, you could eat a whole head of lettuce and be very full, but not very satisfied. You could eat a single serving bag of potato chips and feel very satisfied, but not very full. By eating a variety of foods, we satisfy all of our hungers and nutritional needs. And with intuitive eating, there is never a need to eat “a lot of junk food in one sitting”, which is not healthy regardless of how much exercise one gets. My clinical (and personal) experience has demonstrated countless times that letting go of diet mentality not only eliminates binge eating, it also frees people up to eat things like vegetables because they taste good and are nutritious, not just because they are low in calories or only when they are dieting. Permanently.

  8. Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    My late father was a healthist when I was growing up. He wouldn’t allow anything made with refined sugar, or any sort of “junk food.” When I went over to friends’ houses, I stuffed my face with as much junk food as I could get my hands on.
    I yo-yo dieted from my teens into my mid forties. I have also starved myself, binged and purged, and binged without purging. I do not have a healthy relationship with food.

  9. Hi, i loved this article as i grew up in a safe house but i don’t equate this to my life long obsession and overeating of food i equate it to not having the love and nourishment from my parents at an early age and always seeking and craving that in food. I really do think that the sugar, sweetness and fats in junk food is something that the brain when deprived of these things in other areas craves and becomes addicted to so i guess my question is how do you get around that is it by allowing these foods into the house which will force one to seek satisfaction elsewhere?

    • Hi mjc. Thanks for your comments. I think you may be on to something. We do often learn to use food to cope with a variety of things, and ultimately, recovery entails not only learning to eat intuitively but also finding better, more direct ways of coping. It sounds to me like you may find more of what you need in loving healthy relationships.

  10. Reblogged this on Tiana the Fat Health Coach and commented:
    If you lived each day in a preemptive, protective bubble, what do you think the quality of your life would be? You’d miss out on loving hugs from friends and family, you couldn’t pet the cute kitty, you’d never feel the wind in your hair and the grass under your feet.

    Now imagine that protective bubble was your home, protecting you from the dangers of “bad” foods…

  11. I had to reblog this because it has the perfect balance of experiential and scientific evidence. I, myself, grew up in a safe house and had a very similar experience to yours. It’s how I learned to binge, one of the most damaging behaviors I have ever had to unlearn. Thanks so much for this great post!

  12. Thanks, tangledr, I appreciate your reposting and comments. I’m glad you were able to “unlearn” those behaviors and hopefully have all kinds of foods in your house. It’s a relief, isn’t it?

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