Anyhoo, it’s the new year and I thought this was a great affirmation of why I don’t promote diets and a focus on weight loss. And neither do all the other cool RDs quoted in the article, many of whom I am proud to know personally. They are all doing amazing work, fighting the status quo of the harmful weight loss paradigm.
I hope you’re starting out the new year with resolutions to treat yourself with kindness and compassion, and prioritizing self-care. I wish you a year of relaxed eating and peace with your body.
One of the most common reactions to what I write about learning to accept our bodies at the weight they are and taking a Health at Every Size® approach is, “But I’m not at the weight I’m supposed to be…I should be XXX pounds because that’s what I was [when I was my healthiest weight; when I was an athlete in college; before I had three kids; before I developed this knee condition; when I ran marathons all the time].” I totally get it. Lots of us have that utopian time in our lives when our weight was perfect (or so we think in hindsight), our health was optimal, and we were going to live forever…and we so desperately want to get back to it.
Even when, intellectually, we know that dieting doesn’t work, that weight loss is typically short-term (<3 years) at best, that even when our own personal experiences tell us that previous weights were not sustainable, we resist in accepting this. I recently read a great term for this: data resistance, meaning no matter how clear the science is on this topic, people still want to believe that long-term weight loss is possible for more than a tiny fraction of people. The propensity for magical thinking is strong in us humans, and weight is no exception.
Let’s roll with it, then. Maybe you aren’t at your optimal weight. Do you want to diet to try to get there? Is that something that has been sustainable for you in the past? If not, why do you think things would be different this time? What happens if, despite all your efforts, you never get anywhere close to your desired weight? How do you live your life then? What happens if the weight you are now is your weight for the rest of your life? I think it’s worth it to have this conversation with yourself, so you at least have some options.
There are also important things to know before you decide what to do next. First of all, despite what we have been told ad nauseam by the diet industry, your weight is not really within your control, at least in the long term. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you are well aware by now that intentional weight loss has a 90-95% failure rate over the long haul (>5 years). If you’re new to this blog, head on over to my Scientific Lit page and have a look for yourself.
Your weight is really determined by a combination of your genetics, your metabolism, and your environment (past and present) – and not so much by the weight you actually want to be. Do you have fat parents or family members (genetics)? Have you spent any part of your life restricting calories or foods (environment)? And if so, did you know that your metabolism is probably running slower than if you hadn’t (metabolism, obviously)? Possibly most significantly, if you have made multiple weight loss attempts throughout your life or were put on diets as a child, your natural set point will be higher than what it might have been had this never happened. Unfortunately, we’ve all been fed the calories in/calories out bullshit, and have been taught that calories out are totally within our control, when in reality our sneaky metabolism comes along and adjusts everything to make sure we aren’t spending too much energy, because Lord knows the body loves homeostasis.
So now you’re well-armed with information about the spectacular failure of long-term weight manipulation. That’s all well and dandy, you think, but maybe I’ll be one of the 5% who keep the weight off. Maybe you will be! I was for a long while – before The Diet Monster took over my life and made me more miserable than I had ever been as a fat person. It’s a dicey gamble to make – you might be one of the 5% who manages to maintain long-term weight loss by making it your life’s work, OR you might be one of the 95% who gains some, all, or even more of your weight back, leaving you even fatter than you started. In the words of Dirty Harry, “You gotta ask yourself, ‘Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya??
“But I’m simply not healthy at this weight.” Hey, you might not be. I don’t know your particular health habits or your lab values. Just remember, though, that weight is not a health behavior; it’s a size. Health at Every Size® does not purport to say that everyone is healthy at whatever weight they’re at; it simply means that whatever weight you are right now, you can start to work toward better health. So maybe your health isn’t great right now – is losing weight truly the only way you can improve your health? What about improving your eating habits or activity level? If you consider yourself too large to exercise, check out The Fat Chick’s webpage for activity for people of all sizes. Plenty of studies show that fitness is a better determinant of health than fatness and recently even more are showing that weight loss in some populations is associated with greater mortality rates.
“Well, I’m just not comfortable at this size.” I understand; moving in a thin body is different than moving in a fat body. While I personally don’t notice all that much difference (I’m lazy at both ends of the weight spectrum!), I also recognize that my weight difference might not be as great as someone else’s and that my experience is not universal (I also developed osteoarthritis in my feet at my thinnest, so even that wasn’t a guard against joint problems). Whether your discomfort is physical or psychological, how much do you think our culture’s prevailing attitudes about weight are influencing your discomfort with your weight?
I used to feel like I had to suck in my stomach, no matter what weight I was. As I regained weight, my stomach was beyond sucking in – I could tighten those ab muscles all I wanted, but that layer of fat wasn’t going anywhere. Sucking in made me feel physically uncomfortable. Not sucking in made me feel psychologically uncomfortable. I felt out of proportion, and I felt like I was being outed by my tummy as a fat person. When I finally acknowledged that how I felt about my stomach had more to do with how the world views fat people and less to do with how I actually felt, I eased up on my expectations of my body. If your feelings of discomfort are 100% physical, consider a HAES® approach in which you could find activities that you are comfortable doing right now, and work your way up from there. Bodies are amazingly adaptable, especially when we are being kind to them.
I wish I could tell you that our desires controlled our weight. That it’s just a matter of trying really hard and you’ll have some satisfying weight loss that lasts forever without totally ruining the quality of your life. My own personal experience, the experiences of all the other people I’ve met in the fatosphere, and the bulk of available science on the subject does not permit me to do so. I can only recommend a kinder approach in which you let your body decide what it will weigh – it will do that eventually anyway – while you find your own way of living as healthfully as you want and can. That will give you a stable weight that is right for you. Because, with this one life you have, how long do you really want to struggle against your body?
A little while back, two of our listeners sent us variations on the question, “How do I get my significant other on board with my HAES® journey?” How do you articulate that you are stepping away from the world of diets and body shame and toward something more compassionate? And how do you do it if your partner is still very much in the world of diets? We enlisted our friend, HAES® therapist Hilary Kinavey of Be Nourished to help us answer the question. Take a listen!
Is anyone else physically and mentally exhausted by the end of the Julian calendar year? This year was no exception for me, and with the addition of an emotionally draining U.S. election season that did not end in a way I had hoped it would, well, I went into a bit of a tailspin.
Actually, it was a huge, tornado-style tailspin.
Long story short, I ended up in a mildly depressed funk. I’d been here before, in the past, and I knew it would only last a few weeks during which I would remain a reasonably high-functioning human. But it doesn’t feel great. I do not sit will with the yuckiness of malaise.
As time marched on, I began to find myself preoccupied with my body. Specifically, how it looked. I found old, distant feelings arising – namely, dissatisfaction. As a result, I suddenly felt the tug of an old relfex: the desire to diet to control my shape and weight.
Now, luckily for me, I have a few things going in my favor: 1. I committed way back to never diet again. I never wanted to experience the bitter combo of futility, sadness and hunger that dieting left me with. 2. I have wholly committed to honor the wisdom of my body and have promised to fully support it in whatever shape and size it takes, even if it’s a size and shape that takes me out of the realm of societal acceptability. So dieting again IS NEVER an option for me, and for that, I’m so glad. I know that feeling bad about my body in these instances is the symptom, not the problem.
I started to remember other times I experienced depression, and my reactions in those times.
At the age of 22, when my mother was dying, I turned to dieting to distract myself and exert some form of control on my clearly out-of-control life.
At the age of 31, when I found myself in a committed, long-term relationship that didn’t satisfy me, I turned to dieting to get my “perfect” body to solve my unhappiness.
It’s obvious that dieting or a smaller body could not possibly have solved either of those problems, yet that’s exactly what I did to try to ease my suffering because diet culture tells us that we only need to lose weight to make our lives better. So it wasn’t surprising to me at all that this reflex arose at this time of sadness and insecurity and fear. The urge to deny myself my most basic need – food – in order to gain control at a time when I feel I have no control over what happens is so strong, but makes so little sense and is not kind.
Instead of diving back into restriction, though, I decided to just sit with those feelings. I made space for them. I pondered them. I thought about how that solution worked out for me in the past (spoiler alert: not so well. I still had to deal with all those messy feelings and situations in the end, and I was hungry on top of it). I knew I would not diet, and I knew I would have to sit with feelings of body and life and world dissatisfaction and just do my best to deal with it.
In enough time, I felt myself emerge, ever so slowly, from the darkness of these thoughts. I have a great support system at home and that helps. I did some gentle yoga to get myself back in touch with the physicality of my body — to sense what it felt like rather than what it looked like. I’m living with uncertainty without using starvation as a proxy for control. I’m caring for myself in constructive, not destructive ways. My body is not actually the problem, and I don’t need to try to change it.
If you’re finding yourself going down this particular road, stop and give yourself a hug. Think about what you really need. You’d be better off in a Snuggie with a hot cup of tea on the couch doing some comfort-TV binge-watching than trying to diet again. If you need to reach out for help, do that. Just know that dieting and weight manipulation is not real control, it’s not real power, and it just weakens us further. That’s not something that any of us needs in hard times.
Dietitians Unplugged News
Missing us? No fear! We’re just on a little end-of-year hiatus until January. In the meantime, catch up on all our episodes on Libysn, iTunes, or Stitcher.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might be someone who finds it a total bummer that while you’re trying to live diet-free, everyone else isn’t. Everyone else seems to be on some sort of diet, and they’re telling you about it all the time. Everyone else is worried about their weight or how they look, or how their health is affected by their weight. It’s sometimes hard to imagine a world without diets.
Well, this weekend, I got to experience it. I had the great fortune to attend the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) 2016 conference in San Francisco. My friend and podcast co-host Aaron Flores convinced me back in May that I had to go – lots of people in the HAES® world would be there and it would be a great opportunity to meet them. And also to learn a lot! So I signed up to go and waited with great anticipation for the time to arrive.
As the date approached, many of us HAES® dietitians and therapists who hang out together in social media started planning some casual get-togethers. I managed to book a restaurant whose main feature was that it would take a large group of 15. I thought only seven people at most would end up coming out (I always figure on a 50% no-show rate for any social event taking place in California).
The first night came and we all met up at the conference’s reception. It was soon apparent that at least 15 of us were headed for dinner together, and maybe even more! At dinner, I was seated across from Evelyn Tribole, one of the authors of the book Intuitive Eating. Yes, someone who I considered one of my personal heroes was seated right across the table from me. Gulp! I hoped I didn’t accidentally drop food on my shirt. Also seated near me were Dana Sturtevant and Hilary Kinavy of Be Nourished, Fiona Sutherland of Body Positive Australia, Marsha Hudnall of Green Mountain at Fox Run, Kathleen Bishop of Body Peace and Liberation – all people who have become my online friends and mentors and who are part of a strong online HAES® community. Aaron was beside me. Dr. Linda Bacon, author of the book, Health at Every Size (and of course, the nutrition instructor who introduced me to HAES® and basically changed my life) was also there. All of these people (and more whom I will name below so you can check out their work) are people I consider personal role models and heroes. They are people who fight against the weight-centered paradigm that is so thoroughly prevalent in our society (despite the total lack of evidence to support it) simply because they know it is better for us not to diet. I was thrilled and almost a little emotionally overwhelmed to be in these folks’ presence.
As we were tucking into our dinner (and I was able to relax a little), I suddenly had a thought, which I then verbalized: “Isn’t it so great that we’re all just sitting here and eating good food and no one is talking about how ‘bad’ or ‘guilty’ they feel for eating, or how they need to eat less so they don’t gain weight? How novel!” It was something I haven’t experienced since the 1990s, when I thought I was just about the only one dieting (which I did secretly most of the time). This time, even I wasn’t dieting. How refreshing! We all ate as much as we wanted of the foods that we wanted. There was a wonderful variety of food on the table – not just salads without dressing as I’m sure some people imagine dietitians to eat!
That night, and in fact during the whole of the conference, there was an array of body weights, shapes, sizes, colors and abilities/disabilities present. I could feel the confidence and empowerment in the rooms – because nobody was expected to change their bodies. It was intoxicating! People doing great things – not just trying to fit into a narrow societal ideal. Everyone looked beautiful to me. Their brains, knowledge, experience and compassion dazzled me. I felt humbled to be in the presence of such greatness, and relieved to find others who, like me, strive to live a life of substance beyond diets.
Aaron gave a great talk as part of the closing keynote. In it, he quoted Yoda, who, in The Empire Strikes Back, says to a frustrated Luke, “Judge me by my size do you?…And well you should not…Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
Luminous beings are we. Yoda tells us that we are so much more than our earth suits. It is the perfect case to let go of diets to change our body size (if you’re still not buying all the scientific data). I could see the luminosity in everyone, and it was an amazing thing. This is what a world without diets and weight oppression might look and feel like.
This weekend I was surrounded by people who advocate for good health, and who know we don’t need to suffer for it. It was a heady experience. I was among my tribe and felt truly free and accepted. There was a palpable feeling in the air that we might eventually change the world for the better on a large scale. How I felt reminded me of the mantra the football players shouted before each game in one of my favorite TV shows, Friday Night Lights: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” My eyes were clear, my heart was full, and I felt like we would eventually create a world without diets for everyone.
Check out the HAES/non-diet/body positive work of these fantastic people I had the honor to hang out with this weekend:
When my partner and I first moved in together, he – a naturally thin person whose eating is highly internally regulated and who has never restricted any food in his life AND even enjoys guilt-free overeating on occasion – suggested cookies as a grocery item list. I had just regained a few pounds after my most restrictive dieting period ever, and I looked at him like he was crazy. “Uh, NO! I can’t have cookies in the house or I’ll just EAT ALL OF THEM! I’m addicted to those foods!” He looked at me calmly and said, “Well, that won’t happen to me and I want cookies.” It would be four more years before I stopped dieting and the cookie tug-of-war would peacefully come to an end and I would once and for all stop feeling like I was addicted to sweets.
I recently had a conversation with a woman who considers herself a food addict and has been a member of Overeaters Anonymous for 16 years. She manages her self-described addiction by eating no refined grains and no sugar at all. She maintains a high-protein, low-carb diet. After talking a while I found out a few other things: 1. She was criticized for her weight at a young age, 2. She started self-restricting cookies when she was 7 or 8 years old, and 3. She was often a much higher weight, tried all the diets, and this total abstinence regimen is the only one that has “worked” for her in terms of keeping her weight down long-term. She also frequently talks longingly about what she can’t have but would love to eat. She sometimes bakes brownies just to enjoy the smell and gives them away to friends without having any. She said she never stops thinking of herself as fat, even though she is now “normal weight.” If ever there was a person my heart went out to, it was this person.
We hear stuff like this all the time. Sugar is addicting. Fat is addicting. Refined carbs are addicting. Salt combined with any of those foods is addicting. I was once accused of being addicted to cheese, which is ridiculous because anyone who knows me knows chocolate is my drug of choice! (If I thought of it that way, which I don’t)
To learn more, I emailed a colleague who specializes in nutrition for recovering addicts and food addiction. He sent me a paper which apparently is the foundation for food addiction treatment right now, “Understanding and Addressing Food Addiction” by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. The paper admits little is known about food addiction, which is why they have chosen to look at it through the lens of substance addiction. Food addiction was considered for the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) but rejected, so in the absence of any other diagnostic criteria, the Yale Food Addiction Scale (a scale that is primarily based on the diagnostic criteria for substance dependence) is often used to determine food addiction.
The paper talks about possible risk factors for food addiction including “obesity/overweight”, early exposure to “overeating and unhealthy eating” at a young age through family or peer groups, genetics, personality trait and psychological tendencies, and more. They state that the individual characteristics associated with food addiction are being female, over age 35, and overweight or obese (interestingly, the same people that are often on a diet). It discusses the relationship of food addiction to eating disorders (there is a higher correlation than in non-ED populations). It talks about the similar neurological responses of the brain to highly palatable foods (the aforementioned sugar/fat/salt combo) and addictive substances. And in the end, it concludes:
“The food addiction model, like that of substance addiction, describes the ways in which certain food properties or ingredients can produce addiction in individuals who are susceptible to their effects and who consume them in a manner that induces the addictive process (i.e., eating certain types of highly palatable, calorie dense, and nutrient-poor food on an intermittent but repeated basis). It allows for an explanation and an intervention strategy for those cases of disordered eating that are not adequately accounted for by existing psychological or medical causes.”
In other words, in the absence of psychological or medical reasons for an “addictive” response to food, it blames the food itself.
I find this paper, while highly referenced, problematic. I don’t think it’s asking the right questions.
One major problem is that nowhere does it mention restrained eating or dieting behaviors and their relationship to food-addicted behavior. This is a huge omission because it’s well-documented that highly restrained eaters often have frequent episodes of disinhibition (aka overeating or binge eating), especially with “forbidden” highly palatable foods (read some of that data here and here). Who on a diet hasn’t felt addicted to the very foods they weren’t supposed to eat? It’s no surprise to me that people with eating disorders have experienced more food addiction symptoms; high degrees of eating restraint are common in eating disorders.
I have qualms about treating food the same way as addictive substances. We don’t need addictive substances to live for the most part, and most of us, in our usual activities of daily living, will never come across those substances unless we search them out. They’re easy to avoid (cigarettes and alcohol being exceptions to some degree). Food, on the other hand, is everywhere, and we need it every few hours to achieve nutritional adequacy. One might encounter “trigger” foods multiple times in a day. This puts the onus on the addicted person to try to avoid contact with trigger foods or those who are eating them, and that could lead to extreme social isolation. I had a friend who, once he joined OA, couldn’t eat with me anymore because of potential exposure to all his trigger foods – which was becoming everything except non-starchy vegetables.
Yet another problem is that this paper views highly palatable foods as inherently bad for health; they simply aren’t, and there is no adequate body of evidence to conclusively show this (and we know now that our patterns of eating impact our health much more than individual foods). Many people can incorporate these demonized foods into a balanced diet quite easily without overdoing it or feeling ruled by them (those people all live in France, plus the three I know here. Kidding! I know four here.). In my experience, these are people relaxed eaters who have never dieted and never felt they had to change their body shape or weight.
A lot has been made of the similar ways that highly palatable foods and addictive substances light up certain neural pathways. But guess what – those are pleasure pathways. They also light up when we receive hugs from people we love, hang out with our pets, or have sex. So the lighting up of those pathways alone do not indicate addiction.
There may be truly food-addicted people out there, because anything is possible – but this “addiction” does not happen in a vacuum. If you showed me a food-addicted person who had never dieted, never felt bad about his or her appearance, never been exposed to our pervasive culture of food fear, and never observed or felt weight stigma, I might buy the construct of food addiction in which food is the problem more readily. If that food was broccoli, I’d have no doubt. But it’s never broccoli, and there are few people who meet that criteria.
We’re asking the wrong questions. Based on all I know about dieting, food restriction and disinhibition, food addiction tendencies are more likely driven by high dietary restraint, weight stigma, and a toxic culture of food-fear than a chemical dependency on food. The evidence is the many people who have gotten free of this feeling of food addiction once they healed their relationships to food, eating and their bodies.
So is food addiction a real thing? I think the feeling of addiction to food is a very real thing, yes. But is it the food itself that causes the addiction? In most cases, I don’t believe it is. And I don’t believe more restriction is the answer.
My feelings of addiction to sweet foods went away when I started to feed myself without restraint and abandoned body-shame as a way of life. Once I legalized all foods, the power any one type of food had over me disappeared. I think if we started treating food addiction with liberalization, not more deprivation, we’d quickly see fewer and fewer cases of it.
One of the reasons diet culture is so persistent and refuses to die is that diets do cause weight loss – for at least some people, for a little while.
Low fat or low carb or high fat or high protein or no sugar or all butter (whoops, did I make that one up? Patent pending!) have all worked pretty much equally well at some point for some people. Studies from a few years back even compared all the current diet methods and said no one diet method was better than any other for shedding pounds (and these studies mentioned nothing about keeping the pounds off long term). I remember back in the early 2000s when Atkins was making a comeback and people, having dropped all manner of carbohydrate out of their diets, did lose weight like crazy (or at least I heard some people did; one guy I worked with didn’t but smelled like deli meat all the time and friend of mine ended up with the worst constipation ever for a month but lost no weight) and the scientists were all, “It’s just because they’re eating fewer calories!” and the Atkins people were like, “No, we’re eating a shit ton of fat, we’re getting lots of calories.” In truth, no one knows why these diets work at first, whether it’s calorie restriction or macronutrient deprivation or what.
So I have a theory on this – and it’s JUST a theory, so take it for what it’s worth. Our bodies seem wonderfully adapted to eat all manner of food and that’s been great from a survival aspect. Some groups of people probably did well just on, like, animal blood and milk, and others did great on mostly some sort of starch and whatever else they picked up off the nearby ground. No diet was necessarily better than another because that’s what was available and we’re great at adapting to what’s available.
Flash forward to the future (now)…and we are like diet nomads, wandering from one restriction to another but on purpose. Like, we have that food but we decide not to eat it for reasons of conforming better to society’s standards of beauty and thinness (something I’m sure our cave people ancestors could have totally gotten behind had they not been busy running from woolly mammoths all the time in between picking up mongongo nuts from the ground half the day). So our body goes without that food and because a WHOLE part of the diet has been eliminated, the body loses weight at first which triggers a biological feedback system that, when it hits a certain point, signals the metabolism that it’s maybe never getting that food again, and it makes some live-saving adaptations, like slowing down your metabolism, making you crave high-energy foods to replace the missing food, getting more efficient at using the available energy (meaning it can use fewer calories for the same functions it used to use more calories for before your diet), and also getting hella good at storing fat, because who knows how long this famine is gonna last. The problem with any diet is that it does make you lose weight and we see that as a good thing while it’s probably just some part of an elaborate feedback system to keep you alive and thriving. The weight loss is quite possibly a symptom of something going wrong in your environment.
Of course, it’s just a theory. And it doesn’t even matter really, because whatever the reason, weight loss is pretty much almost always temporary, unless you manage to develop some seriously disordered eating habits and make maintaining this weight loss your full-time job (which I don’t recommend. You’ve got better things to do).
I like my theory, though, because it also explains why each dieting attempt seems to get harder and harder each time, and no one diet works as well the second time you go on it, am I right? So you’ve got to hop around from diet to diet, and each time you drop some food group out of your diet, your body goes, “OH SHIT this again?” and it goes through the whole feedback system and in the end makes you gain even more weight because that is safety.
But even if I’m wrong about the mechanism, I’m not wrong about what happens. You lose weight on pretty much any diet, your body overwhelms you with a desire to eat, your body makes adaptations (this much we know), and next thing you know, you’ve regained all the weight you lost in those first few halcyon moments of a diet.
And those halcyon weight loss days are soooo fucking seductive. They keep us coming back for more, again and again, just like a cheatin’ lover you just can’t shake.
Meanwhile, we look at the French paradox (that thing where they seem to eat all the foods and they aren’t as fat as us, so we’re told) and go “Zuh, it must be the wine” when in reality it’s probably that they didn’t starve themselves systematically and consistently as we have here in North America for all of the 20th and 21st centuries. They’re bodies probably didn’t get all adapty – until Mireille Guiliano came along and told everyone how French women didn’t get fat and I bet all those French fat women that do exist are on diets now trying to prove her right. (also, it was totally disingenuous of her to tell everyone to just enjoy their food and they’ll get slim, because there is absolutely no evidence that enjoying your food makes you go from fat to thinner. She couldn’t just tell us to enjoy our food and leave the body shame at home?).
All this to say: don’t be fooled. Weight loss from diets IS temporary. We don’t really understand WHY it happens but we do know it IS temporary unless you manage to develop the most disordered of eating habits and devote your life to maintaining your body shape. Trust me when I say, there are so many more worthy causes out there to spend your time on.
One day last week, I found myself mentally running through what I ate that day – not for any reason other than as a memory exercise. I started tallying the different fruits and vegetables I ate just out of curiosity: peach, banana, green pepper, red pepper, onion, tomato, tomatillo, green beans, mushrooms and scallions. Wow, that seemed like a lot of fruits and vegetables – even for me! Yet I barely noticed it till I took the time and effort to remember.
I’m not trying to brag; rather, I just want to illustrate a point about what “normal” eating – aka, eating not-on-a-diet – might look like. I probably didn’t eat a whole serving of each of these vegetables – that’s a little too much volume for me. I may have made it to the recommended 5 servings, but I rarely count so I don’t know for sure. And not every day looks like this; some days I eat less produce (or food in general), others more. I’m convinced, however, that providing oneself reasonably balanced, varied and, most importantly, tasty meals on a regular basis will provide all the nutrients you need over time, and listening to our internal signals of hunger and fullness to guide our eating will ensure we get the right amounts. Good nutrition really isn’t that hard.
And yet, I didn’t eat like this when I dieted because I would have had to prepare the vegetables in such a way that they didn’t taste very good. In fact, when I dieted early on I ate very few vegetables and almost no fruit because I wanted to save every calorie for food I liked since I got to eat so little of it.
Since embracing a Health at Every Size® philosophy toward health, my diet quality has improved immensely from those days of restriction. How, then, I do I include fruit and vegetables so easily now? First and foremost, I make everything taste good. The peppers and onions came in a cheese quesadilla in a flour tortilla cooked in some oil I had made the night before, then topped with roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa (with some cilantro in there too). The banana may have had peanut butter or Nutella on it (or not). The other vegetables were cooked in a stir fry with pork in a sauce of soy sauce, brown sugar, sherry and sesame oil and served over white rice (because I don’t like brown) by my partner. And yes, it was cooked in oil and NO not some small diet amount, but enough to lubricate the dish and make it taste good.
But just as important as making food taste good, my relationship to food is such that I have the pick of all the foods available to me that I like. I’m also not going around in a state of chronic hunger because I feed myself according to my hunger and fullness. That means I’m not jonesing for something I can’t have simply because I feel like I can’t have it (a scientific phenomenon), and I don’t go around looking for the most calorically dense food I can find to fill a bottomless pit of a stomach. And in getting to choose any food I want, I choose foods that both taste good and make me feel good, which includes a variety of “whole” foods (a term I’ve come to dislike thanks to diet culture and healthism, but it is useful here nonetheless).
To be quite frank and not very dietitian-like, I am not a fan of using serving sizes to guide our eating. Like registered dietitian Ellyn Satter states in this article, I feel strongly that government-issued dietary guidelines take away permission to eat and leave people with disordered eating and probably a dislike of a lot of foods that are good for us. This especially rang true to me:
“The 2005 Dietary Guidelines…raised the recommendation for fruits and vegetables from five to nine a day. That is 4 1⁄2 cups of virtually naked fruits and vegetables—with only the smallest amounts of salt, fat or sugar. The intent, of course, wasn’t to satisfy nutritional requirements—four or five well-chosen vegetables and fruits a day and a similar number of breads and cereals is enough. The intent is to get us to fill up on relatively low-calorie food so we don’t eat so much. Such tactics defeat consumers’ best intentions. Well and interestingly prepared fruits and vegetables are tasty and rewarding. However, as any experienced dieter knows, trying to fill up on them— particularly when they are unadorned—is quite another matter. I have worked with far too many recovering dieters who have tried to do just that, and after a while they say that they simply can’t look at another pile of vegetables.”
Nailed it. When I was at Weight Watchers, vegetables were not recommended as a tasty, satisfying part of your diet – rather, they were something to be eaten to take up space in your stomach, to prevent you from eating other potentially high calorie foods that might actually satisfy you. I could not stand unadorned vegetables and mostly I just skipped them unless a particularly good recipe called for them. Fruits – why bother? You had to count those as points. My weight loss was not about health – it was about weight and societal approval. I did what I could bear, and while I could bear to be hungry, I could not bear to eat foods I didn’t like (although later on I would do this, too).
Fast forward six years after declaring my freedom from diets. I found out that a “well and interestingly prepared” vegetable is a thing of beauty, especially when I feel I don’t have to eat it. My diet rebel has a loud voice when it comes to “shoulds”, especially around food. I could experiment with foods to see what I truly liked.
Eating a balanced and varied diet that we like, aka eating competencedoes make us healthier – at least in terms of having better diets, physical self-acceptance, activity levels, sleep, medical and lab tests. ( And can you also imagine the wonderful by-products of people getting totally normal with food? No more boring conversations about what people can’t or won’t eat, about being “good” or “bad” with food, about having to punish themselves later for something they’re eating now. I mean, seriously, YAWN. We could talk about so many smart or interesting or fun things instead!)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: what you eat isn’t nearly as important to your health and well-being as your relationship to food is. When you heal your relationship to food and eating, you’re free to experience the variety that is available to you without stress and drama. Let’s call a definite moratorium on food rules, get curious with our appetites and start exploring with gusto!
I’m committed to a non-diet life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have bad body days that turn into bad body weeks.
I’d been enjoying my time in Vivienne McMaster’s Be Your Own Beloved class. I was enjoying the challenge of taking a lot of selfies, even if they weren’t what I would have considered “flattering” or “attractive.” I felt I was really getting the hang of this compassion-for-myself business!
Then one day I took several photos for the prompt that day – we are encouraged to take many, many photos – and for some reason…it just set me off. The outfit I was wearing – something I thought looked super cute in the morning – was all wrong. My inner critic came leaping out of hibernation with all sorts of insults for my body, my face, my hair, my very soul, and for reasons I’ll get to, I was ripe for the picking.
I felt down for the rest of the day. I woke up the next morning with residual bad body feelings. I was also going through a period of fatigue (a theme of my life that I’ve learned to respect with rest). I felt like there was no one I could talk to about these feelings, because even if someone else knows the pain of bad body days, it’s hard to understand how other people have them. “You look great!” someone might console. I don’t know why, but that’s just not helpful at all; I know my bad body day is not rational and that others are not seeing what I see. A compliment at that moment just feels dismissive of all the dark feelings. I shared my thoughts with my partner and he was supportive and loving as always, but it’s still hard not to feel alone in these times.
But here’s what I knew, after so many years of experience: bad body days aren’t forever. And for me, they aren’t really about my body. At the same time, I also developed acid reflux and stomach distension that are classic symptoms of stress for me. So I started to think…what am I really bothered about? And I didn’t have to dig far to know that I’ve been a little stressed out with starting my business and dealing with the less fun administrative tasks. I’ve long known that I feel stress somatically, that even as my mind remains calm, my body sends me a multitude of distress signals. My body becomes, then, an easy target when the mental distress finally mounts.
What do I do when I finally realize I’m in the middle of a bad-body jag? It becomes all about self care. For me, that means getting lots of sleep and doing things like reading something fun and relaxing, eating familiar foods, and mindless TV watching or game-playing on my phone. And last week, it also included binge-listening to Julie Duffy Dillon’s fabulous podcast, Love, Food (specifically episodes 25, 26 and 28). Hearing that I wasn’t actually alone in these uncharitable thoughts about my body, that there were others dealing with these thoughts every single day, all over the place, was comforting.
In a culture that actively promotes body hate for profit – especially for women – and as someone who was a victim of this culture for 40 years before realizing it was total bullshit, it is unrealistic to think I’m going to feel great about my body every day. Frankly, I don’t even think it’s necessary to feel fantastic about the way our bodies look every day – that’s something that takes up a lot of mental space I no longer have room for. Feeling good IN my body is much more important to me, and that’s what I strive for now.
Soon enough, my bad body week ended. This week I’m back to being just fine with my body. I didn’t need to go on a diet to cure my bad feelings; I just had to sit with them for a while and be good to myself.
By the way, the photo that undid me is the one that accompanies this post. I look at it now and think there’s nothing wrong with this person in this photo. Some people in our photo group even liked it. In the end, it was all about what I really needed (self-care, compassion), and had nothing to do with how I looked.
Do men get eating disorders too? Long regarded as a disease of girls and women, people sometimes don’t realize that men can also be affected by eating disorders. Aaron and I talked to Andrew Whalen of The Body Image Therapy Center, a treatment center for those with eating disorders, substance abuse issues and self-harm disorders. They also happen to specialize in eating disorders for men, and that’s the subject of this podcast. Andrew shares his personal story of suffering with an eating disorder, body shame and muscle dysmorphia.