When I was dieting, I had little time for anything else but thoughts of food and exercise: what I could eat, what I couldn’t, when could I eat again, and what would fit into my days’ “points” allowance; when I would exercise, how I didn’t want to but had to, and how many calories I would burn on the stair-stepping machine (which I hated).
At the height of my dieting mania, when I was “acceptably” slim, I chose to pursue a career that I thought would support my dieting obsession: registered dietitian.
Imagine that – I chose a career that would help me diet. So not only would my personal time be filled with food preoccupation, so would my professional time. Looking back on this, I am astounded. When I was much younger, I had wanted to be other things: writer, fashion designer, even comedian (despite my intense performance anxiety). Where did that person go once on a diet?
It is only now that my dieting obsession is over that I occasionally wonder what I might have chosen for my mid-life career change other than dietitian. I still do love food and nutrition (no longer in an obsessive way) and I’m glad, ultimately, that this was the path I chose because I also love the clinical aspect of what I do, and thankfully the HAES® philosophy has given my practice so much meaning and substance. But imagine if I’d had more mental freedom in making this choice. But making a career choice during what was basically a mental health crisis is not how I wish that had gone down.
In the years that I became so restrictive with food, I had few hobbies. It’s not because I’m not an interesting person – I AM – but because planning all my meals and then fretting about how long I could withstand my hunger was first priority. I had a brief flirtation with pottery, and though I’ll never be any sort of visual artist, I wish I had continued on with it because it was truly the most meditative thing I have ever done while still creating something. Figuring out how to simultaneously eat food I liked while eating the fewest calories took first priority.
Anyway, once I stopped dieting, I had to spend some time figuring out how to eat again. It took me about five years to learn how to eat instinctively. Five years! So even after I stopped dieting, I still had to spend time learning how to not-diet. That part was better, because at least I learned how to make bagels and French baguettes and kimchi.
Once I was done learning to eat, I finally had time again. So I started writing this blog, and then I was asked to write by a magazine, and then I was asked to speak and I started to become an expert in my field of non-dieting. I took hula hoop classes and dance classes and learn to boogie board and travelled without worrying how I was going to stay on my diet. I ate dessert when I felt like it and got big swishy skirts I never would have worn even when I was thin because I worried they’d make me look fat. I started to really live in a way that I was afraid to do even when I was thin and never good enough. In between, I stopped dieting, and started living.
How much time is dieting and worrying about weight taking away from you? What creative or intellectual or fun or generous pursuits have you put aside because you had to think about food, or had to negotiate constant hunger and longing? What great or satisfying things would you do if you were freed from this diet prison?
Only you can answer that.
Ready to Stop Dieting and Start Living?
If you’re ready to stop dieting, or already have, and would like some help with the not-dieting (so you don’t have to spend five years doing it on your own like I did), check out my new online course and group coaching program, Stop Dieting, Start Living, which will help you do just that. Registration is open until February 2 or until the class is full.
Free Group Coaching Call January 28
I’m hosting a free group coaching call on January 28 at 10 am PST. The topic is “Why can’t I stop eating even when I’m not hungry?!” I’m only sending the call details to people on my newsletter list so sign up here if you want in on the fun.
Join our Facebook group community!
We have a very cool little community going on over at Facebook called The Dare To Not Diet Society. Members give each other support, cheer each other on in their non-diet journey. I’m there too! It’s a body positive, non-diet, non-weight-loss focused community, and we’d love to have you.
Have you been stressed out lately? With a tumultuous U.S. election just behind us, and the holiday season now bearing down on us, you might find yourself a little…frazzled. How then, exactly, are we supposed to keep our cool around food in stressful times?
My HAES colleague Nicole Christina, LCSW is here to tell you how in this, my first guest post!
You may be saying to yourself “Please don’t speak to me about another self-improvement project and don’t tell me to do it in “three easy steps!”” Women are so busy trying to work, grocery shop, make meals, transport kids to activities, and run the household, that there’s nothing simple or easy about living in today’s time starved world. The thought of trying one more method of improving one’s life may feel impossible. As women, we’ve never had as many choices, but as a society we haven’t figured out how to have a career and a sane home life. And for those of us high achievers striving to do it all well, burnout is always lurking just behind the corner. Being burned out doesn’t lend itself to practicing a new skill. Burnout lends itself to eating stale cookies in the pantry when nobody’s looking. But allow me to state a case for trying a practice that pays high dividends, is free, and is profoundly satisfying. Some of my clients have even called it life changing.
Mindful eating is a practice that is simple, but not easy. The goal is to get us off of autopilot, and help us stay in the present as we eat. Because we eat multiple times a day, we get many opportunities to practice slowing down and savoring our food, as well as the present moment. We do this slowly, imperfectly, and playfully. Instead of another task, mealtimes become a way to bracket our hectic lives with a few moments of precious stillness. It’s a sweet pause that is proven to do wonders for our mental state, as well as our physiology.
Here are some of the reasons that I recommend Mindful Eating to my clients who have conflicted relationships with food (and show me a woman who doesn’t!):
Mindful eating actually helps us digest better. Our bodies do not assimilate nutrients when we are eating in stress mode, and that includes checking our Facebook feed.
Mindful eating brings a calmness that can work its magic into other parts of our lives–it feels so good, and so different from the norm that often people want to try mindfulness in other aspects of their lives.
Eating becomes more enjoyable so it’s possible you may be satisfied with less. We taste more, savor more, and appreciate more. Appreciation and gratitude are closely linked with happiness.
Our bodies have some regular time to power down throughout the day. Evidence suggests that mindfulness reduces inflammation and decreases pain.
We learn how to manage the stress in our lives, which helps us develop a sense of mastery and competence.
With practice, mindful eating helps us build a relationship with one’s self. We are the experts on our own bodies, and that realization feels powerful.
Here’s a promise. Try the following exercise, and tell me if you don’t feel more calm. The next bite of food, or sip of beverage, take some deep breaths. Notice the textures, the flavors, even the temperature. Put away the screens. Allow your body and brain to rest and be still. Bring your whole attention to what you are eating or drinking. When you become distracted, simply bring your attention back to your eating again. The is a practice that is imperfect, fluid, and will get easier with time. It’s one thing to read about, it’s quite another to experience.
In this demanding, overstimulating world, mindful eating allows us to restore ourselves, and respect our need to run on human time, rather than electronic time. It’s a practice that runs counter to the multi-tasking, fast food, grab-a-protein bar lifestyle. It’s radical in that it resists the impulse to try to go faster and be more efficient. It reminds us that we are human, and eating is supposed to be satisfying and pleasurable. That’s why we have taste buds.
Nicole Christina is a psychotherapist specializing in food and eating issues. She recently launched a new webcourse: Diets Don’t Work! But Mindful Eating Does. You can find her on NicoleChristina.com.
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!
It’s been a banner month for Intuitive Eating in the press! First, we heard that Cosmopolitan magazine would be featuring an article by Caroline Rothstein about Intuitive Eating in the July issue – WIN! Then NYPost.com featured the article “Intuitive Eating is for People Who Have Given Up” by Brandon Drenon, personal trainer and holder of a nutrition certification from a Cracker Jack Box Precision Nutrition, which on first read seems asinine in its conclusions…and continues to seem so on the second and third read. But I’m of the mind lately that for HAES® and intuitive eating (and all other means of internally regulated, non-diet eating), there is no such thing as bad publicity. Let’s get these ideas into the minds of the people who need them.
That said, this article is in serious need of rebuttal, to be sure. Some of it gets it right – well, at least the parts he quotes or summarizes directly from the book. The incredulous tenor of the article is established right away, however:
“For anyone who has ever struggled with a conventional diet rigid with rules and restrictions on what you can eat and when you can eat it, the Intuitive Eating diet might sound very attractive. The guidelines of this eating philosophy are about as strict as the cool mom who smokes weed with her high school-age children — #bestmomever.”
I’ll forgive the ridiculous comparison to moms who might actually do this (do these moms really exist??). The major problem is the missing context for why some people find intuitive eating so appealing and even necessary. That context is a food-and-body-obsessed world that tells us 1. Whatever we look like now is not okay, and we must look a certain way to gain societal acceptance and optimal health and 2. We can do that by manipulating our diets in such a way that does not honor our instincts (which turns out to be, statistically speaking, a very short-term solution for most people often resulting in even more weight gained as a final result). Prolonged food and/or calorie restriction can really mess with a person’s perceptions of hunger and fullness, and intuitive eating helps them find those cues again. The very idea of intuitive eating exists simply because of the astounding failure of dietary restriction for body manipulation for the majority of most people.
The next part of the article describes the basic concept of IE, taken pretty much right from the book. A former diet-junkie he interviewed even sings the praises of intuitive eating. So far, so good.
And then this:
“Eat what you want, enjoy every guiltless bite, and be happy with the way your body looks. If that’s all you want, the Intuitive Eating diet works flawlessly, [oh Brandon, please stop your sentence here!] but it stops there [dang]…If you want to look average, then go on an average person’s diet and eat whatever the hell you want. However, if you have concrete weight loss or physique goals, then definitive actions need to be taken that control your appetite and guide your food and exercise selection.”
Well now, here’s something we’ve never heard before! Oh wait, we have heard it. Brandon, you had me at “works flawlessly” because yes, those of us who practice intuitive eating do want to enjoy what we eat and be happy with the way our bodies look. That is exactly at the essence of intuitive eating! But then he goes on to let us know what he thinks of having, god forbid, an “average” body, and I’m reminded again of how hard it can be to like our bodies when we are surrounded by a world full of people who think this way. Haven’t you heard Brandon? Oppressive beauty ideals – like, say, the bikini-ready beach body – are soooooo 2015!
“The message of Intuitive Eating is self-acceptance and self-awareness, but what seems to be lost is self-discipline and self-control.”
Brandon, you have so missed the point. Not to mention, you forgot to read Traci Mann’s definitive and very scientific book on this stuff, Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, The Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, which includes actual science on how when it comes to our diets, self-control and willpower are definitely not the most reliable eating strategies (especially for weight loss), and the body’s physiological and psychological processes almost always win out to keep our weight right where it is or was (unless you develop an eating disorder. I do not encourage this.). If they did work, then most diets (or at least some) would be successful and we’d all be thin. But they don’t, and we aren’t. But since you asked, the discipline in intuitive eating comes from truly listening to and honoring your hunger and fullness cues – you know, just the cues we’ve been equipped with to guide our nutrition since cavepeople days.
“What else in life do you leave to the whim of your intuition and expect positive results?”
Oh, just bowel movements, urination, breathing, sleeping and most of my other bodily functions. I heard that eating was also a bodily function, so I’ve decided to trust what my body is telling me on that, too. Turns out leptin and grehlin are wiser than my vanity.
“If we are to get anywhere in life worth going, the rules can’t be ‘Do whatever you want, whenever you want.’”
They can’t? Last time I checked, Brandon, as long as I’m not breaking any laws or hurting people, I can kind of do exactly what I want, when I want. Fun fact: once I decided to do exactly what I wanted with my body and how I fed it, I had so much time to do things other than plan my diet and worry about my weight all day that my life became filled up with awesomeness (like writing this blog, getting published in a magazine and doing a podcast). My life is WAY more fulfilling now than when I followed the body-police rules. Rules which I didn’t make in the first place, and for which I was not awared a ceremonial cookie when I followed them. Don’t get my feminist hackles up, now.
Brandon makes a few other ridiculous assumptions (that we would all blow our money on “Italian luxury items and Michelin-starred restaurants” if it were not for ignoring our intuition. Um, no. My intuitive desires fall more along the lines of self-care such as eating well and getting plenty of relaxation, sorry to disappoint) and sums up with
“If you have specific physique goals, you need to eat with intent and make conscious decisions to bring you closer to those goals. Whether it is counting calories, watching your carbohydrate and sugar intake, or eating Paleo, all of these mechanisms have the framework in place to help guide you toward weight loss.”
So here’s where we just need to go back to the science. Some people will be able to alter their physique significantly through exercise training, this is true. It will probably take up a lot of time and have to become the equivalent of a full-time job, this also seems true. But for many people with weight loss goals who aren’t able to dedicate their lives to the diet and exercise regime of an Olympian athlete (ie, pretty much most of us), the chance of making weight loss stick beyond 5 years even with diet and exercise is a paltry 5%. I wish people would put half the energy they spend on shaping their physiques into shaping themselves into actual interesting or good people, but I guess we’ll leave that for another, future epoch.
Perhaps Brandon’s nutrition certificate precludes the need for scrutiny of all the available science on weight loss (his B.S. from the University of Texas is in cinematography and film/video production, not nutrition). I feel like such a fool for taking all those silly classes like general chemistry, organic chemistry, physiology, anatomy, biochemistry and advanced nutrition (hello, metabolic pathways!) for four years that help me to understand the science I read regularly on this subject. Life would have been so much easier if I’d just gotten the 500 page Precision Nutrition textbook! (PS – My chemistry textbook was like 800 pages alone). What a friggin’ waste of time!
Listen, if people want to work out and manipulate their bodies into whatever they want, that’s cool. My concern is for the legions of people whose diets have failed them, and who then blame themselves for that failure only to get sucked into the whole cycle again. Intuitive eating isn’t about diving into a hill of donuts or a pile of calzones and eating until you are ready to explode (that’s called disordered eating). It’s not about eating junk food all day/every day (because our bodies actually crave diversity naturally in the absence of dietary restraint). These are gross misunderstandings about IE. In reality, many people have found that once they achieve a more intuitive relationship to food, they have improved diet quality. Here’s the latest research on intuitive eating so you can separate fact from fiction.
“Restrictions are necessary for balance. Although Intuitive Eating suggests otherwise, eating calzones until you spontaneously discover the desire to eat salads just seems very unlikely…Are you going to be happier following Intuitive Eating, or would you rather apply some discipline and eat a salad?”
The first part of this is simply incorrect, again, based on the science. High dietary restraint is actually associated with higher weights and poor diet quality. People who eat according to internal signals tend to have lower weights and better diet quality, not to mention they feel better about themselves which also happens to be good for your health (imagine that). The idea that we need to hold our noses to eat a salad is ridiculous. I like vegetables. Lots of people I know like salads. Why would this require any sort of discipline…oh, unless you were so damn hungry or deprived from restricting all the time that you only craved calzones.
Brandon got one thing really right though: intuitive eating is for people who have given up. It’s for people who have given up the futility of following yet another weight loss diet that inevitably fails. Given up feeling bad about themselves because their body doesn’t fit into a particular society-approved mold. Given up on living and breathing their diet every second of the day. Given up on feeling crazy around food. Given up on a bad relationship to eating and their bodies. I gave all that up and my life opened way up. Want to give up with me?
Dietitians Unplugged Ep 10 – Be Your Own Beloved with Vivienne McMaster:
Greetings lovelies! I figured it was high time I wrote about this particular topic because I’ve been seeing lots of comments here and on Facebook about people having difficulty becoming internally regulated eaters.
Intuitive Eating is fantastic and it was one of the books I read early on after quitting dieting for good. It’s one way to learn to eat normally – meaning, listening to your gut (literally) when it comes to knowing when to eat and when to stop, feeling relaxed around food, and feeling confident that you are eating exactly what is right for your body. Notice I didn’t say anything about it being a way to lose weight or a way to learn how to eat less. I just want to throw that out there – continually – so nobody is confused about what this eating normally business is all about. It is NOT about weight loss. Ever.
Anyway, as I said, intuitive eating is one of the ways to learn to eat normally – but it isn’t the only way. In my diet-ditching literary travels, I came across other philosophies, ideas, and models of normal eating. I’ll link to those at the bottom of this post, but for now I’m going to talk about my absolute favorite model, Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence. I’ve been doing some self-study on this model and re-reading some of her books, and I am reminded that this was the model that really clicked for me. If you’ve been struggling for a while with intuitive eating, I suggest looking at this or some other models for normal eating inspiration. For now, I’ll just talk about Eating Competence.
What is the difference between Intuitive Eating (IE) and Eating Competence (EC)? The essential difference, to me, is that IE focuses on eating-on-demand; that is, figuring out when you are hungry, eating exactly then, stopping when you are satisfied, and then starting the cycle all over when you are hungry again, disregarding structured meal times in favor of listening to your internal regulation cues (there’s a bit more to it than just that, but for short form purposes, that’s the crux of it. Read the book for the full deal.). EC also trains you to eat according to internal regulation cues, but relies on the discipline of providing yourself (and your family) rewarding meals at regular times, and the permission to eat as much as you like at each meal. Here is a more detailed explanation of the differences as written by Ellyn Satter herself. Both reject diet mentality and weight manipulation and embrace body diversity, both use internal signals of hunger and fullness to regulate eating, but one relies on meal-time structure and the other rejects it. I see both as useful models, and it just depends on what you prefer.
Personally, I love the feeling of knowing I have rewarding meals planned for myself – that feels like safety and comfort. It can be stressful to wait till I’m hungry to try to figure out what I’m hungry for AND how to get it. This works well if I’m out shopping and there’s a food court, but not at home where I have limited pantry space, or at work where I need to bring my lunch. So while demand feeding might work well for some, it just doesn’t work for me, especially if I want to have family meals every night (and I do). If you have kids, EC will be especially useful because you can all eat at the same time, and your kids will become competent eaters too.
So how does this meal structure thing work? There is definitely planning involved – but since we’re not planning to starve ourselves or trick our hunger, I view this as self-care, not external rule-following. You will provide yourself three meals (a must) and three sit-down snacks (if you need them) a day. Your appetite will eventually find the rhythm of structured meals once you are honoring it regularly. The meals must be rewarding – you don’t want to spend a lot of time coming up with meals you don’t want to eat. It’s a good idea to include foods from all of the food groups at the meals – a worthwhile guideline that ensures satiety. I suggest checking Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family out of the library for the full deets – it’s not that long and it’s easy to read. I’ll also continue to write about Eating Competence and my suggestions of how to get there.
You will still spend time getting familiar with your internal hunger and fullness cues. There are steps outlined in Secrets that will get you there. I love step-by-step instructions for anything, so this book wins my heart not just for the structure component, but also some concrete how-to.
I can’t emphasize enough that this model hinges on unconditional permission to eat – whatever and as much as you like. Beware of impostors that try to take away that permission, with rules like “eat a vegetable before the rest of your meal,” “fill up on water so you’ll eat less” or “sit and chew your food slowly.” No “tricks,” just permission. If you find yourself making rules about how much to eat that don’t involve how much you actually want to eat, always try to come back to this statement: “I can eat as much as I want.” You don’t need to be perfect, just honest with yourself.
By the way, many dietitians know of Ellyn Satter’s pioneering work pediatric nutrition (the Division of Responsibility in feeding) so if you need professional help with this, be sure to ask your potential dietitian if she’s familiar with this work.
If you’re struggling with internally regulated eating, just know you have some options. There isn’t just one way to do this thang. I’ll never tell you one option is better than the other because it comes down to personal preference. Do some investigation and experimentation, see what works for you, and go for it. You’ll eventually hit meal-time nirvana and never look back.
Resources for learning to eat normally that I’ve read and recommend:
Episode 8 – The Beach Body Episode is available now! Listen on iTunes and Libsyn. Like our Facebook page to get all the latest news on our podcast and other non-diet podcasts. Our “challenge” to listeners continues to the end of May – don’t miss out on this fabulous chance to embarrass your hosts!
When I decided to stop dieting, it felt like the biggest relief ever. I was so tired of trying to trick my body into thinking it didn’t need food, ignoring gnawing hunger pangs, coming up with ideas for meals that tasted great but had next to no calories in it, counting “points,” and acting like the worst thing that could happen to me would be to get fat again (it wasn’t), that the final decision – made after several months of a nutrition class taught by Linda Bacon in which I was introduced to HAES® – felt easy. But the process of learning to eat normally? Not always so easy.
Eating without restriction at first felt scary. This was before I’d even heard of intuitive eating or eating competence, and I just thought eating normally would happen naturally. I wasn’t prepared for the lingering sense of manufactured food insecurity that drove me to eat quickly and voraciously of portions that were bigger than I was hungry for. I felt way out of control at times.
So I totally get that people can have a hard time with learning to eat normally after dieting. The posts I see in the various groups I belong to on Facebook tell of people struggling with “getting it right” or listening to their bodies with any degree of accuracy. I hear a lot of frustration. Years of dieting can totally fuck with your head and your stomach, and can make this whole process a lot harder.
There are two things that can make this process even harder: Perfectionism and Judgment.
Let’s start with Perfectionism. When I hear people talk about learning to eat more intuitively, so many are beating themselves up for “slipping up” and eating too much, or not “getting it right.” As former dieters, we may have felt our “success” depended so much on being perfect, getting the diet right, and never falling off the proverbial wagon. Isn’t that why everyone blames people for diet failure? They didn’t stick to the diet, they weren’t perfect enough, and therefore they didn’t achieve the results. Even though we know this isn’t a personal failure – that the state of dieting is a completely unnatural one, that nearly everyone fails at weight loss over the long term, and that it has nothing to do with willpower – we often persist in this idea that if we had just done it perfectly enough, it would have worked out differently. So even when we give up dieting, I think we suffer from residual perfectionism. Normal eating is just a new thing to perfect. But really, it isn’t. I Ellyn Satter’s definition of what normal eating looks like:
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it – not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.
Notice she didn’t say anything about normal eating requiring perfection? There is room here for a lot of mistake-making. So make those mistakes and learn from all of them!
That leaves Judgment. It begins with wishful thinking. It’s like somehow even though dieting didn’t work to make us thin, we hope normal eating might. We are dismayed that when we start to listen to our bodies, they actually start to gain weight (for some, at least). I went through this myself. I felt betrayed that normal eating meant I might gain weight –that wasn’t right, was it?!? Intellectually, I knew that I had been suppressing my weight with dieting, and that weight gain might be natural – but emotionally I felt destroyed. Surely if I just learned to eat “normally,” I would have a “normal” sized body? (Those were early days and my ideas about what constituted a normal body were still dictated by crappy, oppressive cultural ideals.)
So we look at our bodies that seem out of control and decide that it probably has something to do with our new way of eating, which also feels completely out of control. We start to apply the brakes to our eating here and there. We try to eat a bit less, or eat more healthful foods than we want, or we go the other way and binge because we’re so stressed out or starving again. All of this behavior stems from the judgment we’re putting on our bodies and what we think they should or shouldn’t be doing. Next thing you know, eating normally doesn’t feel good at all, and it’s now not any easier than dieting was. Thanks judgment, you judgey asshole!
Despite being freaked the hell out, I decided to roll with the wisdom of my body, if only for one simple, driving reason: I could NOT go back to dieting. The mere thought of more restriction made me want to cry. And I wanted to be authentically me, not someone who lived in fear of what my body actually was when I satisfied my hunger in a totally normal way.
That decision was the key to me finally clicking with normal eating. I decided to not worry about nutrition (a challenge when you’re in the middle of a dietetics program), eat foods I felt like eating as much as possible, experiment when I wanted, and just tune into what my gut was telling me without stressing about whether I got it right or not. That last part was key – it didn’t matter if I wasn’t getting it right. And then one day, after a lot of reading* on the subject and experimentation, it felt like I was getting it right more often than I was wasn’t. And yeah, I still make lots of mistakes. Sometimes I eat too much, sometimes not enough. Whatever. I’ll get it right the next day. Or the day after that. I trust my body to make up for the mistakes.
If you’re in the middle of this process, have a stern talk with Judgment and Perfectionism. Thank them for whatever they’ve given you, and then kiss them goodbye. They don’t have a place in your diet-free life anymore.
Dietitians Unplugged podcast – episode 6 available now!
Episode 6 is called “Clean Eating or Toxic Ideas?” and we had so much fun talking about this subject.
Listen on Libsyn or iTunes. Give us a review on iTunes if you like us — this helps to spread the non-diet love to more people. Check out our Facebook page for our latest episode and news and more weight neutral, HAES® friendly podcasts!
Check out episode 6 of the Dietitians Unplugged podcast in which Aaron and I discuss the “clean eating” trend. Is this just another way to eat, a diet, or a new religion? And what are the implications for the kids raised in this dichotomous way of thinking about food?
Here is the article that inspired this blog post. Warning: it includes fat-phobic comments and diet talk.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to a continuing education course (gotta get those CEUs!) called “The Science and Practice of Mindful Eating.” I was initially disappointed by the description that focused heavily on mindful eating as a treatment for obesity and stated, “Research shows that mindfulness practices can lead to altered gene expression and neuroplasticity. These and other changes can positively influence resilience, self-regulation, and well-being, which in turn improve weight management efforts [emphasis mine].” You had me until the incredible logic leap to “improve weight management efforts,” but I wanted to hear what kind of evidence they were using to show that mindful eating would lead to long-lasting weight loss anyway, just to ensure that I continue to be as fully informed on the subject as I can be.
There were things I loved about the class. I loved what I learned about meditation and all the wonderful benefits it can provide. I loved the mindfulness exercises which instantly cleared my head and instilled in me a sense of calm, at least for a few minutes (not at all my natural state). I enjoyed the mindful eating exercises, which I have done before, because they are always instructive (yep, still don’t like raisins).
What I didn’t love: the scant evidence they were using to show that mindfulness could produce long-lasting weight loss. The studies were few, the results were minimal, the sample size small, and the duration of the studies were always less than three years – about the time people start to regain weight after any sort of intentional weight loss efforts. And the stigmatizing of obesity throughout the class was bad. I couldn’t help wonder how this stigmatizing affected some of my “obese” classmates who hadn’t ever heard of Health at Every Size®. Would they try mindful eating in the hopes of fixing their “wrong” fat bodies? And when it failed to make them thin, which seems at this point to be the most likely outcome, would they abandon mindful eating for the next diet to come along that promised weight loss?
And then recently I came across this article about this study, which concluded, “Mindful people are less likely to be obese and are more likely to believe they can change many of the important things in their life.” While the article is careful to initially point out that mindful eating hasn’t been shown to be a “cure” for obesity or even necessarily help people lose weight, they then go on to talk about how mindful eating might help with willpower to make better food choices and stick to an exercise plan which might help one to not become obese. Even though that’s pretty much impossible to determine from this study (the study found that people who scored higher on a mindfulness scale had a lower prevalence of diabetes and obesity, and a higher sense of control over their lives. Period. They didn’t find that fat people were turned into thin ones by meditation).
Although I am no expert on mindfulness, from what I have learned, I think there are wonderful things there. I think mindful eating probably has the potential to help people reconnect with their bodies, improve their relationship to food, practice self-care and maybe even improve health. But I can’t help but think, if you come at mindful eating with the idea the particular outcome must be weight loss, you’ll never even come close to eating nirvana. Mindfulness involves non-judgment, and I can’t think of anything more judgmental than feeling the need to change your weight or shape. I’m imagining second guessing, frustration with the scale, a distraction from the true joy that can be found in eating. A focus on weight loss – an external thing – doesn’t seem mindful at all.
I think this mindful-eating-as-obesity-cure is the tip of the iceberg. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of progress; as the non-diet, Health at Every Size® message spreads, there will be those who want to co-opt the language and the ideas but subvert it into another weight-loss industry money maker. Don’t be fooled. Be a mindful consumer (see what I did there?). If someone is offering weight loss, ask to see their evidence, especially the long-term results.
Reader Nicole Geurin MPH, RD suggested today’s blog topic. She asked what I thought about how Lean Cuisine, long-time makers of low calorie, low fat frozen foods, has been retooling their brand to be less about weight and dieting. This video is one example.
I think the video is wonderful, so I checked out Lean Cuisine’s website to see what else they’re doing and they are clearly trying to rebrand themselves away from weight loss. They are even offering a filter for your browser that eliminates the word “diet” from your online searches (though if you don’t just search on the word “diet” that also works quite well). They have eliminated any reference to weight loss on their website, which is a pretty bold change. So for now let’s give Lean Cuisine the benefit of the doubt – they are no longer about dieting or perhaps even weight loss.
They also have a page on which they claim they are devoted to women’s wellness, although how that manifests itself in their products, I’m not really sure, and they aren’t specific. When it comes to food, women’s wellness isn’t all that different from general human wellness. I mean, there’s not some kind of menses milk that I’m aware of, or ovulation menu that we need to follow (Yes, some vitamin and mineral DRIs are slightly different between the sexes. That doesn’t usually translate to radically different diets for men and women). Unless they mean…wait, could it be? Might “women’s wellness” translate to our perceived need to eat less in order to weigh less? Which in some circles, is known as a diet. They’re definitely not saying it, so I don’t want to make any assumptions here. Maybe we just need to take a look at some of their products a little closer to see if they put their money where their (and our) mouths are…
Brief interlude: This is by no means an endorsement, but I actually like the taste of many Lean Cuisine meals. More on that in a minute.
…So I looked at the product list. I’m familiar with the Lean Cuisine products because they take up serious real estate in the supermarket freezer section, where I’m always looking for satisfying, filling, tasty and reasonably priced frozen meals without a ton of sodium in them (fun fact: these don’t exist). Looking at the images of the meals in their boxes on the website, they don’t seem to have changed significantly recently, though they do have a pretty wide selection of different “collections.” On the front of the box, they show a photo of a tasty and seemingly much larger meal than what is in the box, as well as little boxes showing the calories, fat, fiber, protein, sodium and carbohydrates. This information is required by law to be somewhere on the box in the nutrition panel so I’m not sure why it has to be displayed so prominently on the front, too — especially the calories. While it can be useful to know the amounts of certain nutrients in foods, especially for certain diseases, I always think the calorie count is useless and hasn’t done anyone a lick of good. Anyway…
Brief interlude part II: A few years ago when I was experiencing a lot of digestion problems from stress, I found it necessary to eat small, light meals more frequently. I thought Lean Cuisine would be perfect for this, and as I said, I actually found I enjoyed the taste. Lunch would come around and I’d eat one and…it wouldn’t even touch my hunger. So I decided to eat two at the same time in the hope of creating the satisfaction of a full meal. Well, it turns out 2 x 0 = 0, and even two left me craving more within an hour. After three days of that, I was ravenous and ready to eat the world. I had accidentally put myself on a diet eating those suckers!
…But here is the real problem as I see it. I looked at the nutrition facts, and the meals are roughly 250-350 calories, with most meals falling under 300 calories and one as low as 170 calories. Now, you know me, I’m not a dietitian to prescribe specific calorie targets for anyone (although clinical practice is quite different; in this setting we do actually calculate calories, protein and fluid requirements to make sure our patients are meeting their nutrition needs. But back in the not-sick, intuitive eating world…not so much), so if the meals satisfy you, by all means, enjoy them. They don’t satisfy me. Across any population, there is going to be a wide range of appetites. Some women eat less and will find the size and make-up of these meals satisfying; others, like me, need more. So here’s a lesson about women’s health and wellness: we are all a little different, with needs and appetites varying widely from person to person. Why isn’t Lean Cuisine addressing that aspect of our “wellness” by making different sizes of meals?
Brief interlude part III: I just told my significant other that I was writing about Lean Cuisine and their shift away from diet lingo and he said, “So are they finally naming them ‘Not Enough For Me Cuisine?'” Spot on, my dear, spot on. He once liked the grilled sandwiches (and I gotta admit, that microwave-grilling technology is impressive; if only they could use it for good instead of diet) but found that even two were not really enough for him. I know very few men who could tolerate eating so little at one meal, so it seems like they are targeting women after all…
What’s the bottom line, then? Yes, I think it’s wonderful that Lean Cuisine has moved away from diet lingo and has eliminated any reference to weight loss on their site. That’s a win. But for me, they’re still a no-go because they don’t meet my needs, even though I’m a woman and they profess to care about women’s wellness. It’s up to you to decide for yourself if, just because they say they aren’t diet foods, they aren’t diet foods.
For those of us that don’t want to give our hard-earned cash to diet companies this could be complicated. Because if a diet food company changes its branding but not much else, has anything changed at all? Does this represent a genuine move away from the pervasive culture of dieting and weight loss or just another example of co-opting of body positive, non-diet language to sell diet products?
Check out the latest Dietitians Unplugged podcast in which we discuss the misconception that intuitive eating is for weight loss.