What Non-Diet Nutrition Might Look Like

food collage
All foods fit. YES THEY DO.

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 competence does 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!

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Becoming a Competent Eater

pizza-329523_1920
Unconditional permission to eat this? Hell yeah.

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:

The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care by Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel

Overcoming Overeating by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter

Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch

Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle by Michelle May (there are variations on this book for diabetes and binge eating as well)

Ellyn Satter’s website is chock-full of good information, much of it from her books, if you want to learn more.

 

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Why Is Eating Normally So Hard?

cat memeWhen 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.

*My favorite non-diet how-to-eat resources are:
Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch
Any book by Ellyn Satter but especially this one and this one
The Diet Survivor’s Handbook by Matz and Frankel
Overcoming Overeating by Hirschmann and Munter

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Episode 6 is called “Clean Eating or Toxic Ideas?” and we had so much fun talking about this subject.

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Diving Deep Into Intuitive Eating

EATI have been reading Fiona Willer’s excellent book, The Non-Diet Approach Guidebook for Dietitians, which provides a structured approach for dietitians teaching normalized eating (aka attuned eating aka intuitive eating aka mindful eating). I can’t recommend it enough for dietitians who want to work from a Health At Every Size® perspective with their clients. I’m really enjoying the material and it made me think about how I teach this approach.

My shorthand for intuitive eating has always been, “Eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full.” But reading Willer’s book alerted me to something very important: there is a difference between full and satisfied. Satisfied is the absence of hunger that we need to pay attention to in our eating. The absence of hunger is actually the biological signal to stop eating – not feeling “full.” The difference may seem small, but it is in fact profound. It can be the difference between eating more than we need and eating just enough. Stopping when we are no longer hungry and waiting 10-15 minutes will take us to that comfortably full feeling, because it takes at least that long for our body to recognize fullness.

If I hadn’t given this a lot of thought before, I had to ask myself: Am I truly an intuitive eater?

When I first quit dieting, I decided to give myself a break and just eat. I hadn’t heard of intuitive eating yet, only HAES®, and was doing my best to figure out how to eat normally for the first time in my life. For the most part I didn’t binge – that was something I did when I was restricting – but I didn’t have a clue of how I wanted to feel before, during and after I ate a meal. I did become more of an intuitive eater as I learned more about it, but it’s a process that takes time and practice, especially after so many years of restrictive, regimented eating. Lately my efforts at eating well have concentrated around trying to find ways to get more vegetables into my day, but now I’d like to back up a bit and make sure my IE skills are where I want them to be.

So, because I will never ask my clients to do something I could not or would not do, last week I vowed to really start paying attention to my body’s signals around eating.

Hunger is not a problem for me – I recognize hunger like it was an old pal (although I as a dieter I considered it more of a frenemy). I generally do try to eat when I’m hungry but there are times when this is harder to do – like at work. I’m sometimes a poor planner around snacks, so I occasionally (all right, several times a week) find myself starving and without food at hand. Allowing my hunger to go on for so long – either because I am too busy or too lazy to get food – probably leads me to eat more than I need when lunch time rolls around. Thus, task number 1: make sure I have sufficient snacks throughout the day and access to a lunch I want in order to properly honor my hunger.

I realized last week that I have another hungry-habit that is a holdover from my dieting days. Never a morning exerciser, I like to work out (either at the gym, or by going for a walk) right after work and before dinner. But that means we sometimes don’t eat until almost 8 pm, some nights even later. No good – my significant other (S.O.) and I are both starving and miserable by then and a late dinner means trouble for my acid reflux problem. No to mention we tear into our meal like wild dogs at that late hour, sometimes holding our bellies in distress and dismay at how we ate more than we needed just because we were so hungry.

Task number 2, then: we’re going to eat dinner when we are hungry, which happens to be right after we get home from work. We don’t want snacks then, we want to make dinner because we still have the energy for it. I’ve avoided this because I didn’t like exercising on a “full” stomach after dinner…but exercising on a “satisfied” stomach should be fine…once I get there.

Which brings me to discovering my stopping point. The truth is, I’m often stressed and rushing when I eat, either at work because I’m busy or at home because I’ve waited too late to eat. I’ve also always been a fast eater, speeding through meals as though I’d had to compete with ten siblings for food growing up (I’m an only child). So I’m not actually sure at what point I am stopping these days. I have noticed lately that I feel fuller than I want to at times, and I’d like to remedy that.

(Incidentally, I asked my S.O., who is a very well-self-regulated eater, “Do you stop eating when you’re full, or when you’re no longer hungry?” He honestly didn’t know. He sometimes professes to be a member of the clean-plate-club, but nearly 10 years of watching him eat has allowed me the secret knowledge that he is not – quite often he’ll leave behind food that he is no longer interested in, even if it’s just a few bites. Now there’s an intuitive eater. Except when it comes to pizza, his personal kryptonite, and then all bets are off. Hey, we’ve all got something.)

Over the years I’ve participated in mindful eating exercises in which one bite of food is experienced with all the senses. The Non-Diet Approach… also has a script for this kind of exercise. As you eat slowly and with attention, your body and mind have time to recognize that magic moment when the food tastes suddenly less delicious, your hunger is gone, and you know you are done. While you do want to try to enjoy every bite of food, you probably wouldn’t want to eat quite so deliberately every single time; the idea is for you to practice recognizing the signals of hunger/satiety so that eventually, heeding them becomes automatic.

Again, I have to be honest; lately I’ve been eating at my desk, while working. It’s not the best environment for enjoying my food or recognizing body cues, so I’m determined to make eating a priority not only at home, but at work too. Task number 3: I will step away from the computer, I will put down the pen, and I will be one with my meal. I will eat slowly and mindfully and wait for “not hungry.”

I’ve been practicing all of this the last few days: enjoying my food, honoring my hunger and satiety signals, noting the difference between satisfied and full, eating slower. And I’ve been surprised to find that I am eating less than I thought I would at meals and avoiding that unpleasant, too-full feeling I often get when eating out. The whole point, however, is not to trick you into eating less. Eating with the intention to eat less is just another diet. Checking in often with your body means you get to decide if you want to eat more or not based on what your body is feeling, not a misguided sense of how much you think you should eat.

I’ve got my work cut out for me. But after several years of being diet-free, I finally feel ready to really listen to my body and let it be the boss of how I eat.

For more reading on how to normalize your eating, I recommend these books:
Intuitive Eating
Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat
The Diet Survivor’s Handbook
Overcoming Overeating