Dieting as a Distraction

img_20161203_145718083_hdr_31363430996_oIs 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.

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Anatomy of a Bad Body Week

body
This day was the beginning of my bad body week. No idea why – looks harmless now!

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.

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Becoming a Competent Eater

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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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I’ll Blame My Body

Thinker-damnI was having a particularly bad day, the accumulation of a bunch of things starting to weigh on me, and a few fresh annoyances as well. I had just bought a very nice, expensive bed for the first time in my life – and hadn’t had a good sleep for three days…with at least 27 more days of the trial period (and potentially 27 bad sleeps) before I could exchange it. I was feeling the pressure of saying “yes” to too many obligations that I didn’t feel passionate about. And there was just the general malaise I get occasionally where I feel the world isn’t a great place to be. I needed sleep, I needed solace, I needed self-care. So what did I do?

I blamed my body.

After so many years of knowing that it is not my body’s fault when I have a bad day, of knowing intellectually that the body is merely a quick and easy stand-in for dealing with non-body problems and bad feelings, of knowing that just two days ago I had no problems with my body, in fact liked it quite a bit in my cute summer sundress in the middle of a hot SoCal February; even as an advocate for body positivity and self-acceptance…I blamed my body.

I stood in the mirror, second mirror in hand, checking out the back of my hair, which I discovered was in need of a haircut (but not really; sometimes I also blame my hair). The inner running commentary took off as my eyes drifted down to my butt (too big, wrong shape), then the width of my back (too wide, droopy folds); then I turned sideways to attack my chin (weak and disappearing), and then full frontal as I assessed the belly (bigger than it ever used to be). After that mental beating, my problems went away and I felt fantastic about my life. JUST KIDDING! My problems still existed, I didn’t feel better, and in fact I felt a hell of a lot worse!

It happened, as it often does, too quickly. But after a time, I said to myself, “Those things are not the problems. The problems are the problems.” Knowing at least that much, I can at least stop myself from going on a loathsome diet and instead deal with the actual issues.

Why do we do this? Why is our body the punching bag on which we try to resolve problems that have nothing to do with it? It probably doesn’t help that we live in a culture that continues to weigh women’s worth by their appearance. (Need proof of that? A male friend of mine recently saw Caitlyn Jenner at Starbucks and said, “She had no ass.” The same person who was once lauded for being an Olympian is now judged solely for her perceived lack of ass. Welcome to womanhood.)

There are times when my body has presented real problems. I have foot problems that two surgeries have not resolved. I have overly tight calf muscles that seem to be wreaking havoc everywhere else in my legs. My particular reaction to chronic stress and fatigue is acid reflux and to become itchy all over. I have digestion issues that extreme dieting may or may not have caused, and which now prevent my total enjoyment of a lot of meals. These are real body problems, and they sometimes get me down, but unlike with my fake-body-problems, I know the solution is some TLC and R&R (and sometimes an ice pack or Pepto-Bismol) and I give it to myself.

How I used to resolve my fake-body-problems? I would try to make my body disappear by going on a diet.

I wish I had known this body-as-problem-solving-substitute was a thing, and a thing that I was doing. I might not have gone on extreme diets that messed with my metabolism and probably gave me chronic tummy troubles – real body problems. I might have faced relationship problems head-on, or even recognized bad or unsatisfying relationships for what they were. Instead, I insisted that a smaller body would be the remedy for everything – and when it wasn’t, the problems were still there, and I had to fix them while I was hungry. Not the easiest thing to do.

Occasionally my real problems still get me down. I might still walk around feeling unattractive when this happens (I’m working on getting a new mental reflex) but I know that it has nothing to actually do with my body. And that’s a relief. It frees me up to feel my feelings, fix the problems I can fix, make peace with the problems I can’t, and wait to feel a bit better. That’s what real self-care is all about.

What did I eventually do to tend to my tattered psyche? I cooked, because I love to cook and it calms me and grounds me like no other activity. Knowing I can still feed myself and my family reminds me that on the most basic level, I can still take care of myself.

What do you do to care for yourself in tough times? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!

 

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The Diet Begins Now

Diet Crap with outlineDecember can be a hard time for people. There’s the stress of the holiday season. The cumulative exhaustion of the year weighing down on you. Retail fatigue getting everyone down. Personally, even while continuing to eat intuitively and getting some exercise, I find it hard to feel healthy during this time of year because this is the “end” of the year and I kind of just feel done.

So I understand that need to want to hit the reboot button at the beginning of the new year. To strive to feel better, eat better, be fitter. Maybe even liking ourselves better. And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that desire.

And you’re not on a diet now. Of course you’re not; it’s December, it’s the holiday season, there’s yummy food everywhere, you’re enjoying it, it’s the end of the year and not the time to start something new, etc. etc. etc.

But over the year, some unfruitful seeds have been planted. An ad mentioned getting a “beach body.” A workplace had a “Biggest Loser” contest and someone won $500 for losing the most weight. Oprah made a shitload of money from investing in Weight Watchers, and also, she lost a few pounds.

So while most people probably aren’t thinking about starting a diet for weight loss right now…they are planning it for January. In their heads, they are already starting the diet now.

The diet industry counts on this. They are laying low right now, saving their pennies for the weight loss ads that will pour forth from our TVs, radios, streaming services, and social media platforms come the new year. They will make a lot of money by selling a product that doesn’t work and then blaming the buyer for its lack of success. Even though the probability of 95% of people being to blame for a product not working has to be somewhere around zero. They make $60 billion a year and they barely even bother to advertise in December!

There are a million ways to improve your health and none of them have to involve intentional weight loss diets that don’t work in the long term. In fact, probably the unhealthiest thing anyone can do is try to diet for weight loss, because the most reliable long-term outcome of dieting for weight loss is weight re-gain. Is this really what you want? I didn’t think so.

Those things you can do if pursuing better health is your goal for the new year? Here are a few suggestions: You can eat nourishing foods; you can aim for more fruits and vegetables in your diet; you can learn to savor the foods you eat; you can learn to expand your palette to accept new foods. You can heal your relationship to food and your body if it needs healing. You can move more, maybe learn to love physical activity for the first time. You can discover that exercise isn’t just in a gym, sometimes it’s dancing in your living room or walking down the street or cleaning your home. You can broaden your network of social support. You can give yourself a break when you need it. You can realize that you’re already great, just as you are, without having to change your shape and size.

The diet doesn’t have to begin now, or ever. You can do all those healthy things without handing over one cent to the diet industry, who won’t give you a refund if they fail to help you achieve your goal in becoming thin forever. Don’t let those diet seeds leave you with unsavory fruit. Grow something real for yourself instead.

Want to feel freedom with food?

Tired of feeling ruled by food? I can help you get free. Learn more here.

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