Recently, I was talking to one of my clients about the need to "deserve" food. This is a narrative I hear from a lot of people (and one that's reinforced by the culture at large). Truly, how many times have you heard someone tell you they deserve to have dessert because they did XYZ activity today. I can hardly go out to eat without overhearing someone say "oh come on, you deserve it!" whether it's to dessert, a second drink, a meal that they would consider "bad". I should make it clear that I fully support their decision to order any of these things if they want it but it has nothing to do with whether they deserve it (they do).
One of the biggest thing diet culture takes away from us is our ability to “go with the flow” around food. Anyone who has ever been on a diet or restricted food in any way knows that it comes with a lot of rules. Eating is typically done by a schedule- breakfast at this time, snack exactly X hours later, no eating after one particular time. The meals and snacks themselves are meticulously planned, leaving you measuring out tablespoons of nut butter and counting out crackers at your kitchen counter while you long for the days when you could just reach in the box and grab as many as you wanted. There’s a meal plan and rarely deviation (or least rarely deviation without guilt). There’s structure and rigidity.
For some people, structure and rigidity are what they crave. I get it. I love structure- I like schedules and lists and rules to be followed. Historically, I have never been one to toss aside the directions- I like to make sure I’m following the rules step-by-step. And dieting/restricting gave me so much of that structure that I craved. There were things to count, things to schedule in, workouts to plan. There were calorie counters and mile trackers and meal plans to create. And for awhile, that was very comforting. Until it wasn’t.
There’s only so long you can meticulously plan every detail of your life before it starts to get a little….stale. Only so long you can spend your days neck deep in calorie counts and workouts before you start to get oh I don’t know….cranky, tired and miserable. There’s only so long that you can eat grilled chicken and steamed broccoli before you start to realize that you actually want a bowl of pasta.
This was my own experience- but I also see it reflected in my client’s lives all the time. The rules of dieting can be comforting- and moving to intuitive eating, where there are no boxes to be checked can be really difficult. Sometimes it can feel like being lost without a map. You just have to take it turn by turn and hope that you end up where you’re supposed to be. And while that can certainly be unnerving for awhile, eventually you realize it’s kind of…fun. You discover new things along the way. You realize that there’s more than one way. You might make a friend. You might get lost in your thoughts and have an epiphany or two. You learn and notice all sorts of things that you wouldn’t have had you been glued to the turn-by-turn directions of your map.
Last night, I had a full homemade dinner planned. It was something I liked and something I had all the ingredients for. But when it came time for dinner, all I wanted was boxed mac n’ cheese. So I made that instead. There was nothing stressful about that decision. I didn’t worry about it. I asked my partner if it was okay if I mixed up the plans and then I made it. Eating is more fun when there’s room for flexibility (and in case you haven't heard, eating should be fun). When you don’t have to force yourself to eat things that don’t really sound good for the sake of rules or organization or “health” (frankly, I think it’s a lot healthier to eat what sounds good but that’s a conversation for another day).
Ditching the rigidity and structure of dieting can send us into a spiral. But if we open ourselves up to the possibility of fun and flexibility, we can shift our perspective and move toward a healthier relationship with food.
P.S. If you haven’t heard already, I created a new program called Finding Freedom. It’s a 30-day challenge with daily prompts to shift your mindset around food and body. Plus, it’s entirely self-paced so you can do it at your own speed. Learn more and sign up here.
I see the phrase “weight maintenance” used a lot in the healthcare world- whether it’s from doctors, fellow RDs or other health professionals. And to be honest, it always makes me bristle a little bit. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why this phrase makes me cringe (especially when I see it in the same places talking about intuitive eating & Health at Every Size) so I wanted to share some of what I’ve come up with here.
The main reason is that it implies we can control our weight. It might sound radical to anyone who is new or unfamiliar with HAES but I just don’t believe that we have as much control over our weight as society makes it seem. I practice using the set point theory - the idea that our bodies have a 10-20 pound range that it feels most comfortable in and will fight to stay within. How is our set point determined? A lot of factors go into our set point but one of the main factors is genetics. Some research shows that up to 80% of our body shape/size is determined by genetics; if you look at your parents/grandparents/siblings, you probably have a good idea of what that might look like for you. But the bottom line is- our set point is not within our control. So when you come to work with me, I can’t guarantee that I will help you maintain your weight. When you start eating intuitively, you might lose weight, you might gain weight or your body might stay the same depending on where you’re at in your journey with food.
Another reason I have trouble with “weight maintenance” is that to me, it sounds like a code word for dieting. As the body positive movement grows and we shift away from the dieting craze of the 90s, the $60 billion dieting industry has come up with a lot of euphemisms for dieting. Some of those are “lifestyle change”, “cleanse”, “detox”, etc. Weight maintenance just seems like another word for dieting i.e. weight loss. And as much as I know that there’s a demand for weight loss, it’s not a service I can provide. Don’t get me wrong- I will always meet a client where they are and living in our weight-obsessed world, I absolutely understand why weight loss is appealing. But it’s never a goal I’ll set with a client or something we’ll work towards. Why? Because there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that dieting for weight loss isn’t effective long-term. And the last thing I want to do is set my clients on a path towards failure.
That being said, I don’t expect anyone to be anti-weight loss when they come to me. We live in a culture that encourages, promotes and praises weight loss. It’s on the cover of magazines, it’s in an advertisement on the side of Facebook, it’s on social media, it’s everywhere. So if you want to lose weight…I understand. And my hope is that we can meet each other halfway. But promising that working with me will bring you weight loss or weight maintenance is not something I can do without compromising the values I believe in. Because the truth is, I don't know what your set point weight is, but I do know how to find it. And that's what I can guarantee when clients work with me- that I can help them find their body's natural weight and help them to feel at home in their bodies. At the end of the day, it's not about your weight; it's about your ability to take care of yourself in ways that feel right to you, feel at peace with your body and stop letting food get in the way of living your life.
As a Registered Dietitian, it might come as a surprise that I despise the phrase “healthy eating”. That’s what I went to school for right? To learn how to eat healthy? Partly, I suppose. But what I and so many other anti-diet dietitians help people accomplish is more than just healthy eating patterns. It’s a healthy relationship to food, which is so so much more than just eating your fruits and vegetables.
One of the main problems is that the word “healthy” has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And a lot of that has been co-opted by wellness culture- the idea that health can be found in green juice, smoothie bowls and power yoga classes (while wearing $150 Lululemon leggings). And while I inherently have no problem with green juice, smoothie bowls or power yoga classes, it’s essential to acknowledge that health is so much more than that (and also the assumption that everyone has access to these things is extremely classist/ableist but that is a post for another time). Health is more than being vegan or Paleo or raw vegan or whatever the diet du jour is. Health is more than attending $30 fitness classes.
It’s important to recognize that health is multi-faceted and includes mental, emotional and spiritual health in addition to physical health. Your smoothie bowl isn’t going to do diddly-squat if you’re living in a constant state of self-hatred. Your beet juice isn’t going to help you if you’re living with anxiety and/or depression and/or other mental illness. Your avocado toast isn’t going to do you any good if you’re filled with guilt, shame and anxiety while you eat it. Building a healthy relationship with food means not only eating foods that are nourishing but also allowing flexibility and ease into our meal times- and addressing underlying problems that might be affecting our ability to do that.
It’s also worth considering that health looks wildly different to different people depending on where they are in their lives. For instance, when someone is in recovery from disordered eating, it’s important to incorporate calorie-dense foods as well as foods that were restricted during the eating disorder (hopefully with support from an ED dietitian/therapist/other treatment team members). This could include butter and pop-tarts and ice cream sundaes and French fries – foods that aren’t necessarily considered “healthy” by our society’s standards. But by legalizing all foods, people in recovery make huge strides towards their own health.
Similarly, when someone has a suppressed immune system, the dietary recommendations are to avoid fresh fruits & vegetables. In this case, it’s imperative to that person’s health to avoid them- but that doesn’t mean I would say that fresh fruits & vegetables are unhealthy across the board. If someone’s allergic to peanuts, then an apple & peanut butter wouldn’t be a healthy snack for them; but for someone without an allergy, then it could be a great choice. With certain medications, it’s imperative that you avoid grapefruit juice to avoid drug-nutrient interactions- but that doesn’t mean that grapefruit juice is “unhealthy”. I could go on and on.
It's also worth noting this goes beyond just the physical conditions (didn’t you see that coming?) You don’t need a physical condition as an “excuse” to eat or not eat something. You might be craving a chocolate milkshake one day- and guess what? That might be the best decision for you so that you satisfy that craving and don’t spend the rest of the day obsessing about if you should get a milkshake/why you didn’t get a milkshake/what you’re going to eat instead/how you’re going to fulfill that craving. Maybe you’ve had a hard day emotionally and the one thing that comforted you when you were younger was a box of Kraft mac n’ cheese. Eating a bowl of mac n’ cheese might be exactly what you need to sooth yourself- and there is nothing wrong with that. The bottom line is there is no one way to eat healthy- and we have to stop pretending like there is.
The term “healthy eating” has become so loaded and so skewed that I find it easiest to avoid the term altogether. The idea of “health” is so individualized and dependent on so many factors in a person’s life including stress, sleep, mental health, socioeconomic factors, etc, etc. My goal- and the goal of many other HAES professionals- is to help you find your definition of health by taking all those things (and more) into consideration, not prescribe you some blanket diet/lifestyle that doesn’t resonate with you at all. The healthiest way to eat is what makes you feel satisfied and fulfilled mentally, physically and emotionally- and don’t let any perfect Instagram photo tell you otherwise.
If you’re ready to take the steps towards food freedom and work with an anti-diet dietitian to find your version of healthy eating, check out my coaching page here or sign up for my introductory food freedom series.