As a dietitian, I find myself talking about hunger with my clients a lot. Recognizing and being able to identify our hunger is, of course, a critical component of healing our relationship with food and listening to our intuition. But so often, those cues get muddied and buried under layers of diet culture and/or are dormant completely after periods of restriction and other disordered behaviors. The bottom line is diet culture teaches us to ignore our own body's signals - especially hunger.
Lately, I've been seeing an onslaught of Fitbits and Apple watches (and when I say lately, I mean the last 3 years). I've been discussing it more with clients and friends. It's actually become a part of my regular intake questions when I'm working with someone new - do you have a device that keeps track of calories/steps? Because if so, I want to talk about it.
Before I go any further, I want to make one thing super clear: I am not trying to shame anyone for owning one of these devices. I don't want you to feel bad if you wear a fitness tracker every day. My point is to highlight the ways diet culture and the fitness industry have tricked us all into thinking these are all something we need to have to be healthy/fit and how that's kind of bullshit.
My biggest issue with fitness trackers is the most obvious: the fact that they count every single step you take and compare it to some arbitrary standard and take away your ability to judge how much movement your body needs on its own. In an ideal world, the relationship we have with exercise, like food, should be intuitive. We are all born knowing when/how to move our bodies and when we're tired. But as we get older, diet culture stifles that intuition until we're trying to track every single calorie, minute, mile and bite. And I'm not on board with that; I want people to live their authentic lives and it's tough to do that when you're trying to quantify every moment of your day. When people go for walks I want it to be because it's nice out, because they want to appreciate their surroundings or connect with nature or to improve sleep or reduce stress- there's a plethora of valid reasons why taking a walk is beneficial (if you're medically cleared for exercise) but "because my wrist is beeping at me" isn't one of them. Competing with ourselves is a slippery slope - especially if a person has eating/weight concerns. This is especially relevant to people with a history of disordered eating or compulsive exercise, but I would argue that it has a certain degree of risk for the general population as well especially in a culture that loves to make everything a competition (seriously look at any reality TV show and tell me our culture doesn't love a good competition).
Secondly- these devices have a huge margin of error. This study showed that on average, fitness tracking devices were off on their measure of energy expenditure by 27% - with some devices being off by 93%. I'm no statistician but those are not great odds. I find it alarming that people are basing their health (or at least the way they feel about their health) on numbers that are essentially meaningless. Not to mention that weight is not as simple as calories in vs calories out (a post for another day). So even if these devices were accurate, they really don't tell us much.
"But wait!", you may be thinking, "it's not just about calories!"
That's true. It's not. They also tell you how well you're sleeping. But I gotta tell ya- I have never owned a fitness tracker and I always have a relatively good idea of how I'm sleeping based on my energy levels. They also can track your periods (apparently)! But so can a hundred other apps (and regular old calendars). They can play music! They can connect to Bluetooth and GPS! They can tell you the time! Yes, yes, and yes. But there are plenty of other ways to do these things without potentially sending yourself into a spiral of obsession and shame. Also, I don't want a piece of plastic beeping on my wrist every hour telling me that I'm not good enough. Because even if you haven't taken a single step today, you are still enough and no device can ever take that away from you.
Look. I get that new devices and technology can be exciting. I also know that the capitalism game is sneaky. I do not believe for one single solitary second that the folks at Fitbit give a damn about your health. They just want you to fork over $200 so they can line their pockets. And the thing is- these companies are really skilled at marketing their products. And they really want you to believe it's about health. But it's worth remembering that at its peak, Fitbit was worth $11 billion (with a b). And it were up to me, every single one of those dollars would be included in the diet industry. Because more than anything, these watches take away your ability to sense your own body's needs. They trap you in rules and numbers...which sounds an awful lot like diet culture to me.
I want my clients (and society at large) to know their bodies well enough to trust their own intuition about movement. I want people to take a rest day when their body is tired. I want people to be able to go out for a spontaneous dinner with friends even if they haven't "gotten their steps in" or be able to go for a walk on the beach without worrying about how many calories they're burning. I want people to allow for flexibility when it comes to movement, which can't happen when we're trying to live up to someone (or something) else's standard. I want people to rely on internal cues rather than external validation that what they're doing is "enough". Because you are always (alwaysalwaysalways) enough. And don't let any expensive piece of plastic tell you otherwise.
P.S. Don't get me started on introducing these devices to children. I was horrified when I went on their website to do a little research for this article and saw a device recommended for children 8+. Eight and up! When I was eight years old, I had very little concept of what walking a mile looked like and I wasn't engaging in "step challenges" with my friends and I sure as hell wasn't "tracking my progress". When I was eight years old, I was running around with my friends and riding bikes and building forts and smashing rocks (my favorite childhood past time). I didn't yet have a concept of exercise as a means to control my body and I hope I can say the same for my kids one day. I'm not going to pull out the research about what focusing on weight does in pediatric populations (right now) but....yikes Fitbit. Get it together.
Cover photo by Ben O'Sullivan
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.
If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed that I was away on vacation last week. I spent a few days in Vegas and one in the Grand Canyon and it was wonderful. As I mentioned in my last post, this was my first vacation in years which meant it was the first vacation I went on where food was a total nonissue and I wasn't worried about what my body looked like which was a complete blessing (and something I genuinely never thought I would say). There was no trying to compensate for food I ate during the trip either before or after. There was no forcing myself into early morning runs down the strip (there was no runs at all, as a matter of fact). There was no counting calories. There were just days and days of good company and good food.
I think it's impossible to choose the best thing I ate while there but I will say the sushi burritos hit it out of the park. Sushi? Delicious. Burritos? Amazing. Together? A gift from the gods (okay, maybe that's a little dramatic but not really). I believe this one had spicy tuna (my favorite kind of sushi), shrimp tempura and crab with avocado and rice and Romaine and something else I can't remember...love, probably. It was amazing and the fact that the weather in Vegas was warm enough to eat it outside made it even better. We went back to the same place a few days later for sushi cupcakes as a snack (yeah, those exist). Okay, I know I said I couldn't pick the best food we ate while we were there but it was totally the sushi burritos. The best drink we had while there my sister & I ordered on the first night. We got watermelon mojitos at this Mexican place and while I was pretty skeptical because I don't like artificial watermelon flavor, it was delicious. No artificial watermelon flavor here, just refreshing and sweet and delicious. We had a lot of other tasty drinks while we were there but that one definitely took the cake (no picture because we had it after 12 hours of traveling and I was exhausted).
Vegas was great (albeit tiring and expensive) but visiting the Grand Canyon was definitely the highlight of the trip. If you haven't been yet, I highly recommend adding it to your bucket list if it's not already. It was so beautiful and the weather was perfect for walking along the trail and taking approximately one boatload of pictures. The view is awe-inspiring and for someone who has lived her whole life in the crammed, people and buildings everywhere East Coast (New England specifically), it was wild just to drive out there with hundreds of miles of uninterrupted road and landscape. It was a lot of fun and also a little scary that there's no fences or anything around most of it- maybe it's just because I'm a grade A worrier but I was a little nervous the whole time that someone was going to topple in- I know, I know, that's an irrational fear.
One thing I want to make a note of is that because there are so many opportunities for good food in Vegas, I sometimes ate things that I wasn't necessarily hungry for but didn't want to pass up the opportunity to eat. Like on the last day we were there, we had some time to kill before we went to the airport and my sister suggested getting gelato. I wasn't particularly hungry but I very rarely get the chance to eat gelato and it's something I really enjoy. So I ate it anyway. I think one thing that happens when we talk about intuitive eating is that it gets boiled down to "eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full" when really it's so much more than that. Intuitive Eating actually makes a point to mention that satisfaction and pleasure are a part of normal eating- so while my body didn't neccessarily crave gelato in that moment, I found a lot of pleasure in eating it (half coffee/half speculoos was a winning combo). There's no need to feel guilty and there's no need to worry about being a "perfect" intuitive eater. Perfect doesn't exist and by striving for it, we're just defeating the purpose of intuitive eating which is rooted in flexibility, self-compassion, and gentleness.
As much as I enjoyed our trip, I'm happy to be home this week because I love my comfy bed and I love my routines. Being away also re-energized me a bit so I've been making more time for writing and other work I've been putting off this week. One of my intentions for the blog this year was to share a bit more of my personal life. I realized that when I had been writing on Sundaes for the Soul, nearly all my blogs were personal and I do that less so here. But I gotta say, I miss it so I'm going to be sharing a bit more of my personal life with you here (like this blog post) because that's what I like to read from my favorite bloggers (ImmaEatThat and The Real Life RD come to mind) and I hope that's what you like too. Let me know what you think!
Talk to you soon,