The wisest piece of food advice I’ve heard lately is to not diet during the holidays. Why torture yourself? Why set yourself up for failure? Why inflict a “healthy” (AKA low-calorie, dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, ingredient-free, taste-free, satisfaction-free) dish on your family in the name of cutting calories? But here’s another thought: why diet at all?
Let me back up a little bit. Even though I’m a child of ’89, the word “diet” conjures up an image straight from the 80’s, complete with diet soda and a retro cookbook touting the outdated ideals praising only low fat and low calorie recipes. In my mind, it seems like an antiquated concept that must be solidly decided aloud: the declarative statement of a big haired woman saying to a friend with thinly-veiled condensation, “Oh, I can’t- I’m on a diet.” And with quite obvious condensation, I inwardly smirk and congratulate myself for progressing beyond this stereotype. But of course my ego carefully overlooks the diet mentality, which has become instinctual in our society yet rarely acknowledged in the open. And I’m certainly not immune from or an exception of its effects.
What is the diet mentality? It’s a pervasive, unconscious, and toxic belief that the body can not be trusted with food. If you’re one of those fancy folks with actual cable television, listen to the words used in commercials to describe food, especially the advertisements directed toward the female population. Here are a few common buzzwords: “guilt-free,” “indulgent,” “decadent,” “skinny,” “sinful.” This kind of language corrals food into two opposing categories: safe and unsafe, allowed and forbidden, salvation and temptation, should and should not, healthy and unhealthy.
And who benefits from the diet mentality? The people feeding it (wah wah) to you, from Big Food to every creator of the next big diet trend. As someone who hopes to become a dietician, I will also be making a career because of diet culture in a way- although I aim to end the cycle rather than perpetuate it for profit. Big food companies and diet companies ultimately don’t want me to get better or healthier; they want to make money. And the more I buy into the diet mentality, the more they’ll get.
I could rant on this topic for hours but I’ll keep my nutrition ravings to the above blunt statements (at least for this post.) Notice that this post uses personal pronouns, experiences, and beliefs- I’m not yet a medical professional and don’t aim to replace the advice of an actual doctor. I just know I wasn’t quite able to identify the problem or believe in a solution until I read and watched the experiences of others online with the same patterns. The same attempts at every new fad diet. The same cycle of eating “clean” with too few calories for a certain amount of time before gorging on calorie-dense “treat” foods- each phase punctuated by heavy guilt. The same wary judgement projected onto certain ingredients and macronutrients. The same false associations of weight gain to loss of value, attractiveness, lovability. The same held breath when stepping on a scale. The same silent but insistent fear of gaining weight. The same unquestioned mistrust of my body and my hunger.
Also note that these are feelings I’ve had reinforced since I was old enough to begin conceiving a body image- both before and after my full-blown eating disorder. These are feelings I’ve had with years of recovery from my eating disorder, years between me and my last binge and purge. I can’t even remember my last intentional restriction. While these feelings are certainly synonymous with eating disordered thinking, I believe they are a direct product of diet culture.
Shew. I hope y’all are ready for the good news because I certainly am after writing all that. As much as it honestly terrifies me, I’m ready to finally make my way back to my natural state, before I learned and believed all these problematic lies, back to simply listening to my hunger cues and responding honestly to them. Without binges, restrictions, fear foods, scales, guilt, or self-imposed perfectionism. The concept of intuitive eating seems to be my best bet.
Intuitive eating isn’t a new concept. It was popularized by the aptly-named book Intuitive Eating by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It’s currently Amazon’s #1 best-selling book on the subject of eating disorders. Admittedly, while I have explored and researched these concepts, I have yet to lay hands on a copy of this book as it remains not yet shipped from a certain eBay seller (side-eye.) In conjunction with knowledge of my personal history, my personal tendencies, and a bit of nutrition, I think these 10 concepts of intuitive eating (directly copied from the authors’ website) will help me not exactly to lose or gain weight, but simply gain peace with my body and dietary choices:
10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
1. Reject the Diet Mentality: Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating.
2. Honor Your Hunger: Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food.
3. Make Peace with Food: Call a truce, stop the food fight! Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing When you finally “give-in” to your forbidden food, eating will be experienced with such intensity, it usually results in Last Supper overeating, and overwhelming guilt.
4. Challenge the Food Police: Scream a loud “NO” to thoughts in your head that declare you’re “good” for eating minimal calories or “bad” because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created . The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loud speaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in returning to Intuitive Eating.
5. Respect Your Fullness: Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full. Pause in the middle of a meal or food and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what is your current fullness level?
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor: The Japanese have the wisdom to promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy living. In our fury to be thin and healthy, we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence–the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes much less food to decide you’ve had “enough”.
7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food: Find ways to comfort , nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.
8. Respect Your Body: Accept your genetic blueprint. Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size. But mostly, respect your body, so you can feel better about who you are. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.
9. Exercise–Feel the Difference: Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm. If when you wake up, your only goal is to lose weight, it’s usually not a motivating factor in that moment of time.
10 Honor Your Health–Gentle Nutrition: Make food choices that honor your health and tastebuds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts.
Scared yet? After hearing about these tenets- even though logically I knew that they would teach me how to have a healthy relationship with my body- an immediate mixture of physical anxiety and terror whirled in my stomach. I can’t do this, I thought. What if I get fat? What if I lose control?
The sad truth behind this thought is that while I continue to act and live with a diet mentality, I am not in control of myself or my body. Oh, that age-old recovery lesson of letting go; it just keeps popping up in every area of my mental health. And I’m finally comfortable and confident enough in my recovery to begin loosening my grip and trusting myself… even if it’s just for the month of December. Even if that’s just what I have to tell myself to be willing to begin. Earlier today on Tumblr, I came across this quote and feel that it perfectly describes my overall goal with intuitive eating:
If you strip it of all the complex terminology and all the complex jargon, enlightenment is simply returning to our natural state of being. A natural state, of course, means a state which is not contrived, a state that requires no effort or discipline to maintain, a state of being which is not enhanced by any sort of manipulation of mind or body—in other words, a state that is completely natural, completely spontaneous.