Weight is not the problem

As a society, we are so convinced weight is the issue, we have lost sight of what it really means to care for our health.
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Key reasons we believe weight is the problem, are;
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  • The weight cycling industry (aka weight loss or diet industry) that keeps selling weight loss as the answer to success and happiness
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  • The traditional medical model that so often blames weight for ill health even when it’s unrelated and that labels people’s body size based on a recognised inaccurate measure of health – the BMI scale
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  • Our culture’s strong weight bias (fat is bad, thin is good) and weight stigma (people in large bodies are constantly judged by their size)
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  • Friends, family and loved ones who (with misguided good intention) comment about your food and weight and who congratulate you or say “you look great” when you lose weight
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  • Well meaning health professionals who have so much to offer, but are themselves caught up in a weight focused paradigm and diet model and haven’t yet realised how problematic this is – I used to be one of these
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Let me give you an example…

A patient came to me wanting to lose 10kg she had gained over the past 2 years, increased back pain was a key reason. The message she received from her doctor, health care provider, her family and society was that the weight gain was the key issue.

I asked my client, if anything had changed in her life 2 years ago? Her response… “I suddenly got busy at work and my activity dropped off, I wasn’t sleeping as well, I felt stressed and exhausted much of the time and my comfort eating increased.”

It should be clear that this person’s issue is not the weight itself, but rather all the factors that affected her self care and for which the weight gain was just a side effect of. It must also be noted that activity levels, sleep (or lack there of) and stress can all influence back pain independent of body weight. So even if she hadn’t gained weight, she may well have experienced worsening back pain. 

As a society, we would be much more effective at helping people if we took the focus off weight and instead discussed the myriad of aspects that affect our capacity to self care. 

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What’s the point of pursuing health if you can’t enjoy life?

Here are some examples of how the pursuit of health can take away from enjoying your life:

 

  • If being “good” with your diet means you can’t eat out without worrying about eating “too much” or the “wrong” thing.
  • If changes to your diet have you constantly thinking about food and/or worrying about whether you should or shouldn’t have something.
  • If tracking food, calories or macros is stressful, annoying or creating anxiety or guilt.
  • If having to avoid or limit certain foods means you avoid certain social events or feel immense guilt should you partake in the food.
  • If you can’t enjoy birthday cake on someone’s birthday without feeling you’ve been “bad” or blown your goals.
  • If all this obsessing over food is taking away mental space and energy to pursue more meaningful things.
  • If the amount of exercise you do is taking time away from spending time with friends, family or doing things you’d actually prefer to be doing.
  • If the type of exercise you “need” to do means exercise is not truly enjoyable.
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How many of the above points resonate with you? Maybe it’s time to reassess what it is you think you need to do to take care of your health. The common wisdom in our culture is that to manage our health or weight, we need to restrict or be careful with our food, but in actual fact this only ends up working against us. Restricting, or “being good” with food may seem like it works initially, but at some point, inevitably, this fails us and we find ourselves swinging back towards over-eating and feeling out of control around food. Allowing yourself to eat freely is not the problem, it is the solution. You can learn how this works with the intuitive eating (or non-diet) approach.

If you would like help in becoming an intuitive eater and to get out of the diet cycle and start living a more meaningful and enjoyable life, give us a call or send us an email today!

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When it comes to nutrition and the human body, there is still much we don’t know and we still have so much to learn.

When I first started working as a dietitian, I could be quite dismissive of anything not backed by mainstream science or medicine. After 13 years working as a dietitian one of the key things I’ve learned, is that just because science hasn’t proved something, or Western medicine doesn’t agree with a particular idea, does not mean that idea is necessarily wrong. The human body is complex and nutrition is still a relatively new science, which means we will always be discovering new things and sometimes we will make mistakes and we will need to change our stance and text books will need to be rewritten.

So now, when a client, or anyone, tells me their homeopathic remedy or sugar free diet is helping them, I don’t try to explain that homeopathy is not grounded in science or that they shouldn’t eat sugar free. I listen to that person and if they feel strongly an alternative treatment or particular diet is helping them, I simply move on to find out why they have come to see me and how I might be able to help them.

Once I have established a good rapport with the client and they trust me, it’s very likely at some point we would discuss whether or not they are truly benefitting from eating sugar free, if they feel they are, then it’s not my place to tell them otherwise. If the client has a very disordered relationship with food and finding themselves bingeing on sugary food, or feeling highly distressed whenever they eat something with sugar, then this conversation would come earlier, but then that client is not comfortably eating a sugar free diet.

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I do however, get up in arms when nutrition claims that have no clear evidence, are broadcast as what someone MUST do to better their health. Or when a person, usually a celebrity or TV personality, uses their anecdotal evidence to encourage millions of people to do what they are doing because it worked for them. Especially when this can cause harm in some people, harm such as disordered eating, eating disorders, emotional distress, anxiety, poor body image and damaged self worth.

Peter F, Sarah W and Pete E may all have found salvation through quitting sugar (or going Paleo) and good luck to them, I am not denying it hasn’t helped them or many of the people who have also chosen to follow there rhetoric, but at this stage we don’t have evidence that what they promote actually improves health long-term (or on a population level), to be suggesting the entire population quit sugar or go paleo. The other factor we need to consider, is that if quitting sugar or going paleo is done in the context of calorie restriction with weight loss as the main objective, and often this is the case, then this is no different to dieting. There is clear evidence that dieting is ineffective and often leads to weight gain and that dieting is the number one risk factor for developing an eating disorder that does significantly worsen a person’s mental and physical health. No, not everyone who quits sugar or eats paleo will develop disordered eating or an eating disorder, but enough will and when there’s not enough evidence to back their claims, shouldn’t this be considered problematic? 

We do have an issue of highly processed (often sugary) food being too readily available at the expense of more nutritious food and this can and does cause health problems. I strongly believe the issue lies with food industry and policies, rather than the food itself. I don’t know what is required to address this, but I do know that focusing on the food products and the individual as the problem, is leading to a significant number of people ending up with a disordered relationship with food and adverse mental and physical health outcomes.

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“If I was thin, would it be ok to eat that?”

When one of my clients told me she thought eating 4 slices of toast was wrong, we explored why she felt this way. I asked her if she thought it would be wrong for a thinner person to eat 4 slices and she said no. So I probed a little further to understand why she thought it would be wrong for her. You may be guessing correctly that her response was based on her body size. It was also unfortunately influenced by a previous dietitian that told her she should only ever eat 1 slice if she wanted to lose weight.

Just as the amount of food you need to eat at a particular meal should not be based on your height or shoe size, it should not be based on your weight. How much you need to eat depends on how hungry you are. If you’re physically hungry for 4 slices of toast, then that’s what you need, regardless of your body size. The ability to know this does require connection to appetite and being able to differentiate between physical and other types of hunger. This is an example of some of the appetite work, myself and other non-diet dietitians, do with people.

In order for appetite work to be effective, you need to start loosening your grip on diet thinking. Diet thinking encompasses thoughts such as “4 slices of toast is too much”, “ I shouldn’t eat that because of my weight” or “carbs are bad”.

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If you struggle with diet thoughts, try this question next time you’re struggling with one;

“If I was thin, would it be ok to eat that?”

If the answer is yes, then yes, of course it’s ok and it’s diet culture that’s making you think you shouldn’t eat it. Just as eating a chocolate bar is not bad for a thin person, it’s not bad for a larger person. If a thinner person has a right to eat a food, so do you.

Necessary disclaimer: In saying this, I am not saying it’s ok to live on chocolate bars, or to eat chocolate bars at the expense of a varied nutritious diet. I am not in the pocket of BIG sugar, the chocolate bar could be a home-made brownie with coconut sugar and organic cacao for all it matters. The point is, your body size should not be a factor in whether or not it’s ok to eat something.

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Suggesting sugar is not evil does not mean you’re saying it’s ok to eat an entire box of donuts!

Why is it that when you speak out against extreme views, the perpetuators of those views suggest you must be encouraging the opposite – so with food, suggesting sugar is not evil means you’re saying it’s ok to eat an entire box of donuts!* 

This type of black and white thinking is what causes so much confusion around what it means to eat well. Some more examples…

Choosing not to quit sugar does not mean you are going to automatically eat excess sugar.

Choosing not to cut carbs doesn’t mean you’ll eat an entire loaf of bread everyday.

Enjoying a beer and chips does not mean you or your diet is unhealthy. In fact enjoying any food or drink seen as “unhealthy” does not mean you or your diet are unhealthy.

Equally… quitting sugar, or any food, or choosing to go vegan, paleo or gluten free does not mean you and your diet are automatically healthy. You can do these things and improve health, but they are not necessary, and in many cases extreme measures only have a short-term effect, with the longer-term effect being an on-going struggle with food and weight which leaves many emotionally and physically worse off.

The wonderful news is there is a place which flows somewhere in between the extremes of abstinence and excess and that place is called MODERATION. I say “flows” as moderation is not a static or fixed place. Moderation means sometimes saying no and sometimes saying yes, sometimes having a little and sometimes having more. All of this depends on the circumstances at the time of eating.

If you’re disagreeing with this and thinking that you are likely to polish off a loaf of bread or box of donuts, it may very well be because you’re trying restrict these foods. It’s human nature to “want what you can’t have” and making things forbidden, brings on “the forbidden fruit” effect and the food becomes even more enticing. A bit like that piece of clothing you see in a shop that you like (last one in your size) but you calmly pass it by before someone else picks it up to try it on, and suddenly you decide you really like it and pray they don’t buy it! Scarcity stirs up anxiety and abundance creates calm.

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With regard to food, especially carbohydrate rich food, these natural and very human tendencies are even stronger than with non-food items because our brains are wired to want carbohydrate rich food. Carbohydrate is the bodies most efficient fuel sources and your brain rewards you for eating them as this encourages basic survival. After a period of restricting sugar or carbs, your brains reward system will go even more nuts when you eat carbs and you can feel driven to just keep eating. This is often when people feel out of control and blame the sugar when your body’s just doing what it’s designed to do. 

If you choose not to cut out (or restrict) sugar (or carbs) from your diet, for most people, you’ll still want to eat these food, but your brain will not go as crazy for the food and you’ll find it easier to know when you’ve eaten enough. If you would like to understand more about this, check out what intuitive eating is all about.

Another layer of complexity with human behaviour around food is the food supply and food environment. Then there’s your socio-economic status which influences access to certain types of food in terms of availability and cost. If the food environment continues to be flooded with cheap highly processed foods, then I am afraid we may be fighting a losing battle when it comes to helping more people eat an adequate amount of fresh whole food (such as fruit, veg, legumes, nuts, grains, eggs, meat, fish, dairy) and not eating too much of the highly processed foods.

Note: for many people the drive to keep eating is more complex then what is described here, with factors such as the emotional strains of everyday life, stress, relationship issues, body image issues and past or present trauma being key drivers. If you feel this is you, I urge you to seek help from a non-diet dietitian or HAES® (Health At Every Size) practitioner. 

You can find us here:

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*As in most cases eating a whole box of donuts would leave one feeling uncomfortably full and somewhat sickly, I would not encourage this as you will get more satisfaction out of your eating experiences when you eat in a way that leaves your body feeling good – this is a key aspect of intuitive eating.  Now, if you eat a whole box of donuts mindfully paying attention to taste and satisfaction and how your body is feeling, if once you’ve finished you feel really comfortable mentally and physically (so not too full, sickly or with thoughts you shouldn’t have eaten them all), then eating a whole box of donuts may not be an issue. Provided the donuts are not displacing other nutrients on a regular basis or causing any other health issues, then no one has the right to tell you eating them is problematic. 

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Do you have a healthy relationship with food? – take our free quiz to find out
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How to avoid going overboard with food this holidays… Hint – don’t restrict!

As a dietitian, at this time of year, a common question from clients is how to go about managing the extra food around the Christmas/New Year period.

With Christmas, New Year and summer holidays fast approaching, many of us find ourselves at more social gatherings with an abundance of food and alcohol. You might also find yourself doing more cooking or baking. While this shouldn’t be a problem in terms of nutrition, health or eating intuitively, diet culture makes it seem like a problem.

What do I mean by diet culture? Diet culture is the idea that certain foods are bad for you or fattening, that to keep your weight in check (or to lose weight) you must eat less, or at least not too much. The thought that if you do “indulge”, you need to restrict or be careful the next day or do more exercise, is also part of diet culture.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it pretty much always leads to over-eating the very food you think you shouldn’t be having too much off. You restrict until you’re faced with the food, at a party, at a friends house, at the office and you find yourself thinking “stuff it, one won’t hurt…”. Because you’ve been restricting the food, the food not only looks more appealing, but the pleasure centre in your brain goes nuts over the taste and you find yourself wanting to keep eating. This is part of the “I’ll get it while I can” or “last supper” effect, where you think you may as well eat as much as you can now and then you’ll “be good” tomorrow. Sound familiar?

For many people, this drive to keep eating reaffirms the belief you can’t be trusted around certain food, or that you are “addicted” to sugar*. However, it may actually be the restriction that it the issue, from a physiological and psychological standpoint.

If you’re someone who tends to restrict how much you eat after you’ve eaten too much, there’s a very good chance you’re messing with your appetite regulation. Not eating enough during the day and then getting to the point of being too hungry is a sure way to increase your risk of over-eating at some point, usually in the afternoon or evening. If the food available happens to be food you’re trying hard to limit, you’ll most likely find it next to impossible to not overeat that food. When you do overeat, you then feel terrible about yourself, that you’ve “failed” or been “bad” – this is part of the psychological trauma of diet culture.

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What if there were no restrictions on any food? No diet culture telling you sugar is evil or that you shouldn’t eat that if you want to lose weight? What if at the time of eating you could calmly assess your appetite and desire for the food and then enjoy eating the food to the point of satisfaction? This is what intuitive eating is all about.

Eating to satisfaction involves the pleasure of the food itself and feeling comfortable in your body afterwards. Your decision about how much to eat is influenced by having acknowledged satisfaction and not wanting to feel uncomfortably full or sickly. When you know you can enjoy the food in question whenever you feel like it, having less in the moment is an easier thing to do. 

This may sound like an impossibility to some of you, but what is required is letting go of, or loosening your grip on, food restriction and on diet culture. If you’re not dieting or restricting food, you’re less likely end up over-hungry and vulnerable to over-eating and while the pleasure centre in your brain will still be activated by food (as it’s designed to), it won’t go as nuts. This, combined with attunement to satisfaction and the knowledge you can have more of the yummy food later, is what will allow you to feel calm around food during periods such as Christmas.

Another aspect that must be acknowledged in all of this, is how you feel about your body. Diet culture thrives on you feeling bad about your body and ultimately how you feel about your body underpins the need you feel to diet or restrict food. You can’t effectively address your problems with food until you start addressing how you feel about your body. For most people, the body stuff is toughest work and you may need help from a skilled non-diet dietitian or therapist who works within the Health At Every Size paradigm. Let us know if you need help finding one.

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Do you have a healthy relationship with food? – take our free quiz to find out
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