“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. 

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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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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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We need to stop focusing so much on nutrition when it comes to food.

Food is meant to nourish both our body and our soul.

It is a source of love, joy and pleasure.

It is a key source of human connection – the most valuable ingredient to true wellbeing or “wellness” – and a healthy relationship with food is necessary to provide this.

Thinking too much about food in terms of nutrients, calories or basing choices on how the food may or may not effect your weight, can really interfere with your relationship with food.

Yes nutrition is important, but its importance is being overplayed and for many, it’s sucking the joy and pleasure out of eating and turning eating well into a chore, something you “should” or “have to” do. When you don’t enjoy something, you’re much less likely to keep it up and you’re much more likely to abandon the task and just do the thing – or eat the food – that’s more enjoyable. Usually this food is the food our culture deems as “less healthy” – you know, the food with extra cheese, that’s deep fried, has a creamy sauce or a side of ice-cream. It’s not that these foods are unhealthy, they’re not, but if always choosing such foods limits variety, there is chance nutrition may be compromised.

One might argue we all have to do things we don’t enjoy, such as housecleaning, but we still do it – or at least somebody does. However, the difference here is you can choose to not clean or have someone else do the job . You can’t choose to not eat or have someone else eat for you. Everyday we need to make hundreds of decisions around food and if that decision making feels like a chore or has no joy, at some point you’re going to find yourself thinking “stuff it, I’m just gonna have…”. This can often lead to getting mad at yourself for eating something you thought you shouldn’t, only spiralling you into further shame and misery around managing your eating and/or health.

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So rather than making food choices purely on their nutritional value or “goodness”, what if we considered these questions…?

  • What am I hungry for?
  • What do I feel like eating?
  • How is the food going to taste?
  • Will it leave me feeling satisfied?
  • Will it leave me feeling energised?

These are the type of questions we explore with the intuitive eating process. There will be people reading this who will struggle to answer these questions, and that’s ok, it takes time and practise to learn to trust your body with what you’re hungry for and what food truly satisfies you and leaves you feeling energised. If this is you, or if you are struggling with, or have had, an eating disorder, I encourage you to seek help from a non-diet dietitian. Ensure they are aligned with the HAES paradigm.

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There is so much nonsense and fear mongering when it comes to food and nutrition and it needs to stop.

If bread and pasta really were evil, how have France and Italy managed so well with these as staple foods?

If rice was so void of nutrition or an issue weight wise, why hasn’t a high rice consumption affected the billions of people in Asia and India who eat rice as part of their traditional diets?

If sugar really was to blame for increasing BMIs and diabetes, why do Switzerland and Germany, the biggest consumers of chocolate in the world, have some of the lowest rates of people with high BMIs and diabetes?

If cheeses and deli meats were so unhealthy, why don’t countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland have much higher rates of diet related disease?

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The answer is relatively simple, none of these foods are the issue. When populations experience higher rates of illness or body weight, along with a genetic component, there are a myriad of other lifestyle, social and economic factors that are influencing these changes.

If we keep blaming the food, and the individuals for eating the food, the bigger picture of what it means to have a healthy population will never properly be addressed and continue to be swept under the carpet.

In my practice, seeing these foods as the issue has only led my clients down a path of disordered eating where they find themselves obsessing over food and (usually) weight. This obsession ultimately results in feeling miserable about food and themselves and in many cases results in bingeing on the foods that have been restricted.

There’s a good chance you* would benefit tremendously from taking a deep breath and just chilling the heck out when it comes to thinking about food and nutrition.

*Please note: if you experience anxiety or emotional distress around food, chances are, chilling out will not be straightforward and you may benefit from talking with a non-diet psychologist, dietitian or other health professional.

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Food is neither “good” nor “bad”

Eating sugar does not make you a bad person and enjoying a brownie is not going to harm your body in any way. Just as drinking green smoothies or munching on activated almonds is not going to make you a better person or give you the key to health.

Food can be eaten for nourishment and pleasure, or it can be eaten just for pleasure.

Thinking about food as either “good” or “bad” is so engrained in our thinking that it’s almost impossible for many people to enjoy some types of food without feeling guilt or shame that they’ve done something wrong. You should only feel guilty if you do something bad or hurtful, for example stealing the brownie or punching someone in the face to get the brownie. We experience shame when we feel bad about ourselves. Why should we feel bad about eating something that tastes wonderful and gives us pleasure?

A large part of what drives this notion of some food being “bad”, or at least “not good enough”, is a culture which is deeply fat phobic, obsessed with losing weight and food as the holy grail to health. Green smoothies, “superfoods”, quitting sugar and elaborate looking salads are all examples of the virtuosity that surrounds our health obsessed culture. It’s not that any of these foods or ideas are wrong – I love a fancy salad – it’s that they take what it means to eat well to the extreme. While this may work well for some, for many it’s way too time consuming, doesn’t fit in with a busy work and/or family life and it can (and does) lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. Personally, I’d rather eat my greens along side some quiche or fish, than pop them in a smoothie and a meal of steak, potato and regular vegetables can be just as nutritious as a fancy salad with sprouted grains, cultured vegetables and activated almonds – no I didn’t just make that up – these meals exist.  Our culture’s obsession with this type of eating has lead many of clients to feel that many traditional basic meals aren’t good enough or that one of the world’s most nutritious foods – the potato – is somehow bad for health. You can read my post on potatoes and potato chips here.

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We must stop labelling food as either “good ” or “bad”

Surely it can’t hurt to call some food “bad”?

While intellectually you may be able to recognise that enjoying, let’s say ice-cream, is ok, continuing to label such food as “bad” or “unhealthy” can elicit the feeling of guilt and shame around food choices as discussed above and will only continue to fuel the widely held, but misplaced, belief that certain food is “bad” or should be avoided. While some people can brush this off, many find themselves in negative and obsessive thought patterns about the food and themselves. When we feel badly about ourselves and when we are consumed with thoughts about food, we are less likely to take the time to tune into our true needs and desires and treat our bodies with care. We are more likely to fall into the diet mentality trap of “who cares, stuff it, I deserve it, I’ll be good tomorrow”. This diet mentality trap inevitably leads to overeating the so called “bad” food and may be followed by feelings of guilt, shame and unhappiness with self and often swearing to never eat that food again! This is what I mean by an unhealthy relationship with food.

What if chocolate (insert other sweet or fatty food) was just chocolate, much like a carrot for most people is just a carrot. What if you chose to eat chocolate simply because you felt like the taste of chocolate in that moment. How much would you need to eat to satisfy your taste for it and feel truly satisfied afterward? This is something you may need to experiment with and I know there will be people reading this who are thinking “but I’d eat the whole block”. If this is you, what might happen if you experimented with taking some time to sit and savour that chocolate (or other food you’re prone to overeat), consider the smell, flavour and texture of each piece as you go, how does the chocolate taste and feel in your body? However, before you do this, you may need to loosen your grip on the idea chocolate is “naughty” or a “guilty pleasure”, because as long as you continue to place a moral value on the food, you’ll run the risk of the “forbidden fruit” effect – the natural human desire to want what someone tells you you shouldn’t have. While all this sound easy enough in theory, actually changing your mindset can be very challenging and this is where you may need help from a non-diet approach dietitian.

Is it ok to refer to some food as good?

This really depends on the context. If you’re using the word good to refer to good quality produce or just tasty food, then I think it’s ok to say good, but if you’re using good to mean you’re “being good” for choosing it, or it’s nutritionally superior, then we run into trouble. All food offers some nutrition and choosing to eat a salad over a cupcake does not mean you’re being a good person. Also, if only certain types of food are labelled good, then it’s natural that some food will be seen as bad, or not so good. While this may seem fairly benign on the surface, it perpetuates the diet mentality mentioned above and sets up the unhealthy relationship with food that can lead to disordered patterns of eating, and even eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.

For example, if you find yourself thinking “I was good last night” because you said no to dessert, you could find yourself prone to overeating on another occasion. This overeating occurs as you feel you “deserve it” having been “good” the night before; so why not go the whole hog this time? The outcome; you eat more for the sake of eating than really enjoying the food, this leaves you feeling not only uncomfortably full, but upset with yourself and saying, “I’ll be good tomorrow” or “I’ll start again on Monday” and so the cycle goes. This is the all too common diet cycle that people with a diet mentality experience over and over and over and over…

You can start to let go of the negative feelings you experience with food by starting to change the way to think and talk about food. One important step is to change the language you use. You could try using the word nourishing to replace “good” and fun food or play food to replace “bad”. Note; many foods people consider bad, such as burgers, pizza, chips are also very nourishing as they contain the vital nutrients fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Typically, nourishing food is the food you choose to eat when you are physically hungry; fun (or play) food you might choose to eat primarily for the taste and hunger may not present. It must be noted that even fun or play food provides some nourishment, it’s just that if we only ate these foods, we would miss out on some important nutrients and we would probably feel a little blah after a period of only eating chocolate, ice-cream, cake, lollies, crisps etc.

Eating can be and should be both a nourishing and pleasurable experience.

Bon appetit!

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