There are so many opinions on what we should or shouldn’t eat, that at times it can feel exhausting!

But if there’s one thing we all agree on, it is that we must eat.

There’s a good reason there are so many different opinions and why one person will say eat these foods, while another says stay away from those foods… and that’s because there is no one right way to eat.

However you choose to eat, provided you are getting adequate nutrition and pleasure, you can manage that style of eating under different circumstances and it doesn’t take you away from enjoying food socially, this may well be what works for you. But please be aware that what works for you, may not work – or may even be harmful – to others.

If you enjoy fasting, then fast (just make sure you eat too!).

If you enjoy eating every few hours, then do so.

If you enjoy eating Paleo, sugar free or raw, then go for it.

If you enjoy having sweet foods in your diet, then have them.

If you’re like me and you really enjoy bread, pizza, chips and cheese, then include these foods when you truly feel like eating them.

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If you’re someone who struggles with food, you feel you need to avoid certain food otherwise you’ll binge, you experience emotional distress with some food or perhaps you have a health issue you feel precludes some foods; then I would encourage you take a step back from all the noise around what we should and shouldn’t eat. Take a moment to try and listen to your body to work out what it is that feels right for you. Some people will find this challenging, even impossible, due to living in a world where being stuck in our own head and disconnected from our body is not unusual. If this is you, you may well benefit from learning how to reconnect with your body and what feels right for you. There are many ways to do this and you feel you need some direction, please leave a comment.

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Healthy eating encompasses listening to our appetite and eating food that satisfies us when we feel hungry and being able to recognise when we’ve eaten enough.

Healthy eating is the mindful enjoyment of any type of food without needing to worry about calories or body weight.

Healthy eating is also sharing food with others over a meal, celebration or just to keep someone company.

Healthy eating is sometimes eating fruit and sometimes eating sweets.

Healthy eating includes sometimes eating when not hungry and sometimes eating more than you need.

But most of all, healthy eating is having a positive attitude to food and eating where there is enough nutritional variety but also where food can be eaten purely for the joy of eating!

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No food on its own is unhealthy or bad for you

The reason no food on its own is bad for you and the damage that can ensue from such thinking…

Like with everything in life – context matters.

Extreme example to make a point:

If you were lost in the wilderness and all you had to eat for several weeks were cakes & pastries would they be bad for you?

A: No as this food contains the vital nutrients carbohydrate, protein and fat and believe it not, they even contain a range of vitamins and minerals. This food would also provide some water… It would help keep you alive.

Now I want you to imagine this same scenario but all you have to eat is broccoli, which would you be better off with, the cake or the broccoli?

If you said the cake, you’re right; while broccoli is an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals, it is a poor source of the vital nutrients carbohydrate, protein and fat. You might still be alive when you’re rescued after several weeks, but you would be in much worse shape.

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More realistic example:

It’s 3.30pm and you’re hungry, in your mission to be healthy you’ve brought a nutritious snack of chopped up veggies and hummus. It’s been a crazy busy day and you don’t have time to take a break, let alone time to sit down and munch on veggies and hummus (plus you’re really quite hungry and the veggies are not calling to you). You decide to ignore your hunger and skip your break. By the time you finish work at 5.30pm, you’re ravenous and on the way home you grab some food from a vending machine, this doesn’t really satisfy you and you continue to much your way through whatever is easy to eat once you arrive home. You then find you’re not that hungry for dinner but think you should eat anyway as at least it’s a nutritious meal. You end up stuffed full and feeling like you’ve blown your mission to be healthy. Neither your physical or mental health benefit in this type of situation.

Now I want you to imagine the same scenario, but instead of ignoring your hunger, you grab a muesli bar you’ve hidden in your bottom draw – you hid it when everyone told you sugar was evil and muesli bars were full of this “evil” (most aren’t). When you finish work at 5.30pm, you’re a little hungry and now you have time to enjoy your veggies and hummus. By the time dinner rolls around, you’re moderately hungry again and finish your meal feeling comfortably full and content. You’re pleased you made a choice that felt right for you in that particular moment – that’s choosing to eat the muesli bar – as it served you well and you ate a range of nutritious foods that satisfied you.

Note: I am not saying the veggies and hummus are better than the muesli bar, or that muesli bars aren’t a good choice, quite the contrary. In the scenario described here, the muesli bar was a good choice. I am also not saying food from a vending machine is bad and there are times where such food does the job. One of the complexities with nutrition, is that it is not black and white (unless of course you have a food allergy or Coeliac disease) and there is no right or wrong choice.

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Food doesn’t put on weight, but diet culture does…

There is no one food that causes a person to gain weight. You don’t eat cake or chips and wake up the next day fat. Of course if you over eat energy dense food on a regular basis, you may see your weight go up – but dieting does this too.

What many people don’t realise, is that activity avoiding the very food labelled “fattening” by diet culture, can, and often does, lead to weight gain over time, and it is now well established that dieting itself, is a risk factor for weight gain.

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How?

When was the last time you overate salad, fruit or vegetables? Sure, we’ve all eaten a roast dinner with veg to the point of being overfull, but generally speaking we don’t over eat these foods. One reason for this is that we don’t restrict them. When you can have much of something as you want, the desire for it lessens. Combine this with the mandate that you “should” be eating the salad, and you may find yourself not wanting to eat any salad period. Conversely, when you’re told you shouldn’t have something (or do something), your desire to have or do that thing usually increases. It’s the forbidden fruit effect and it holds true for many aspects of life, not just food. Deprivation drives desire.

With regard to us being unlikely to overeat salad or veggies, I can guess some of you will be thinking that’s because fruit and veggies are much more filling or that they’re not as moorish as sweet or fatty foods, and while there may well be some truth to that, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the “forbidden” foods that we are inclined to over eat.

Other factors that drive overeating are biological hunger (often greater when dieting) and emotional drivers which I won’t go into detail here, but to suffice to say, being hungry and restricting food both exacerbate drivers of emotional eating.

When diet culture tells us to avoid or limit certain food, this ends up being the very food that is over eaten and that leaves us feeling guilty or that we’ve “failed” at taking care of our health. This sense of guilt or failure is also a big part of what drives further over eating of the very foods we’ve been trying so hard to limit. As you can see, restricting food seen as “unhealthy”, for most people, just isn’t the solution to eating more healthfully.

So what might happen if we took the “fattening” or “unhealthy” label off these foods, if we allowed ourselves to eat them with full pleasure whenever we truly desired them? Gasp!

This is known as unconditional permission to eat and a key aspect of intuitive eating. The classic diet thinking, or diet mentality, is that if I allow myself to even one bite of the food, I’ll never stop. Paradoxically, what people discover when they allow all foods, and when they eat these foods with attunement to appetite, taste and satisfaction, is that in time, they no longer desire them as often. It must be noted that for most people, getting to point where food no longer has a hold over you, is not as simple as just allowing all foods and most people will need to address the many other factors that influence food choices. That said, the waning desire that accompanies unconditional permission to eat, is fundamental to eating in a way that is both nourishing and sustainable. 

If you would like to learn more about the intuitive eating process and where to get help, look for a dietitian who works within the HAES (Health At Every Size) paradigm. Please be aware that anyone talking about non-diet or intuitive eating as a weight loss method will not using this approach effectively.

You can find us here:

HAES dietitians Australia

HAES dietitians worldwide

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“I just want to feel normal around food again!”

This is a common cry we non-diet dietitians hear from people who come to see us.

So what does it mean to feel normal around food? Let me give you a couple of stories to help explain.

Story 1 – A normal relationship with food

Mary and Tom are enjoying a day shopping at the local market. Mary gets a whiff of freshly baked brownies coming from one of the food trucks and says to Tom, “Shall we get one of those?” Tom says, “You go ahead and have one, I’m not in the mood for one just now.” Mary buys a warm brownie and thoroughly enjoys the eating experience. End of story.

Story 2 – A complicated relationship with food

Fred and Sarah are enjoying a day shopping at the local market. Sarah gets a whiff of freshly baked brownies coming from one of the food trucks and says to Fred, “Gosh how good do they smell, but one would totally blow our calorie allowance, we’d better be good.” Fred says, “Plus all that sugar, so toxic, but that smell is good and making me want to eat.” Sarah points out another food truck selling “superfood” smoothies and says, “Let’s get one of those!” Fred and Sarah buy a turmeric, kale and coconut smoothie each. Unbeknownst to the couple, the smoothie had roughly the same amount of calories as the brownie.

Later that evening Fred and Sarah find themselves demolishing a whole packet of chocolate biscuits, they didn’t intend to do this, it started with the idea of just having one as they’d been “good” at the market and didn’t have the brownie. But one biscuit quickly turned into two, then three, then it was a case of, “We’ve blown it now, may as well finish these of so they’re not in the house and we won’t buy them again!”. In addition to feeling sick from so many biscuits, both Fred and Sarah experienced a sense of deep shame at having “lost control”. Not only did avoiding a desired food fail to limit their calories* as was their goal, it actually led to consuming many more than if they’d just been able to enjoy the brownie.

*Note: I am not advocating limiting calories. Calorie control is at best ineffective and often leads to weight gain in the long-run.  

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I’d love to say this was the end of the story, but as many of you reading this well know, this type of relationship with food can last many many years. So how do you break this cycle? The first step is to change the way you think about food and health, to loosen your grip on the false belief that certain food is “bad” and that controlling calories is an effective to manage your weight. This is a key focus of the non-diet (or anti-diet) approach. If you’ve spent years watching your food in an attempt to control your weight, how successful have you been? Population level statistics show that nearly everyone** who tries this regains the weight at some point with many people ending up heavier after years of battling food and their weight. Controlling calories and or restriction of certain food has been sold as a principle way to achieve weight loss for decades – even I used to believe this – but if it really was effective, surely we’d be a nation of thin people by now!

**If you are in the very small percentage that has managed to keep a significant amount of weight off through fastidiously controlling your food and you are completely at ease with doing this, then I am not writing this to suggest what you’re doing is wrong. This is for everybody else.

In writing this, I am not saying that the amount of calories we eat isn’t a factor in body weight, of course it is. What I’m saying is that using calories as a way to manage our food is generally ineffective, can complicate your relationship with food and very often leads to over-consuming them as seen in Fred and Sarah’s story.

If you would like to learn more how to manage your eating and improve your relationship with food, have a look at the non-diet/intuitive eating approach. Please be aware that anyone talking about non-diet or intuitive eating as a weight loss method will not using this approach effectively, choose a HAES (Health At Every Size) dietitian!

You can find us here:

HAES dietitians Australia

HAES dietitians worldwide

 

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

dietitian melbourne

non-diet haes dietitians Melbourne

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When a less nutritious food might actually be a good choice

There is a tendency, in some cases a slight obsession, these days to get caught up with the nutritional value of a food above all else.

At a workshop Jodie and I delivered, the question arose regarding added sugar and sweeteners as being something best to avoid in snacks and how isn’t one is best to always choose the more “natural” food.

Well, like with almost everything in nutrition, not always…

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I’m going to use one participants experience as an example. Let’s call him Bob. Bob is a farmer and works in the fields all day, when he gets home in the late afternoon, he’s starving and usually goes for the easiest thing such as sweets biscuits, when really he’d prefer something more nutritious. But he’s too hungry to think straight and he needs to eat then and there, he also tends to over-eat at dinner and often feels too full.

I asked Bob what he thought he could do differently to avoid being so hungry when he walked in the door. Bod said he’d thought about taking muesli bars in the tractor with him but said to me “aren’t they full of rubbish, sugar and additives?”

Regardless of the actual ingredients, we discussed how if Bob ate a muesli bar or two, perhaps he wouldn’t be so starving when he came home and then he’d be much more likely to make a nourishing snack rather than inhaling a few sweet biscuits and then over-eating at dinner. Allowing the convenient pre-packaged snack might afford Bob better eating habits in the afternoon. The overall effect being a positive one, not only physically by mentally too as Bob often feels guilty for eating the sweet biscuits and over-eating at dinner.

Now of course, not all muesli bars are full of sugar and additives, some are perfectly nutritious, but I think you get my point. If you really want to be wholistic, then you need to look at whole picture, not just the food in isolation. If you find yourself inclined to judge others for a particular food choice, try and take a moment to remember we usually don’t know what the full picture looks like for other people.

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