Everyone has the right to enjoy cake, not just thin people

Yesterday one of my clients told me she was not doing to well with mindful eating. When I asked her to elaborate, she said how the day before, in a meeting, she had eaten two of the mini cakes on offer. I asked her what they were like and she said delicious, fresh and moist, just to her liking and that she felt satisfied and not too full afterwards. I then asked her why she felt this wasn’t mindful – it sounded like a perfect example of mindful eating to me – and her response was, “I didn’t need to eat two of them”.

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This is one of the commonest misperceptions with mindful eating, the idea that if you eat mindfully, you’ll eat less. While this may happen, it doesn’t need to and it certainly shouldn’t be the reason for practising mindful eating. If it is, it simply becomes another diet rule in an already saturated diet culture of food rules that dictate how or what we should or shouldn’t do with food. It is no surprise that mindful eating is being mixed up with dieting as diet companies such as weight watchers teach “mindful eating” as part of their program. If weight loss is your main focus, it becomes very difficult to not turn mindful eating into just another a diet – the mindful eating diet. Thanks weight watchers.

There is no one way, or correct way, to eat mindfully. Mindful eating involves some awareness of the sensory properties of the food (look, smell, taste, texture) and some awareness of appetite and how the food feels in your body, or leaves you feeling. Notice I used the word ‘some’ when talking about awareness. Awareness does not need to be 100%.

We then explored why my client felt she shouldn’t have eaten both cakes. She mentioned she didn’t feel too full afterward and actually ended up eating less than usual at lunch as she noticed she wasn’t as hungry. So what’s the issue I asked? My clients response was centered around “too much” sugar and calories and cake not being nutritious or “good” for health.

This lady is fit (she moves her body daily with swimming and walking) and she is healthy (she feels good in her body and bloods are all normal). The issue as my client sees it, is her body is larger than it “should” be. My client felt because of her weight, she didn’t really deserve to eat one of the cakes, let alone both. I then asked her if she felt it would be ok to eat the cakes if she was thinner and her response was emphatic – “Yes I would have both, I’d thoroughly enjoy them and not feel an ounce of guilt!”

We then discussed that if cake really was bad for health, surely it would be just as “bad” for thin people. Of course it’s not, thin people who eat cake are not automatically unhealthy. If thin people can enjoy both cake and health, and they can, then why on earth can’t bigger people? Now I am not saying we can all eat as much cake as we want without any regard for how we eat, that would be silly – I feel the need to say this as there will be people who choose to interpret my message as that.

The message I am aiming to get across here is that not only thin people have a right to enjoy whatever they hell they feel like eating without judgement or guilt. However, our culture is such that this is often what happens. People in larger bodies are often judged, not only by society, but also harshly by themselves, for their food choices. What we need to acknowledge is that this judgment usually has NOTHING (or little) to do with the nutrition aspect of health, but rather that they somehow don’t deserve to eat that food. This is a culture that needs to change, as not only is it misplaced concept, but it usually only serves to damage a person’s health. When people are made to feel shame about themselves, especially with regard to weight, they are LESS likely to engage in healthy behaviours. This paper on the impact of weight stigma clearly shows this.

Everyone has the right to enjoy all food, not just thin people. Enjoying cake does NOT mean you are disregarding health or that you don’t care about the health of your body. Health is not just a product of the food you eat and the nutritional aspect of health is something that occurs over many many food choices over many weeks, not just one food choice, be that an apple or a cake. So have your cake and enjoy it!

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The diet mentality and why allowing yourself to eat what you really want might just be a better recipe for health.

The diet mentality in action…

You’re out to dinner. One of your favourite meals, lasagna served with garlic bread, is on the specials board. The voice in your head says “don’t eat that, it’ll be loaded with fat, carbs and calories!” So you order the warm chicken salad, it’s tasty and filling but leaves you feeling you want something else. The voice in your head says “go on, have dessert, after all you were good and chose the salad and you didn’t have any bread.” So you order dessert, feeling somewhat justified but also not without a touch of guilt. The dessert appears and it looks delicious. You take a bite and it’s incredibly rich and tastes divine! About half way through you notice you’re really quite full and have had enough. You overrule this observation as you rarely ever let yourself have dessert, you experience the “I’ll get it while I can” effect that comes with thoughts such as “this will be the last dessert I have for a while”.|

You leave the restaurant feeling overfull and slightly sick, you’re starting to regret ordering dessert and you think to your self, “no more sweets as of tomorrow!” An hour later at home, you find yourself thinking about the chocolate in the fridge. You have the thought “I may as well eat that too given I’ve already blown my new healthy eating regime and NO MORE SWEETS AS OF TOMORROW!”

Sound familiar?

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Now I want you to imagine ordering the lasagna and doing so with no judgement, you’re simply ordering because you like lasagne and you’re hungry for it. The lasagne arrives and it looks as good as it smells! Extra cheesy, just the way you like it. You’ve learnt about mindful eating and savouring your food and you do so, when you finish you’re truly satisfied. You consider dessert but you’re nicely full and the meal really did hit the spot. You thank your companion for a lovely evening and go home to bed.

This is an example of normal healthy eating.

As you learn how to loosen your grip and eventually let go of diet rules and diet mentality, this type of eating experience becomes possible.

If you resonate strongly with the diet mentality scenario, suddenly switching this off is not as easy as flicking a light switch. You most likely have many years of programming and it takes time and patience to rewire your brain, but it is possible. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a HAES/non-diet dietitian or therapist.

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Are you looking for wellness in all the wrong places? You really don’t need to eat “clean” or sugar free…

Wellness is often sold as a specific way of eating, such as eating “clean” or sugar free. But wellness generally doesn’t require a special diet and changing your diet doesn’t guarantee wellness.

The good news is wellness can be found with enjoying all types of food, but perhaps the most important ingredient is connection to others.

Imagine you meet a group of people who make you laugh, engage you in conversation you enjoy and who help you feel happier within yourself. You even start being more active with the group, regularly meeting up for a walk or a favourite type of physical activity. Due to this social interaction and increased physical activity, your stress reduces, you sleep better and you feel fitter and more energetic.

Of course a scenario such as this does not guarantee these changes to your health, but it is very possible they would occur and I often hear this from people when they do become more socially and physically active.

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Now imagine you meet once per week and each time you meet there is food involved, food you are trying hard to avoid, the type of food often labelled as “toxic” or “unhealthy” by our current “wellness” culture. Food such as pizza, fried foods and sweets*. Is partaking in this food really going to negatively impact your health? Is eating this food going to negate the reduction in stress, the better sleep, increased fitness and sense of wellbeing?

I dearly hope you are thinking “no!” If you’re not, you might like to read about intuitive eating which explains how all food can belong in a nutritious pattern of eating.

As I hope this scenario highlights, your health or wellness is so much more than just what you eat. Yes, eating a variety of nutritious food is important, but not everything you eat must be as nutritious as possible.

If you are following a wellness program (or wellness guru), and your current way of eating leaves you feeling disconnected to other people or anxious about food or your body, then I encourage you to reflect on whether or not that program is truly about wellness. If you subscribe to a particular wellness program and truly feel good within yourself, then that’s fine too.

*Please note I am not saying pizza, fried food or sweets are unhealthy, quite the contrary. Aside from each of these foods offering some nutrition, the social connection that accompanies this food is much healthier than a plate full of “superfoods”.

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The ability to be so selective with what we eat is a Western world privilege.

In terms of the Western world, I strongly suspect an over-abundance of food, our desire for convenience and of course the food industry, are reasons we have so much highly processed food in our diets. The proliferation of such processed food is, I believe, a large part of why so many people are turning to different forms of eating, be it ‘paleo’, ‘clean’, gluten free, quitting sugar, vegan etc. After all, if we only had fresh whole food available to us, the term ‘clean eating’ most likely would not have arisen. I also suspect that if we only had fresh whole food available to us, and this includes whole-grains and legumes, the paleo diet also would not have come about. There is no doubt the over-use of refined sugar in processed food is a why people have started quitting sugar.

The one thing all these new styles of eating have in common is the elimination of highly processed food. Well at least that’s what the idea was, the food industry has responded with plenty of packaged paleo food (there’s paleo chips, paleo chocolate, paleo protein bars, paleo muesli) and highly processed sugar-free (insert anything free) food, which ironically is exactly how we got into this “food fight” in the first place. Watch this space, in a few years there will another style of eating to combat all the new processed food that has infiltrated paleo, clean eating and quitting sugar – at some point I’m sure the halo will fall from rice malt syrup and it too will be seen as “evil”.

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While all this goes on, there are millions of people in the world who are just happy to have whatever food is available. They have no interest in whether the food is sugar free, clean, paleo, alkaline or Calathumpian and most likely they don’t even know theses terms exist – except maybe Calathumpian.

Rice, maize (corn) and wheat provide 60 percent of the world’s food energy intake (see source below). Of the top 10 crops in the world, all are carbohydrate rich food. I am not suggesting that this is the way it should be, but it is the current situation. The overwhelming majority of people in the world cannot afford (and I don’t just mean financially) to adhere to these Western world food trends. Luckily for them, they don’t need to, and nor do we. I’m not saying eating clean, paleo or sugar free is wrong, I’m just pointing out it’s not necessary in order to eat well and looking at some of the reasons these styles of eating have come about. Dietitians and nutritionists have been banging for years about reducing sugar – for some reason our collective voice is not really heard, it seems you need to be a celebrity, or have the message SUGAR EQUALS DEATH to be really heard. The power of the food industry might just be playing a part in our voices being drowned out, and this is probably happening to quitting sugar too.

However you choose to eat, try to keep things simple, ensure the bulk of your diet is whole fresh food (veggies, fruit, nuts, legumes, whole-grains, eggs, meat, fish, dairy, oils etc), consider how much highly processed food you consume, from an environmental and nutritional stand point, and be thankful you have access to so much nourishing food. Try to avoid placing a moral value – I’m being so good, let’s be naughty – on how you eat, or following a style of eating that doesn’t fit in easily with work, family, social events or travel, or where you don’t receive pleasure from food and eating.

Why? Aside from the practical difficulties and having to restrict food you might actually enjoy eating, restrictive eating can foster an unhealthy relationship with food and can lead to disordered eating or eating disorders. If one of your reasons for following a specific style of eating is weight loss or your appearance, then you may be increasing your risk of body image dissatisfaction, weight cycling and ultimately, weight gain. If you have ever dieted, you will know what I mean.

Note: if you have been properly diagnosed with Coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance by a health professional, then of eating gluten free is necessary for you. Vegan is also an ethical choice for which a person has every right to.

Source: What the world eats

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Fish & Chips – No, they’re not fattening…

Pictured here is a meal of fish and chips. Many people will look at this picture and think; “fish and chips are loaded with calories and fattening” or “fish and chips are bad for you.”

The wonderful thing about enjoying all food in moderation is that no one type of food will result in you consuming excess calories or will adversely affect your health.

What is moderation?

Moderation is the avoidance of extremes, a place where you don’t completely restrict yourself, or go completely nuts, around food you want to be able to enjoy. Moderation is not a line in the sand that you draw, it looks different to different people and will even vary for the same person depending on factors such as appetite, mood, environment, current circumstances and even the weather! Ultimately, once you find what moderation means to you, you will be able to enjoy your desires without it being excess to the point of regret. But, as Oscar Wild famously said – “everything in moderation, including moderation” – meaning that sometimes going to excess is ok too.

It is very possible to enjoy fried food, such as fish and chips, without needing to worry about excess calories/fat or the meal being “unhealthy”. Provided you are physically hungry for the meal, eat in a mindful manner so as to truly enjoy the food, and you are able to make a choice to stop eating when you’re satisfied (a sense of comfortable fullness and pleasure from the meal), you really do not need to worry about how many calories you are consuming or whether or not the meal is nutritious enough. I might point out here that potatoes and fish are actually very nutritious, even when deep fried.

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Worrying about calories can take much of the pleasure out of eating and you may find you’re less likely to feel satisfied at the end of the meal. Thinking you have eaten too many calories may also leave you feeling guilty and saying to yourself “oh well, I’ve blown it now, I may as well just keep eating!” While you may have been slightly past comfortably full after your first round of fish and chips, chances are you will feel uncomfortably full (eaten too much) if you keep eating.

I love this quote by William Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

You can see from this scenario that by thinking you had eaten more calories than “allowed” and “blown it”, you then end up eating excess calories. This type of situation is much more likely to happen if you are following a prescriptive diet or meal plan, or counting calories.

Now some people will think, “but if I followed this philosophy, I’d fish and chips all the time!” Would you? Read the following sentence first and then I want you to close your eyes and imagine. Imagine choosing to eat fish and chips every day, or even 3 times a week, week in week out. What do you think might happen after a few days or weeks? The common response I hear from people is they’d get sick of the food and never want to see that meal again, at least for a time. You can do this same imaginary exercise with any meal, say grilled salmon and a Greek salad, would you really want to eat the same meal day in day out? 

Next time you have a meal out (or even at home), try to put aside any thoughts about calories or nutrition. Instead, appreciate how the food looks, how it smells, how it tastes and think about how you feel in terms of your hunger and fullness, before, during and after the meal. Also consider how the food taste changes as you progress through the meal. For many people, this is not as easy at it sounds, and for some people it takes time to be able to reconnect with food, appetite cues and sensations in the body. This is a key part of what the intuitive eating process is about.

If you do choose to avoid a certain food, don’t make that choice because it’s high in calories or because you’re trying to lo lose weight; but because it’s not what you feel like eating right at that moment or because you’re not actually hungry for the food.

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You don’t have to “eat clean”, drink juices, go paleo or quit sugar to be healthy.

Whatever happened to a healthy diet just meaning getting adequate nutrition from food?

These days it can feel like “health” requires activating your superfoods, liquifying your veggies, going sugar free and drinking bee water – yep, that’s right, bee water… what the? I have seen this for sale.

Health and healthy are now loaded words that have been mixed up with “clean” eating, “quitting sugar”, green smoothies and “Paleo”. While there is nothing wrong with doing any of these things per se, they are too often taken to the extreme and none are actually necessary for health. As I have always stated, if you enjoy following a specific dietary regimen, that’s fine, I am not saying you shouldn’t, I’m just saying you don’t have to.

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Why am I concerned about this?

For many people, these extreme forms of “healthy” eating are leading to very distorted relationships with food and body, and serious eating disorders or orthorexia (a yet to be classified eating disorder which is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating).

Our culture’s preoccupation with “healthy” eating sucks the joy out of eating for many and wastes a hell of a lot of mental space. How much time do you spend thinking about food? Imagine what else we could achieve if we spent less time worrying so much about food.

Your diet is healthy if you are getting enough food energy and nutrients to support physical and mental health, and eating food (and amounts) that leave you feeling satisfied and energised. There are a million and one different ways to achieve this and there is no single food that must be either included or avoided in order to eat well.

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