Learning to trust your body to make good food decisions
Reprinted from "Body Image" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 12 (1), p. 37
“You are what you eat” is a phrase I hear often as a dietitian working in the food and nutrition field. I often feel it’s misused—or that it’s simply incorrect. We aren’t simply what we eat: we are so much more than our food choices, and food is so much more than calories. For many, food represents family, culture, pleasure, experience and exploration, as well as a way to fuel our bodies and function in our lives. Our emotional, social and physical eating practices—in addition to the foods we eat—are all important elements of our well-being.
There is a common misconception that you can look at a person’s body and know how they eat. Imagine we walk into a fast-food restaurant and see a thin and athletic woman eating a double cheeseburger with an extra-large order of fries and a milkshake. We might feel envious that she can eat that way and still maintain a lean build. We might assume she had done significant exercise that day to account for her meal, or that this is a special occasion or that she has a fast metabolism. Now, imagine we see another woman at the next table eating the same meal. This person lives in a larger body. Despite the fact that she is eating a meal identical to the one being eaten by the thin woman with the athletic build, we might assume that this second person eats at fast-food restaurants often. We might assume she is inactive, and we may have preconceived ideas about her health.
None of these assumptions is based on fact. We cannot know about a person’s health or experiences simply by looking at that person’s body. In the same way, we cannot know about someone’s relationship with food from the size or shape of his or her body.
We do not make these assumptions because we are bad people. Our assumptions represent widely held stigmas associated with different body types.
For my clients who struggle with disordered eating issues, early access to treatment and trained health care professionals is a key component in the recovery journey. Yet often my clients’ struggles go unrecognized—even by themselves—due to common social stigmas related to eating disorders and weight.
The truth is that there are no “good” or “bad” foods. Clients often try to challenge me on this, but I stand behind the idea that when we label foods as good or bad, we set ourselves up to mistrust our bodies and create an environment for emotional eating—in which we have emotional reactions to the food choices we make. If I eat something “good,” I feel proud, as if I am doing something “right.” But if I eat something “bad,” I might feel shame or that I can’t make that “mistake” again. If I associate certain foods with a fear that my body will change, then I will feel a need to compensate afterwards. I might become more concerned or rigid with my eating, increase my exercise or experience guilt and shame.
I often hear people justifying their food choices. For example, an individual might say, “I can eat this because I did the Grouse Grind today,” or, “I was bad today because I ate food X, which is bad.” These statements perpetuate stigmas about food and our bodies, and reinforce the idea that our bodies cannot be trusted. This creates a situation where people feel they need to be in rigid control of their own food or nutrition intake: they fear and mistrust their own body.
Certainly there are foods we might choose more often because they provide our bodies with more complete nutrition than other foods. Some foods provide us with different vitamins and minerals. Some foods provide us with more fibre or more protein than others. But all foods give us energy and fuel our brain. However, we eat for many reasons, not just health. We also eat for reasons of pleasure, culture, tradition, social interaction and comfort, and sometimes as a special treat for ourselves. By giving ourselves permission to eat for a variety of reasons (and not just for nutritional health), we create an environment where we trust and honour our body instead of viewing food with resistance and fear.
When it comes to educating my clients about nutrition, I rarely allow calories to be part of the conversation. Our bodies need more than a certain caloric target to maintain or support weight. We need a variety of foods from all the food groups to meet our carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamin and mineral needs for good health. Engaging clients in conversation about the types of nutrition their body needs, focusing on what foods feel satisfying to eat and satisfy the body for longer, and about how we feel different when we have energy is more important than caloric number.
Our bodies know what to do with nutrition: we need to learn to trust our bodies’ cues. One of the ways I help teach my clients to trust their body is through the skill of mindful eating. Mindful or intuitive eating means paying attention to internal cues rather than external rules to guide our food choices. Like any skill, mindful eating needs to be practised.
The first step in mindful eating is to reject dieting. Stop buying into the idea that we need to make drastic, rigid changes to the way we eat in order to support our bodies. One way to become in tune with our bodies is to explore and learn about our hunger and fullness cues. If we slow down and take the time to listen, our bodies will tell us what they want and need.
When we listen to our bodies, the most important thing to do is to remove all distractions so that we can taste the food and experience the act of eating, decide what we enjoy instead of placing judgment on certain foods. When we eat what we really want, in an environment that is enticing and enjoyable, the pleasure of the experience will make us feel satisfied and content. This minimizes the desire to overeat.
Another important thing to do is to give ourselves unconditional permission to eat. If we tell ourselves that we “can’t” or “shouldn’t” have a particular food, we can experience feelings of deprivation. As with many things in life, we often want what we can’t have: feelings of deprivation can intensify into cravings, which often lead to bingeing. When we finally “give in” to foods that we have told ourselves we “can’t” have, we often overeat and experience feelings of guilt. And we promise ourselves to never eat this way again. Then, if we “give in” again in the future, our broken promise compounds our feelings of guilt.
We all need to challenge food “rules.” We need to stop believing that “we are what we eat” and start seeing the complexity of the human body and our relationship with the food we eat. Challenge the thought that you’re “good” for eating minimal calories and “bad” if you eat something you enjoy. 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. The relationship you have with your body is the only relationship you are guaranteed to maintain for life, so I encourage you to nurture and care for it. Your body knows what to do with nutrition: you just have to learn to trust it.
About the author
Ali is a Registered Dietitian with a BSc in food nutrition. She works in the Eating Disorders Program at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital and with the Looking Glass Foundation’s summer camp for girls. Her private practice specializes in disordered eating (www.ThriveBC.com). Ali is passionate about helping clients develop healthy relationships with food and body