When I tell new people that I’m a non-diet, HAES practitioner, I often get the question of, “So, are you saying that eating Big Macs and super-size french fries every day is healthy?”
No. Of course not.
But the foods we choose to eat are usually a symptom of a bigger problem. Sure, poor nutrition affects our health, but simply telling someone they should eat differently doesn’t solve the problem. Here’s how I typically explain it:
Don’t think about a pink elephant.
I’m not a mind reader, but I probably know what you’re thinking about: a pink elephant.
This is one of the biggest reasons that diet’s don’t work. You create a rule, take something away, try to exert control, and the first thing you want to do is rebel against the rule, take back the thing, and completely lose control. From both personal and professional experience, diets don’t work because they are unsustainable, because willpower isn’t the issue. A huge percent of weight-loss dieters regain the pounds within a short time frame, but weight loss isn’t even the bulk of the problem. Losing weight doesn’t equate to gaining health.
So, what does lead to improved health? How can a person improve their nutrition and consequently their well-being without going on a diet?
Start with hunger.
Many of the patients I see in clinic are completely out-of-tune with their bodily signals. They push through tiredness, down another venti latte, and drag through another week of overtime. They skip breakfast because they don’t have time (or are afraid it’ll make them gain weight), wolf down their lunches the minute they have a spare moment, and swipe donuts from the break room every time they see them because “This is the last time. For real. They’re starting over on Monday.“
But then, on Monday, after only 4 hours of sleep, they again choose coffee over breakfast, annihilate their lunches in mere seconds, and eat another donut because, well, tomorrow will be better. But if they paused, asked themselves if they were hungry and which foods would help them feel their best, they’d probably do something differently.
As for me, I’ve been in all of those situations; and now, when I’m more in tune with my hunger and more respectful of my body, I drink less coffee and eat more breakfast. I work less, sleep more, and take more time with my lunch. I often eat the afternoon donut because it seems satisfying, but rarely finish it because a few bites are enough. Then, instead of skipping dinner to make penance for my sinfully delicious afternoon treat, I make a balanced meal choice anyways. I don’t necessarily eat more dessert, but I certainly don’t shame myself for eating it anymore.
The first thing I ask patients when they report struggling with food is how they approach eating. No, not what they eat, but how, when, and why. Then, we uncover what drives those behaviors.
Continue with hunger.
More often than not, the driver of diet behaviors like skipping meals, restricting calories, and binge eating is a poor sense of self-worth. Each of us has a deep and pervasive need to feel loved, valued, and accepted, but we don’t love, value, or accept ourselves. Because of that, we have a hard time believing that others truly love, value, or accept us. So, we try to earn that affirmation by working harder, losing weight, people-pleasing, and more.
The problem looks like dieting, but the issue behind the dieting is hunger for something more than food.
We take good care of the things we value. We wipe off the dust, keeping them shiny, and invest in protecting them — our cars, our homes, the special vase that Grandma gave us on our birthday 10 years ago. But the things we don’t value are more likely to be neglected.
If we don’t value our bodies because we don’t believe they are already valuable we probably won’t take care of them. Instead, we’ll abuse them by depriving them of sleep, over-working them, and skipping meals. But when we know how to feed the deep hunger of our hearts to be loved, valued, and accepted, it’s a lot easier to take care of ourselves.
Build a foundation.
The third and final step is to make the decision to do something differently.
Forming new habits is a slow process that requires patience, persistence, and commitment. It means choosing to put the right things in order so that food change is even a remote possibility. It means healing the relationship between food and our bodies and our souls, and learning how to reject the lies that led us into the deep darkness of dieting hell in the first place.
It means cultivating lives that are less stressful, laying the foundation we need to be able to read our hunger signals.
It means spending time in activities that nourish our souls. Cupcakes aren’t soul food, though they do taste heavenly. But they can’t fill that need that each of us has to be loved, valued, and accepted. Only God can. [To learn more about God’s views about food, I encourage you to check out my book, Faith, Food, Freedom, which is available on Amazon.]
Building a foundation means changing the way we look at health, not blaming cupcakes or body fat for our negative feelings about ourselves, and choosing to take care of our here-and-now bodies even though they don’t look like the ones we see in magazines.
[Sometimes the struggle with food and our bodies can be too much to handle on our own. If you don’t know where to turn, and taking these steps on your own feels too scary, I want you to know that there’s hope — you don’t need to suffer alone. I encourage you to make an appointment with an intuitive-eating informed health practitioner you trust. If you don’t know one, I’d love to fill that role. You can schedule an appointment here.]
What are you hungry for?
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