An Open Letter to the Wellness Industry: I Give My Clients Oreos and Ice Cream -- and Here's Why.

In the event we’re not acquainted, I’m a (holistic) nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counsellor who specializes in disordered eating and eating disorder recovery. I count my lucky stars every day that I get to do this meaningful and deeply fulfilling work. 

Intuitive eating, health at every size, body positive, balanced. I'm a nutritionist who gives her clients ice cream and oreos.

 

I've definitely been seduced by the compelling rhetoric of diet culture in all of its degrees and forms, but for many reasons -- many, many reasons -- I planted myself in the anti-diet and weight-neutral camp. In part I do this for me, but mostly I do it for my clients and for all of the individuals struggling with food and body who deserve so much better. Of course, not everyone agrees with or echoes this positioning — understandable, given the coupling of health with aesthetics and the “change your body, change your life” (and by extension, “change your food, change your body”) rhetoric widely promoted by our world. 

But perhaps more problematically, I’ve observed the quick co-opting of intuitive eating and body positivity by those in the wellness space. It’s often being used — inaccurately — to promote programs, podcasts, and other initiatives. I’ve also seen it criticized or adapted by individuals who have displayed limited knowledge of the model, its history, or its intended use. 

It wouldn’t bother me all that much, and I wouldn’t feel so compelled to write this, if if weren’t for the fact that I am so protective of my clients and those in the eating disorder community. In a world with limited viable options for their treatment and recovery, in a world where they cannot share their stories for risk of being shamed or misunderstood, in a world that is so unfriendly and unsupportive of their recovery, I don’t view being anything but loud as an option. If they have the courage to show up and get uncomfortable every single day of the week, then I can find the courage to get uncomfortable, too. 

Today, because I recognize few people are fortunate to do the work that I do, I’m here to defend and speak on behalf of it, as well as on the importance of an all foods fit approach to nutrition — a perspective I’ve arrived at through research, supplemental education, and experience working with hundreds of clients in various capacities. 

I got into nutrition because I believed in the power of food. I studied food writing during my undergraduate and graduate degrees, wrote my dissertation around food, and kept a food blog for a couple of years. Some of the best memories of my life involve food. But I also can’t emphasize enough how much I struggled with food — that for close to fifteen years, I fought with my body, with my plate, and at various times, with exercise. Always, I fought with who I thought I needed to be, my own feelings of inadequacy and incompetence, and perpetual fears that I would never be enough (whatever enough meant.) 

And while I got into nutrition to help heal others, the person I healed most was myself. 

It was done by slowly unravelling the rules and shifting patterns of behaviour that kept me locked up in a prison of my own making. It was done by finding exercise I liked, and being honest with myself about why I was doing it. It was done by challenging myself with all of the foods I thought were “forbidden” or “off-limits.” It was done by deciding not to speak negatively to myself and committing to it. It was about doing so many things that were by no means sexy, no means profitable, and no means glamorous. It was messy and uncomfortable. But it was honest. And it gave me the permission to belong to myself.  

When you think about your recommendations, I want you to think outside of your philosophy or even the evidence, and I want you to consider the person who will receive them. I want you to consider what it might be like for someone to grow up during the low-fat craze, to have become a teenager when the low-carb movement was getting started, to have entered into adulthood during the rise of detoxes and cleanses, to believe that sugar is a drug, to believe they must eat clean or starve. What is it like to grow up fearing food? To feel as though nothing is truly safe? How is someone to have a good relationship with food — and by extension, themselves — when they hear these messages? 

I am a writer and I do believe words hurt. I believe shame hurts. I believe belittling people for their food choices hurts. I believe judging people whose stories we know nothing about, hurts. I believe fat-shaming hurts. I believe that if the dose makes the poison, it applies equally to medicine as it does to our conversations around food and nutrition. I believe that if we worry about getting cancer from cigarette smoke, we should probably worry about the relationship between the calorie counts posted so blatantly on chain restaurant menus and eating disorders. If that doesn’t seem on par to you, please ask yourself how you’ve come to care so much about physical health while thinking so little of mental health. 

We use Oreos and ice cream in eating disorder recovery. It’s imperative that those struggling learn to make peace with all foods, and it’s my professional opinion that this ought to extend to all people. Anyone, at any time, can develop an eating disorder; they are not limited to young, female-identified people. Eating disorders are alive and well in the LGBTQ community. They find hosts in pregnant, post-partum, and post-menopausal women. They will settle in senior citizens. The guy on the football team could have an eating disorder. Poor people who can't afford to take a day off get eating disorders. Black people get eating disorders. People in large bodies get eating disorders. Eating disorders do not discriminate. 

Part of making peace with food requires shifting food patterns. Categorizing, prescribing, and demonizing foods is unhelpful. Teaching clients which foods to eat and which to minimize will keep their eating disorders (or disordered eating) content. There is this general sense, I think, that if people ate whole foods and were nourished, they would not suffer from mental illness, particularly eating disorders. This is false. My clients know more about nutrition than most nutritionists.

They are not here because they don’t “eat clean.” They are here because they do. 

Clean eating. Whenever I hear it I can’t help but think of the angel in the house, the Victorian feminine ideal. It’s not even metaphorical, but literal: check out Halo Top ice cream. It’s so patriarchal in origin I can’t even bear to hear it. And yet here we are, talking about eating pure foods and cleansing. Which makes so much sense seeing how restriction is idealized in all of its forms, from weight loss to food choices to being quiet to staying small. Do we want to remain a conglomerate of Tinker Bells and Peter Pans and Wendys in Neverland, using anti-aging creams and elixirs and cosmetic surgery and diets to stay small and young in the world, or do we grow up and take up space in our grown up lives, as messy and mixed and uncomfortable as they can often be? 

Yes, those with eating disorders eat avocados and kale salads and still, they come to us, suffering. 

So yes, I use processed foods and play foods in practice (and eat them, too) because they help to shift someone’s patterns of behaviour. This is not just a nice idea, but validated by quality research. And it is effective. 

I know this can be hard to hear as a holistic nutritionist or anyone who advocates for dietary change. I feel deeply conflicted about my designation. On one hand, I entered into this sphere because I believe in mind, body, and spirit wellness. I still believe in this. But given my experience in eating disorders and disordered eating, I do not see this reflected in our world. I see cleanses and detoxes with ‘weight loss’ plastered all over them, as though it were ethical or even possible to promise this. I see diets bolstered by bad science. I see the glamorization of disordered behaviour (see: over-exercising as “hardcore”, calorie counting, intense restriction.) You may not see the results of these actions when shit hits the fan, but I do. 

And it's often kept so impossibly quiet. 

I’ve felt this way for over a year. A year ago I gave a workshop and I realized, mid-day, that I could no longer continue with the way I’d been practicing. I could no longer say the things coming out of my mouth. It felt inauthentic. I was tired of worrying about what I needed to give up rather than add in. Over the years I’ve been told to give up or limit red meat, eggs, caffeine, rice, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, bread, white pasta, nuts, nut butters, crackers, certain berries (mycotoxins!), all oil but coconut oil (what?), sugar, cookies, gluten, milk, yogurt, cheese…all dairy, processed foods, GMO popcorn (except GMO popcorn doesn’t pop, so technically there isn’t such a thing as GMO popcorn), potato chips…

Is the goal to live on air? 

I almost closed my business three or so months ago, at the start of summer. I was tired. I was tired of defending my stance. I felt like no one heard me. I felt — and continually to feel — enormously misunderstood. I was tired of feeling alone on my anti-diet island. I considered starting a new business. I considered jobs I never would have taken even six months ago. 

But then I thought about how lonely my clients must feel. How all anti-dieters must feel. And how isolated and alienated and disconnected. And there in my own disconnect and exhaustion and alienation I found what I was looking for: reason. To keep going. To keep doing. To not give up when it was hard. To not give up when it was really hard. To pull it out. 

And here we are: the future. It is still messy and challenging, but I guess you just get more comfortable playing in the dirt. 

I work with clients somewhere between five and seven days a week. I work out of a centre on weekdays and Saturdays, and see my private clients in the evening and at whatever other times I can manage. 

Somewhere in there, I succeed in sending the odd newsletter, write blog posts, and update my social media accounts. 

I answer emails.

I show up at events.

I give talks. 

I write. I want to write more. I will. 

All of this feels different and uncomfortable now. It means going into a room and hoping to plant seeds. But as hard as it feels -- and if you do this work, you realize what a mountain we have to climb -- it's not nearly as hard as struggling and recovering from an eating disorder. And if my clients can do that, then I can do the hard work of making their lives just a little bit easier in whatever capacity I can. And for those who feel there is no future without weight loss, no future without restriction, trust me when I say this isn't true. It's possible. 

It's hard, but it's always possible. And trust me when I say the payoff, while perhaps not as good financially, is so much better. 

If you're a professional interested in joining the anti-diet movement and looking to incorporate HAES principles into your practice, I recommend the following resources. While many of us work with disordered eating and eating disorders, this isn't a requirement. 

The Food Psych podcast with Christy Harrison

Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole (2nd edition)

The Intuitive Eating Workbook by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole

Body Respect by Linda Bacon

The Body Myth by Margo Maine 

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf 

Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body by Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott 

The Association for Size Diversity and Health 

 

Sarah Berneche

Sarah Berneche, 14 Denison Square, Toronto, ON, M5T 1K8