Posts in Diet Culture
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 

 

Understanding Disordered Eating and What It Means to Heal

Few people understand treatment and best practices when it comes to eating disorders — including health professionals. I know this as someone who works with eating disorders first-hand. But the same can also be said about disordered eating. 

In a culture that glamorizes eating disorder symptomatology (restriction, weight loss), it can be difficult, if not impossible, to separate which pieces belong to an eating disorder and which belong to diet culture. Fat-positive Ragen Chastain has previously said that we prescribe to fat people what we diagnose in thin people. And though fat people are also diagnosed with eating disorders including Anorexia Nervosa, this is pretty true. 

We may look aghast at an emaciated woman whose circulation is so poor her feet have turned purple and her face as sunken in, yet we feel it’s perfectly acceptable to encourage the same habits and behaviours in someone occupying a fat body, including semi-starvation and restriction, over-exercising, calorie counting, and the use of Bulimia-like medical devices. You know, the types of tactics used to entertain people on The Biggest Loser

Intuitive eating, health at every size, body positivity, holistic nutrition. What is disordered eating and what does it mean to heal from diet culture?

I’ll reserve the fact that we view the suffering, shame, and embarrassment of other people as an entertainment for another blog post. 

Here is my reality as I know it, which is the only lens I feel I can speak through: eating disorders are mental illnesses and disordered eating is not currently considered a mental illness. 

But we must also acknowledge the ways our culture is influenced by beauty sickness, poisoned by patriarchy, and deficient in self-care. 

We aren’t taught how to cope with uncomfortable feelings and difficult situations in healthy ways.

And we need to acknowledge the ways trauma, shame, poor self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, vulnerability, stress, depression, anxiety, and fear translate to or manifest in our relationship (or lack thereof) with food. 

No, we cannot “cure” poor body image with a diet or weight loss. No, we cannot improve our lives, as the underlying subtext of our culture suggests, by changing, “updating”, “transforming”, “fixing”, and “toning” our bodies. No, we are not better people if we drink green smoothies and kale salads, and no, we are not worse if we enjoy ice cream, like cheeseburgers, and possess a penchant for Oreos. 

For those who don’t understand disordered eating, here’s the Cole’s Notes:

Disordered eating involves obsessing and fixating on food above all other things. It means spending so much time dwelling on or attempting to be thin that your life shrinks in tandem with the restriction. It may mean cutting out certain foods, counting calories, weighing foods, weighing yourself, denying dinners out with friends and coffee dates for fear of eating something “off limits”, of trying to “be good” and crying in shame when you can’t sustain your “perfect diet.” 

Disordered eaters may not adequately nourish their bodies; they may choose low-calorie options to “save points”. They may not eat enough to fuel their bodies and weight cycle, which places them at a higher risk for various diseases and premature death. 

And in my experience, restriction with food often means restriction in life: waiting for the weight to come off before going on a trip, waiting to lose weight before getting married, not having children for fear of weight gain or what the experience will do to the body, being so self-conscious that you deny yourself a chance to swim in the ocean or in the pool with your kid, and generally not fully showing up fully or participating in your one wild, amazing life. 

No, health is not about weight loss. Health is about eating adequately, regularly, and consistently. Health is about balance. Health is about self-care, sleep, joyful movement when appropriate, and an easy relationship with food. Health is positive, empowering, and fully yours to discover. 

The correlations between health and weight are only seen at the very highest of highest weights; in fact, the data as know it reveals that being “overweight” may have a preventative effect, while being underweight is actually correlated with the poorest health outcomes. This is consistent with my work in eating disorders. 

Above all, disordered eating is a problem because it is inherently dehumanizing. 

Weight stigma, weight bias, and weight discrimination are problems, above all, because they are dehumanizing.

My background is in writing; I majored in English literature in university, and went on to complete graduate studies in creative writing. Though nutrition and writing may seem very disparate from one another, I regularly use the analytical and critical thinking skills I acquired from that period of my life. 

I am always working to help people to re-write their stories, alter their narratives. I challenge their beliefs about self and life, which often begin more like “facts” than convictions. Mostly, I work to help them to come home to themselves, to occupy the bodies they’ve vacated, to enjoy the foods they’ve distanced themselves from, to feel the fullness, the weight, of their bodies. To feel comfortable with wholeness. 

What if you were diagnosed with a kind of cancer no one could see? Not a microscope. Not a single medical device. What if it was invisible to everyone but you, and maybe one other person? What if it spread across your body, across your life? What if it infected your relationships — with your significant other, your friends, your family, your co-workers — and ruined your work day? What if it was the first thing you thought of when you woke up in the morning and the thing on your mind when you fell fast asleep? What if it left your anxious and depressed about the future? What if it kept you from dating, from finding the kind of love you craved deep down? What if it made you feel so sad you could barely stand it?

I want you to consider it. I want you to consider all of it. 

Healing is often a slow, painful process. It involves reflecting critically on a culture that has encouraged loyalty to its socially constructed beauty ideals while promoting disloyalty to ourselves. It involves considering the messages we received about food, body, and worth growing up and afterwards. It involves developing a different kind of relationship with food. It involves being afraid, and doing it anyway. It involves the courage and strength to stand up to diet culture and all of its trappings; to well-meaning but often triggering family, friends, and co-workers who talk about their latest diet, “needing to lose weight”, “wanting to lose weight”, or who insist we should follow suit. 

Intuitive eating (the model) is the blueprint for this process — a map that helps you to navigate the waters. It teaches you how to extract yourself from diet culture; from rules that do not serve you; from media and “experts” who often lead with opinion, sensationalism, and bad science; from companies who are so quick to profit from your insecurities; from the finger-pointers and the “truth-tellers”; from a self-punishing relationship with exercise to one that is liberating and enjoyable; from using food to cope to finding alternative means. Intuitive eating equips you with training wheels for the bike you’ve never been on, with the hope and the intention of removing them one day and letting you ride free into the sunset. 

Healing is the process of coming home to ourselves. And of helping others to come home, too.

How to Stop Restricting in Intuitive Eating

Whether you’re new to intuitive eating or have been at it for a while, I think you’re going to benefit from today’s discussion about (unconscious or unrealized) restriction. I’ve received many questions and comments lately that all revolve around restriction and today I'm digging deep into it to shed some light on where you're limiting yourself. 

For example:

…You want to eat a plate of vegetables, but doing so makes you feel “virtuous” — and triggers you to eat something you deem “bad”, “unhealthy,” or “indulgent.” 

…You don’t want to deprive yourself of sweets, but you don’t feel satisfied by the amount of sugar you’re eating until you feel you’ve overdone it. 

…You’re trying to create new health habits and behaviours, but your mind is always rebelling or resisting these changes. 

Intuitive eating, body positive, health at every size, non diet approach, nutrition. How to stop restricting in intuitive eating.

There’s all kinds of ways to restrict that impact our ability to eat in ways that feel good to us. 

Let’s take the first one. If you believe you’re being “good” by eating a plate of vegetables, you’re still working through your diet culture hangover. If eating a plate of vegetables triggers you to eat sweets, it’s possible that meal was not satisfying to you. 

But my biggest question here is: when you’re eating all the vegetables and rebelling, who are you eating the vegetables for? Why are you eating the vegetables? And be really honest here. If the answer is “with the hopes of weight loss,” it’s not actually the vegetables that are triggering the desire for sweets. It’s the perception of restriction and scarcity symbolized by the plate of vegetables. It's that you associate the plate of vegetables with dieting and weight loss. 

Put another way:

What you think is happening:

I eat vegetables —> I want and eat all the sweets 

What is actually happening:

I’m going to eat vegetables —> a plate of vegetables makes me think I’m dieting —> I want and eat all the sweets. 

The problem has nothing to do with the sweets or the vegetables, but your relationship with sweets and vegetables. Here’s a few ways you can tackle this issue:

  1. Get crystal clear on why you eat vegetables. What words come to mind?

  2. What’s your goal? Why do you want to eat nutritious foods? How will your life change?

  3. Why do you associate vegetables with dieting and weight loss?

  4. Do you enjoy vegetables? How could you enjoy them more?

  5. Are you truly giving yourself permission to eat sweets?

Try asking yourself the above questions and unpacking this a bit further so you can really get at the bottom of what’s triggering you. 

Now let’s say you eat sugar, but you never feel satisfied by what you’re eating until you’ve overdone it and feel sick to your stomach. Let’s explore this. 

Maybe part of you knows if you eat too much sugar (for your body), you’ll get a stomach ache. 

Maybe part of you knows if you eat too much sugar (for your body), you’ll experience low energy.

And maybe these narratives are also competing with the following narratives:

I’ve always overdone sugar and I always will. I don’t know how to control myself around sugar. 

I’m addicted to sugar, but I guess I’ll *try* this intuitive eating thing…

Which further compound the issue. 

Here’s the thing: by placing expectations and limits on these foods before you’ve even started eating them you are engaging in a restrictive mindset. 

Here’s how I would solve this split, restrictive situation. 

  1. Sit down to eat without any distractions.

  2. Instead of going in with a set limit, try to exploring. E.g.: “I’m just going to see how many it takes to satisfies me.” Go in without any preconceived notions or judgment.

  3. Try eating your favourite foods slowly. This can take time and practice, especially if this food still carries a significant charge. This will also give you time to register when you’ve had enough sugar to satisfy. Take note of your pace.

Now, what about when you’re trying to create new health habits and behaviours, but your mind is always rebelling? 

Unpack this. Do your new goals feel like too much to you? Oppressive? Restrictive? I want you to think really hard about what you actually want and why you want it. What will it give you? Get crystal clear on the meaning behind your goals so that they really are internally- vs. externally-driven.