To listen to this blog, press play:
I walk a sensitive line in my work as a naturopath when it comes to food. I help people to heal chronic illnesses through the healing virtues of food, but in a cultural environment when there are so many stigmas and hangups around body image and “diet” it can quickly become a minefield to navigate.
In recent years I’ve realised that as a clinician, I hold a significant amount of responsibility to help people heal their relationships with food and foster a love for their body whatever their size or shape, not push wellness pin-up ideals.
I’d love to share what I’ve learned so far in dismantling this as both a clinician and as a 30-year-old woman who has grown up in a culture obsessed with skinnies.
Dismantling Weight Bias
Weight bias (also referred to as fatphobia) runs rife not only through the medical community but unfortunately in the holistic and alternative healthcare community too.
Weight bias is “negative weight-related attitudes, beliefs, assumptions and judgements towards higher weight individuals” (Alberga, Russell-Mayhew, von Ranson, & McLaren, 2016).
Since being in naturopathic practice for six years, I can see how harmful and damaging this bias is. Body shame is sadly one of the most common denominators I see in my practice, and it’s a conversation that I’ve been leaning into more and more.
I just recently learned that the World Health Organisation had made weight bias and obesity stigma a public health concern and social justice issue. From their research, they found that people who experience weight bias have higher incidences of:
- poor body image and body dissatisfaction
- low self-esteem and self-confidence
- feelings of worthlessness and loneliness
- depression, anxiety and other mental health -challenges
- maladaptive eating patterns
- avoidance of physical activity
- stress-induced health issues
- avoidance of medical care.
(“Weight bias and obesity stigma,- WHO” 2017)
One of their key recommendations was to sensitise health professionals on the impact of weight bias on health and wellbeing. There’s a lot we have to learn!!
I have found the emerging field of “Intuitive Eating” remarkably insightful and helpful in bridging this gap.
Intuitive Eating, what is it?
Intuitive Eating is a process of aligning your body’s needs with your heart, mind and spirit. It’s a philosophy that helps you move away from rigid and external rules of what are “good or bad” foods. It invites you to foster a love for the size your body wants to be, nourish according to your natural appetite cues and what gives you great pleasure.
Disentangling from limiting beliefs and negative mindsets around food.
Deep wellness is about embracing the beauty of you, learning to listen to your body and honouring its needs with love, no matter what your size.
A plethora of cultural messages and narrow beauty standards plague the west. It’s incredible how deep this conditioning can run.
My golden rule is that any dietary intervention needs a precise start date and end date and that the foundations of Intuitive Eating need to start being laid down during this process, not after.
A diet is like picking up a map that charts a course somebody else has written. The premise is you stick to it as closely as possible regardless of the weather or how you feel.
Honing your instincts and intuition, on the other hand, is choosing a terrain to explore. This kind of path requires a spirit of adventure and a keen sense of observation.
With intuitive eating principles, you have a framework that gives you the confidence to tread your path, explore what feels good and what doesn’t. You learn where your limits are, and change your course accordingly.
It can feel scary in the beginning, so it’s essential to take it step by step, day by day.
“Make food choices that honour your health and taste buds while making you feel good. Remember that 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. Progress, not perfection, is what counts.”
― Evelyn Tribole
(Tribole & Resch, 2012)
There’s incredible power in therapeutic food plans. For people with chronic health issues, they can catalyse tremendous shifts in health. But, they’re a short term strategy to enable restoration and healing of the body. Integrating into a sustainable lifestyle is crucial, and this is where intuitive eating comes in….
Transitioning to an Intuitive Eating Terrain
If you’re someone who has experienced big health benefits from eliminating foods like gluten, dairy and sugar, the idea of reintroducing them may feel like you’re going to go backwards or that you’ll undo all the good work you’ve done.
In my practice, I work with clients to reintroduce foods one by one, so they can SENSE how each one FEELS in their body. If food is causing a reaction, this will be clear within the three-day window of reintroducing it.
A food that causes symptoms = information that this food doesn’t feel good right now. (Unless of course, you have a condition like Coeliac’s disease or food allergies).
A food that doesn’t cause symptoms = a food to be enjoyed when you feel like it.
We’re changing the conversation from binary to fluid.
“restricted foods” & “allowable foods”
“good” & “bad.”
*“clean” & “dirty.” *
takes away the sense of control and rigidity to information on what feels nourishing for you now.
“Think SUPPORT, not STIGMA. Think WELLBEING not WEIGHT. Health GAIN not Weight LOSS.” – Laura Thomas PhD
Your Inner Critic and Food
I write and speak a lot about the Inner Critic in my work. Its voice can become particularly fierce and loud around the premenstrual phase in the menstrual cycle. I’ve also observed that it can claim a lot of power over people over the subject of food.
The inner critic is an aspect within ourselves that is always trying to keep us safe. It hates risk and the unknown and will do what it can to keep us in a holding pattern. The inner critic can be fuelled by internalised ideas of what we should look like, our sense of self-worth and food can be, for some, a highly emotionally charged subject.
When you’re undergoing a process of healing your body and/or relationship with food, messages, ideas or mistaken truths can surface in the process…
*If you don’t eat everything on your plate, it’s a sign you’re ungrateful. *
*If you drink water before you eat, it will stop you from overeating. *
*Sugar will feed the candida. *
Gluten inflames your bowels.
Dairy is like drinking hormones.
*That’s wrong to eat that. *
*After the holidays, I’ll go on a big cleanse. *
These are all things I’ve heard in my clinic, and they reveal that the inner critic is with us. It’s important to recognise that voice and see it for what it is…a voice trying to keep you safe and comforted.
Learning ways to take a step back, take a breath, and come back and choose to trust your body’s signals instead is a simple but profound practice. Each time you do this, you attune yourself back to enjoyment, you bring your soul back into the room. It is this simple shift that will help you find that sweet spot that isn’t too much nor too little.
What about emotional eating?
The term emotional eating has got a bad rap and is often associated with shame about lack of self-control. Please know that emotional eating is not an inherently bad thing. But if it remains in the hidden vault of guilt, it will.
Reaching for comfort food, volumes of food or not eating when you’re feeling unsteady, stressed or sad itself provides you with clear insight into how you’re feeling.
We’re beautiful, fragile, flawed humans. It’s part of the gig.
If this is ringing true for you and it feels like it has a hold on you, I invite you next time to take a step back and ask, “what am I feeling? What other ways could I comfort myself right now? What other ways could I make myself feel loved, connected and safe right now?” …and see what arises.
Perhaps you’re craving a long chat with a close friend or a hug with a loved one. It might be going for a walk in the fresh air, doing meditation or writing in your journal.
Each time you pause and give yourself the space to be present with yourself, you allow a pearl of more profound wisdom to arise.
This moment of the pause, in-between is your compass.
Gentle Nutrition as The North Star
This is my favourite intuitive eating principal!
I like to use what we know about what forms as good nutrition as a framework and then applying that is a gentle way that contains plenty of space to adapt to your daily needs, creativity, culture, values and the elements.
When you marry a good sense of nourishment with the principles of making peace with food and being gentle with yourself, you create a very wise adaptable system to move forward with.
References & Resources
Alberga, A. S., Russell-Mayhew, S., von Ranson, K. M., & McLaren, L. (2016). Weight bias: A call to action. Journal of Eating Disorders, 4. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-016-0112-4
Augustus-Horvath, C. L., & Tylka, T. L. (2011). The acceptance model of intuitive eating: A comparison of women in emerging adulthood, early adulthood, and middle adulthood. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58(1), 110–125. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022129
Bacon, L. (2010). Health at every size: The surprising truth about your weight (Rev. & updated). Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.
Bacon, L., Stern, J. S., Van Loan, M. D., & Keim, N. L. (2005). Size Acceptance and Intuitive Eating Improve Health for Obese, Female Chronic Dieters. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 105(6), 929–936. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2005.03.011
Scritchfield, R. (2016). Body kindness: Transform your health from the inside out, and never say diet again. New York: Workman Publishing.
Thomas, L. (2019). Just eat it: How intuitive eating can help you get your shit together around food.
Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating (3rd ed). New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Weight bias and obesity stigma: Considerations for the WHO European Region (2017). (2017, October 10). Retrieved October 10, 2019, from http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/noncommunicable-diseases/obesity/publications/2017/weight-bias-and-obesity-stigma-considerations-for-the-who-european-region-2017