5 Things I Would Tell My Younger Self as a Dietitian
1. Losing weight and changing your body won’t make you happy.
I hate this message from diet culture. It’s seems to be so pervasive and is often accepted as reality, when it simply isn’t true. Losing weight doesn’t make you happier. Changing your body won’t make you more confident. I certainly believed this as a teenager and wish I could tell my teenage self, “No, don’t buy that crap!”
Because your body image and your emotions are housed in your brain, so it doesn’t matter how much you change your body, your brain will usually feel the same. You have the same thoughts. You still might not feel good or good enough. When you feel inadequate or unworthy, it’s not a problem that can be corrected by weight loss.
Furthermore, weight loss might increase your food and body thoughts, potentially making you more anxious and body aware. It could possibly perpetuate a cycle of focusing on your body, feeling bad and then believing you need to lose more weight or that you haven’t lost enough weight, even when this isn’t true.
2. The desire to lose weight really means something else is going on.
True story. It’s hard to believe this, especially with all the messages from diet culture, but if you suddenly “feel fat” or like you need to lose weight, why do you feel that way? What else is going on? If you’re “feeling fat” and believe that the solution is to lose weight so that you will feel better — refer to number one on this list.
If you’re “feeling fat,” you should figure out why. What’s making you feel that way? Have you always felt that way? Is this feeling new? When do you feel that way? In diet culture, the solution to “feeling fat” is to lose weight. Therefore, when you “feel fat,” you believe you have a weight problem. The reality is, it’s not a weight problem — it’s a feeling problem. Something else is going on that needs your attention. By focusing on losing weight, you often distract yourself from what is really going on.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.
I believe this is true for everyone. It doesn’t matter what size you are or how much you weigh. As humans, we have moments when we are more aware of our body and moments when we are less aware of our body. For example, when you’re busy doing something — working, having fun, driving, watching a movie, etc. — you’re just in your body, living but not aware of it. When you have a body awareness moment, your focus shifts from whatever else is going on to your body and how it feels “big” or “fat” or “wrong” or whatever word you use. When you have one of those moments, it truly feels like it’s only about your body and it may be all you can focus on. But, since we are not constantly body aware — not constantly feeling fat — when you have one of those moments, it’s often about something else — a feeling of discomfort, an emotion, lack of distraction, etc. The goal then is to not follow diet culture and focus on losing weight, but to connect with what you’re really feeling or thinking so that you can stop distracting and actually do something to start feeling better. In my experience as a dietician, I think that is where your focus really needs to be.
If you’re thinking, but I feel fat all the time, it never stops. Then let’s look at that. Is it really all the time? Are there ever moments that you are just existing without “feeling fat?” When you do “feel fat?” When is it, what’s going on — let’s see if it really is all the time.
3. Food thoughts and behaviors are not random.
Just like body focus and the desire to lose weight aren’t usually random, neither are food thoughts and behaviors. If you find yourself focusing on food, feeling guilty, dieting, having urges to restrict, binge or purge — these thoughts and behaviors are not random, although they certainly feel that way.
You might sometimes want to believe that you use these behaviors, or have urges to use these behaviors, because of your current body image or because of a food that you ate. But I urge you to think about how you’re feeling and the thoughts that you’re having when this is happening.
Once you recognize that these thoughts and behaviors might not be random, but are possibly more emotionally driven, you can use them as a valuable teaching guide to help you learn what is going on at a deeper level. Deeper level context can be things like: you’re having a hard time, you’re not feeling well, you’re stressed or something is bothering you.
4. You can have so much more freedom with eating.
Your body requires energy to function. Your body gets that energy from food. You have to eat to fuel your body, and many times, it feels like you might have to do certain things to eat “right” to feel “good” to be a “certain shape.” But the reality is, there is so much more flexibility and freedom than you think. You don’t have to be as rigid as you might think.
This is one of the biggest challenges I find with diet culture. It often makes you unable to trust your body. Maybe your body needs more than the plan that you’re following. It is a scary thought, and it will take time to build trust with yourself; but I promise, you can do it and you can enjoy food, feel satisfied and live and nourish your life. You don’t need to follow all the messages diet culture sends — they’re a distraction. Those messages keep you stuck and can take your focus away from the deeper level things. Things that could fix the problem. Things that hold you back and prevent you from truly living.
5. All foods really can fit. And it’s OK to enjoy food.
Diet culture may say that you need to be careful. That you need to eat right, or clean, or low carb or less. As a dietician, I know that all foods can fit and it is OK to enjoy food. When you enjoy food without restrictions, magical things happen. You’re able to listen to your body. You build a mindful, attuned awareness. You recognize foods that you want to eat and foods you don’t. You identify what you like and dislike. You no longer feel like food controls you. And hopefully, you find freedom from food and diets. And when that happens, it’s amazing. So go ahead, enjoy food. Have what you want. You’ll be amazed at what happens.
Are you feeling like you will cause you to balloon up and gain weight? Go back to number one. What are you feeling? Most people feel so afraid at the very thought of trusting their body and eating intuitively. When you feel afraid, how does that manifest in diet culture? As: “I’ll gain weight.” So then I ask again, what are you feeling?
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Thinkstock photo via Kikovic.