On Food in Challenging Times

Have you ever gone through it? Like, just had tough circumstances in your life?

Photo Credit: Katie Ford, Glimpse of the Good Life Photography

I did, recently. My heart was hurting. I was anxious. A huge amount of effort went toward distracting myself so that I could deal with the thoughts and emotions in a measured, managed way, without disrupting my necessary day-to-day functioning.

You’ve probably experienced something like this; maybe you’ve gone through much worse. When there is painful stuff happening that is out of our control, sometimes our relationship with food is affected.

I’d like to preface this by saying that eating for emotional reasons is absolutely not inherently a problem. In fact, I believe it is impossible to entirely disconnect food from emotions. If we think about all the reasons we eat, many of them such as celebrating birthdays, sharing food dishes following funerals, or gathering with friends for meal to have a good time, include emotions at the forefront. That being said, it is completely okay for emotions to be part of food experiences.

When we’re going through challenging times, however, we may find that we use food to cope. This can manifest in different ways:

  • Eating to overfullness: This may feel like a distraction, a way to “numb out,” or a way to feel a sensation that isn’t emotional pain.
  • Ignoring hunger cues: This also may feel like a distraction, or a way to force an alternative sensation. Depending on the situation, it may be a means to punish oneself if the person feels they are at fault for the painful circumstances.
  • Rigidly adhering to food rules: While this could include eating to overfullness or ignoring hunger cues, it is largely focused on eating only at certain times or only eating foods that meet specific criteria, such as “clean” or “good.” In times of emotional challenges, a perceived lack of control may nudge a person toward becoming strict about food rules as a way to seek some semblance of control.

Even these actions are not “bad” or problematic on their own. The issue is that over time, these behaviors could all contribute to strains in a person’s relationship with food, and eventually, perpetuate disordered eating habits. This is particularly likely when someone is unequipped to manage emotional strife in ways that do not warp their food relationship.

If these sound familiar to you, know that it doesn’t have to be this way. Your food life does not have to be subject to the ebb and flow of circumstances and the emotions you have about those circumstances. Learning Intuitive Eating means you can learn to approach food in a way that respects what it is actually able to do for you such as nourishment and pleasure, and in a way that respects your own needs for things food cannot give you, such as lasting comfort and companionship, or even just a break.

Not Your Average Book Group

One of Wonderfully Well’s top services are book groups. These are organized event series in which members meet via Zoom to discuss and reflect on books in the Health At Every Size® area, including topics such as non-diet nutrition, body acceptance, and fitness. These are not your average book groups – these are intentional growth and learning opportunities blended with community-building and the potential for vulnerability and healing. And, like typical book groups, you’re definitely welcome to enjoy drinks and snacks while connecting with others!

How does this work?

A Wonderfully Well book group consists of several weekly Zoom meetings, usually 5-7 sessions total, depending on the length of the book. The dates and times of the book group will be specified in social media posts and in the book group registration. The first session of each book group is introduction of members and discussion of what to expect in the book, which means there isn’t a reading assignment ahead of time. The reading assignments are spread over the remaining book group sessions, and reading assignments are gentle.

Which books are read?

Wonderfully Well hosts around four book groups annually and we read a variety of books. These books all center around Health At Every Size® concepts. So far, book group offerings have included:

  • Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison
  • The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner
  • Body Respect by Linda Bacon
  • Big Fit Girl by Louise Green
  • Body Happy Kids by Molly Forbes

When you register for a book group, you can buy a hard copy or audio version of the book from your favorite book retailer.

Why not read on my own?

You sure could! The books we read are well-written by smart, skilled people, and the books stand on their own. There are a few reasons to join a Wonderfully Well book group, though:

  • Discussions are guided by me, a Health At Every Size® (HAES) Expert. This means that I can help you understand if you’re interpreting the book or related concepts through a HAES lens and offer clarity where needed.
  • Each reading assignment comes with guided reading questions and personal reflection prompts. These help readers to consider and apply the content of the book in their own lives.
  • Book groups provide accountability! So many of us have books sitting around that we plan to read eventually, and having a set time to meet with other book group members helps provide structure.
  • You can meet others to build or expand your HAES community. The HAES movement is large, but has yet to overtake the mainstream health and wellness community, which means you’ll need others who understand and invest in this philosophy to avoid feeling isolated.

Keep an eye out on social media and sign up for the Wonderfully Well email list so you know when new book groups are starting!

What Can I Expect?

So you need to visit a dietitian or nutritionist. You might be feeling uncertain or concerned about what to expect and what will happen. If you’ve never been to a nutrition professional before, this is completely understandable! Read on to learn what your first visit with me will be like.

What to Bring

It’s helpful to have a list of medical and mental health diagnoses, as well as a list of prescriptions. All of these things can impact your nutrition needs and appetite and have roles in how to tailor the science of nutrition to YOUR individual needs. If you have recent blood labs, that can be helpful, too, because it gives a glimpse into what is going on internally.

What We’ll Talk About

During our first session, I’ll ask about lots of aspects of your life, including what your relationship with food has been like throughout your life, what your current lifestyle looks like, what your normal foods are, and whether movement has a role in your life. It’s okay if this part feels intimidating; it’s tough to be vulnerable, especially about our bodies, with people we don’t know.

I’ll Never Weigh You

In fact, I don’t even find your weight to be useful information. As a Health At Every Size® professional, I want to know about your appetite, energy levels, and functionality, as well as any information such as lab values and blood pressure that you may have from your doctor. This gives me a more accurate insight to your overall health status than weight can provide. We’ll focus instead on how to nourish your body in ways that will support your health goals, since health really isn’t connected to weight. If you notice drastic changes in how your clothes are fitting that point to significant rapid weight gain or loss, I’ll encourage you to see your doctor to figure out if there is a medical problem.

Will I be Put on a Diet?

NOPE. The thing about diets is that they are rigid and don’t account for individuality or preferences. There is no diet that will meet the needs of every single person, even among people with the same medical diagnoses. Instead, I’ll teach you how to choose foods that accommodate your individual needs and allow you to include foods you enjoy. Eventually, you’ll be empowered to navigate food choices independently and with confidence that you’re nourishing your body healthfully!

What Happened: One Week of Avoiding Comments on Others’ Bodies & Appearances

A while back, I realized that it is hard to feel like more than a body when we’re complimented on our bodies. If appearance-related compliments are what we receive the most of, we’ll focus on how to get more of those compliments. This can easily lead to obsession with our bodies and appearances, feeding straight into diet culture and resulting in living small.

For quite some time, I have refused to comment on others’ weight. Whether their weight increases, decreases, or stays the same, I don’t care and don’t mention it. I refuse to be the person who fuels diet culture by praising the weight loss of someone who may be engaging in disordered eating or by shaming the weight gain of someone who has priorities other than trying to control their body.

As someone who loves helping others feel good, I frequently compliment others’ clothing or looks without mentioning weight or body size, so I decided to spend one week attempting to avoid complimenting anyone on their appearance AT ALL. Here’s what happened:

  1. I failed HARD. Day 1, right out of the gate, I caught myself making appearance-related compliments almost without even realizing it. “Your dress is gorgeous,” “I love your shoes,” and “You have a great smile!” all fell out of my mouth so easily. This was going to be much more challenging than I expected.
  2. It’s tough to compliment someone you don’t know. I love letting random people know when I like something they’re wearing, or how they’ve styled their hair. It’s fun, and I know it makes them feel good, but during this experiment, I attempted to avoid it. It turns out, it is extremely difficult to find something non-appearance-related to compliment someone on if you don’t know them. Now, I know I could just have not said anything and dropped my stranger compliments, but this experiment was an attempt to say different things, not simply say nothing at all. I found a few different compliments to use:
    1. When seeing a happy face at work: “You give off such an energetic vibe – it makes me as excited to be here as you seem to be!” (when at work)
    2. When hearing someone tactfully talk to a barista about their coffee order being incorrect: “What a great way to phrase that; I’ll have to remember that to use later.”
    3. When seeing someone at the store who came up with a creative way to carry their purchases to their car: “That is such a smart idea!”

Another really cool thing here is that complimenting strangers requires that we put more effort into awareness and engagement with the people around us. It’s an interesting challenge to step into the present moment in this way. 

  1. I noticed compliments on my own appearance from others even more….and it made me a little uncomfortable. I was hyper-aware of my own reactions to these compliments, and recognized that my mind immediately went to ways to get MORE compliments, such as right away planning my outfit for the next day. This experiment helped me to realize that my efforts in my appearance went beyond making myself feel good and were an attempt at social acceptance through compliments, and I wasn’t feeling fulfilled because I felt that others weren’t seeing me for the complete, more-than-a-body person I am. And of course they didn’t, because I was investing most in my appearance as a way to be recognized. I wanted to change that to be more in line with my own values.
  2. I became more aware of how I talked about infants and children’s appearances. This one was really interesting. I noticed that the first thing I wanted to do with children or infants – especially girls – was to mention how cute they were. I made a point to change that, and instead asked the children or parents’ about the child’s milestones or interests. It seemed to me that there was a great deal of focus on children’s appearance even before they were aware that they had an appearance, and it would be a shame if a child were to ever believe that the way they looked was the most important thing about them.
  3. Appearance compliments have a place. Humans are multifaceted, and our appearance is one of those facets. While I firmly feel that weight-based comments or compliments are to be avoided, I think that complimenting people on their appearance in other ways can be pleasant for everyone involved. The key, to me, is that we try to find ways to uplift each other besides focusing only on looks. We can’t leave this to someone else, either – if everyone assumes someone else will do it, then no one is looking for the good in people beyond their looks.

So, I challenge you – try to spend a day, a week, a month, or more complimenting people on something other than their appearance. Dig deeper, engage more, and try to find what’s great about other humans that you aren’t able to see.

You’re Not Addicted to Food. I Promise.

“But I can’t stop eating x food once I start.”

“Food lights up the reward center in the brain – just like drugs!”

“I feel out of control around food.”

I understand. It’s tough to make sense of intense desires for food or seeming inability to resist certain foods in this culture that asks us to moralize our food choices and avoid foods that are “bad.” Diet culture tells us that we are weak or somehow at fault if we find these “bad” foods pleasurable, and blaming this on food addiction makes sense.

Here’s the thing, though: we can’t be addicted to food. A little-known fact about food is that human bodies require food to survive. Avoiding or limiting intake of food is called restriction – no matter the reason for restricting. It’s restriction if it’s not eating in preparation for an orthopedic surgery, and it’s restriction if it’s eating less in an attempt to lose weight to meet narrow beauty standards. Restriction consistently, reliably increases desirability of food. Bodies don’t know that they’re being restricted from food because they don’t look “right” or because they’re starving and there simply isn’t food available. Thus, anytime the body gets food, it just makes sense that this would be pleasurable and rewarding for the brain – this is a way the brain overrides restriction. Allowing food to make us feel good is part of what keeps us coming back for more – and subsequently helping us to stay alive, which, I’d like to point out, our bodies are experts at doing!

Simply understanding that food addiction isn’t real doesn’t stop us from feeling “crazy” around food, or certain foods. So what do we actually do about that? Well, it’s rooted in recognizing when and where we restrict intake and shift instead to eating intuitively. When our bodies and brains trust that they have access to all foods at all times and that eating for pleasure is okay, foods continue to be pleasurable, and we have permission to enjoy those foods. It takes away that ramped-up desirability that is based more on being “forbidden” in either type or quantity, and we get to enjoy foods for what they are, in ways that are satisfying to our bodies.

So, no. You’re not addicted to food. Your body is working hard to keep you alive, and it’s doing a great job. To learn more about how to re-connect with your ability to eat intuitively, reach out to me or schedule your appointment now.