This is the last part of our interview series with the incredible Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, therapists and authors of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care.
Below, Judith and Ellen talk more about attuned eating, how to handle weight worries and their favorite tips for improving body image. You might want to make a list of their tips and have them handy. I think their advice is very practical and inspiring. I really can’t say enough how thrilled I am to be able to share their wise words with you — I’ve definitely learned a lot, and I hope you have, too.
You both have extensive experience in helping people manage preoccupations with weight and food. Today, it seems like that preoccupation has become a cultural phenomenon, so for many of us, it’s especially tough to eliminate this focus from our lives. Can you discuss some ways we can work toward eliminating our weight and eating worries?
Letting go of the preoccupation with food and weight is a journey that looks different for each person who sets out on this path. However, the first step is to convince yourself that diets are not the solution to your concerns about weight. As you practice becoming an attuned eater – identifying your internal physical cues for hunger and satiation – you will begin to realize how much more relaxed and satisfied you feel in your relationship with food, which is very reinforcing.
At the same time, as you begin this process, you may feel that you are constantly thinking about food! We want to reassure you that while it is necessary to be very focused and mindful about your eating in order to learn this approach, as you practice attuned eating, this new relationship with food will become natural and integrated for you.
At the same time, even normal eaters have to think about when, what and how much to eat. And the reality is that feeding ourselves does take time and planning. However, letting go of the constant battles and/or guilt that take up so much mental energy will soon be replaced by a sense of calmness and nurturing when it comes to feeding yourself.
The second part of the equation has to do with how you think about weight. We understand that in this culture, it’s hard not to want to be thin, with all the promises of health, happiness and success that bombard you. However, we believe that your physical, emotional and spiritual well-being is much broader than a number on the scale, and we encourage you to switch your focus on weight to a focus on wellness.
In order to make this transition, there are a variety of steps you can take. Get rid of your diet books. Don’t buy magazines that have weight loss articles. Turn off the commercials for weight loss products. Refuse to participate in diet conversations. Become media literate, understanding that many of the models you see have been airbrushed to create an image that doesn’t really exist. In other words, change your environment so that you move away from the cultural messages that promote dieting for weight loss.
Next, use your energy to build sustainable behaviors that promote wellness, rather than clinging to dieting. Move your body in ways that feels comfortable and fit your lifestyle. Include nutritious foods in your diet (as opposed to being on a diet). Learn to manage stress. Get a good night’s sleep. Develop supportive relationships. Find a hobby or passion. Learn to express your feelings. In other words, practice good self-care! As you do so, you will reap the benefits of living a more full and satisfying life, and you’ll be less susceptible to cultural pressures.
Finally, educate yourself about the research that challenges the idea that you must lose weight to be healthy. There is an abundance of research that suggests health can be improved regardless of whether weight is lost. Learn about Health At Every Size (HAES), which offers an alternative to all of the “anti-obesity” campaigns.
Read books, websites, and blogs that offer the scientific research and size positive messages. Examples of books include Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon, The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos and Big Fat Lies by Glenn Gaesser. Our first book, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Therapist’s Guide to Treating Compulsive Eating, asks mental health professionals to explore their own beliefs about dieting, eating and weight, and offers research to support a non-diet paradigm.
Blogs such as this one provide this support – we also have a blog at www.dietsurvivorsgroup.blogspot.com. Or take the pledge to quit dieting on Linda Bacon’s website at www.haescommunity.org, which also has a comprehensive list of resources. Visit the website of the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) at www.sizediversityandhealth.org for information and resources. Sign up for our free quarterly e-mail newsletter at www.dietsurvivors.com. Do your own search – you may be surprised by how much support is available to you as you make your way on this journey. And look for like-minded people who are also saying “no” to dieting and “yes” to living a full life at any size.
At the same time, beware of people and products that claim to be non-diet, yet suggest you will lose weight by following them. Any time you manipulate your eating for the purpose of weight loss, it’s a diet! Also, although we know that most people hope to lose weight as they normalize their eating, if that does occur, we view it as a side effect of your new relationship with food, not the main event. The reality is that there are many factors which will affect the weight you end up at – and contrary to popular belief, much of that is out of your control.
Most of all, practice compassion. Compassion for what it’s been like to live in a culture that tells you that your body is not okay. Compassion for the times you need to turn to food, even when you are not physically hungry. Compassion for the times you yell at yourself, calling yourself names that you would never call anyone else. Compassion for the harm that dieting has done to you. Compassion for your wish to accept yourself, but the vulnerability you’re likely to feel as the cultural messages seep in. Compassion for the amount of time it can take to work your way out of the diet/binge cycle, become an attuned eater, and truly feel comfortable in your body.
What are some of your favorite tips for improving body image?
In the Diet Survivor’s Handbook, we devote one-third of our lessons to the topic of acceptance. We find that for most people, it’s easier to end overeating than it is to develop a positive body image because of the constant and unrelenting messages about thinness that constantly bombard us.
Building a positive body image requires you to work from the outside in as well as the inside out! Be patient with yourself. Here are some examples of the lessons we offer to address these ideas:
From the outside in:
- Lesson #30: When you build an environment of acceptance for yourself, you will feel more comfortable.
- Lesson #32: Build a wardrobe of clothes that are comfortable for you at your current size.
- Lesson #33: Let go of your scale as a way to measure yourself. It’s an external means of judging, and it’s likely to put you at risk of overeating.
- Lesson #57: Avoid diet conversations: They are boring, encourage competition among women, and keep you from knowing your true nature and spirit.
From the inside out:
- Lesson #31: When you speak negatively about your body, you inflict harm upon yourself. Learn to talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend.
- Lesson #34: Live in the present. When you put off goals and activities until you lose weight, you miss out on the pleasures in life that you are entitled to experience at any size.
- Lesson #36: Connect positively with you body as often as possible. Notice the pleasure you can experience.
- Lesson #38: Negative body thoughts are often a way of talking to yourself about other issues in your life that bother you. Learn to decode these messages.
- Lesson #39: Bodies change throughout the life cycle. Acceptance means finding comfort with yourself and appreciating the full capacities of your body at any age and size.
Remember that each of these lessons – as well as the other ones we offer – elaborates on the lesson presented and offers an activity to practice the concept. Also, we frequently hear people say that if they accept their bodies as they are, they are giving up on themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth! Accepting your body means that you are actively deciding to take care of yourself at your current size. Taking care of yourself is always a good thing, regardless of your size.
Anything else you’d like Weightless readers to know?
You cannot tell what kind of a relationship a person has with food based on the size of their body. There are people who are fat who have a healthy relationship with food, and there are people of “average” weight who struggle with disordered eating.
The deprivation caused by dieting is a major cause of overeating/bingeing. Many – although not all – people who overeat also use food to manage uncomfortable feelings; this is typically referred to as emotional overeating. In general, we recommend solving the problem of deprivation first: When you find yourself overeating the potato chips or chocolate, you can’t be sure whether it’s because these are your “forbidden” foods, and you are breaking out of the restrictions, or whether there is something bothering you, and you are using food to soothe yourself. Once you end much of your overeating that’s triggered by restrictions, you’ll be in a stronger position to identify eating that’s related to dealing with your feelings. In both of our books, we address the steps to work your way out of emotional eating.
We’d like you to understand that the reason food works so well to comfort you in times of distress is because food is the way we were nurtured when we were born into the world. When you reach for food you are reaching for comfort, and you are trying to take care of yourself, which is a good thing. However, it’s ultimately the wrong response – like rubbing ice cream on a scraped knee. Instead, your goal is to learn how to be with your uncomfortable feelings and to learn other ways to soothe yourself.
Attuned eating allows you to do this because you are building a consistent, internal structure around food that leaves you feeling calm and nurtured. You learn that when you are hungry, you are identifying an important need. When you figure out what food is the best match for your body in a particular moment, you learn that your needs are specific. And, when you make a match and feel satisfied, you learn that your needs can be fulfilled. All of these experiences help you to feel stronger on the inside and to trust yourself, and they put you in a stronger position to deal with life’s issues. You may be able to do this on your own, or you make seek out a professional who can guide you through this process.
We like to say that attuned eating leads to attuned living. As you learn to identify your physical hunger, you can also ask what else you hunger for in life. As you learn to make matches with food, you can identify what relationships and pursuits best match your needs. And as you learn what it feels like to be satisfied when you eat, you can identify what truly satisfies you in life.
Your journey is likely to take many twists and turns along the way, and it will be challenging at times. That’s to be expected. But the alternative is to stay stuck in the diet and weight loss paradigm that leaves you feeling depleted and like a failure. Instead, identify yourself as a diet survivor and make the courageous decision to honor your hunger, honor your body, and honor yourself. We honor you as well, and we want you to know that you are not alone.
Each lesson in The Diet Survivor’s Handbook ends with a quote that captures something about the lesson. We’d like to leave you with the following:
When hungry eat your rice, when tired close your eyes. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.
Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel
“The Diet Survivor Sisters”
Thank you so much, Judith and Ellen, for a fantastic and comprehensive interview! I highly recommend learning more about their work — and making that list.