Yesterday, in part one of our interview, Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, authors of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care, talked about the many myths surrounding healthy living and dieting — pervasive myths that can actually lead to unhealthy habits and a poor self-image.
Below, they reveal the truth about another commonly misunderstood subject: healthy eating. Plus, they provide valuable insight into how we can develop a healthy relationship with food and include several activities to help us do that.
Tomorrow is the final part of our series, where Judith and Ellen discuss weight worries and body image.
Learn more about becoming a diet survivor and their work here.
What does it mean to have a healthy relationship with food or to be a normal eater?
As a dieter, you tried to follow the numerous rules and regulations of various programs, books and diet gurus. When you followed these rules, you felt in control, but you weren’t. You were plagued by thoughts about what you should or shouldn’t eat. You were trained to deny your hunger. When you could no longer tolerate the restrictions, you broke the diet rules and felt bad. Nothing about these eating patterns leads to a healthy relationship with food!
When you develop a healthy relationship with food, you feel truly in charge of your eating as you follow your own internal needs about hunger and satiation. Imagine this: Eating when you are hungry, eating what you are hungry for and stopping when you are full. This is your birthright. You were born knowing how to eat in this natural way. After so many years of struggling, it may seem unbelievable that this could be the answer. Think for a moment:
- Do you know when you are hungry?
- Do you eat when you are hungry
- Do you eat what you are hungry for?
- Do you stop when you are full?
Developing this type of relationship with food is known as attuned eating (also referred to as intuitive eating). Attuned eating is powerful, and its rewards are immense. Attuned eating allows you to end overeating, to feel calm around food, and to end the preoccupation with eating that drains your mental energy.
As you become an attuned eater, you will learn that it’s not about which foods you eat per se that allow you to have a healthy relationship with food, but how you go about making decisions as to when, what and how much to eat. For example, you will find that you’re just as off if you eat a cookie when you want an apple as you are if you eat an apple when you want a cookie. The “healthy” choice is the food that best matches your hunger at a particular moment.
We want to be clear that we are not saying it’s healthy to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Rather, a healthy relationship with food comes from the ability to identify your hunger, and eat the food(s) that will satisfy your hunger. You’ll find that once you feel satisfied, it’s easier to stop eating when you are full.
Learning to become an attuned eater is a process that takes time. The 60 lessons in The Diet Survivor’s Handbook are devoted to taking you through the steps to develop a healthy relationship with food, your body and yourself. It’s important that you don’t turn this into a new diet – which we refer to as the stomach-hunger diet – where you now tell yourself that you can only eat when you are hungry.
We want you to be in charge of your eating, but not to control your eating. Remember that the nature of being a compulsive/emotional eater means that sometimes you need to turn to food even when you are not physically hungry. Your job is to work your way out of these patterns by staying compassionate with yourself along the way, as you build a new system for deciding when, what and how much to eat.
How can we let go of the diet mentality, which is so pervasive in our society?
The diet mentality pervades just about every part of our lives – from the commercials we see on TV that insist you’ll be happier if you’re thinner, to the magazine covers that promise a new way to lose weight and keep it off, to the newspaper headlines that report the latest health risks if you don’t lose weight now.
Chances are that you have friends, family or colleagues on a diet – and if they’re losing weight, that can feel very triggering. While we always wish people well, remember that there was probably a time when you were the one losing weight – and statistically, the probability is that they will gain it back too.
Breaking the diet mentality means changing your way of thinking. The first step is to declare yourself a diet survivor and promise that you will quit dieting! This step takes courage, but the rewards are immense. As you let go of dieting, you are likely to feel relief…followed by grief. Here is a brief summary of these stages:
- Denial: You believe that you’ll be one of the 2 percent – 5 percent who can keep off the weight – even though experience tells you otherwise.
- Anger: You feel angry at your body, and it feels unfair that some people are naturally thin no matter what they do, while you’ve tried so hard to achieve that body size.
- Bargaining: The concepts of diet failure make sense, but you want to try one more time. Your attitude is, “Let me just lose weight first, and then I’ll quit dieting.”
- Depression: You feel sad about giving up your beliefs about the merits of dieting, especially since your life was organized around this premise. You may feel you’re being asked to give up on yourself, even though the opposite is true.
- Acceptance: You see the cost of dieting in both physical and emotional terms, and you’re no longer willing to pay the price. You’re committed to taking care of yourself the best way you can and allowing your weight to settle in its natural range as a function of attuned eating and engaging in physical activity that suits both your body and your lifestyle.
These stages of loss are not always distinct, and you may find yourself experiencing two stages simultaneously or moving back and forth between the various stages.
Another important aspect of breaking the diet mentality involves paying attention to the way you talk with yourself. When you are making decisions about when, what and how much to eat, notice your thoughts. If you’re using words like “should” and “shouldn’t,” “healthy” and “unhealthy,” or “good” and “bad” around your decisions, then you are stuck in the diet mentality.
In The Diet Survivor’s Handbook, we have two lessons that specifically address this issue. Here are the lessons (without the entire explanation) and the activities we offer to practice breaking the diet mentality:
Lesson #8: Let go of your belief that foods should be categorized as “good” and “bad.” This thinking interferes with your ability to listen to your true physiological hunger.
Activity: Doing Away with the Notion of “Good” and “Bad” Foods:
Challenge yourself to let go of the notion that food is inherently good/bad or healthy/unhealthy. Make a list of at least three foods you have considered good and three foods you have considered bad.
For each food, think about why you put it in that category. See if you can think of a situation in which that food no longer fits the original assumption. For example, you might have put yogurt in the “good” category because it has calcium and is low in fat. Yet, to someone who is lactose intolerant, that food would be “bad.” You might have put pizza in the “bad” category because it’s high in calories and fat. But suppose you were stuck in an airport for hours due to bad weather, and the only food you had with you was raw carrots and celery. Buying pizza would provide you with a variety of nutrients and would sustain you.
Lesson #12: Learn to become patient with the process of normalizing your eating. It is important to make sure that you do not turn this approach into another diet.
Activity: Not Just Semantics
As a diet survivor, each day you’ll have some experiences that feel good and some that feel bad. But that’s very different than saying, “I was good” or “I was bad.” Think about some recent eating experiences and complete the following:
Example: It felt good when I stopped eating my hamburger the moment I was satisfied.
Example: It felt bad when I ate some French fries, when I really craved a bowl of soup.
Thanks, Judith and Ellen, for your insight! Stay tuned for part three tomorrow.
How do you define healthy eating? Do you view dieting as synonymous with healthy eating? What’s worked for you in building a healthier relationship with food?