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There are so many myths about healthy eating and good nutrition. As I said in one of my questions below, I feel like in our society, nutrition education is often used as a weapon to rein in eating, shame people into losing weight and promote guilt around certain food choices.

Healthy eating has become synonymous with dieting and restriction and counting calories and good vs. bad foods. And I hate that. Many people develop a distorted, confused view of healthy eating thanks to a steady diet of women’s magazines, weight-loss commercials, obesity epidemic hysteria and self-created shame and guilt.

That’s why I’m thrilled and honored to share this eye-opening interview with Michelle Neyman Morris, Ph.D, who clarifies the many misconceptions. Morris is a registered dietician, researcher, Health At Every Size advocate and professor at California State University.

Below, Morris discusses what healthy eating really is, our society’s distorted view of healthy nutrition and how to be a critical consumer of it all.

Learn more about Morris and her work here.

Q:  There are countless definitions of healthy eating in our society. For instance, some definitions equate healthy eating with dieting and counting calories. What is your definition of healthy eating?

A: Healthy eating means nourishing yourself with a variety of foods, eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full, and also giving yourself permission to find pleasure in food and sometimes eating for reasons other than physiological hunger.

It also means being mindful while you’re actually eating, as well as regarding where your food comes from, the people and processes that allow it to get to your table. Ultimately, flexibility around eating is paramount. While it’s important to consider sustainable food practices I think that can be another slippery slope to black and white thinking about eating that stresses people out.

The role of food in our lives can bring immense pleasure but it can also bring so much suffering when thoughts, feelings, and behaviors take away from other pleasurable activities in our day. I like Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence Model that incorporates permission to enjoy food in amounts that are satisfying, and discipline to provide yourself with regular meals and snacks.

For me, healthy eating does NOT involve restriction, guilt, “shoulds” or the binary “good” and “bad” foods or diet mentality.

Q: Can you talk about some of the recent research you’re involved in and what you’ve found?

A: More recently I’ve been studying the impact of incorporating the Health at Every Size® paradigm in dietetics curriculum and practice. Along with graduate students and colleague Dawn Clifford in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at California State University, Chico, we’ve examined the impact of books such as Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch, and The Food and Feelings Workbook by Karen Koenig on the Intuitive Eating Scale (IES) scores of undergraduates and found that exposure to these texts does improve IES scores.

In addition, another graduate student surveyed a convenience sample of dietetics faculty across the nation and found that while many believe that non-diet approaches such as intuitive eating and HAESSM are effective, they tend to teach many of the traditional weight-centered practices such as counting calories and monitoring portion sizes.

Also, I’ve found that incorporating Linda Bacon’s text, Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight in my senior level community nutrition course led to significant increases in HAES knowledge and favorable attitudes toward the paradigm.

Finally, another graduate student analyzed data Linda Bacon collected over years assessing the impact of her text, Eat Well, For Your Self, for the World, and curriculum in her community college nutrition classes and found significant improvements in students’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to sustainable food practices and HAES.

Q: In our society, nutrition education is often used as a weapon to rein in eating, shame people into losing weight and promote guilt around certain food choices. Do you think our society has a distorted view of healthy nutrition?

A: Yes, of course it does!  The diet and beauty industries in particular make their fortunes on this distorted view. While eating disorders stem from complex and multiple causes, my own preoccupation with food and body weight began as simple dieting to “lose a few pounds” not unlike many people in our society.

Eventually dieting became an obsessive focus and that led to a battle with bulimia for me—and the whole time I thought I was “in control.”

There’s a continuum of disordered eating in our culture, and make no mistake about it, much suffering is experienced by many who are not clinically diagnosed with a full blown eating disorder.

I increasingly wonder if the desire to be “in control” of something when our world seems to find itself in increasingly “out of control” situations (economic decline, protracted wars) is in part feeding the current “war on obesity” and the desire to believe we can at least control the numbers on the scale.

Q: What would you like readers to know about nutrition education?

A: You have to be a critical consumer of nutrition information. The food industry has a lot of money for lobbyists and unduly influences nutrition policy and nutrition education programs in this country. The USDA, while responsible for many of the nutrition education programs and guidelines on healthy eating (myPlate), is also responsible for supporting food industry. It’s not a subtle conflict of interest that I bring to the attention of my students.

And if private industry is providing the nutrition message, it’s always good to ask, whose bottom line is being served by this information?

Nutrition materials that promote high protein consumption, for example, may have a vested interest in touting the benefits of beef, or the “other white meat” pork. Or they may not; the point is to ask the question.

You’re the expert on your body and how foods in varying amounts make it feel. I’d recommend never giving away your power to make critically informed choices that nourish you and that are aligned with your values.

More About Michelle Neyman Morris

Michelle Neyman Morris received her PhD in Nutrition from the University of California, Davis. She was a lecturer in the Nutrition and Food Science Department at San Jose State University from 1996-2000, where she also completed the Dietetic Internship (DI). Dr. Neyman Morris is currently Interim Chair, DI Director and Graduate Coordinator in the Department of Nutrition & Food Sciences at California State University, Chico. She has co-authored numerous peer-reviewed manuscripts, and has received teaching awards and several research grants, including a CSU, Chico Lantis Endowed Professorship. Her research interests include nutrition education across the lifespan utilizing the Health at Every Size® (HAES) paradigm. Dr. Neyman Morris is committed to increasing the presence of the HAES approach in dietetics curriculum and practice. She moderates an international listserv for HAES dietitians, and implements and evaluates HAES curriculum at the undergraduate, graduate and DI levels, with research outcomes presented at regional and national conferences.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of our interview.