Wouldn’t it be nice if nutrition were simply about eating food that nourishes your body and makes you feel good…instead of weight loss?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we weren’t so focused on demonizing fat and instead focused on deep health?
Here are three ways to re-think nutrition that don’t have anything to do with weight loss.
Nutrition doesn’t always have to be about “managing” your weight.
“Ah, sure,” you say. “But I’ve got a few pounds to lose, so I can’t just eat what makes me feel good!”
I’m pretty sure that for most of us, we like the sound of it: nutrition for the sake of nourishing your body and feeling good.
It just feels nice.
Some of us might be thinking,‘Sometimes, you just have to lose some weight’
(and by ‘weight’, we mean ‘fat’).
Or we think, ‘I’m not overweight, so I’m all set with nutrition.’
(because overweight equals unhealthy and not overweight, logically, equals healthy).
This is where it gets complicated: separating these two ideas isn’t easy.
The link between nutrition and weight loss IS complicated.
But nutrition has the potential to be simple and easy. And enjoyable.
It’s just that more often than not, it’s complicated. And hard.
There are so many diets out there. There’s so much information that it makes it hard to know where to start. It all seems so complex and involved with so many rules.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
Not only that, nutrition—and thus, eating—can be enjoyable and simple.
Eating shouldn’t suck. Ever.
With all of the confusing—and sometimes even conflicting—information out there about nutrition, it’s no wonder people don’t know where to start.
Because we’ve bound it together with weight loss, it’s no wonder that the simple act of eating delicious food can end up being a complex swirl of guilt and shame.
Guilt and shame suck.
Guilt and shame are tools of oppression.
It’s ok to eat food you enjoy.
And, it’s possible to eat food your enjoy and improve your health at the same time.
In fact, doing both of the above may well be a path to improving your health.
All we have to do is begin re-thinking our ideas about nutrition.
Mike’s inner monologue:
As I was writing this, I found myself thinking, I hope this isn’t sounding like I’m about to offer tips aimed at demystifying “nutrition for weight loss”.
Weight loss is a complicated idea, fraught with all sorts of cultural baggage and characterized by a tremendous gap between science and practice. “Years from now, we will look back in horror at the counterproductive ways we addressed the obesity epidemic and the barbaric ways we treated fat people—long after we knew there was a better path“. (Here’s a good read: Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong).
Friends, this post is going to be a bit like having a conversation with me in person: it’s an adventure with multiple side quests.
There’s my main point—which is that I’d like to offer three ways to re-think the idea of nutrition that don’t have anything to do with weight loss—
And then there’s the bit where I want to explain to you the thinking behind my thinking. I want to share with you why it is that we (Theresa and myself) prefer not to think of nutrition in terms of weight-loss.
And that’s a rather big and kind of deep thought.
So, get comfy.
Here’s the thing: whenever the topic of nutrition comes up, many of us (consciously or unconsciously) tend to think of weight loss.
And no one ever feels good about wanting to lose weight.
In fact, people usually say they need to lose some weight…because somewhere along the way, they were given the impression that losing weight is something that must be done if the amount of visible body fat exceeds a certain level.
What is that level? How much fat is too much?
It has messed with our minds.
I’ll circle back to this further down.
Nutrition Re-Think #1:
Progress, Not Perfection.
Nutritious eating happens along a spectrum. It’s not an all-or-nothing affair.
It happens moment to moment and is more about overall progress than perfection (whatever that means).
Let’s say that you’re looking to eat in a way that nourishes your body and makes you feel good and you’re looking for a place to start. One think you could do is, at any given meal or on any given grocery shopping excursion, consider asking yourself the question, ‘How could I make this slightly better?’
One of the more powerful moves we can make is to begin a shift towards eating more whole foods (meaning less processed or not processed at all).
When making choices about what to eat, ask ‘Is a less-processed option available?’ and if the answer is yes, consider choosing that one.
- Instead of white rice, could you have brown rice?
- Instead of chicken nuggets, could you have a rotisserie chicken? Or a baked chicken?
- Instead of peanut butter cookies, could you have peanut butter? Or peanuts?
- Instead of applesauce, could you have an apple?
Or not. It’s ok if the option isn’t there or you don’t feel like taking it. What matters, where nutritious eating is concerned, is that you don’t have to go all-or-nothing. You can simply strive for 1% better than yesterday.
Precision Nutrition has a great resource for this here.
Diet culture doesn’t make people feel good. It is a language of guilt and shame.
Shame is a tool of oppression.
The whole concept of weight loss is laden with value judgements about food and bodies and self-worth.
Diet culture, which is pervasive in our society, is filled with assumptions and beliefs that many (or most?) of us have internalized. This internalization is largely unconscious and it happens without our consent. Because the messaging is everywhere and it’s subtle. And overt.
* “Clean eating”, for example. (So…anything that’s not “clean” is, therefore, “dirty”?
* Closely related, “healthy eating” is similarly problematic: whatever ‘healthy’ eating is, the opposite must be ‘unhealthy’? How do we decide what’s healthy?
* “I’ve got to go on a diet” …diet culture has evolved over the years (“clean eating” is a relatively recent example), but this whole “gotta go on a diet to lose some weight” idea has been around for a while. “Diet” is a word that has some serious cultural and emotional baggage. Ugh.
* “I’ve got to work out extra hard today to work off that piece of cake from yesterday”. If we were to drop a bit of science here, we would start by acknowledging that thinking in terms of calories in vs calories out is a bit of an over-simplification that doesn’t fully capture the dynamic and adaptable system that is your body. Moreover, the idea that you’ve got to somehow atone for food choices through exercise is, well, problematic.
This is where I come back to my original assertion: eating can and should be enjoyable and free from feelings of guilt or shame.
2. You’re in charge. You get to make conscious choices.
Let’s say we were to do an experiment: for the next two weeks, for one meal each day, pay close attention to how food feels. Take a moment to notice how you’re feeling before you eat. Take the time to notice how the food feels and tastes while you’re eating it. Savor it, even. Maybe even put your utensil down between bites so that you can completely finish one mouthful before you begin the next. And then, notice how you feel after you’ve eaten. Both right away and an hour or so later.
I mention this idea because identifying how certain foods make you feel can give you some useful information to consider when making food choices.
There’s more to it than that, though. Real life is almost always about more than just ‘is this food that I’m about to eat nutritious?’
There are a whole bunch of things that you might consider:
- Maybe you’re celebrating a special occasion or having a (Zoom) night out with friends?
- Or perhaps you feel like enjoying yourself?
- Does a particular food tends to leave you feeling sluggish the next day?
- Maybe you know it’s likely to cause some digestive issues?
With all of that to consider, you get to make a conscious and informed choice for yourself. Not guilt. No shame.
Just actions and consequences. Those consequences might be that you feel a bit sluggish later, but they might also be that you don’t. They might be that you enjoy the moment and enjoy the food and then you go on with your life.
What if we were to frame our conversation about nutrition in terms of learning to eat foods that nourish our bodies and make us feel good?
“Well, that’s all fine and dandy,” you might say, “but I’ve still got to lose this quarantine 15 (pounds)!”
And that’s ok. If that’s your goal, that’s ok. Your goal is valid and I’m here for you.
My original assertion still stands: eating can and should be an enjoyable thing that nourishes your body and makes you feel good.
I know it’s all well and good for me to point out some of the problematic elements of diet culture to you here, in this blog post, but the work of dismantling and discarding the diet culture ideology is not easy. It’s deep work that takes some time.
Diet culture is the water we swim in. It’s the air we breathe.
Much like other systems of oppression.
Diet culture is rooted in an impossible to achieve bodily ideal. That ideal means we judge people who fail to live up to that ideal. The farther they are from the ideal, the less they are worth. This particular bodily ideal is based on the white body and is rooted in anti-black racism. (I’ll drop this helpful link to Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings here). I mention these examples of diet culture as a way to raise awareness.
Dismantling diet culture and the ways any of us might have unconsciously internalized its faulty messages is no small task. It requires some personal work that’s almost always difficult and uncomfortable to do.
3. You don’t have to stop eating anything. Consider instead, adding more…
In our nutrition coaching program, we don’t tell you to stop eating anything. Especially if it’s something you enjoy.
I know that ‘everyone’ has heard those stories about someone who stopped eating this or that and experienced amazing results…but in the vast majority of circumstances, there’s simply no reason to stop eating things you enjoy.
Doing so would just make the process more challenging, less enjoyable and cutting out (insert delicious food here) tends not to make a big difference in anyone’s health anyway.
Two key areas where we often begin focusing our attention are protein intake and vegetables. Our experience has been that people can almost always benefit from eating more protein at each meal. Adding more colorful vegetables to each meal comes in a close second.
There are a whole host of wonderful ways that your body benefits from eating more protein. One way to approach this would be to pick one meal that you eat regularly and ask ‘how can I add more protein?’
Do that for two weeks or so and then, once you feel confident with that, pick another meal in your day and find ways to add protein to that one.
A useful guideline is 1-2 palm-sized servings of protein per meal. (Here’s some protein-shopping inspiration).
You can do the same with vegetables; aiming for 2-3 fist-sized servings per meal.
Diet culture says fat is bad. Fat is unhealthy. People who are fat are therefore bad and unhealthy.
The problem—ok, one problem—is that diets don’t work. They really don’t.
And by “they don’t work”, I mean that research dating back as far as 1959 has shown that dieting for permanent weight loss is ineffective.
Science knows this and yet, diet culture persists.
This is not to say that it’s impossible to change your body or to lose weight long-term, but instead that the approach that the medical community has taken has been to instead demonize fat and fat people (and, by extension, anyone who has what they perceive as an elevated level of body fat). And to blame people for being fat.
Another problem—a central and foundational problem—is that body weight and health are not perfect synonyms. One does not necessarily equate to the other.
Again, the medical establishment has learned, and rejected, that it is possible to be fat and healthy and that it happens more often than you might think…but again, there exists a huge gap between science and practice.
There is a common debate among health and fitness professionals about this idea. Some feel quite strongly that you can tell just by looking at someone whether they are “healthy” or not. I would like to gently suggest that there might be some internalized fat-phobia going on there. Some argue that various biomarkers of health can be improved when an obese person loses 10 lbs. And, for those particular biomarkers, that may be true, but it is not the whole picture. This easily leads some down the slippery slope of thinking if a little (weight loss) is good, more (weight loss) must be better. And more insidiously, it all too easily leads us back to thinking that weight = health.
BMI, by the way, was made up by a statistician—not a doctor or scientist. BMI has a similar deeply problematic history as our cultural hatred of fat bodies.
This debate that fit pros sometimes have is about whether or not it’s ok for fat people to accept and (gasp!) love their bodies. The argument often goes that if we (the healthy people) encourage them to love their bodies, they might not try to lose weight (and thus, become healthy and therefore, worthy of that love).
The through-line to all of this is the powerful lie that some bodies (and lives) are less worthy of love (and mattering) than others. And it is an arbitrary set of criteria that determine their worth.
So back to the original question: what if we could talk about nutrition without it being about weight loss?
Hang on. There’s a question we should cover before that: but what if I want to lose some weight?
I’m here for you, if you’d like some help along the way. I just want you to know that your worth is not tied to your physical appearance and that your health does not necessarily depend on how much body fat you have.
Regardless of whether your goal is weight loss or not, my original assertion stands: eating shouldn’t suck.
Interesting in working on your health and wellness? Or maybe you want to know how to fuel your body fabulous? Feel free to contact us, we’re happy to chat with you about your goal or how to point you in the best direction. You can also check out our approach to nutrition and fitness and even a little more about us if you’re interested. We look forward to hearing from you.