When it comes to food, I know I’m not alone in saying I have a lot of feelings.
Food is a constant source of joy and pain in my life.
I’m at my happiest when I see the waiter bringing out my pipping-hot eggs bennie brunch on a Saturday morning. On the contrary, some of my lowest points have been after I’ve binged on half a batch of these salted caramel choc chip rolo cookies (which are incredible and I implore you to make them this weekend).
Despite leading a healthy, balanced lifestyle, I still feel a lot of guilt and shame around what I eat. According to the stats, I’m no anomaly. Eating disorders are estimated to affect approximately 9% of the Australian population.
One of the most common traps people fall into when deciding to take control of their eating habits is to deem certain foods ‘clean‘ or ‘dirty’. Advertising, magazines, TV shows and even that annoying little voice in our own heads often tells us that strictly watching what you’re eating is the only way to achieve your most comfortable weight.
I myself have fell into this trap plenty of times.
I’d make a conscious effort to eat ‘diet’ foods during the week and avoid sugary sweets, only to throw caution to the wind at the weekends and pig out to the point of physical sickness. We’re talking McDonalds followed by Pidapipo followed by Doughnut Time in the space of an hour.
While I maintained a healthy weight through these cycles, I still felt really down on myself and angry that despite knowing what a healthy diet looked like (or thinking I knew), I couldn’t seem to stick to one.
That was until I got my hands on a book called ‘If Not Dieting, Then What?’
To be honest, I was a bit embarrassed when my copy arrived on my desk at work. It was clearly a sign that I was at the end of my tether. But reading the award-winning book by renowned healthy weight management expert, Dr Rick Kausman, flicked a switch in my brain and introduced me to a concept called intuitive eating.
You might have heard of intuitive eating before, and while it might strike you as an airy concept, it makes a lot of sense. In a nutshell, it refers to ditching traditional dieting methods and listening to when your body is hungry.
When you take into consideration the fact that 90% of people who diet put the weight back on within 3 – 5 years (and oftentimes they put on even more than they lost), intuitive eating is seriously appealing.
PEDESTRIAN.TV spoke to Dr Natalie Bassat, a medical doctor who has trained extensively with Dr Kausman, to get a grip on how ditching restrictive diets and learning to listen to our bodies can revolutionise our relationship with food.
PTV: What are some of the common reasons people feel they can’t control their eating habits?
DR B: We find that when someone is not at their most comfortable weight, a lot of the time it’s because they’re doing a lot of non-hungry eating. There are many reasons to eat when you’re not hungry.
For example, it might be that you’re confusing hunger with thirst. Or maybe you’re really stressed, or tired. In some cases, you can be so hungry that you’ve lost the ability to stop when you’re feeling satisfied.
We can experience a lot of emotions that are stressful that can trigger eating for comfort.
We find that when we ask people to stop and have a think about how they’re feeling before they eat, they’re then able to identify that they might not actually be hungry, that’s a first step in dealing with eating for your most comfortable weight.
You speak a lot about the idea of one’s ‘most comfortable weight’. How do you know what that is?
It’s different for everybody. There is no one weight that is right. As with any physical characteristic, there are genetic differences, like people with big lips and people with thin lips.
There will be people who are naturally thin, and people who naturally prefer to be more comfortable in a bigger body.
Some of the time it’s also due to be the ‘set weight’ – it seems to be that the more one diets, the more one gains weight because they’ve been dieting their whole life, then the set weight actually changes.
So the most comfortable weight is largely determined by the body and it’s very hard to fight your body’s most comfortable set weight. If you’re meant to be in a bigger body but you’re always trying to be thinner, your body will try to do everything to rebel against this. The only way you’ll know [what your most comfortable weight is] is to eat intuitively.
Eat when you’re hungry, then your body will eventually (it might take a couple of years) will take it’s most comfortable weight.
In saying that, you can be deemed a healthy weight but still have a rocky relationship with food, right?
So many people who are preoccupied with food and weight come in all sizes.
Some people who are thin who have really huge concerns about their body and their size even if they’re at the opposite spectrum of someone who’s having difficulty losing weight. Body image is such a problem, not just with women but with men, too.
It’s usually dieting that helps perpetuate poor relationships with food and poor relationships with body. The philosophy is to give up dieting and move towards intuitive eating.
Another important principle is self acceptance and body acceptance. That doesn’t need to equate to body love, but rather self-compassion instead of beating yourself up and feeling guilty all the time.
Let’s talk about hunger. How can you differentiate between actual hunger and cravings?
We really like people to eat mindfully. Often, the body doesn’t know it’s full till 20 – 30 minutes after you’ve eaten.
A good self-awareness tool is to start using an eating awareness diary. It’s a wonderful tool to get your back in touch with your hunger cues. Many people who have dieted for years are so out of touch with when they’re body is hungry and full. Their whole life they’re looking at an external set of rules about how to eat and when; they’ve lost touch of their own intuitive hunger.
You rate your hunger on a scale of 0 – 10. Over time, using this technique, one becomes so much more self aware and aware of when they’re hungry and when they want to stop eating. It’s a great tool initially when you’re trying to give up dieting. It’s not necessarily something you use for the rest of your life, but it can help you to start trusting your body.
Why exactly do restrictive diets backfire, long-term?
I think any time someone says they’re ‘falling off the wagon’ , they feel the issue is on them, when really, the issue is the wagon itself.
When you’re thinking of yourself as ‘good or bad’ or ‘clean eating or not’ there’s an element of restriction going on there. As soon as you’ve got that restriction mindset, even if you’re just thinking of it, it’s likely that you’re going to fall off the wagon.
Instead of eating ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we talk about balance. ‘Sometimes food’, ‘occasional food’ and ‘everyday food’. It may be a little simplistic, but it takes a lot of the guilt away.
When you’re ‘constantly wanting to get back on the wagon’, it lands you back in the binge / restriction cycle which is never-ending. The only way to stop that is to stop the restriction.
It’s important to remember that food plays not only a nutritional role in our lives, but it also brings us pleasure. It’s okay to get emotional pleasure if it means you’re socialising and enjoying life [say, going out and having a nice lunch with your mates].
Life would be pretty dull otherwise.
What role do you think social media plays in perpetuating the idea of diet being a necessity?
I think social media today has become quite invasive. People have difficulty putting their phones down.
If you’re constantly bombarded with the cultural ideal of beauty, those images don’t do anything to make you feel better about yourself.
I say to a lot of my clients that it’s very important to cleanse your social media of anything that’s not helping you feel good about yourself.
Instead, surround yourself with images of women who aren’t perfect but who are still showing that it’s possible to lead a fulfilling life, even in a non-perfect body. The more we see real women being portrayed leading successful lives in imperfect body the less we feel bad about ourselves.
In the end, the most important element to establishing a healthy relationship with food is to show yourself some compassion.
Really enjoying a coffee and moist banana muffin once in a while won’t hurt you. We promise.
Photo: The Simpsons.