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Here's one Thanksgiving 'tradition' you can drop

Photo Credit: Element5 Digital

Every body deserves a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

But as a nutrition student back in 2012, I would have found that statement reckless, disregarding the “epidemic” of weight/health challenges facing our country.

That year my parents traveled from Maryland to Denver to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with me and my family. While I swung kettlebells and climbed revolving stairs at 24 Hour Fitness, Mom and Dad went for a stroll around the neighborhood. While I ate a “lighter” lunch to “earn” and “burn” the calories I would consume, they ate their regular meals.

To me healthy meant thin, low body fat. Though far leaner in my mid-40s than I’d been in my 20s, I still didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. All I saw were my perceived flaws: the cellulite, my furrowed forehead and a roundness to my female belly that I believed wasn’t flat enough.

I cooked my family a “clean” holiday meal, removing ingredients that my nutrition books touted as “bad” — the marshmallows in my husband’s favorite sweet potato casserole, the gluten in my dad’s famous sausage stuffing.

But I wasn’t done subjecting my parents to my righteous rules of nutrition perfection: For a class project they agreed to track their food so I could scrutinize their supposed nutritional flagrancies and offer upgrades promising “better” health. Bless their hearts.

Looking back now, I see that neither my parents’ nutrition nor health needed fixing. The real flaw? My misguided belief in diet culture, disguised as wellness, and its simplistic, one-dimensional definition of health: that a thin body is ideal. When we expose the origin of this false depiction of health and redefine it, every body can enjoy holiday favorites, no “earning” or “burning” of food required.

Weight does not equal health

“You’ve been lied to about the relationship between weight and health so that you’ll perpetually try to change your weight,” say Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, authors of “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.”

The lie is driven by what the Nagoski sisters call the Bikini Industrial Complex, the “$100 billion cluster of businesses that profit by setting an unachievable ‘aspirational ideal,’ convincing us that we can and should — indeed, we must — conform with the ideal, and then selling us ineffective but plausible strategies for achieving that ideal.”

This false and simplistic definition of “wellness” can lead to lifelong weight worry and make it difficult to feel good in our bodies. It’s a chronic stressor.

Food psychologist Paul Rozin concurs. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, registered dietitians and authors of “Intuitive Eating,” say that in his 1999 research study “Rozin was way ahead of his time and concluded that the negative impact of worry and stress over healthy eating may have a more profound effect on health than the actual food consumed.”

Furthermore, Rozin’s research showed that while Americans have the most food worry and least food pleasure, the French were found to have the exact opposite, plus a longer life expectancy. Consider some mainstays of the French diet: bread, brie, creme brûlée — foods containing the “forbidden” ingredients my nutrition books said were “unhealthy.”

Yes, certainly nutrition has a role in your health and in preventing chronic disease, but your health is impacted by far more factors than what you eat and how you move. According to research in author Christy Harrison’s book “Anti-Diet,” “eating and physical activity combined account for only about 10 percent of population health outcomes. Other health-related behaviors account for only another 20 percent.” If you do the math, we have some individual or societal control over only 30% of our health.

The complexity of ‘health’

Other important factors are financial and social status, healthy childhood development, social environments, personal coping skills, traumatic experiences, weight stigma, access to health services, gender, race, physical environment, education and literacy, food and job security, and genetics.

And positive, satisfying relationships of any kind. The Nagoski sisters found that relationship quality was a “better predictor of health than smoking, and smoking is among the strongest predictors of ill health.”

This holiday season, instead of fretting over the marshmallows in your husband’s childhood favorite sweet potato casserole or your father’s famous sausage stuffing, consider taking a gentle nutrition approach to healthy eating.

Remove weight hate from your holiday plate.

(Originally published in the Jackson Hole News and Guide, November 25, 2020).

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Thanksgiving Holiday Eating Emily Nagoski Amelia Nagoski Paul Rozin Evelyn Tribole Elyse Resch Intuitive Eating Gentle Nutrition Health Christy Harrison Anti-Diet Bikini Industrial Complex Diet Culture