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Here’s one Thanksgiving ‘tradition’ you can drop

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).

Dear diet — it’s not me, it’s you, so goodbye

Dear Diet Culture,

Things just aren’t working out between us.

You make me feel ashamed when I’ve eaten a “bad” food. You make me feel dirty if I haven’t eaten “clean.” You’ve taken away my personal autonomy to choose what to eat and enjoy eating.

I will no longer allow you to judge my self-worth by my food choices or my body size or shape. You’ve kept me from having the relationship that I truly I desire — peace with food and my body.

While I used to feel guilty for cheating on you, I’ve learned that there’s no cheating when it comes to food. I did not marry kale and go behind its back to rendezvous with chocolate chip cookies.

My self-trust and ability to sense true biological hunger and fullness has eroded. Your restriction and deprivation intensify my cravings and make me feel like I am overeating or a failure when I inevitably desire half-in-half in my morning coffee.

You’ve made me a slave to the scale and its number, deciding for me whether I am going to have a good or bad day. You’ve made me feel dissatisfied with my body unless it fits culture’s “ideal.” And I am angry with you for judging me by my body size and shape assuming that I don’t take care of myself.

I will no longer socially isolate myself in order to control my food more easily. You’ve made me preoccupied with food, especially those dang carbohydrates. I’m breaking up with you because I don’t believe that bread is inherently bad. Especially if it’s a slice of crispy, warm Persephone Bakery bread.

You’ve promised me a better life with a new and improved body, but I know that this awesome life is happening now, not if or when.

I know that you will try to seduce me into staying in this relationship by enticing me with the latest, greatest eating plan in the New Year. I know there’s a better way for me to take care of my health and make peace with food and my body.

You’re just not right for me. I am so over you.

Yet I’ll be honest. I am afraid to break up with you.

I am fearful that without you I won’t know how to control my food and my body. If diets worked, the one I started with you last January would have done the trick and I wouldn’t be thinking about the next one.

And you don’t fool me. I know that “diets” are out. In order to stay hip and relevant and market to the next wave of dieters, you, the $70-billion diet industry, have ditched the word diet and hijacked the words “wellness,” “health” and “clean eating” to focus my attention away from the negative press that diets don’t work. But the strategies remain the same — restrictive eating with short-lived results. You seduce me with quick fixes, 30-day plans, 10-day detoxes, promising it will be different this time, because it’s not a diet.

You’ve lured me into pseudo-dieting, unconscious dieting. I might not be on a eating plan but I’m still stuck in dieting mentality. I limit my carbohydrate grams. I am obsessed with eating only foods that are healthy, also known as orthorexia. I have rules about when I should eat. I pay penance for eating “bad” foods by doing extra exercise. I sometimes put on a “false food face” in public by skipping the dessert at dinner to then go home and eat my sweets in privacy, feeling guilty when I eat nutritionally deficient foods.

No matter what you call it, a diet is still a diet if you “eat sparingly or according to prescribed rules,” at least according to Merriam-Webster. The language may have changed but the diet remains.

Diet Culture, you’re the problem. It’s not me. Nor is my body the problem.

In 2019 I’m starting a new relationship. I will nourish not only my physical health, but also the health of my mind and spirit. Because what’s health if it doesn’t take into consideration stress levels and my mental health?

And nope, Diet Culture, you will no longer dictate my ideal body shape.

My ideal body shape is whatever shape my body is when I am nourishing it without restriction and participating in movement without obligation.

Diet Culture, we’re breaking up. It’s not me. It’s you.

No longer yours,

Radical Acceptance

(This article was published in the December 27, 2018 Jackson Hole News and Guide).