Its Time to End Your Food Phobia
I remember hanging out with a couple of my girlfriends in a study group during my masters talking about food, naturally, and the subject of sugar and carbohydrates got brought up. We started discussing how sad it is that we (young women in particular) develop food phobias in fear of weight gain and as we later assessed, we (dietitians/health enthusiasts) develop other food phobias in fear of “less than optimal health” which can lead to decreased vitality and longevity. The latter being one of those “we know too much” situations.
I remember one of my friends talking about how she got so much anxiety around wanting a second apple that day. She just couldn’t allow herself to have one because it’s a fruit, and fruit has fructose, and fructose is bad/can lead to weight gain/fluctuations in blood sugars, etc. My heart sank hearing and seeing her distress around this. After all, its an apple! Its not a piece of cake! But wait, should she totally restrict cake? Shouldn’t we allow ourselves to have some indulgences? Plus, who am I to talk? I definitely have food phobias I battle my own self that many people would think is ridiculous. Fear of foods is such a real, terrible, consuming, over-whelming thing, and I just wish I could take the fear out of it from everyone and just have intuitive eating come naturally to all. J But turns out, it is a little more complicated than that.
Just a little.
Sometimes I wonder when it all started. When did the obsession or the hyper-awareness of what goes into my body become so important? When did I lose the ability to just listen to my body, eat when I was hungry, stop when I was full, and desire nutrient dense foods? Okay, maybe the latter never really happened when I was growing up, considering the nutrient density of mac and cheese won’t exactly favor development of a good microbiome and in turn efficient hunger signaling …but still! My best guess is that we lost it with the intake of those lower nutrient dense foods, the higher refined, processed foods, which led to cravings of more high fat/sugar/salty foods which leads to weight gain, fatigue, worsening of the health of our gut microbiome, poor hunger signaling cues, and other metabolic malfunctions. Then we were told the best way to fix it is through low fat and low calorie intake which of course leads to MORE problems, none of which really result in much sustained weight loss …and to top it off, we throw in the oh-so-influential societal pressures of looking a certain way, which will VERY rarely happen eating as suggested, and voila! We have some seriously messed-up psychology around food intake and body image.
Phew. To say I hate how this cycle has affected not only myself, but EVERYONE, would be an understatement. I was at a BBQ with Lionel a few weeks ago watching a few kids, probably 5-10 years old and already rather overweight, eating foods I would not recommend for healthy growth and development, and I just started getting sad for their future. Now, I don’t mean to be high and mighty on my health horse. For I have LOTS to work on myself, and know not to judge a book by its cover. I am only CONSIDERING what COULD happen from what I have seen happen in my life, which involves health repercussions, prescription medications at a young age, bullying, insecurities, and confusion. For they don’t even know why any of that is happening. Maybe none of those things will happen for those kids. I sure wouldn’t wish it on them. I was hanging out with my nieces this past weekend and I fear for them too. Not because my sister isn’t totally badass and already showing them gardens, vegetables, and being a great example while she battles gestational diabetes with my fourth niece on the way, but because I just naturally fear for girls now because of what I went through: The all-consuming battles of needing to feel like you have to look and act a certain way to be desired or accepted just SUCK. What is the main reason clients come in to see me? To lose weight. To manipulate their bodies to look perfect. Lose the fat on their abs, lose the fat on their triceps. I ask them and I ask you, WHY? What value will that put on your life when you lose those extra pounds?
Now don’t get me wrong, there can be great things that come from weight loss: Healthier eating habits, greater confidence, possibly more strength and endurance from workouts…but lets look at that again. Do you have to lose weight to learn to eat healthy? No, you can learn to eat healthy by learning to healthy, whole foods. Do you have to lose weight to gain confidence? Honestly, this one is a little tricky, but you actually don’t…confidence is a mindset. Losing weight can make it easier to feel great about yourself, but I have seen and felt that bandaid put on a bigger issue too many times to count. Do you have to lose weight to build more strength and endurance? You can get stronger and fitter and not lose weight. I bet some of you have even experienced this before…and you probably got frustrated because the scale didn’t move, eh? These things are what you do to start living HEALTHIER, and weight comes off as a side-effect.
My dad lives his life, diet included, with an “everything in moderation” mindset. I think he kind of thinks research changes all the time anyways, so why be so dedicated to one way of eating when it will change next year anyways? Food doesn’t need to be so complicated, right? How many diets are out there? Paleo, ketogenic, GAPS, high carb, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, etc. Supplement with this, eat this at this time, fast for these many hours, eat organic this, eat free range that, no vegetable oils, etc etc etc. And while I truly believe food doesn’t need to be that complicated, I actually believe food has unfortunately evolved to be THAT complicated. For the past 100 years or so, we have seen drastic changes to our gut microbiome because of the food we have eaten, toxin exposure, decreased activity level, increased stress, worse sleep, and LOADS of problematic inflammation. We no longer eat foods that are in season and appropriate for the area we live in, we are eating all day every day without giving our bodies time to clean house, we have air conditioning when we are too hot and heat when we are too cold, and fail to stress (the good stress) our bodies in any way shape or form. All of things contribute to your body living in an unnatural, unhealthy, inflamed state.
So why doesn’t moderation work? Well, given all the variables I mentioned above, we have to look at ourselves as our own n=1 experiment. This involves understanding and healing your body, particularly your gut microbiome, and developing a diet that suits YOU best. Which is, actually, a little more complicated than it sounds. There is now research discussing how people thrive best eating what their ancestors ate, even if they don’t live where their ancestors lived. Some people do better on higher carb diets, some do better on ketogenic diets. The main thing I have to say about this trial and error attempt, though, is that you NEED to be educated when you start diets. You NEED to be mindful of the variables you are manipulating and the outlying factors. And you NEED to give it time. I too often see clients try out a dietary intervention for two days, feel awful, and decide to go back to their previous ways. It takes time, struggle, and effort to determine what works best for your body. It takes addressing stress, sleep, and exercise. It also helps to have a trained professional help you along the way.
My goal as a dietitian is to help people eat whole, healthy foods because they WANT to. Because that is what their body TELLS them to eat. I want them to create efficiency with their hunger signaling cues by addressing stress management, sleep quality, activity level, and of course, diet. Once a person can listen to their body (which often takes a lot of time and dietary interventions), then they can give themselves FULL PERMISSION to eat whatever they want. They know how they feel if they do eat foods that aggravate their bodies, and they know how they feel when they eat foods that fuel their mind, body, soul. More often than not, they will reach for the refined, processed foods less often, but without the feelings of restriction and guilt. And man, does that freedom from food feel GOOD.
Therese Martinez, MS, RD, CPT