"Food Is Love (But Don’t Eat Too Much)"—Why This Mixed Message Hurts, Part 2

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This is Part 2 of an excerpt from the Introduction of the newly published Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Selfby Heidi Schauster, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S (Hummingbird Press).

Eating, while something we often take for granted, is a learned behavior. And things can indeed go awry in the feeding or eating relationship. In 1996, I published an article based on some work that I did in graduate school with children who had multiple physical deformities and who had been fed through their stomachs by a gastric tube since birth. These kids were typically born without use of their arms and legs. They struggled in their lives in so many ways. One of the areas was eating. These children had missed the natural windows in infancy and toddlerhood, when feeding cues happen and feeding progresses. They didn’t need to learn how to eat because they had all of their nutritional needs met through the tube connected to their stomachs. As you can imagine, they didn’t find food pleasurable at all, and many had aversions to having any food introduced into their mouths.

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My colleagues and I worked with these children to investigate their fears around food and, for some, to eventually learn to find pleasure in eating. We proposed a step-wise process to transition the children from tube-feeding to feeding by mouth. Some of the steps included establishing a positive relationship between feeder and child, oral stimulation and other work on the feeding environment, and eventually a progressive, behavioral feeding program. I still remember like it was yesterday the expressions on some of the kids’ faces when they finally got past their fight-or-flight response to having food near their mouths. They started to enjoy the taste of something delicious for the first time.

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I learned a lot from my time with these kids. They are, of course, an extreme example; but I do believe that all of our relationships with food develop out of our experiences and culture. When imbalanced, it takes intention, attention, and sometimes hard work to change our behaviors around food. The steps outlined in my book are quite different from the steps created in that child research long ago, but the result is the same: A healthier, more life-giving relationship with eating and its connection to the body and self.

What do you do if you’ve gotten so far away from a natural way of eating? What if you don’t even know when you’re hungry or full? Or what you want to eat? What if you only know how to choose the “safe” or lowest-calorie choice off of a menu, and it scares you to think of ordering what you really want? What if your relationship with food has been severely off-kilter, and you find yourself in a diet-binge cycle or feel terribly guilty after eating anything with sugar or carbohydrates? What if you want to have a more easeful, peaceful relationship with food, but it doesn’t feel possible? After all, you grew up around dieters or were put on your first diet when you were ten. Or maybe you now read all the nutrition blogs and see the happy, healthy-looking, beautiful people who must know how to eat better than you do. Instead, I offer you a non-prescriptive, non-diet, body-accepting approach to healing your relationship with food.

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The ten chapters or Steps of Nourish are not meant to be linear. I’ve put the Steps in a certain order because it’s a progression that made sense to me and that seems to play out in my work with clients. They are meant to be fluid, liquid steps—not fixed or rigid. They were certainly cornerstones in my own journey and for many who consider themselves to have worked on and obtained a healthy relationship with food. It doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle with self-compassion or body acceptance anymore. It means that we have ways to deal with issues when they come up instead of restricting, dieting, or overeating. It also doesn’t mean that we never under- or overeat.  We sometimes eat mindlessly or in an un-attuned way. When we do, we get curious—not critical—about it. We notice it happening, check in, learn from the episode of funky eating, and ultimately let it go.

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The first chapter or Step 1 involves ditching dieting: The important foundational step of intuitive eating. Step 2 is about body acceptance.  We will delve into the research-supported world of Health-At-Every-Size® (HAES®) and bust up the weight-loss mindset that so often wrecks our eating and takes us away from caring for our bodies well. Step 3 is about developing awareness of our relationship with food, and its challenges, before trying to change anything. Step 4 is about body trust. I describe mindfulness and practices for tuning in to hunger and fullness, and I discuss the role meditation can play in this process. Step 5 is a “meaty” chapter about mindful eating choices and nutritional common sense. Step 6 invites you in to conscious, joyful movement of your body. Step 7 delves into the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principle of values clarification. We will look closely at universal human needs and how we nourish our souls. Step 8 encourages us to build sustainable self-care practices and deal with stress. Step 9 involves developing a self-connected eating style. In this chapter, I’ll talk about questions that often come up in my practice around vegetarianism, gluten, other food sensitivities or allergies, food addiction, and “clean” eating. Lastly, Step 10 encourages you to know the company that you keep and build a tribe of support around you during the healing and growing process.

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My wish is that these steps will help guide you on your journey to balance and wellness. It is my desire that all people learn to identify their deepest needs, wants, and hungers and to feed themselves in such a way that they feel nurtured, loved, freed up, and ready to take on the world. You don’t have to spend so much time agonizing about what to eat or not eat. But you do need to devote some time and attention to feeding yourself well, on many levels.

Of course, my book is not a substitute for the incredible healing power of therapeutic relationships and professional help. When someone comes to see me for individual or group nutrition-therapy work, they often have other team members: Psychotherapists, primary care providers, psychiatrists, yoga/ movement/art therapists, naturopaths, etc. I encourage you to share your reading with trusted care providers and bring this work into any personal health and wellness work you are already doing. The stories of many different people are in the book’s pages. I changed the names of the clients who honored me with their stories to protect their privacy. I also use the pronoun “she” a fair amount and sprinkle in a “he” here and there, to mirror the demographics of my practice. I have learned that gender isn’t binary, so my aim is not to exclude you if you do not use these pronouns to identify yourself. I use them for ease of reading and apologize in advance for any challenge that my wording brings up for you. Problems with eating, body, and self know no boundaries and affect all of us.

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Lastly, please read my book with a grain of sea salt. As with any advice from a health professional or other, assorted wisdom-imparting human beings, I invite you to take the information, exercises, and anecdotes to heart that work for you and leave the rest. You are in charge of your journey. (If you don’t feel like you are in charge with food, well, we get to that shortly. Step 1 may help immensely, though it can be one of the hardest steps.) No one knows more about what you need than you do. I hope that this book helps you get in touch with what truly nourishes you on so many levels.

If you liked this passage, please nourish yourself with the whole book. Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self is available here on my website, on Amazon, and on Barnes and Noble