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

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This is Part 1 of an excerpt from the Introduction of Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self, by Heidi Schauster, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, soon-to-be published March 2018.

When most of us were newborn infants, food was indeed Love. We simply asked for what we needed. We cried. If our caregivers were tuned in, we got fed. You may have noticed that it’s hard to feed a baby--breast or bottle--without a comforting embrace. When conditions are right, feeding is one of the first times our needs are expressed and met as human beings. If you currently eat or withhold food to comfort yourself, you are not alone. You probably learned at a very young age that comfort and food are connected. In fact, food and love and caregiving are rather entwined. In its purest form, eating is a pleasure and feels good.

When we stray with food, we often long to feel cared for but don’t have the skills to ask for what we want. We’d like to be that little baby who cries when hungry and feeds until she has enough, drifting off to a sweet, satisfied sleep. As adults, we have to take breaks to attend to our bodies, nourish them with food, and then return to our activities refreshed, fueled, and with new appreciation because we’ve paused to take the time to care for ourselves.

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This self-care is not easy when eating becomes a mind-driven activity. And, yes, the very health and nutrition fields of which I am a part are at least partly to blame for us straying from that natural way of eating. We ask our minds instead of our bodies what they need. “What should I eat? What has the most nutrition? The least calories? The least carbs?” If you’ve ever stood agonizing over a menu, not knowing what the “right” choice is, you are not alone.

Part of the problem is that we have so many food choices and so much health and nutrition information—often contradictory. We tend to use our minds to make food choices and leave our bodies out of the decision. Doing so takes us away from our innate capacity to feed ourselves well. We were born with that ability, but the diet and health industry—and all the other things in life pulling for our attention—steer us away from listening to that inner wisdom.

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I fortunately stumbled upon Ellyn Satter’s work in 1992. She blew me away with her message: Your body knows what to eat. I grew up in the Diet Pepsi 1970s, with almost daily ballet classes and the message that I should be careful not to eat too much or my stomach wouldn’t be so “dancer-ly.” I was unused to making food decisions based on my body’s requests. The more I tried to eat less, the more I encouraged binge-eating. Satter inspired me to learn about the psychology of eating along with nutrition. I discovered the role that my food struggles had in my adult transition. I relearned how to feed myself well. Eventually, I developed a more loving relationship with my body and emerging self.

For twenty years, I have assisted clients who have also lost sight of the natural connection that food has to take care of body and self. Whether through over- or under-eating—or cycling between the two—so many of us lose the ability to trust our bodies to tell us what and how much to eat. 

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Often a new acquaintance or client will ask, “Heidi, will you recommend a good basic book on nutrition for me to read?” I feel repeatedly stumped by that question. There are thousands of health and nutrition books out there. I often, in good faith, can’t recommend them. Why? Because so many health and nutrition books are diet books in disguise—or they have messages that encourage dieting or controlling your food intake to achieve the desired outcome. There is no “basic” book that I can find that explains nutrition the way my colleagues and I do in practice—and does so in a way that I found so healing when I was recovering from disordered eating myself.

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How do we get back to this connected, embodied way of eating? My hope is that my book Nourish will assist you in re-learning to tune in—to your body, as well as your feelings, needs, and wants—so that you can make choices with food and other areas of self-care that are life-sustaining and supportive of your goals, dreams, and core values. Often, when our relationship to food and body feels out of alignment, other areas in our lives feel that way, too.

Nourish was born out of a deep desire to integrate work that I’ve done both personally and professionally. After witnessing so many people’s journeys, I believe that healing our relationships with food and our bodies brings us to richer, fuller, and more meaningful lives. Care for yourself by consciously eating, mindfully moving your body, and building sustaining self-care practices and connections; it truly does set you free.

But it doesn’t happen overnight, especially if you’re out of practice or never actually learned to do this self-care in the first place. Nourish will give you a road map to finding that freedom. My hope is that the book reads like a conversation with someone you can trust to help you tune in to your own body’s wisdom.

No one knows more about what you need than you do.

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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

Holiday Epiphany — of the Non-Religious-but-Spiritual Type

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The days grow darker and colder in this corner of the world. The year is coming to a close, and I'm preparing to birth my first book. It's been a surprising, humbling, exhausting, enlivening experience. In the last several weeks, as I've been polishing the edits and getting the book ready for production, I've come back to the daily writing practice that began this whole book-birthing process. I look forward to sharing Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self with you in the new year.

Today, my holiday gift -- to you and to me -- is a short poem about presence and speaking the Truth. May you have a magical 2018!

 

Holiday Epiphany — of the non-religious-but-spiritual type

Finding myself in stillness and in stretch.
A mind attached to a body.
So much doing,
And noticing how hard it is to stay with…

Being.

Feeling solid and grounded in my hips.
Feeling solid and grounded in my truth.

Three wise people (kings or queens or angels?)
Heard my truth yesterday
And they didn’t run away.

Nor did I.

In fact, they kinda appreciated it.
Saw me clearly.
And I saw them
In all their radiance.

I can be more fully there when I tell the Truth.
I can be embodied, take up space, and inhabit myself.
I can meet my goals and needs and wants more clearly.

And I will hear and give to others more clearly
When I first give that
Gift
to
Me.

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Feeding the Soul

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Have you ever gone on a vacation but found that you had a hard time slowing down…? 

I have. And I noticed it a few times this summer. 

We can sometimes be so task-oriented in our lives, trying to cram so many things into a short day or week — even if they are rich, meaningful experiences — that we can suffer from a lack of spaciousness. 

Spaciousness is that luscious time that unfolds naturally. In the unfolding, we have room to breathe, to create, to reflect, to have insights, and to really connect with whomever is nearby. I consider spacious moments to encourage creative and spiritual growth spurts. I connect with my truest self, and I and grow more deeply with family and friends when we have some lazy, unstructured time together. 

I also notice that the active, productive, movement-oriented part of me struggles with unstructured time. I get a little restless. I need a balance of doing, being, and creating, and I am appreciating and trying to listen to this more and more as I get older. 

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I talk with clients often about how those mini food breaks during the day (you know, the ones where you aren’t really hungry, but find yourself foraging) may sometimes be the sensory part of us yearning for some downtime. Something rich to eat might give us a 5-minute moment of bliss (goddess forbid we stop for more than 5 minutes!), but is that really what we are looking for? Perhaps what we really want is the richer taste of spacious time to do or be or make whatever it is that calls to us. We might not feel that we deserve those regenerative moments, but maybe we do deserve a bit of chocolate. 

What would it be like to fill up space with whatever calls to us in the moment — with what we really want to do, not what we feel obligated to do? Perhaps a few moments to sit meditatively under a tree, or look at the stars, or putter around the house, or write a letter or poem, or maybe even begin to prepare a more spacious and delicious, health-filled meal. There are other things that call to us besides something to eat. I have heard my clients and those in my groups talk quite a lot recently about the spiritual food and connection that we all really long for. 

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As I said, I’m not so good at this practice of spaciousness, but I am striving for it in my busy life of juggling family and work responsibilities. The summer is a fitting time to practice being a bit more spontaneous and slow. I recently visited North Carolina and wrote a poem, as a result of taking a few quiet moments with a (now dead) tree in the forest. I’m doing something I’ve never done before in this blog: I’m sharing a deeply personal bit of writing that I never meant for public consumption. The poem came to me in the spacious moments that followed my tree encounter. It was rattling about in my head for a bit until I took the time to write it down. I asked my family and travel companions specifically for time and space, both in the forest and later when I wrote the poem. That’s not generally something I’m great at doing, but I learned how important it can be to ask for quiet and creative space when it’s needed.

A couple of people that I trust told me that my blog readers might appreciate the poem. I hope you do, and I hope you allow yourself some spacious, open, creative moments this summer.

 

AWAKENING

There are many ways to kiss the ground, says Rumi. 

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I choose lying in the palm of the hand of Nature. 

So much more than a felled tree, 

I am cradled and filled with comfort that never came easily. 

Amid the clear spring water, the moss, the turk’s cap lilies, 

I took a breath,

then another,

And connected with my soul

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Because my soul is

the clear spring water, the moss, the lilies, 

the smooth bark of the supportive tree. 

 

After kissing the ground, I kissed a man. 

A bee stung me mid-kiss, as if to say, 

“No, my dear, not back to this world yet. 

Stay with us in the woods, 

stay with your soul. 

You need more work before you are ready to merge with another.” 

I must embrace my wise,

earthy, 

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watery, 

fiery, 

airy

Self

and feel that Self solidly connected with everything

like I did when the palm of the hand of Nature

cradled me close. 

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I became a tiny child and my wisest oldest self

and the smooth, supportive tree

At the very same time. 

 

When I feel the nudge of a bee, 

I respond by picking some plantain,

chewing it up, 

and drawing out the sting. 

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When I feel the sting of his words, 

I can turn to the plants and

not let the words hurt me. 

For the sting is not really about me. 

That little bee just wanted my attention. 

To share his not-so-sweetness.

That little bee just gave me his message, 

the repeat of a message I’d received in other ways. 

It’s time to forgive.  

It’s time to write. 

It’s time to let things bounce off and back. 

It’s time to sit in the palm of the hand of Nature, 

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Alone but not lonely. 

Then, 

only then, 

I will be ready for

kisses. 

 

Blessings on your summer, 

Heidi

 

Acceptance in Recovery: Important Lessons from April

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April in New England this year has been particularly extreme. First it snowed, just as the crocus began to bloom. The snow melted, then it snowed again, knocking down the daffodils. Despite the intermittent frost and cold white blanket in these first weeks of April, the blossoms are still coming. The fragrant little grape hyacinths are dotting my yard this morning. The tomato and basil seedlings on my porch are stretching out to the sun. 

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I was thinking today that this year’s Spring is a little like recovery. My clients struggle with disordered eating, so that’s my frame of reference, but I suppose recovery from anything can feel like the fits and starts of this season. 

One of my Non-Diet Book Clubs is reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Acceptance is one of those harder parts of recovery work, but it’s essential. When we bring mindful acceptance to our experience, we notice our feelings and thoughts without judgement or without trying to push them away. Easier said than done. I personally find it hard to notice unpleasant feelings without judging, analyzing, or trying to explain them away. This is a challenging concept to grasp, never mind to practice. 

Many of you have heard about one framework from which I work with my clients: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In some ways, acceptance is not the best word to use. Clients often mistakenly think it means putting up with, giving in to, or tolerating things that are difficult or challenging. Acceptance is not about complacency, and it’s certainly not an excuse to do nothing on the path to our goals. Instead of putting up with or giving in to our negative thoughts or feelings, we can accept them by dropping the struggle with them — simply giving space for the thoughts and feelings to arise. We notice our feelings and thoughts, but we don’t need to react to them. ACT terms for acceptance work include “expand around it,” “make room for it,” “let it freely flow through you,” “breathe into it,” or in the words of the Beatles, “let it be.” 

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We don’t need to sit on a meditation cushion or yoga mat in order to practice acceptance. Acceptance happens any moment that you bring your attention to your thoughts and feelings, really notice them, and open up to the fact that you are a human being with those thoughts and feelings. You can choose to respond to them or not. You can choose to express them or not. But you don’t try to judge them or push them away. 

So many of us use food — either the withholding of it or the overindulging on it — to manage feelings that we think we can’t handle. 

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Instead, can we notice our hunger sensations, notice our cravings, and notice how full we are in any given moment? Can we accept these as our experience, even if the feelings in our bodies and minds are occasionally unpleasant? 

Can we notice that we feel angry at someone, but we’re choosing to take it out on ourselves by not eating instead of confronting that person? 

Can we notice how much we crave a certain food, and how much of this is about mouth hunger or emotional hunger and not stomach hunger? 

Can we notice feeling numb when we come home from work and just start eating, and admit that we’d rather eat and feel numb than ruminate over and over the stress from the day? Can we just notice this, without judgement? 

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These are just some of the questions that can take some time to explore and form the foundation for the profound work done by my clients. This is not about an external diet or person telling them how to eat; this is deep listening to oneself and opening to experience so that clear choices can be made. 

One important addition: noticing without judgement does not mean that we don’t also want to change our behaviors!  Maybe we don’t like that after-work, mind-numbing eating. Maybe we don’t like what food restriction in the service of avoiding anger is doing to our health and energy. Can we non-judgmentally notice these behaviors and acknowledge them as doing our best to deal with painful thoughts and feelings in the moment? Yes, we want to learn new strategies for dealing with stress, anger, frustration, loneliness. 

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There’s one very important concept here. (If you take only one thing home from this blog post, I secretly hope it’s this…) Finding new ways to cope and deal with difficult thoughts and feelings will not happen by trying to avoid or push them away. Just ask yourself if this has worked for you in the past…? Avoidance and automatic pilot go hand in hand. Acceptance of what is really happening inside in the present moment is the anecdote. When you can really drop into what is being felt or thought and observe it — and this takes a lot of practice! — you open up the freedom to make choices. You can choose to call a friend when you are feeling lonely, express feelings through writing, choose a snack that makes you feel satisfied and vital when desiring some food, and make other choices that move you towards recovery and the person that you want to be. 

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Recovery from disordered or dysregulated eating — and coming to peace with your body and self — is an ever-evolving process, and it doesn’t stop when you find yourself eating better. Like a flowering bush that needs pruning each year to realize it’s fullest bloom, we are constantly welcoming in the new discoveries about ourselves, as we let old patterns and habits that don’t serve us go. We can appreciate both our petals and our protective thorns. We are human and not perfect, and each of us are one of a kind.

What are the seeds that you are sowing this Spring? What is blossoming within you? What kind of flower are you growing into? What kind of life and person are you wanting to be? Every day, despite the frost, darkness, and other challenging conditions, we strive to blossom and become who we are. In fact, those challenging conditions are part of what makes us like a strong, resilient plant. This Spring, nurture and feed your soul and senses. Provide fertile, nutritious soil and plenty of water. Take good care of the seedling parts of you that long for the sun. 

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One of my favorite quotes is from Georgia O’Keefe, also a favorite artist. “Nobody sees a flower, really -- it's so small -- we haven't time, and to see takes time…” Take time to fully recover and develop a healthy relationship with food, your body, and your self. Get to know yourself and your uniqueness. Get to know what makes you feel alive and bring that aliveness out into the world. Allow yourself a full range of feelings and notice them all. Take time. Slow down whenever you can to check in with yourself and bring awareness to those feelings, even the hard ones— the ones that we tend to want to avoid or pretend aren’t a part of our experience. 

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I have to accept that April in New England is a little back and forth. I arm myself with a good warm scarf, lots of layers that I can peel off, and plant little sprouts on my sun porch to remind me that the sunnier side of Spring is coming. I emerge from the in-breath of winter, and breath out a blog post for the first time in awhile. My winter writing is more introspective and I don’t share so much of it. Today I accept and publish for you the imperfect combination of words here to describe this human’s experience of Spring and my work in it. I am grateful for the work with all of you — in person and on-line — that helps me feel the connectedness of all things. 

As I tend to my little seedlings, taking them inside when the porch gets below freezing at night, I imagine all the seeds being sown in the hearts and minds of humans all over, in all kinds of conditions, this Spring. I accept the cold temperatures, even though I don’t particularly like them.  I accept that I have to wait until the soil is warmer to put my plants into the ground. It’s another cold April in New England. The hard stuff in life is part of it all. 

Asking for What We Really Want is Harder than Saying “Pass the Dessert”

 In loving memory of Bud-Bud, who always had a good appetite.    

In loving memory of Bud-Bud, who always had a good appetite. 

 

Do you find yourself munching when you are not really hungry? 

Do you find yourself using snacks as reasons to take a break from work? 

Do you reward yourself with a treat when you finish a task — or use a treat to get you through it? 

When you get upset about something, do you find yourself in the fridge or pantry to console yourself? 

If so, you are experiencing emotional eating. 

And we all do it sometimes. 

Who hasn’t overeaten over the holidays because those favorite foods bring back good feelings? Who hasn’t mindlessly eaten to get themselves through a tough assignment? We all do this once in awhile, sometimes without even realizing it. We can’t always eat mindfully and with focus, savoring our food and stopping when we are perfectly satisfied. But for some of us, this overeating happens all too often, causing distress — and sometimes health problems. 

When I see a client in my nutrition therapy practice, I often look at whether she or he is eating a balanced diet. These days, many clients are not eating enough carbohydrates. So many people are afraid to eat too many of them. Not eating enough carbohydrates, proteins, and fats — as well as not eating enough total food energy or calories — can be a set up. An imbalanced or inadequate diet may lead to low energy, cravings, thinking about food too much, and overeating. However, sometimes the foods clients eat seem to be in alignment with their nutritional needs, but they still find themselves binge eating or eating beyond comfortable fullness regularly. It’s frustrating and it really has nothing to do with their food choices much of the time. This is pure emotional eating. And it’s a growing epidemic, so to speak. 

And why not? 

Food is legal and readily available. It’s grounding, sensual, and only takes a few minutes out of our to-do list to engage in. But is that snack really what we are hungry for? Do our bodies need food at this moment — or are we really looking for downtime, stimulation, sensory pleasure, or soothing? Food can provide all of those things for us, but at what cost? Tuning in to what it is that we really want and need — in any given moment — is a practice. It is not easy — particularly if we are someone that is oriented towards serving or taking care of others. (I am all too familiar with this myself.) 

I’d like to propose that the more we ask specifically for what we want and need — of ourselves and from others — the less we will feel the pull to put food in our mouths when we are truly not hungry. And the more we will feed ourselves nourishing food when we are indeed hungry, too.

One of the exercises that I encourage clients to do is to have them set an alert on their phones.  (We carry them everywhere, so we might as well use them for personal growth, right?) The alert should go off at random times several times per day. When that alert sounds, the client has to stop what she is doing and tune in. She should ask: What is going on in my body? What am I feeling? Am I hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Bored? Do I have to pee? Do I feel lonely? Cold? In an uncomfortable position? etc… 

For many of my clients, these alerts may be the only times that they truly check in with themselves during the day. Some begin to notice when they are hungry earlier than when they are ravenous and just about ready to eat their best friend. It’s hard not to overeat when we get that over-hungry.  

Some clients realize that as they work, play, connect, and engage in life, they forget to eat. After a full day, they find themselves starving — literally and figuratively. They may race off into more adventures in search of fulfillment, while denying themselves the food and reflective connection with themselves that they actually need for sustenance. 

Some people do the random alerts exercise and discover that they are frequently in discomfort, but were never aware of it. This prompts them to get help for some physical injuries or digestive issues. 

Some people realize that they want something, but they are afraid to ask for it. It’s easier to just plow ahead and take care of everyone else’s needs rather than tune in to their own.

When clients are helping professionals or parents, they often find it hard to stop and turn their focus on themselves. Eventually, they discover that when they take the time to check in and and take care of themselves (with a bathroom break, snack, short walk outside, stretch, deep breath, or whatever they need in that moment), they are actually better able to be generous and helpful to those around them.

Sometimes our little mindless snacks throughout the day serve that purpose. We’re trying to take care of ourselves some, but not too much. We don’t really take the time to think about what we really need in those moments — connection, touch, warmth, beauty, movement, fresh air — sometimes because we are afraid that we can’t get it or that we don’t have time to get it. But a nibble here will do… 

I’d like to argue that we don’t have time to ignore our needs and desires! 

If we do, it can create stress, exhaustion, resentment, an unfulfilling life… oh, and, yes, overeating and any of the health-oriented “perks” that come from that…  

This week I worked with a client who reflected that she was binging or eating mindlessly after work on a regular basis. When we dug deeper about it, we found that she was using food as a way to “take off the day.” Food helped her get out of her head and into her body, transitioning her from work to home after a stressful day. There was a part of her that was so used to using unhealthy ways to cope with stress and transition, she didn’t really feel like she deserved more than a binge. When we did some imagining about what it would be like if she didn’t hold the belief that she doesn’t deserve the self-care, she was able to come up with an alternative to binging. 

She is indeed hungry when she gets home from work around 4pm, so having an appealing, satisfying snack that could hold her until dinner was the first order of self-care. Then, taking a walk so that she could do something physical seemed like a good way for her to shift gears. She wanted to literally pound the pavement after a challenging work day. Walking helps her breathe deeply, slow down, clear her head, and transition from a day of taking care of others. She realized that thinking of physical activity this way was nurturing and would support her mental transition from work to home, as well as take good care of her body. The positive effects of exercise on our brains and bodies are well documented and she knows this. But it worked better for her to think of exercise as a “want” instead of a “should.” 

It was hard for my client to ask herself for a healthy yummy snack, physical movement,  and some self-care and transition time between work and home. It was easier for her to be careless with herself and operate the way she always has. Once she identified what she really wanted during that binge-filled afternoon time and was able to ask herself for it, she could come up with a plan for how to take care of herself. The challenge will be bringing consciousness to that time of day so that she can really make the change.

She still might need to contend with the part of her that feels undeserving of good self-care, but she has a plan and some compassionate, curious language to use with herself when that comes up. Having me to check in with around her progress helps her to take it seriously, and hopefully I’m modeling non-judgmental processing of her progress on these new afternoon practices. I’m seriously rooting for her and she knows it.

If you find that you aim to make food and self-care changes, but you just keep getting stuck, don’t underestimate the power of connecting with a nutrition therapist or other professional experienced in disordered eating that can help you non-judgmentally explore your resistance to change. Often our own self-judgement gets in the way of helping us make the changes that we want. It may also help to talk to friends or family about your new practices — or connect with a higher power or nature and ask for help. A little compassionate support often goes a long way. 

The next time that you find yourself trolling for sweets or gobbling mindlessly when you aren’t really hungry, ask yourself, “What do I really want? What am I really hungry for right now?” Even if you can’t stop the eating, keep asking this question and stay curious instead of critical. Knowing your desires and needs is an important part of healing from compulsive eating. In fact, it’s an important part of healing from any disordered eating, even restrictive under-eating. When you know what you want, you can ask for it — of yourself or of others around you — and you can stop using food as an inadequate (albeit yummy and soothing) substitute. It takes courage to ask for what you really want and desire, as well as time to reflect and really get to know what’s inside. But it’s worth doing, no matter how long it takes. There may be many bumps along the way, but the result is not only freedom from disordered eating but a more passionate, heart-centered, satisfying life.

Eating Disorder Blogger Slowly Returns to Writing and Learns a Thing or Two about Self-Care

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I’m going to be really honest here. I’ve been quiet on this blog for awhile and some of you have asked me what’s up. Well, here it is… 

It’s been too long since I’ve done any significant writing. It started with the fullness of life taking priority, and then I just got out of rhythm with the regular writing practice that I once had. 

And I haven’t danced enough lately.

And I’m not checking in with myself much or feeling rather clear about my needs and desires.

In fact, sometimes (like today) I feel like I’m just going through the motions. A bit on automatic pilot. Not fully present. A little lost. Not fully connected to my thoughts, my body, my true core self.

But …

I’m not using food — either the consumption of it or the withholding of it — to deal with this feeling. I haven’t done that in any significant way in decades. Food can be a way to soothe, reward, and even self-medicate when things get challenging, but in the end, it’s not really the food — or the control that comes from eating “perfectly” — that is really what I’m looking for in the first place. It’s not really what I’m hungry for or what I crave.

So what am I doing instead…?

I’m going to my journal to write and figure out what’s “eating” me.

I’m making conscious strides to find real connection with the people that I love and that care about me.

I’m checking in with myself and my “support team,” which includes friends and helping professionals, to help me remember my values and my needs.

I’m dancing, which is a way that I connect with all of the emotions that are inside.

It’s been a major transition time. My family has been going through a lot of changes. Really positive transitions have their stress, too. Let’s take the example of my partner moving in and becoming a part of our family. It’s a really good event, but it’s still a transition for all of us, bringing up the ghosts of past relationships as well as uncertainties about the future. Then there’s the new school year, which always seems to bring about a strong feeling of change and newness, amid the adjustment of schedules.

Something that I’ve learned about myself over the years is that transitions are challenging and I need spaciousness to take them in. At the same time, I can also be a “dive right in” kind of girl when the creative energy strikes me. Finding balance during transitions and creative breakthroughs may be part of my life’s work, but it feels worth it.

About twenty-five-plus years ago, when I struggled with an eating disorder, it was a big transition that I was anticipating and passing through: adolescence and the eventual moving away from my childhood home. In the past, I might have used food (either with too much control or out of control) to help me bridge the challenges of transitions, but eventually I learned other ways to cope and take care of myself. Now, decades later as a nutrition therapist who works with others struggling with disordered eating, I hope to help my clients move through their transitions and learn to nourish and feed themselves with care as they settle into their true selves.

I’m reminded, with this funky, automatic pilot, oh-my-goodness-what-a-busy-time, knocked-off-center feeling that I have today that we are all really just trying to find balance in a world that often doesn’t give us enough space and time to catch our breath.

Let’s take a moment together to just catch our breath…

And another moment…

Let’s make it three conscious, slow, spacious, deep breaths together…

(Big sigh)…

Taking a breath or two or three allows me to slow down, let go of the busy schedule and to-do list in my head and just live — really live through my breath — in the moment. When I do that, it’s easier to tap into what I really need or desire in any given moment. It's easier for me to listen better to what the the moment is asking of me. 

As I reflect and slow down, I realize that I need to write more. (This keeps me from driving my family crazy with all the things I have to say.)

I need to find time to dance more. (Dishwashing dance party, anyone?)

I need to hug my family more. (Those of you that have followed the blog, I’m sorry to report that guinea pig Boo is no longer with us. Although sad, her passing gave my daughters a chance to learn something about love and death. We recently added a few other critters to the household…)

 Bud-bud stands alone.

Bud-bud stands alone.

And I need to honor my center, even as I get knocked off of it, again and again and again. After all, we’re all human beings here together on this planet, trying to find our way.

I don’t use food to negotiate transitions any more, but I still feel the challenges to my sense of self and value when I start to feel a little “off” during them. I’m so grateful for the reflection and skills and open-heartedness that my recovery has offered me. I’m so grateful to be supporting the recoveries of many wonderful individuals as they discover the best way to nurture and feed themselves on many levels.

Writing this blog post today was both a gift to you, my ever-patient readers who I have been out of touch with, and a bit of my own self-care. How amazing when giving and receiving flow so simultaneously, particularly when they come out of a funky, disconnected-from-self place. And it worked! On this end, I feel better already. Thank you for reading. I hope that I can be a small part of your journey toward balance today as I find my own footing this September. How good it is to be doing this living and breathing, eating and growing, doing and being — together.

Day by day.

 Bobert the Beta Fish

Bobert the Beta Fish

Moment to moment.

One

deep 

breath 

at a time.

Today, can you make a commitment to slow down, breathe, and check in with those self-care practices that nourish you? Food is nourishing, but it shouldn’t take the place of other forms of self-care. What or who are your supports when you feel less than your stellar self? 

I commit to not letting it be too long before I connect here with you and myself in writing again. What can you commit to today? How can you commit to your Self today…? 


 Bubbles the Gerbil

Bubbles the Gerbil





Eat Clean? Detox? Lose that Winter Weight? Beware of the Nutritionist (or Anyone) Who Tells You What To Eat

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I have not been a regular blog writer this winter, and I am happy to say that I'm back. 

Spring Detox Nutrition Weight Loss

My writing practice inhabited a more internal, quiet space this winter, as New England got deeply pummeled with snow. In my hiatus, I discovered something about myself. It was something I already knew, but I experienced this knowing more deeply: family and relationships are incredibly important to me. My energies went in the direction of my smaller soul community, while outreach to my larger community got put on hold. I happily welcomed guest bloggers’ unique perspectives (see past articles by Deanna D’Amore and Rachel Zimmerman). It felt good to decide to take a blogging break. But I also feel equally good about getting back to the writing practice that I love and that provides no-cost resources and inspiration to those of you who have been my regular readers.

Spring is unfolding, and the trend to hyper-focus on health and nutrition scares me almost as much as some of the discussion about the “obesity epidemic.” There is so much information out there, especially now with on-line channels, that it is staggeringly hard to make decisions about our health. The information on nutrition alone is incredible. It seems that everyone has something to say about what we should eat, even those that don't have any background in nutrition science or have any understanding of human physiology. And while my own work has become more and more holistic and creative over the years, my nutrition therapy practices stay grounded in common sense, compassion, research in behavior, and knowledge of how the body works to process and assimilate food. 

Spring Detox Nutrition Weight Loss

Recently, one of my clients said, “One of the things I really like about working with you, Heidi, is that you never say that you know something about how to eat. In fact, you mostly say that you don't know.” She went on to highlight one of the pieces of our work that I think is most critical: I absolutely don't have the answers about what you should eat. I don't have the answers about what anyone should eat. And I'm not going to pretend that I do, no matter how much training I've had in nutrition. In fact, the one person who really does know what what's best for you to eat is YOU. If you listen, your body actually tells you. In my work with clients, I strive to help each individual find the style of eating that really works for them. And that often takes a lot of trial and error, listening, challenging, and practice.  

Now, if somebody has a serious eating disorder and they're either under- or over- feeding themselves significantly, there's no question that the relationship with food is out of balance. We also know that eating disorders are not just about food. Regardless, the ultimate goal, no matter how we need to move forward to get there, is about finding the style of eating that really works for one's individual body. No two bodies are like, and no two people likely need the same types and amounts of food at any given time.

Spring Detox Nutrition Weight Loss

Please be wary of anyone who tells you that they have the answer for how to eat, particularly if that answer means eliminating whole types of food. Sure, allergies and intolerances are very real and worth sorting out. But the one-size-fits-all method of health and nutrition advice is just incorrect. The idea that we need to fine tune our diet (“clean” it up) so that it's perfect is also really incorrect and dangerous. Doing so  — worrying about every morsel that comes into our bodies and whether it is clean or not — can create stress and a sense of over-control that itself is rather toxic to our bodies and minds.

Yes, we are what we eat and it's important to eat health-giving food. I believe we should grow food that is full of the nutrients that our bodies need to thrive. I believe in making food choices that connect us to greater health because we are listening to what our bodies are telling us about how to care for them. However, the idea that we have to monitor, scrutinize, and perfect every morsel of food that goes into our bodies is the other end of the pendulum; it’s just as damaging as being mindless, disconnected, processed food eaters.

Spring Detox Nutrition Weight Loss

Take care of yourself. Take care of your wonderful body. Give it good nourishing food. Sit quietly with that nourishing food and feel it go down. Feel it sink into your tissues. Really savor and enjoy it. But don't run around and analyze every morsel you put into your body. Don’t (for a minute!) believe that one way of eating is going to be the answer to all your problems. Don't (for a minute!) believe that one way of eating is going to keep you disease-free. There are so many factors that can trigger illness —  stress and over-control included. Enjoy your days while you have them. The plain reality is that we are all going to die of something sometime. All over the world people eat in so many different ways and thrive. Find the way to eat that makes YOU thrive right now and helps you feel your best.

Find a way to really relax and enjoy food and the pleasure of eating. If you need help, I'm happy to assist you in this process, and so are many nutrition therapists oriented away from diets and towards more intuitive, mindful eating. We all need help with things that don't come naturally,  especially if we didn't learn how to tune in to our bodies from an early age.

As spring unfolds (and, wow, is it ever a big deal here in Boston after all the snow!), turn your faces up to the sunshine. Trust yourself and sink into that feeling of well-being that comes over you when you eat something that tastes and feels amazing. As the flurry of advice on how to detox, clean up, and drop that winter weight piles as high as the melting snow, I recommend instead that you listen to your own feelings and intuition about what to eat. No body knows better about what your body needs than your body.  



Zen and the Art of Chopping Vegetables

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Themes in my work these past few weeks have been about self-care and self-compassion. Couldn’t we all use a little bit more of these…?

Self-care can be a challenge in our busy lives. We spend so much time attending to our work, our children, our friends, our homes, our communities — and all of that is wonderful and rewarding. But does care of our Selves often get squeezed out of the day? Yes, indeed.

I believe that so many of our chronic diseases, our mental illnesses, and our growing fatigues may be related to deficits in self-care. This might mean simply failing to check in with ourselves, appreciating what we are feeling, and knowing when enough is enough. Sometimes we realize, at the end of the day, that we are depleted. We eat as a reward or treat — or to give ourselves something good when the day has left us little energy for anything else. Or, conversely, we restrict or obsess about our food as a way to feel better about and feel more in control of our lives.

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We all want lives that are our own, full of joy-filled activities and meaningful moments. We really do want to learn and grow from our mistakes and challenges in life, but we often punish ourselves instead. Sometimes with over- or under-indulgence of food or other pleasures.

Why do we do this…?!

We do this because food is tied so closely to expressing our larger needs and hungers — and it has been so since the time that we cried for our mother’s care and feeding on our first day as a human being. Whether we want it to be or not, food will always be associated with love and care and asking for what we need. Our brains are wired that way. So, no wonder the disregulated eaters are many, and I’ve been busy doing this work for nearly 20 years!  Now that I am blogging, my aim is to discuss what it takes to heal from this over- or under-eating and to give hope to those on this path.

Mindfulness is one of the most helpful practices for healing from disregulated (a kinder, broader term than “disordered”) eating and for cultivating more intuitive eating. The dictionary defines mindfulness as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” or “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” It sounds rather simple, but, in practice, mindfulness can be challenging — particularly in our fast-paced, multi-tasking world.

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When I work with clients to cultivate mindfulness in their eating experiences, amazing things happen (but, sorry, not overnight). Gradually, and with practice, disregulated eaters begin to identify the triggers to their un-attuned food choices and behaviors, question whether those choices and behaviors are in their best interest, and begin to make choices that are more aligned with self-care.

One of my favorite mindfulness techniques that I will share with you all today is what I call “The Zen of Chopping Vegetables.” I use this particularly with clients who overeat compulsively, but anyone who eats mindlessly at times could benefit. And it need not be done with just vegetables. It’s really about taking in the sensory environment of whatever foods are being prepared. It’s just that veggies are so colorful and make such a satisfying sound when they are cut. (So much so that when I cut something on a wooden cutting board, the sound makes our pet guinea pigs in the other room squeak in Pavlovian excitement.)

I’m sure many of you — perhaps all of you reading — have chopped vegetables. But have you really chopped vegetables…? I’m talking clear the clutter from your heads, examine that juicy carrot in it’s fullness of color and crispness, and chop away. Notice the sound, the texture, the rhythm of the knife on the cutting board. Now take a vegetable of a different color and texture. Notice the different sound the knife makes on the board, the change in juiciness, the feel of the experience. Notice the patterns on the inside of the vegetable. This exercise is exposing what prep-chefs in restaurant kitchens know already: preparing food is relaxing, transporting, sensual.

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When you get bored of being so in-tune with what you are doing (and you will, it’s the nature of the mind), then imagine where the food comes from, how it was grown, who tended it, and how it got to your kitchen — all the many steps. Acknowledge the miracle that is our nourishment. Now, chop some more. Tune in to the other parts of the meal with the same mindful attention, as if this was going to be your last meal and you really want to savor the experience. You may notice that the process of preparing food can be almost as nourishing as eating it. Almost.

Now, I’m hearing you say, “When in the world do I have time to chop vegetables like this? I only have a half-hour to get dinner on the table for a family of four!” I hear you. Most of the time, I can’t zen-out in the kitchen either. But, I guarantee that if you commit to mindful food preparation practice at least once per week (and ideally more in small doses here and there), you will enjoy those less-mindful times more. You will have slowly, but surely re-wired your brain to relax and nourish yourself more in the act of feeding yourself and others. Instead of a “should” or a “chore,” food preparation can feel like taking good care of your body and soul. It can be a peaceful respite from life’s more stressful thoughts, feelings, and activities.

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And, again, this won’t happen overnight. But by cultivating awareness of, nonjudgmental attention to, and gratitude for the foods that you are preparing, you will slowly appreciate the act of feeding yourself differently. There is little room for obsession, judgement, and mindless binging in the purest form of this sort of practice. If you notice judgement, emotions, thoughts come up; then do notice them, but return your focus to self-care, gratitude, and the sounds and smells that are before you. In the present moment. Right now.

Try it and see what it does for your eating and self-care. It’s just one of many mindfulness practices that clients have found helpful on the path toward healthful, balanced, more self- and body-attuned eating. The act of taking food preparation slowly — the way it used to be done out of necessity — can be healing and relaxing and kind of meditative. But you really want to allow yourself the space and the self-compassion to know that it won’t be easy at first. The simple act of preparing a colorful vegetable or fruit salad — or any baked good or main dish, for that matter — really can be nourishing on so many sensory levels. Allow yourself the time and attention and spaciousness to really notice.


Eating Disorders are Like Compost: Trash to Treasure

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Okay, okay. I’m going to get a little corny this week. After the coldest, longest winter Boston has seen in a while, I’m feeling positively giddy about Spring. So, forgive me the gardening metaphor, but I think it works. This week I was digging around in my compost bin. I dug through layers of leaves, weeds, and scraps of food to get down to the nutritional gold: gorgeous, mineral-rich soil. Organic gardening is my dirty little hobby, and I enjoy seeing the miracles that come from layering goat manure from a friend’s backyard farm with compost made from egg shells, fruit peels, and wilted lettuce leaves from the previous couple of years.

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I was deep into my digging, feeling my connection to the earth and how good it felt to use my body to connect with it, when the theme for this blog post came to me. Here I was, taking all the food scraps that would normally be thrown into the trash and mixing them with other backyard trash (leaves, grass clippings, weeds). With the help of rain, insects, and heat, what once was trash becomes treasure. The end result, with time, is extremely healthy, rich soil that makes my garden grow. The vegetables and herbs that my daughters and I grow from tiny seeds in our sunny front yard each year come out of that rich soil. They are fed and nourished and flourish because I put my old banana peels and raked-up leaves to work for them. The food scraps go back to the earth and, in turn, feed the next year’s crop of food. The cycle continues. How cool is that…?

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It got me thinking, as I was digging through the kinda gross layers of not-quite-composted food to get to the good stuff on the bottom, that eating disorders are like this. (Bear with me here…) My clients with disordered and disregulated eating have a lot they struggle with. There is the food, weight, and body image issues — and there is all of the other struggles that go on underneath these (like trauma, shame, depression, anxiety, low-self-esteem, self-judgement  — to name a few). Working through one’s relationship with food and body, when those relationships have become challenged, is truly hard work. My clients do this hard work; it is not usually fun. But the outcome of doing this work is so worth it. Repairing your relationship with food, learning to love and accept your body and your Self, working through the issues that brought you to use food emotionally… it’s quite an amazing journey. In the process, you get to know yourself intimately, heal some wounds, and discover how to truly take good care of your body, mind, and spirit.

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Clients who have done their recovery work and really embrace their lives often write to me about what a gift their eating disorder was, in the end. Of course, they couldn’t see that when they were in the throes of it. Digging through the non-quite-composted layers in my bin, I encountered biting ants (ouch) and smelly things. However, with time and patience, those icky layers will become earthy gold: soil that produces new blossoms, ripe fruits. Sometimes we just have to dig through the muck to get to the gold. Sometimes we have to examine the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, the parts of ourselves that have been hurt or challenged or hidden. In recovery, we allow ourselves to be nourished with not only good food, but good company. We learn to water and feed and tend to ourselves in a way that allows us to realize our full potentials and give to others around us. In recovery, we take a dark time in our lives and grow from it.

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My clients are doing this every day. If I hadn’t had my eating disorder decades ago, I might not be doing this work that I love and that helps others find their own paths to wellness, healing, and hope. If you are hanging out in the icky layers of the compost bin (and we all have our moments with the worms, no matter how far along in our growth we think we are), know that it’s worth digging deeper and giving yourself time to get to the earthy, rich soil within. It’s worth getting dirty and getting grounded. Working through to that bottom layer brings the outcomes of good soil: creativity, growth, and ripe, luscious fruit.

(I hope my metaphor worked for you. If it didn’t, you can just toss it in your compost bin and compose your own.)

“The grass is always greener where you water it.”

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“The grass is always greener where you water it.”  This seems like an appropriate quote for the Spring, coming a bit later than usual here in New England. (If any of you know who said this, please let me know. I saw it printed with "unknown" after it.) In any case, it seems rather obvious that the grass is greener where it’s tended. One of my clients repeatedly says that she thinks that my work is to point out the obvious that she somehow forgets. Yes, when we take good care of ourselves — when we water that grass — it grows. We grow. Instead of gazing at our neighbor’s green grass (or our neighbor’s body, possessions, partner, whatever…) we can cultivate a greener lawn within ourselves by practicing good self-care.

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Some of us are afraid to practice self-care for fear of being seen as selfish or self-serving or self-absorbed. But these are different states than true care of the Self. Care of the Self fills you up and allows you to be more generous in the world, to give of your own unique gifts, and to give without feeling resentful and depleted on the other end.

But this is no easy task for some of us. It’s a real dance…

So how do we practice good self-care — when it comes to food or anything else? How do we know when we’ve eaten enough or the right things for our unique bodies? How do we know how much physical activity is enough to make us feel good and increase our health without taxing our immune system and making us feel exhausted? How do we really know when enough is enough in our work, relationships, sleep, socializing, or other habits that take time and energy in our lives…?

My Nondiet Book Club is reading Karen Koenig’s book Starting Monday, a terrific read that really lays out the issues underneath disordered and (I like her term better) “disregulated” eating. It’s a challenging book to read, as she asks so many really right-on questions. Chapter 8 is titled “Know What’s Enough,” and I wholeheartedly recommend this chapter (ideally while reading the rest of the book) to anyone who feels that they have trouble with eating. If you go back and forth between under-eating and over-eating — or if you just can’t seem to find a balanced eating style that works for you — this chapter might resonate.

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My favorite thing about Karen Koenig is that she cuts to the chase, exposes our vulnerabilities, but doesn’t just leave us hanging. She generally talks about concrete steps to take, once she points out the issues that get us stuck. Trial and Error is one of the strategies that she writes about in order to figure out how much is enough for you — with food, exercise, work, and in negotiating your needs in relationships. This is one of those (like, duh) really obvious strategies, but yet we are often afraid to employ it. We have to really experiment with how much is enough to know what works for us. Searching out other people’s green grass (“she looks so great, so I want to eat like her”) won’t cut it when you are trying to figure out the way to eat that works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all eating or exercise plan, just like there is no one-size fits-all-amount of work that is right for everyone. Everyone has different thresholds for movement, intimacy, exploration in nature, need for quiet, and need for stimulation.

We are all such wacky, interesting, unique beings, but we often look to others to decide what is best for us.  Other people’s green grass might be nice to look at, for sure, but if we don’t play around in our own gardens, then we miss out on the lushness of a fully lived life.

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Trial and Error, as Karen Koenig writes, means trying different foods and really noticing what tastes and feels good. This takes some time and attention. It means cultivating trust in yourself by having an idea and not being too afraid to test it out and see how it feels, even if it’s something that no one else around you has considered. Just a few examples of what you might come up with as you apply Trial and Error to self-care include:

  • I need to have a solid breakfast in order to have balanced eating the rest of the day.
  • I need at least 7 hours of sleep in order to feel focused and alert.
  • Working out 4 times per week is just right for me.
  • Getting together with friends in person a couple of times per week helps me feel connected.

Create your own set of theories around what you need to feel balanced and test them out. How do you feel? Was your idea too much, too little, or just enough? When I started blogging I heard someone say that I had to blog every week. Someone else said to just blog when the mood hit me. I finally settled on every other week (with exceptions like two weeks ago when I had other priorities), as that helped me stay with my writing practice in a way that fit with my current life. It also gave me a sense of discipline and consistency that helps me stay on track. If I tried to blog more often, it felt like a chore that I didn’t have quite enough time for; less often and I lost momentum and missed it. I found my “enough” and it feels right. For now.

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Practice listening to your own sense of enoughness with food each day — and notice that sometimes a whole sandwich is just right, sometimes a half. Notice what types of foods make your body and mind feel good. Practice listening to your sense of enoughness with other things in life, too. Just because everyone in your office works 50+ hours each week doesn’t mean that this lifestyle is healthiest for you. As you pay attention to your own needs and limits and gradually learn to trust yourself more, you will develop the ability to take good care of yourself.  Karen Koenig writes, “Trust produces confidence, which produces more trust, and each reinforces the other.”

I find this work on “enough” is one of the last frontiers of eating disorders recovery, and it’s often something that has to be revisited even by those of us who are quite far along in recovery. The issues come up more often around other things than food — and food is no longer used as a way to deal with challenges of enoughness. Through the process of recovering from disregulated eating, one’s sense of being enough, doing enough, and saying “enough-is-enough” generally gets easier over time. At a certain point in recovery, we stop choosing to eat (or starve) to make us feel better. Instead, we ask for what we really need and soothe our own disregulated emotions. By directly honoring our needs and emotions, we learn how to take good care of ourselves.

As you tend to your own growth this Spring, notice that green grass of your neighbor, but please don’t forget to water and care for your very own garden.

Care of the Athlete (and the Self) Creates a Winning Team

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The recent Winter Olympics buzz inspired me to write about something that troubles me about athletics and sports today: the focus on winning and being there for the team at the expense of the individual athlete. Even in individual athletic pursuits, there is often a focus on competition. The outcome becomes more important than the process. While setting goals can be motivating, I also wonder if so many people lose the joy of moving the body by focusing on the finish and not on the race.

I work with many athletes and former athletes in my nutrition therapy practice. It’s astounding how many of them have challenging relationships with food. You would think that athletes, whose bodies are their instruments, would have increased reverence for food as their fuel. Many of them do, but I am always amazed at just how many also have a lot of conflict and struggle around food.

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Athletic people should ideally be the most in-tune with their bodies. Their bodies are highly capable, and sometimes they depend on these well-trained bodies for a major part of their livelihood. But, more often than I’d like to see, athletes can become quite disconnected from their bodies. They often ignore pain, strain, and fatigue because they don’t want to let the team down. The focus is on winning or finishing or getting the best time or lifting more than they did yesterday... And if a coach has told them that they need to stay thin or lose weight to be top at their sport, then they often engage in dieting behaviors — and sometimes even develop eating disorders — in an attempt to perform their best. Ironically, the dieting and disordered eating often shortens their career or leads to debilitating injuries that last for decades. Some athletes, like football players, are even encouraged to overeat, which can have a lasting impact on their relationship to food and later health.

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It made me think about the way in which all of us “perform” in our lives. Do we operate from our own desires, dreams, appetites — or are we trying to please our “coaches” or “teams?” Are we enjoying the moments of our lives — or are we chasing some goal, some “should” that keeps getting bigger and bigger the more we practice?

Let’s think about this…

  • When you exercise, are you doing it because it makes you feel great and it’s loads of fun — or are you trying to look a certain way for a certain someone or have a certain image? Do you listen to your body when it says it’s time to rest, or do you have a set amount of exercise that you must do in order to feel good about your workouts?
  • When you make a choice about what to eat, do you choose from what you really want to eat and what you know feels best for your body and palate — or do you eat what you think you should, based on someone else's assessment of what is best for you?
  • Are you living your life on your terms, making your own choices? Do you consult with your “team” of loved ones or advice-givers around you, considering their needs and ideas along with your own — or do you give up your own needs for the team, doing what you think you should do?
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My last blog post was a reprint of Sondra Kronberg’s article about eating disorders recovery called “Listening Inward.” She wrote about the importance of operating from a frame of reference that is inside ourselves, honoring our own truths and hungers and preferences instead of those of the people around us. If an athlete is doing that, she is more likely to notice that twinge in her knee and stop, instead of pushing on through pain and hurting herself. If a coworker recognizes that her body wants warm, grounding food and choses the hearty soup, she will feel centered and soothed all afternoon — instead of grabbing the salad, like everyone else around her and feeling hungry, distracted, and unsatisfied afterwards. If we all listen to our hearts and work to create a life that holds meaning and enjoyment for us, then we can say “no” to the things that don’t resonate with the life that we want. We can also say “yes” to the things and people that line up with our values and dreams.

Maybe you didn’t beat your best time, but you ran the race with your friends beside you for a good cause. Maybe you didn’t win the game, but you took many wonderful deep breaths under a clear blue sky. Maybe you didn’t lift as much weight or swim as many laps as you did when you used to go to the gym regularly, but you recommitted to your health and well-being by starting to exercise again. Maybe you didn’t dance as long or as hard as the people around you, but you shook your thang and you loved it.

 Bud-Bud and Boo try out snowboarding.

Bud-Bud and Boo try out snowboarding.

Enjoy moving — even if you don’t win the gold medal. Enjoy eating — even if you didn’t create the perfect meal. Listen to your body and its wisdom before you jump on the next diet and nutrition fad. In my experience, healing our relationships with food is comprised of the slow, hard work of changing habits and thought patterns, and no quick-fix nutrition solution will do it. Trust yourself above all else. Don’t forget yourself, when trying to be part of a community, family, or workplace. Feed yourself well so that you can move through life the way you want to: with strength, courage, and not overly influenced by your “team.” Life can be a challenging journey. Appreciate your growth, your unique gifts, and the way that taking good care of yourself helps you move through your unique life with grace. You will truly be a better “team player” if you are taking good care of your Self first.

Self-Care in a Selfie-Absorbed World

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That wasn’t a typo. I wrote selfie-absorbed because it seems that, as a culture, we are all so focused on our images. Wikipedia defines the selfie as “a type of self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone.” Time magazine wrote that the selfie was among its "top 10 buzzwords" of 2012. In November 2013, the word selfie was announced as being the "word of the year" by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Today’s blog post is not a sociological look at why we love to take pictures of ourselves and post them on Facebook. But it struck me today that so many of us find taking good care of ourselves challenging. In this world where information and communication happen at lightning speed, our brief screen images often seem more important than how we are really feeling.

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As a nutrition therapist who treats many clients with disordered and emotional eating, I’m frequently encouraging good self-care: eating well, sleeping well, moving the body in ways that feel good without overdoing it, etc… I’d be dishonest, though, if I said that I never have trouble with self-care myself. I have worked on my relationship with food and I’m two decades recovered from my own eating disorder, but I still occasionally find myself eating in front of the computer to save time or eating on the fly in the car. I know that giving myself good, nurturing, focused experiences with food feels better physically and emotionally, but I don’t always do it. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice because I have a deadline that feels more important in the moment, but sometimes I’m putting my own needs too low on the to-do list. When I don’t really taste my food because my mind is on something else, I might feel disappointed. I might find myself distracted and foraging for a snack later, even if I’m not hungry. Taking the time to honor my need for food, and the sensory enjoyment that an eating break provides, makes me feel like a more grounded, giving, and less distracted clinician/parent/partner/friend. When our cup is filled, we tend to be better equipped to help others in need.

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Sleep is another self-care item that so many of us struggle with. Just one more email, just one more chore, just one more sweet conversation with a friend or partner… And before we know it, we’ve squeezed our required seven hours of sleep (or however many you need to feel your best) out of the picture. The instant gratification of getting things done or connecting with a friend might have been wonderful, but we didn’t take the long view. How much can we really get accomplished the next day? How grumpy will we be with the people that we encounter as we get more and more tired over the week? I also find that when I “binge” on sleep after a week where I haven’t quite had enough, I feel groggy and worse after over-sleeping. It didn’t really produce the effect that consistent good sleep would have to begin with.

We do this failing-to-consider-the-long-view dance with food, of course. That [insert comfort food here] might have felt really good to eat. After all, you’re entitled to eat whatever you want, right, especially after all the work you’ve done to be “good” today? In the short view, that comfort eating might have felt great. In the long view, you may have felt overfull and groggy all afternoon. If you’ve struggled with disordered eating and self-judgement, you may have also felt bad about yourself for eating what you know doesn’t make you feel good.

One of my clients today said that her eating disorder and constant focus on food makes her feel like she is only living a “half life.” She’s so focused on what she is and isn’t eating and working her life around her eating disorder, that she finds it hard to be in touch with what she really wants to do. She goes back and forth between being overly accommodating of others and hoarding time and food and space to herself. She is working on a more balanced stance where she is able to take care of herself and, in doing so, has the space and energy to be generous and open and clear with others.

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Isn’t that what we are all working on as we try to negotiate our needs and others’ needs? It’s no mistake that this gets played out with food. We sometimes just can’t find that middle ground. We go back and forth between restricting or eating pristinely (and feeling virtuous about it) and binging or eating beyond our needs because, damn it, we just deserve a cupcake. Note, that I have nothing against cupcakes (love them), but we often use these rewarding-types of foods as a way to make up for the fact that we haven’t done much of anything for ourselves all day. In this case, a cupcake is our only self-care. But is that what we are really craving? Would we rather have a moment to leave work and walk around the block, clearing our heads? Would we rather have a hug after a long day, but we’re too afraid to ask for it for fear of rejection? Would we rather spend a bit of quiet time being reflective and compassionate toward ourselves or in some rejuvenating spiritual or physical practice? Would we rather connect with a human being instead of a computer screen full of selfies?

I still have to remind myself to practice what I preach to my clients regularly: we become more giving when we first give to ourselves. (In fact, us helping/healer types are particularly good at forgetting self-care at times.) When we nourish ourselves with good food, sleep, down-time, connection with people who energize us and don’t deplete us, and generally value and honor our own needs, we become more capable of living the lives that we are meant to lead. We naturally give more to the world and the people around us.

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How do I start to do this when I have believed all my life that my needs aren’t important? How do I fit self-care in with all the obligations and priorities and to-do list items…?

One bite at a time.
One hour of sleep at a time.
One breath at a time.
One dishwashing dance party at a time.

It’s better to commit to eating one mindful, slow meal than to expect your eating style to change overnight. It’s better to do five minutes of meditation in the morning, if that’s all you have time for, then to leave it out when you know that it centers you and helps you through your day. It’s great to commit to getting a little more sleep than usual and work slowly up to the amount that your body lets you know it needs. It’s better to move a little — and just commit to it — than to say that you are going to go to the gym five days a week (and beat yourself up if you can only make it twice). All that energy that goes towards not feeling “good enough” is energy that you could be putting out into the world, doing the great things that only you can contribute. We each have our own unique gifts, but we often get in our own way and fail to let our lights shine.

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Today, make a commitment to yourself and your very own needs for self-care. Make a small but (this is important) do-able decision to change something about the way you live your days, be it about eating, movement, sleep, or other self-care. Try that small change out and get that new habit nicely locked in before you try something else. Be patient with yourself; change is hard and there is often resistance. Look that resistance in the face and keep trying. One healthy, self-caring habit carried out often makes the next one a little easier. Self-care, like self-neglect, is contagious and grows. If you find that negative, self-loathing feelings get in the way of change, get some help from a therapist or therapy group. Sometimes working with people who can give you some of the unconditional compassion that you need (but find hard to give yourself) is helpful and healing.

Remember that you are a whole being and not just your screen image. What will you do today to take better care of yourself — and, therefore, your world, as the self-care extends out in ripples of giving to those around you…?

(Feel free to comment below and share your own thoughts and journey… We are all in this together.)

Why Stress Can Make You Gain Weight Faster Than Grandma’s Cheesecake

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You may be wondering why I’m writing about the “w” word at all. Many of my clients and blog readers know that in my work I de-emphasize the focus on weight, aiming instead to help clients find a more balanced, healthy relationship with food — no matter one’s size or shape. I believe in eliminating the struggle around food and weight, so that one’s body settles into the healthiest place it can.

That said, many of my clients want to lose weight (and you may want to as well, which could be why my catchy title drew you in). There is no denying that the desire to lose weight and be thinner often drives problematic eating behaviors. If you fear weight gain, you may not feed yourself well all day, only to find yourself binging at night. If you want to be thinner, you may make food choices that are about calories and not about your own body’s wisdom about what to eat in that moment. Then you feel unsatisfied, and find yourself looking for the cookies. So, by focusing on weight loss — instead of balance, health, and nourishment — when you eat, you may promote the very relationship with food that you don’t want to have. Ironically, trying to lose weight can keep you stuck in a struggle with food and weight.

There are many ways in which body weight is not determined by how much food we eat. Some of the ways that I won’t address in today’s blog post include metabolism differences, heredity, hormones, and even something that I just learned more about recently: epigenetics. The short story on epigenetics in this context is this: the way your parents and grandparents ate when you were being conceived may have an effect on your body weight.  Most interestingly, a study of Dutch famine victims showed that parents who conceived children during the famine went on to have children who were significantly higher weight. It’s as if these children entered the world as caloric-energy-conservers, ready for famine, but then they grew up in a world where food was abundantly available and couldn’t adjust. Fascinating… and yet another reason not to diet during pregnancy!

Today’s blog post will focus on one of these non-food reasons behind weight gain: stress. No, this is not an article on how to “meditate yourself thin.”  I still believe that putting too much attention on weight loss is counterproductive to healing from emotional or disordered eating. But understanding the way that stress can effect weight may ease any blame that you place on yourself about where your body is at — and further encourage you to find ways to ease the stress in your life.

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It’s no surprise that stress might have a role in weight gain. I know that when I have a particularly stressful week, I feel heavier in my body — literally weighed down by the burden of whatever is on my mind. But aside from that general feeling of burden, stress can actually effect our hormonal system in a way that encourages appetite and weight gain. Here’s how…

Your day at work feels pressured or your children are pushing every limit all day (or both). Your professor just assigned another paper and you have two due already that same week. Your partner just got laid off, at just the time a major bill is due. Stress comes in many different forms. And it can also come to us via the internet and TV, as so many of the stories in the news are bleak. Acute stress can initially decrease one’s appetite, and this is an adaptive response that primes us for “fight or flight.” When running from a saber-toothed tiger, it wasn’t such a good idea for our ancestors to stop for a snack. We all know, however, that stressors more chronic than hungry tigers can often lead us to eat as a way to soothe ourselves, escape our minds for a moment, or make us feel better in the way that only chocolate can. On top of this emotionally-driven increase in eating that some of us have in response to stress, there is a very real hormonal shift that happens in the body which encourages us to keep eating.

Here’s how it works. The hormones that are released when we are feeling stressed include adrenalin, corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and cortisol. High levels of adrenalin and CRH actually decrease appetite at first, as in the saber-toothed tiger example above, though the effects are not lasting. Cortisol, however, remains elevated in the body long after the initial stress response passes. Elevated cortisol over the long-term leads to increased blood sugar levels. Consistently high blood sugar levels, along with insulin suppression when the pancreas struggles to keep up with these levels, lead to cells that are starved of glucose. Those cells are crying out for energy, and one way the body regulates this is to send hunger signals to the brain. Cortisol is a hormone designed to help you replenish your body after a stressful event has passed, increasing your appetite and driving you to eat more.

Again, this works nicely in the case of saber-toothed tigers. Once we run away and the coast is clear, it’s a good idea to nourish ourselves after all that fighting or flighting. But this doesn’t really make sense when the tiger is the daily work grind, our partners’ messy habits, or Fox News. Typically we respond to stress today not by fighting or flighting (and expending lots of physical energy doing so); we respond by slumping down on the couch, stewing in our anger or frustration, and getting lost in a sports game or Facebook with a large bag of potato chips or some other soothing snack.

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We are also much more likely to crave sugar and carbohydrates when we are stressed, as cortisol levels are elevated. If you are stressed and your body feels soothed and comforted by eating these foods, then you learn something about how to feel better the next time you are stressed. The behavioral pattern becomes established.

Some studies have even shown that stress and elevated cortisol not only increase weight gain, but they specifically tend to cause weight gain in the abdominal area. This makes sense, given that cortisol has a role in fat cell maturity and triglyceride mobilization. If you are in a high-stress, unstable environment, it might make sense to have more “survival fat” around. In this day and age, though, high-stress is less about survival and more about lives that are just too full or pressured.

And never mind that your day was so stressful that there was no time for lunch. Add a day of spotty eating to the mix and you have a recipe for emotional and compulsive eating in the evening.

Oh, and did I mention that chronic cortisol secretion in the body can constrict blood vessels, increase blood pressure, contribute to gastrointestinal problems, compromise the immune system, and contribute to fertility problems? Yes, all this, and weight gain, too. That’s enough to make me drop my laptop and just say “Ommmm……”

Whether or not your urge to eat in order to manage stress is all about hormones or habit (or a little of both), there are things that you can do to disrupt the cycle of stress, cortisol, and weight gain. Here goes…

Don’t Skip Meals or Go Too Long Without Eating. Starting the day with breakfast and eating regularly throughout the day will keep blood sugar levels steady and lower insulin production. This eventually reduces cortisol levels.

Move your Body.  The endorphins released by physical activity counteract stress and allow a release of some of that fight-or-flight energy. My most anxious, stressed-out clients literally depend on some type of regular movement or exercise practice to help them manage life. Please note that exercising too hard for too long actually is counter-productive! It can raise cortisol-levels and increase stress. Listen to your body and recognize when you are feeling more worn out by your activities. (Injuries, loss of focus after exercise, and needing extra sleep are some indicators.) I often wonder if that’s the force at work when my clients exercise to exhaustion, seem to eat reasonably well, but find that they are actually gaining weight. Find an activity that you enjoy. Twenty minutes of walking or yoga counts. When you exercise an appropriate amount, your body releases biochemicals that counter the negative effects of stress hormones and control insulin and blood sugar levels.

Eat a Balanced, Nutrient-Rich Diet. Stress has been shown to deplete the body of certain vitamins and minerals, particularly B complex, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium. These are important nutrients that balance the effects of cortisol on the body. Eat plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, as well as foods rich in protein.

Sleep Well. When we don’t get enough sleep, cortisol levels rise significantly, which can make us feel more hungry all the time. Good sleep also makes it easier for us to avoid a lot of caffeine to keep us going, another way to keep the cortisol/stress cycle at bay.

Decrease Caffeine and Alcohol. Caffeinated coffee and tea, and even chocolate, can cause cortisol levels to rise, blood sugar to drop, and hunger to increase. Regular drinking of alcoholic beverages can negatively affect blood sugar and insulin levels.

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Practice Relaxation. I say practice because many of us have lost the skill of truly relaxing and need to work on it regularly. We might think that football game is helping us chill out, but the stimulation of the action and the advertising is actually not calming to our nervous systems. True relaxation, in whatever form works for you, produces brain chemicals that counter the effects of stress on the body. Experiment and find out what calms you. Some like putting their attention on the natural flow of their breath, which is always available. Others find meditation, yoga, taking a bath, listening to peaceful music, getting out for a walk in fresh air, or curling up with a good book or a cuddly pet relaxing.

Stress is not inherently bad. It helps us get things done. It creates heroes. But if we feel the effects of stress constantly, especially if we already tend to be a Type A, then it can harm our health and well-being. It weighs us down and keeps us from feeling focused, centered, and present in our lives. As I’ve said so many times before, research shows that weight-loss diets don’t work to sustain a long-term healthy weight. But also consider the impact that stress might be having on your body and your overall health — and try on a little Type B for a change. On the path to self- and body-love and good health, finding healthy ways to manage stress is more important than we may think.


Resolutions Schmesolutions!

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Have your New Year’s Resolutions started to go south yet…? I’ve noticed that it’s kind of trendy this year to not create resolutions. Like it or not, though, there is an energy of change and renewal that comes with January. It’s hard to deny. So we ride it, and think about breathing out the things that we’d rather leave in 2013 and breathing in the new…

So many of us set New Year’s resolutions or goals about weight loss or change in diet or exercise. I know this because clients have told me that the gyms are packed and the weight-loss commercials have increased. It’s a January phenomenon. Then, by March (if not before), the gyms are less crowded and many resolutions are forgotten. We sort of forget about them until next January. This can leave us feeling rather demoralized and ashamed, as if we have somehow failed or don’t have enough willpower or strength.

As a nutrition therapist, my work is all about assisting in behavior change. My clients want to eat more wisely, or move more freely and confidently in their bodies, or discover the freedom that life without disordered eating can bring. I believe in setting goals (realistic ones) and being patient with and honoring the process to get there. So, how can we look at those new year’s wishes in a new light so that we don’t run out of steam by March…?

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First, I propose New Year’s Explorations (instead of resolutions). Yes, we want to eat healthfully, in a way that makes us feel vital and energized, but how to we get to that place? Over the last 16 years that I have been doing this work, I have discovered that the majority of my clients actually know how to eat well. I don’t mean perfectly, as I don’t believe there really is one perfect way to eat. In fact, our bodies are all so different — and people all over the world live and thrive on so many different kinds of diets —  that I just don’t believe that our food choices deserve the scrutiny and obsessiveness that we have developed here in the U.S. With practice, I have seen many people figure out the way of eating that best suits their lifestyle and values. But what if you know the way that you want to eat, and you already know a lot about nutrition, but you just can’t stop eating patterns that sabotage this? For example, you want a diet that is balanced and moderate when it comes to sweets, but you find yourself binging on the foods that you are trying to moderate. Or maybe you don't want to be obsessed with what you eat, but you are so afraid of eating too many carbohydrates or calories that you find yourself restricting your food and feeling famished and focused on food all day.

We often use food — either over- or under-eating — as a way to deal with (or not deal with) challenging feelings or thoughts. Eventually, it can just become a habit. Compulsive overeating is something almost all of us do at times (particularly around the holidays) and is sometimes a way of self-soothing when our physical and emotional needs aren’t being met. Find yourself eating those holiday cookies in order to keep yourself awake to wrap gifts — or during holiday obligations that weren’t all that fun? Maybe you really wanted sleep or different company, but you treated yourself to food instead. You took care of the part of you that enjoys yumminess in your mouth, but not the other part of you that needed sleep or connection.

A client I met with this morning had the wonderful experience of being at a social gathering with friends that felt so nourishing. She was so “fed” by the company and the activity of the evening that she really had little interest in all the wonderful food that was present. She ate when she needed to, but she mostly had little interest in eating as her spirits were being nourished elsewhere. Another client today talked about the way in which she could be more flexible with her food choices, allowing herself to eat in a less rigid way, if only other parts of her life felt more fulfilling. Her elaborate food preparation rituals and the pleasure that she takes in eating her highly-planned meals is “all I’ve got” for self-care and pleasure in the day. She was able to imagine, though, that she could think about food a lot less and eat a quicker, less time-consuming meal if she had other pursuits in her day that were engaging her passions. She is trapped by her disordered eating, but her disordered eating also takes so much time that she has little space to think about how she might go about cultivating more of what she really wants in her life.

In the Non-Diet Book Club this morning, we also talked about the ways that we can be so afraid in our culture to sit still and ask ourselves what really fills us up. What nourishes our hearts and souls? We compulsively eat, drink, shop, exercise, text, clean, play games. We are — all of us, and I am far from perfect here — sometimes afraid to just sit still and simply be. We don’t often check in with our hearts. We are sometimes afraid of what we might find. We are afraid that we don’t know what our heart’s desire really is. Or if we do know what it is, we don’t know the first thing about connecting to it or bringing it into our lives. So many clients say that it’s so much easier to just keep [insert food behavior, whether it be binging, restricting, or eating carelessly] than to change and do something else, even if that something else might be good for them. Some of us are so conditioned to feel lousy, criticize ourselves, and live in our heads instead of our hearts, that it is hard to imagine operating otherwise. Change is hard. We need support and strength in order to do things differently.

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I know that clients are moving towards full recovery from disordered eating (no matter their path to get there) when they begin to truly cultivate the things in their life that help them to feel connected to themselves — and their unique values and purpose. Do you feel that groundedness and that sense that all is well in the world when you do something that you are passionate about? Doesn’t your life just flow better when you are feeding your spirit and senses — and when you find moments of being in the present? It can be simply spending time in nature or with a trusted friend or meditating or being lost in a project that you are passionate about. Not thinking endlessly about things that already happened or worrying about things in the future that are beyond our control, but just being in the present. Doesn’t life just flow better for you? Do you feel a little relief from that thinking, analyzing part of your brain? Do you not even think about food then, at least until your body gives you the clear signal that it’s time to refuel? Some of us find these moments of just being present more easily than others. Be patient with your very own journey.  

In 2014, I wish more of those moments of presence and deep heartfulness for you. And how do we all get there? Not by making resolutions, but by making explorations and finding out — in the quiet space that you give yourself — what it is that really “feeds” you. When you spend more time nourishing your spirit and soul, the power that food has over you becomes weaker -- and you are able to use your psychotherapy, nutrition therapy, and individual soul work more effectively.

Ask yourself these two big questions in 2014:

  • What fills ME up? What nourishes my soul and spirit and keeps me grounded in the present?

Some examples from my clients this week: listening to music, praying or meditating, walking in nature, taking care of someone that you love or your home, hanging out with a friend, playing with a pet. In fact, animals are particularly helpful for keeping us in the present. They don’t know any better.

  • What form of movement nourishes and feels good to my body and soul? Do I like to move my body alone or with others? Does vigorous or more gentle movement really ground me?
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I don’t know about you, but the right music can transform dish-washing into a satisfying dance party in my kitchen. Movement comes in all shapes and sizes. Think outside the gym.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to eat or exercise differently in the new year and setting goals to do so. But don’t forget that the reason that you might be overindulging in food, drink, or sedentary living just might be that you are starving for what matters most to you and trying to fill up or reward yourself with something else. Explore this in the new year… Check in with yourself (or, if you are a planner, your calendar) every month this year. Are you filling your life with the things that matter most? If not, make appointments with yourself to do so. Build that nourishment right into your life the way that you schedule all your other priorities. (Most busy people have to do this.)

Explore and discover what makes you feel happy, present, and full this year. You may find that eating becomes less of a battle and big deal when your soul is being adequately fed. And the really cool thing about the eating binge or the exercise resistance creeping back in here and there… Well, I recommend trying to dispense with the self-criticism and recognize this as a sign that your soul and spirit needs more nourishment. Don’t be afraid to sit quietly and ask your heart what it really needs if you find yourself hanging out with food you don’t want to eat. Be gentle with yourself and explore what you hunger for in 2014.

Peaceful and Joyful Holiday Eating...?

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As my gift to you this holiday season, I am reprinting the Intuitive Eater’s Holiday Bill of Rights, written by Evelyn Tribole and the Intuitive Eating Professionals Group -- with a few of my own personal nuggets added at the end, inspired by work with clients.

It’s hard to enjoy the blessings of the season when you are preoccupied with what to eat or worried about what to say to relatives or friends who have expectations about how much or how little you should eat at holiday gatherings. Consider this Bill of Rights to help encourage more peace with food and your body during the holidays...

  1. You have the right to savor your meal, without cajoling or judgment, and without discussion of calories eaten or the amount of exercise needed to burn off said calories.
  2. You have the right to enjoy second servings without apology.
  3. You have the right to honor your fullness, even if that means saying “no thank you” to dessert or to a second helping of food.
  4. It is not your responsibility to make someone happy by overeating, even if it took hours to prepare a special holiday dish.
  5. You have the right to say, “No thank you,” without explanation, when offered more food.
  6. You have the right to stick to your original answer of “no,” even if you are asked multiple times. Just calmly and politely repeat, “No, thank you, really.”
  7. You have the right to eat pumpkin pie for breakfast.
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Only you are the expert of your own body, which requires tuning in to your own sensations of hunger and fullness, as well as your true food preferences. It’s harder to listen when so much food and outside influences are present. It requires slowing down, something we often don’t do well at this time of year.

I would also like to add a few items of my own to the Bill of Rights. My clients inspired me to add to the items above...

  1. You have the right to make a choice to eat beyond comfortable fullness if a special dish comes only once a year. (Just, please, don’t beat yourself up about making this choice!)
  2. You have the right to leave the room (or ask for the subject to be changed) when friends or family members talk about dieting, weight loss, or food constantly or obsessively.
  3. You have the right to make resolutions, goals, or intentions for the new year that support your values and dreams and whole being -- instead of focusing on just your body.
  4. You have the right to say “no, thank you” to social and other holiday obligations or customs that don’t speak to your own values and desires -- and to try to include some new traditions or activities that nourish your unique soul during this darker time of year.

I wish you many blessings and much peace during this holiday season and in the year to come. Thank you so much for reading and sharing this blog over the past year. 

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(In case you've come to the blog late and have been wondering, the sweet creatures you've been seeing embedded in my posts are Bud-Bud and Boo, my daughters' guinea pigs and beloved family pets. They always seem to be doing things that resonate with my writing. They appreciate that you are furthering their modeling careers and they wish you a very happy new year, too!)

Don't Weigh Your Self-Worth With a Scale

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A client of mine wrote this honest account of her troubled relationship with the scale. I asked her permission to post it here because I thought that so many people struggling with food and weight might relate to her writing. I couldn’t have written it better myself, and I’m grateful for the insights that I can share here with you...

Goodbye Scale

He was a numbers man, cold and objectifying, but I craved his contact and approval.  It was a dysfunctional relationship, but he was hard to resist.  

He was dominant and I submissive in our perverse relationship.  I never considered it a choice; I just had to see him.  I thought I'd die without him.  I was somewhat dissociative when we shared intimacy at least once but sometimes multiple times a day in various spots on the floor outside my room.  It was best on the wood that had a certain grain, never on the rug or in front of anyone.  I was ashamed of my despair, which I hid in the back of my eyes, forcing the tears away.  I didn't want anyone to see or even know what I was up to.  

Enough of this.  He's had free reign over me forever.  He was there in my parents’ home -- actually in their room -- and in my various apartments later on.  I guess it was my fault, because I would seek him out and want his advice, but he always made me so sad, like a victim -- not who I want to be, now or ever.   I'm standing up, finally.  I want to scream, "I want my body back!  You can't tell me how to feel.  Get out of my life!  I can and will live better without you and will never judge myself by your number again."

I no longer could stand the anguish, waking to his shiny face and knowing he had the power to dictate my mood.  What a pain he would give me, and I would take it out on myself, feeling "less than" and hopeless many days.  It would take a lot to undo this feeling, but it nagged at me all the time.   His approval also could send me into a tailspin, not knowing how to keep this going, especially because I wasn't really sure what I did to get it right one day but not the next. I wanted to beg him, "Please make this easy and tell me what I did and how to do it again."  But, no, the great manipulator only gave random praise.   And I was addicted.  There was a time when I thought I had the perfect solution and one which no one would know: I could starve myself or binge and purge to get his praise.  I have given up on that tactic, but need to take this next giant step: get rid of him and regain my life.  

With lots of help, I came to my senses and broke up with him this morning. He's down in the dusty basement right now, probably in shock and wondering what he did to deserve this.   But I had no choice; it’s as simple as that.  I forced him into a tomb-like place, similar to the world I needed to escape.  Now he's the one living in a box, one more skeleton out of my closet.  I cannot let him or anyone hurt me again.   I want my body back!!  I need to stand up; life is waiting!   I don't want to waste any more time.  So, I'm moving on, and I can't and won't take him with me this time.  I'm excited to feel the joy of movement again, and I rejoice in what my limbs and muscles can do.  Here's to swimming, dancing, stretching, walking, and playing again!

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I love the words of my client above because they so capture the lure of the scale and the way that a strong relationship with it can undermine one’s trust in the body and self. If you step on a scale first thing in the morning, you may feel happy or dejected depending on what the number is today. You may use the scale as the reason to eat or not eat -- or to eat certain things over others. It’s hard to listen to the body’s wisdom about what to eat when the scale is deciding for you. It’s hard to listen to your hunger or fullness and pay attention to what you really want when that number is calling the shots.

Let’s say your weight is up a couple of pounds today. This could be related to hydration, water retention, and/or the presence of food in the stomach or intestines -- as compared to the last time your weight was checked. Those of you who check your weight frequently know that weight is lowest in the morning and increases naturally over the course of the day. You also may know that it fluctuates -- going up or down in a way that sometimes doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason when you compare it to your eating patterns.

Many of my clients are simply astounded by the sense of freedom that ditching the scale provides. Some of them smash it, throw it out high windows, or hide it in my office closet until they feel really able to let it go. I’ve donated scales to the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association so that they can use them for art therapy projects in their groups. The group members collage affirming, positive words and photos all over them. (You can try this at home.) Losing the scale makes most people feel, not ironically, like a tremendous weight has been lifted. And it is a major stepping stone in the process of trusting oneself to make food decisions based on self-care and not punishment or restraint.

If your doctor needs to monitor your weight because it is too low, or because you have a thyroid or other condition that effects your weight, then that’s fine. I personally can’t see any other reason to monitor weight outside of a medical visit or check-up. Most people are aware of shifts in their weight without needing a scale to put a number to it. In fact, some people start an exercise program and get discouraged because their weight initially goes up. Muscle weighs more than fat, so working out may make you leaner and healthier without changing weight very much. If you use the scale as your guide when you change your physical activities, you may be underestimating your progress in taking good care of your body.

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If you are having a torrid affair with the scale, think about whether you really need him (or her) in your life. Instead, surround yourself with people and things that feed your senses, affirm your worth as a human being, and encourage you to take good care of yourself. Ditch it once and for all. And if you do, please share your story...

 

 

 

Mindful Movement: How to Exercise So That You Never Burn Out or Lose Interest

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 I counsel and write frequently about mindful eating. This week, it struck me that a lot of my clients have been looking for help with exercising mindfully. They don’t call it that, but I hear things like:

“I feel bad if I don’t run six miles; but after I do that, I am completely wiped out and exhausted the rest of the day”

or “I know I should be exercising more, but I feel demoralized going into the gym”

or “I walked three miles today, but that doesn’t feel like enough.”

In each of these cases, my clients want to move, but they are moving according to some prescription that they hold in their heads -- or that was handed to them by another well-meaning health professional or parent or friend. What they aren’t doing is listening to their own bodies’ wisdom about how much activity is enough or right for them.

Let’s take the example of the runner who feels compelled to run so many miles per day, but whose body is not recovering well from it. Marathon runners know that training requires lots of miles, but it also requires lots of calories from food. If you are running your planned number of miles, but feeling more exhausted than energized, then you are probably running more than your own self-care will allow. Are you eating enough food to sustain and support that level of running, particularly if it’s daily? You may be surprised by just how many calories runners need in order to repair all the muscle fibers and tissues that break down and build up with regular running. In fact, if we don’t eat enough calories, we can’t build muscle doing any kind of physical activity. Muscle building is anabolic, which means that it requires extra food above and beyond the food that our bodies need to survive and function well.

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If your body is getting enough food (particularly enough carbohydrates and protein), enough sleep, and you are not training beyond your body’s capacities, you should be able to recover from your physical activity and feel good (albeit a little sore) the next day. If your exercise routine is wiping you out, then it’s time to take a look at your eating and other habits. Maybe your busy lifestyle is tiring enough, and exercising every other day would be more sustainable than daily workouts. Maybe two times per week is really enough for you right now. Just because the Surgeon General makes particular recommendations doesn’t mean that the advice is right for every person under every circumstance. Take a look at what level of exertion and frequency your lifestyle can handle. Try eating more if you feel like you aren’t recovering well between workouts. Many clients are surprised that just adding more food (often carbohydrates) gives them more energy and helps their bodies recover better from physical activity.

High-intensity exercise like running is certainly not for every body. Nor is going to a gym. The person I mentioned above who felt humiliation and shame going to a gym may not be choosing the right form of movement. Often when I interview someone about their exercise habits, I ask them to name ways of moving their body that feel good. If going to the gym and taking the stairs-to-nowhere feels good, so be it. For many, however, gym exercises become boring, repetitive, and something to dread. Often working with a sensitive trainer to mix things up and make movement interesting helps. Finding forms of movement that feel more motivating and fun helps sustain interest. Walking outside -- particularly now while the New England weather is mild and the trees are gorgeous -- will often feed the senses (and fulfill our hunger for nature) much more than staring at a TV in a gym. Clients of mine have discovered dancing, yoga, kayaking, swimming, martial arts, gardening, and other forms of movement that help them feel more connected to their bodies and to the joy of movement. One of my clients recently joined a women’s hockey league and finds it exhilarating and fun; the treadmill wasn’t doing it for her anymore.

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I once had an injury and needed to do some strength training to help me get stronger as my knee and hip healed. I hate traditional strength training, even though I know that it is good for my body. I find it boring and it feels pointless to me in the moment, so I have no interest in sustaining it, even though I want to have a strong, able body as I continue to age. Put me in a kayak or on my bike, but don’t make me lift a dumbbell or ride a bicycle that’s nailed to the ground! During my injury recovery, Peter Benjamin, the practitioner who helped me with my healing, made strength work fun. He taught me exercises that I could do with my daughters around the house, threw heavy balls back and forth with me (playing ball is way more fun than lifting weights!), and generally made the experience of strengthening and healing fun and interactive. I’m so grateful for that experience and for what it taught me about what I personally need in order to keep making movement a joy and a part of my life.

Lastly, I frequently hear clients say that they did some walking, or they worked an 8-hour shift on their feet, or they did some stretching and yoga -- but “it’s not enough.” Enough for whom, I ask? Often my clients have Schwarzenegger-like expectations. Our bodies benefit when we ride our bikes to the store, walk from the subway station to work, wait on tables or patients, and dance around in the yard with a toddler. You might get up from your desk if you sit a lot (set an alert on your computer if you need to) and stretch and move in the way that your body tells you it needs. If you tune in, your body will likely tell you how to move. Find ways to be creative and move spontaneously in your life, so that scheduling exercise doesn’t have to be a chore or another to-do list item. And let it be enough.

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I just ran a few errands outside on this gorgeous day. I walked for maybe 20 minutes total, and since I saw clients all morning and sat a lot, I unrolled the yoga mat that I keep in my office and stretched my back and hamstrings. I also remembered some of the strengthening exercises that Peter gave me long ago to prevent re-injury and spent a few minutes taking care of my slightly tired, slightly stiff forty-something body. It was probably a total of 35 minutes of “exercise.” This was not Schwarzenegger-level aerobic, strength, or flexibility work, but it was just right for Heidi Schauster on a day when she had already worked a fair amount. I felt good in my body afterwards -- energized, rejuvenated, and not wiped out. I enjoyed the autumn leaves and the fluffy clouds on my errands and out my window. After a short meditative rest (shavasana) to close my movement activities, I went back to my chair. After this bit of movement and mind-clearing, I was able to sit down, feel creative, and write the blog post for this week that wanted to be written.

Keys to Mindful Movement: (Schausten-egger style)

  • Find activities that you love and that really energize you. Do you like to move alone, with a friend, or in groups? Do you like high-intensity sweating, gentle yoga, or some of both?

 

  • Listen to your body. If you feel too sore, tired, and spent after exercising, you may be doing too much at a level that is not sustainable -- or your daily activities plate may be too full for that level of physical activity.

 

  • Never ignore injuries. Soreness when you use new muscles is normal, but pain is a message from your body. What is it trying to tell you...?
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  • Throw out all the “shoulds” that you have about exercise. How do you like to move? How often does movement work with your level of fitness and lifestyle? You can always do more when your body asks for it or your schedule allows, but working out hard and not getting enough sleep, for example, is a recipe for burnout.

 

  • Think outside the box (or gym). Find ways to move in your daily life. And, yes, taking the stairs and walking or biking downtown does count!

Our bodies were designed for movement, yet we sit and stare at screens more and more these days. We need to move more than ever, but if we mindlessly exercise -- not listening to our bodies and what they are telling us about what feels good (and what feels lousy), then we can develop a challenging relationship to physical activity that is not unlike the struggles with food that are so common among us today.

Get out and play...   Smell the roses or the crisp autumn air...   Shake your thang...

Movement, like eating, is a pleasure that sustains us and should remind us that being in a body is not so bad. Honor you body’s wisdom.

What kind of movement are you hungry for?  Today... In this moment...

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Ten Perfect Foods You Can’t Live Without and Why This is Garbage

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I think that if I see another article about the Top Ten Foods that You Must Eat in order to have Perfect Health, I might just implode. Not really. But it does drive me nuts to see foods categorized into “good” and “bad,” as this perpetuates the myth that there is one more virtuous way to eat than another.

Yes, I am a registered dietitian, and a couple of decades ago I studied a lot of chemistry and anatomy and physiology. I know that some foods have more vitamins, minerals, and beneficial phytochemicals than others. I know that the more colorful plate of food is generally the most nutrient-dense. I’m not going to argue that encouraging us to get more fruits and veggies in our diets is wrong. However, encouraging people to believe that drinking a green smoothie each day makes up for erratic and unbalanced eating the rest of the week is a grave mistake. I have seen too many very intelligent people skip meals and feel low blood sugar crashes because they believed that drinking a smoothie was a substitute for listening to their body’s needs and preferences and hunger.

So, I really hate to burst your bubble, but here is the real deal about smoothies -- and quinoa -- and kale. They aren’t perfect foods. In fact, NO one food is perfect. Please please please give up that view. Our bodies need lots of different nutrients in order to be healthy.

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So, full disclosure. I actually like quinoa -- and kale -- and frequently make smoothies of many types. My favorite has fresh grated ginger, chocolate (cacao), and almond milk in it. My children will catch me sneaking some spinach into their fruit smoothies, and they don’t even mind any more because they like the taste, if there are also plenty of sweet berries in there, too. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, coconut, whole grains, avocados.... Yes, these are all health-giving foods that may have disease-preventative qualities. What I worry about is the way that health-improving foods are given such rock star status that they start showing up all over the place.

For instance, we used to think that coconut oil was on the “bad” list and clogged our arteries. Then, a more recent bit of research indicated that coconut may be good for us. Now it’s showing up in everything from yogurt to bottled coconut water drinks. None of those foods are probably bad for us by themselves, but we don’t know what the effect of eating many coconut derivatives in one day might be.  Many of these products are not coconut-the-way-nature-intended-it. I once did a diet assessment of a vegetarian client years ago and found out that she was eating seven different products with derivatives of soy in them in one day. (This is pretty easy to do with all of the soybean oil and added soy protein in many products.) Everything that she’d read was telling her that soy was super healthy, but I still cautioned her against so much processed soy.

We take nutritional advice to the extreme because moderation is not sexy. And because eating virtuously is one way we can feel better about ourselves -- and feel in control of our lives in an increasingly complex world.

But whenever we listen to the Top Ten Foods You Can’t Do Without and stop listening to our inner wisdom about what our bodies most need to eat in any given moment, we create a big disconnect between our bodies and the act of eating. We trust someone else’s advice for how we should eat over our own -- and we believe, erroneously, that there is a food prescription out there that everyone should follow.

Studies have shown that young children, over the course of a week and month (though not daily) will naturally choose a diet that is varied and complete nutritionally. When I ask my 8-year-old daughter why she didn’t eat a particular meal or snack, she says, “Because I didn’t like it,” looking at me like I must be crazy if I think that she’s going to eat anything that she doesn’t really like. She will also sometimes say, “I don’t like this, but I’m really hungry, so I’m eating it.” Her logic is pretty simple around food and it hasn’t been tainted by the “shoulds” and “should-nots” out there.

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Somewhere along the line, though, we stop listening to the wisdom in our bodies that tells us things like, “I’m really in the mood for that soup,” “I feel like I need some grounding food,” or “I have a real taste for squash, but not tomatoes.” Sometimes our bodies crave unusual foods, like the pregnant semi-vegetarian who suddenly wants to eat meat much more often. (This is not unusual when she needs extra protein and iron to grow a baby.) Sometimes our bodies want to eat more food when we have been more active, especially if we are using new muscles. Women usually want to eat more at the end of their menstrual cycles when metabolism increases and they do actually require a bit more food. Ever wonder why you suddenly feel like you want to eat some fish? Or why a sandwich is more appealing than a salad some days, but not others?

Our bodies have lots of wisdom about what we need, as long as we listen. Setting up foods as “good” or “bad” -- or always choosing the “healthy” or “low-calorie” option overrides the body’s good judgement about what to eat. But maybe you are so out of practice with really listening to your body. Maybe you aren’t used to listening to hunger and don’t even know what your real food preferences are these days. You think you like a particular food, but you aren’t sure that you feel very good after eating it.

My first suggestion is to s...l...o...w... d...o...w...n... the process of eating. This is what eating mindfully looks like and many of us rarely eat this way. (I mindlessly eat lunch while I check email more than I’d like to admit.) Try this some time when you are alone and undistracted. That, in and of itself, could be a challenge!

  • Pause before you prepare yourself a meal (if you have the choice) and ask yourself what you really want to eat. What textures, flavors, temperatures would be appealing? Try not to let your ideas about nutrition dictate your choices. You may have to get really quiet and still, if you aren’t used to this, in order to read your body’s signals here.

 

  • Take in the visual appeal of the food and the smell before even taking a bite.

 

  • Ask yourself how hungry you are for this food. Is it stomach hunger or is your mouth or mind hungry for it mainly?

 

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  • Think about where the food came from and all the people, animals, plants, sunshine, and rain that made the meal possible. Don’t just wolf down this miraculous dish! Try to cultivate and feel real gratitude for the food.

 

  • Take a few slow bites and notice the flavor and texture and feel of the food in your mouth. Savor the pleasure of eating each bite.

 

  • After several slow, enjoyable bites, ask yourself how hungry you still are for this food. Repeat the process above.

 

  • Notice when you are getting full. What does that feel like in your body? How do you know when to stop? Notice the sensations.

This all may sound rather simplistic because it is. Regardless, many of us have lost the ability to eat this way -- in a way that is really in tune with our bodies. Eating feeds our souls and hearts more if done in this careful, nurturing way. Try it even with a few bites each day. You will see a difference in your relationship with food start to emerge. Many of my clients who practice mindfulness in their eating report that their souls and hearts feel more fed when they eat this way; they feel cared for. And if they are finding other ways to nourish themselves outside of meals -- with activities, people, and time to re-energize -- then food takes its place as just one of the many pleasures in their lives. Sometimes this can be a long process of healing, but it starts with trusting yourself -- and not the next Top Ten Perfect Foods list.

We are all perfectly imperfect. So is our food. Eat what you like. Eat what makes you feel good. In each very different moment. Pay careful attention to the wisdom of your very own body.

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 Barnes and Noble. Also, sign up for free seasonal inspiration below. 

Change and Resistance

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Change.

It’s in the September air here in Boston. Children start school. The college students come back. Mattresses and dressers are seen on sidewalks and on top of cars everywhere. In fact, a cool September breeze blows through my windows as I write this in my new office between Davis and Porter Squares, on the Somerville/Cambridge line. It feels exciting to be in this sunlit space, despite all the adjustments that moving an office creates.

I haven’t blogged in what feels like too long. There are many very valid excuses, like taking a vacation, spending summer days with my children, and moving my practice space from two locations into a new one right here. I took an unintended two months off from writing, and today I feel rusty and resistant and prone to procrastinate.

Before I started typing this, I walked into Davis Square to get lunch. I could have lingered long, but the part of me that really wanted to sit down and write today told me to have my lunch and come back to my breezy space to re-engage with my blog readers after this summer break. It was quite amazing to discover just how many things I had to do before I actually sat down to type. I had to make a cup of tea, make sure my desk was set up just right, open my third floor windows more to let in that breeze, finish up some paperwork, call a few clinicians about our mutual clients, etc, etc...

Yes, it was striking how many really important things I had to do before I got around to doing what I really wanted to do: write. In fact, in the hierarchy of things that I wanted to do today, reconnecting with you, my readers, was top on my list. So, why was I feeling so unable to just sit down and do it...? Why was I procrastinating...?

When I slowed down and checked in with myself, I realized, for one thing, that I was really out of the habit. Prior to my writing hiatus, I had been blogging every other week. I took a much-needed 11-day vacation and unplugged myself completely from my computer and work, but then I never really went back to the blog. Sure, I have wonderful reasons, but regardless, I got out of the habit. And here I am, with a whole afternoon finally free and dedicated to blogging and I’m (first unconsciously, and then quite consciously) avoiding it...

This got me thinking about my clients and resistance to change. So many people come into my practice because they want to be eating differently. They want to have a better relationship with food or recover from an eating disorder. They know what they ultimately need to do to make the changes, but it’s so hard.

How can we want something so badly, but find ourselves behaving in ways that don’t support those goals and values that we hold dear? Although there are lots of reasons why we resist change, one of the simple reasons is that change is hard. Until something becomes well-practiced and rhythmic, it feels awkward. My writing today feels like that. When it’s a more regular practice, it flows more freely and with ease and energy. After being away from it for so long, it feels foreign, choppy, and far from easy. Today I can viscerally appreciate how hard it is for my clients to change their habits with food and physical activity.

So, after an hour and a half of procrastination, how did I finally sit down and blog? I remembered something from a book that I am currently reading with colleagues in one of my supervision groups about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The book is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, and I highly recommend it. ACT is a psychotherapeutic modality that (at least as I see it) is a soup mix of various behavioral therapies with a hefty dash of mindfulness. ACT concepts can be applied as part of psychotherapy or nutrition therapy or simply on their own at home by anyone. In fact, they can be applied anywhere there is a desire for change.

One of the major concepts that I’ve appreciated about ACT is the concept of slowing down and asking yourself, “Are you living the life that you want to live right now?” Are you focused on what is meaningful to you and aligned with your values? When we have psychological problems or stressors, we often think that we should put our lives on hold while we try to lessen or take away the pain. Working with ACT means that we don’t try to take away the pain, we try to “lean into it” and learn from it, while focusing on acting in ways that are meaningful and values-driven.

My favorite metaphor in the book is one about grief. Grief is like an inflatable ball that we are holding underwater. We can hold it and hide it underwater for a long time time, but the moment that our guard is down and we remove our hands from the ball, it pops back up to the surface. Many of us try to bury grief by working a lot, by taking addictive drugs, and, yes, even by binging or restricting or obsessing about food. We will do anything to make the pain go away. Although these methods work at first, they hurt us in the long run. The ACT model says that instead of trying to push away pain, we can acknowledge it’s presence in our lives and ask ourselves, “How can I best take care of myself and act in accordance with what I value, given that I have this suffering in my life?” There are many techniques for working on change in this way, and I am delighted to report that many of my clients are finding the techniques awkward at first, but very transformative once they get into a rhythm of practicing them regularly.

This brings me back to my own awkwardness and procrastination today about writing. I was stuck in my “shoulds.” I should finish this task before I start writing. It should feel easy and flowing and energizing when I write. I should not have let so much time go by without blogging... Well, that got me nowhere. (In fact, a massage therapist friend has told me that “shoulds” give people tight shoulders. I could feel the tension mounting.) I was trying to avoid the suffering, the awkwardness, the strong resistance to change that my body and mind were feeling about writing.

So, instead of trying to push away the discomfort that it took to sit down and stare at a blank document on my computer, I sat with it for awhile. It made me squirm. I kept looking out the window, wanting to flee and go back down to the Square for a latte. I took a deep breathe. And another. I  acknowledged to myself that sitting down to write is hard, particularly sitting down to write something that other people will read. I reminded myself that getting away from writing for two whole months was a choice that I made. I would probably make it again, given the same life circumstances. I decided to renew my commitment to myself and my readers to get back on track and write biweekly again. I also realized that being rigid and unforgiving toward myself when I don’t do it perfectly is not helpful.

My eyes darted around for something else that I needed to do so that I could avoid writing some more. I tried to be kind to myself, and noticed this without judgement. I sat some more and thought about how writing today was really the way for me to live the life that I want to live right now. It’s not easy all the time, and sometimes it is a really big struggle, but writing and reaching out with free, easily accessible inspiration is meaningful to me, especially to include a community that is beyond the boundaries of my own practice walls. And a regular writing practice, like the blog, keeps my writerly muscles toned.

Wow, was it hard to get started today! And, wow, did I learn about myself and my habits a lot in the process! I think that instead of spending an hour or two procrastinating in two weeks when I sit down here to write again, I’ll start with that question: “Are you living the life that you want to live right now?” and remind myself that my writing practice is meaningful to me, no matter how hard it is to get started. In fact, the struggle is not only inevitable (as I’m sure all you writers out there will agree), but a great teacher.

Can you imagine how this might be applied to changing your relationship with food or with physical activity? Change is challenging and resistance to change can be strong. It’s hard to break out of our comfort zones and those places that we go to automatically. However, we can slow down and ask ourselves: How do we best take care of ourselves during these times -- in a way that is aligned with our own values and meaning? How do we eat in a way that nourishes us and makes it easier for us to be the people that we want to be in the world -- and not how the eating disorder or someone else told us we “should” eat? I believe that if we can begin to ask those questions, then we will begin to understand that change, however much it makes us squirm, really is possible.

How to Love Yourself (Even in a Swimsuit)

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I feel compelled to write again about the hardest part of many of my clients’ work: improving their body image. They may have a better relationship with food and have done a lot of work on recovering from an eating disorder, but many of my clients still don’t feel good about their bodies. This is what I sometimes call the “last frontier” of eating disorder recovery. And, once in a better place with body image, I often think that persons who have fully recovered from eating disorders have a more body-positive viewpoint than the general public. After all, what person (particularly a woman) wakes up and looks in the mirror and says, “Ahh.... I love my body!”

In New England, when we shed our layers and finally show some skin in June and July, I swear the body hatred barometer rises along with the summer temperatures. I hear women and men everywhere talking about how they need to lose a few pounds or saying how much they loathe their thighs or their bellies. It sometimes takes me by surprise when I hear this, especially if I was not at all focusing on their bodies in our conversation. It’s hard to respond to these body-bashing statements. Mostly, I try to gently remind them that I like them for more than their thighs.

We are indeed a body-obsessed culture. Some of us are particularly oriented towards seeing the body as the self, instead of just one part of the self. We all know that a pretty house is delightful, but that alone doesn’t make a happy home.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of being a part of a dear friend’s 40th birthday celebration. This friend was strong enough to ask for what she wanted: a day of fun in the water with family and friends; followed by an evening with a small group of her favorite women gathering together to dance, play, and celebrate her milestone; followed by a late-night dance party that brought together a wider circle of friends and community. During the middle of this joyous celebration, when there was this smaller circle of friends, we gave the birthday babe a community rose-oil massage and two words apiece that described what we loved about her. We then talked about what prompted us to choose those words. The ritual finished with an “angel shower,” in which we dumped large quantities of rose petals over her body while we sent her blessings and talked about how much we valued her as a friend and human being.

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Needless to say, my friend is still sailing on this love -- and you can imagine the heartful energy that eased us into the dance party that night...

I wish that we had more rituals like this to honor passages in our lives -- particularly the aging of women. Birthdays are often seen as a negative thing, particularly the ones that end in zero. They are markers of decline and punctuate the loss of youthful energy, which we over-value. We don’t celebrate the wisdom that we gain; we prefer to talk about the force of gravity that works against us.

What I loved about the ritual of this weekend was the way in which we honored and cared for the body of our 40-year-old friend. We massaged it, covered it with fragrant and cool rose petals, hugged it (a lot!), and danced with it. But, more importantly, we celebrated my friends’ wisdom, spritely energy, warmth, and heart. We talked more about how blessed we were by her friendship and spirit than by how fabulous she looks at 40 (even though she does). And how can a woman not glow with all that love and honoring...?

I thought about the way that my clients talk about the dread of swimsuit season. I thought about how one client last week -- on a particularly sweltering day -- said that she’d rather sweat in pants than show her legs in shorts. Where is the self inside that body? Could she come out and be heard? (She’s hot in there and she wants to be taken care of!)

It was a turning point in another client’s recovery when she finally gave me the skinny jeans that she had been trying on daily as a gauge of how she was doing. If she fit into them, it was a “good day” and she could eat in a more relaxed way; if she didn’t, it was a “bad day” and she needed to restrict her food more. This created a roller coaster of under- and over-eating and kept her obsessed with food. It also meant that those jeans were determining many of her daily moves and feelings. She was no longer wearing the pants in her life; the pants were wearing her (and wearing her out).

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My birthday friend takes belly dancing classes and, at one point in this past weekend's event, she broke out her belly dancing clothes and twirled and radiated like the goddess that she is. She used her body to celebrate her self and her passage into a new decade. She celebrated her womanly curves and the spirit that was embodied in her dancing. My client with the skinny jeans is not quite there, but she is no longer measuring her worth with a piece of fabric or a scale. She is freed up to live the life that she wants to lead -- and to figure out what that is, in fact -- now that the body obsession is not such a large part of it.

Celebrate this miracle that is your body! Dance, swim, jump for joy -- and, by all means, feed yourself enough to have the energy to do so with abandon! But, please, remember that your body is just one facet of your Self. There is a spirit and soul within you that is your truest nature. Your body (or the way you choose to adorn your body) may reflect your values and spirit, but your body is not who you are. When my clients become more whole-self-focused and less body-focused, they eat in a way that is aligned with self-care (whatever that is for them) and they move in a way that feels good and feeds their souls.

Think about the reasons that your friends and loved ones like being around you. If you really can’t come up with anything, then boldly ask them. Make a list of the qualities that make you a good friend, sister, partner, parent, employee, pet owner, etc... Maybe it’s your ability to make people laugh and feel at ease, the way that you keep a secret, the wonderful hugs that you give. Maybe it’s your quiet determination, your strong will, your individuality...

Make a list. When you are having one of those “bad body days,” take out this list. Shower yourself with these rose petals of worth and remember that you are unique and divine, despite the parts of your body that you’d rather trade in. Take care of that body and feed it well, as it takes you where you need to go in life, but recognize that it is just one juicy part of the whole that is You.

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