"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

 

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





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.

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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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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Putting Your Own Needs First is Radical and Healing

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I liked this recent article by Geneen Roth so much, I got her permission to reprint it here. I thought it would resonate with so many of my readers. If you would like to see more of her writing, please find out more at www.GeneenRoth.com.

 

There are some things in life you take for granted: Your children will outlive you. No matter how tough it gets, you won't poison your spouse with arsenic-laced toothpaste. And if you have a best friend, you will attend her wedding. 

But life sometimes upsets our most basic assumptions. And although I haven't resorted to the arsenic (yet), I did have this surprise: When my best friend from college got married, I wasn't there. Never in a million years did I think I would miss her wedding. We'd been talking about it since we were 18. And yet, when it came down to deciding about making the trip from California to New York, I did something radical, something I rarely do: I took my own needs into account.

I stepped away from my notions of what a good person would do, what any loyal friend would do, and considered the facts: I'd just returned from teaching an exhilarating but exhausting week long retreat; I had a broken ankle and a sprained back and could barely walk; my friend decided to get married rather suddenly and told me she wasn't expecting me to come. And I realized that although I would miss seeing her walk down the aisle if I didn't go, I would be a hobbling, exhausted wreck if I did. So I stayed home, sent champagne, and wrote my friend and her new husband a wedding story. It was an agonizing decision but not nearly as painful as the tale I told myself about it: If I don't go to my best friend's wedding — the very friend who held my hair back the night I drank a bottle of Cold Duck and threw up on the sidewalk — people will finally discover how selfish I am and I will lose every friend I have. I will spend my dying days alone, dribbling Diet Coke on my chin with no friends or family around. As soon as I realized I'd made a leap from taking care of myself to visions of dying alone, dribbling and friendless, I understood that I considered looking out for my own needs a radical concept — so radical that it scared me to (a pathetic, lonely, and potentially sticky) death.

I should know better. In working with tens of thousands of women over the past two decades, I've found that there is a whole set of beliefs called "the bad things that will happen if I take care of myself." I've heard things such as, "My son will choke on a fish bone the minute I leave him alone and take some time for myself." "My husband won't be able to make friends without me if I stay home from this party and rest." "My friend will hate me if I don't make brownies for her bake sale."

Think about this: Do you feel it is right to put yourself at the center of your own life, or is your secret fear that if you consider your own needs, you'll alienate the people you love and end up homeless, rifling through old chicken bones in a dark alley? Are you afraid that a "me first" attitude will get you drummed out of the "good people" club?

Most of us secretly believe that good people, especially women, take care of others first. They wait until everyone else has a plateful and then take what's left. Unfortunately, most of us make decisions based on our ideas of who we think we should be, not on who we actually are. The problem is, when we make choices based on an ideal image of ourselves — what a good friend would do, what a good mother would do, what a good wife would do — we end up having to take care of ourselves in another way.

Enter food. When you don't consider your real needs, you will likely fill the leftover emotional hunger with food. (Or another abused substance. Or shopping. But most of us opt for food.) You eat in secret. You eat treats whenever you can, because food is the one way, the only way, you nourish yourself. You eat on the run because you believe that you shouldn't take time for lunch; there's too much work to do. You eat the éclair, the doughnut, the cake, all the while knowing this isn't really taking care of yourself. But to really take care of yourself, you have to think of yourself first.

"Is that possible?" you ask. "What about my children? I'd die for them." Have you ever considered why, on an airplane, the flight attendant tells you to put on your own oxygen mask first, before you help your children? It's because your kids' well-being depends on it. If you aren't grounded, present, calm, and able to breathe, there is no one to take care of them.

What would your life look like if you acknowledged the truth that working nonstop for 10 hours, taking care of other people, leaves you so spent and weary that there really isn't much left of you for your kids, let alone yourself? What would your life look like if you realized that you need to set aside time every day to fill yourself up — even if it's only by taking a few 15-minute breaks during which you stare at nothing or go outside or lie down? What would the pace of your life be if you went on "soul time" instead of clock time, even just a little?

It's possible. A few days ago, I spoke with a first-time mother. Her baby son had colic, and she was completely exhausted. She was so afraid she wouldn't be there when he needed her that she couldn't sleep even when he was napping or with her husband. And she was turning to food to calm herself down. I asked her what it would be like to do something very simple for herself: to sit down and breathe. That's all. No big deal. Nothing to achieve. Just let the body do what it was already doing and give herself a break. She said she could try that. She just breathed.

At the end of five minutes, I asked her how she felt. She said she was relieved, immediately calmer. She said that since she'd had her baby, she had forgotten all about herself and her needs, and while some of that was natural ("I'm so in love with him," she said; "I've never known love like this before"), she was not serving him best by exhausting herself. She said that caring for herself was doable — maybe not in the same ways she did before she was a mother, but in new ways. Taking small rests. Eating well. Going outside for even five minutes while he naps. "I can do this," she said. "I can treat myself with the same kind of care that I give him."

"Now you're talking," I said. "And the better you take care of yourself, the more he will know as he grows up that it's fine for him to take care of himself, too."

If you operate on what you believe a good mother/partner/friendwould do and you leave yourself — what you need, how you feel — out of the equation, your relationships will suffer.

I'm here to tell you that cherishing yourself by making yourself a priority in your own life is possible. You can take care of your needs and your relationships with family and friends can thrive. I know, because I am making this my daily practice, and I am confident I will not go out either alone or dribbling.
 

This article was reprinted with permission from the author, Geneen Roth.  Sometimes even those who love to blog need to take a self-care break and let other good writers do the talking for a change. Let me know your thoughts and tell me about ways you cherish yourself by leaving a comment below...

 

From Binge Eating to Balance

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My client Jessica* walked into her session saying that she imagined herself lying face down on the rug in my office pounding her fists. I told her that she was certainly welcome to embody her feelings. Although she chose not to hit the floor, she did cry more forcefully than usual this session.

Jessica has been feeling very frustrated with her eating. She has been eating lots of things that she considers “non-food,” like cheez-its. She has been preparing and cooking food that she considers healthy, but then she chooses not to eat it while at work, going out to get other “less healthy” takeout food. The other day she ended up eating a whole pizza.

Her tears came with feelings of hopelessness: “I am not strong enough to do what I need to do to take care of my health, and I’m going to kill myself with my bad habits” (something like this). I tried to reframe this for her. Could she observe her eating habits less judgmentally, so that she has more room to problem-solve?

For example, Monday came and she was exhausted from all the housecleaning she did over the weekend. Instead of beating herself up and saying that she can’t get her eating right, she could say with curiosity (instead of criticism): “Hmmm…? I am really exhausted today after the weekend, which is supposed to be a rest from work. This doesn’t seem to be working for me. I know I “treated myself” to that food partly because I wanted to take care of myself in some way or soothe myself because I was exhausted. Maybe I need more help, or to lower my standards about cleaning on the weekend, or something else...”

Jessica’s work in high-tech is stressful and demanding -- and the standard in this industry is perfection-or-you-may-lose-your-job --  so this contributed to her negative self-talk, too. She ate something that didn't feel “right” for her to eat. In her own view, she’d failed at taking care of herself, even though she had really just been doing her best to cope. Binge-eating may have consequences that don’t feel so good, but it’s a very effective coping strategy that many of us use when we want soothing. We also often use food when we want to get out of our heads and into our bodies to experience some sensory pleasure for awhile.

Jessica wants to eat a vegan, plant-based, no-unnatural-oils, very low-fat diet, but she can’t seem to do it. We discussed the way that eating food that tastes good is important to her. However, this “clean” way of eating ends up feeling like a diet, and it doesn’t leave her fully satisfied. When she feels deprived, she rebels and seeks out highly-palatable, filling foods. The cycle starts again when she feels guilty about eating in an “un-clean” way and she goes back to her “virtuous” eating. The overeating and regaining control and overeating cycle continues...

I suggested that when Jessica is faced with a craving or desire for cheese, she think about a way that she can honor her craving for cheese and still create a healthy meal with it. Instead of being black and white (she either won’t eat cheese at all or she will eat a whole cheese pizza), she could have a sandwich with hummus and tomatoes and melted cheese. Yummy and healthful. The part of her that is rigidly clinging to the strict vegan plan will not see this as healthy, but it is still a better choice for her body than the large cheese pizza that ends up not making her feel very well afterwards. This was an example that made sense to my client. She thought she could try this concept of listening to -- instead of denying -- her cravings and working with them to find a balanced food choice. (This is not to say, by the way, that pizza is not a viable option, too. For Jessica, however, this was not the kind of meal that she really wanted to eat in the middle of her work day.) 

I suspect that she will struggle with finding this balance, as the grey is always more of a challenge for Jessica than the black and white. I also suspect that while her work and home life is very stressful and she’s not getting enough sleep, it is hard for her to take care of herself with food and find this balance. She also admits that she uses her struggles around food as a way to avoid harder things and to feel like she has some control over her life. I love the way she called her binge-eating  "lubrication" (something that helps her through tough times), but acknowledged that it has "grit" in it (consequences that make it less helpful to her body, mind, and spirit).

Since the session where she wanted to pound her fists into my floor, Jessica has been gradually embracing the “middle road” in her eating. She is not eating in the most virtuous way that she has always wanted to eat, but she tried it for decades and it didn’t work. She is letting it go. As a result, she is not doing as much binge eating -- particularly when she is being mindful and present and slows down enough to make her self-care a priority. It’s been quite a journey, and I am honored to be a supportive witness to her growth and determination as she improves her relationship with food.

So... how do you find balance in your eating so that you eat in a healthful way that doesn’t deprive you of the sensory pleasure of eating...? (Please share your Comments below.)

* Client’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

How Do I Eat Intuitively and Mindfully When I Still Want to Lose Weight?

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I’m a fan of intuitive and mindful eating, in case you didn’t know that already. I work with my clients to honor their hungers and to figure out the ways of eating that work best for their individual and unique bodies. Many feel elated when their relationship with food seems to flow more easily and they are feeling tuned in to their bodies’ needs.

Recently, a member of my No Diet Book Club asked the billion dollar question: How do I eat intuitively when I still want to lose weight? (I say that it’s a billion dollar question because the diet industry that profits from a focus on losing weight is, in fact, a billion dollar industry.)  In my 20 years of experience working with people who are renegotiating their relationship with food, I have discovered that holding onto a primary goal of weight loss just gets in the way.

I firmly believe that in letting go of the focus on weight loss, and prioritizing one’s relationship with food first, we will best take care of our bodies. In doing so, we eat in the way that supports the healthy weight that our bodies are meant to be. Do we choose the food option that makes us feel our best, or choose the lowest calorie option possible just to meet weight loss goals?  The former uses our bodies to make the decision, while the latter comes only from the head.  

This is not to say that we don’t use our minds or our knowledge about nutrition to make decisions about eating when we eat intuitively.  For example, you can say, “Eating that full bag of Cheetos last time made me feel sick.  I don’t want to do that again.”  Here you are using your mind and your past experience to make a food choice, not just your body’s present state.

Let’s look at this more closely...

If you hate your body right now and focus on how it will look in the future (once you theoretically lose the weight), are you able to really be in the present, listening to what food choices really appeal to you and will satisfy you right now?

Isn’t it easier to make a commitment to take the best care of your body possible when you accept your body where it is?

When you see your body as the living, breathing, miracle that it is (extra pounds and all) and focus on nurturing and caring for that body with life-giving, healthful food, there is a very different focus. There is no deprivation. There are no shoulds or shouldn’ts. There are no mistakes -- only opportunities to learn what foods feel best. There is no criticism and guilt. There are only choices.

We can choose to eat the light and fresh salad greens or the more grounding sandwich or the ice cream cone because it’s a hot summer day and that’s what we feel like. We can choose the entree that speaks to our palates, and seems interesting and aligned with our values and preferences, without second guessing ourselves.

We can slow down and savor every bite because the food is so delicious and worth savoring. We aren’t eating a certain amount of calories or carbs or points. We are eating life-giving, pleasure-providing food -- and we will eat just enough of it because we are staying present with the eating experience, paying enough attention to the food and our bodies as we eat it. We take in the sensory enjoyment of the food, the texture, the warmth or coolness, the feelings of hunger and satiety. We are in our bodies when we eat. We are not just in our heads.

Does this seem like pie in the sky?  In today’s world, this is not easy to do. It might involve learning to distinguish between emotional hungers, diet thinking, the effects certain foods can have on our brain, and healthy body wisdom, for example. It might involve reprogramming everything that you learned about food as you grew up, bringing you back to how you ate when you were a toddler and you knew that a few bites of a cookie are enough when there are other pleasures in life to explore. This is why many of my clients appreciate some coaching and support along the way.

Once practiced regularly, mindful eating is liberating, freeing, and truly brings people into their healthiest bodies. That body might not be the “ideal body” that we envision, but it will be a respected, honored, and well nourished one. And isn’t that what is really important...? It’s not how we look in that bikini, really; it’s the fact that we are out enjoying the sunshine. Don’t let anyone -- the diet industry, well-meaning relatives, your partner, your own inner critic -- tell you that you should look different. (If they do, it may be because they have their own body image insecurities.) Don’t let anyone trick you into thinking that weight loss is more important than feeding yourself well, in a way that is aligned with your own body’s needs.

Despite all the news coverage of the “war on obesity,” the Centers for Disease Control in 2005 determined that only when the BMI reaches 35+ is there a meaningful decrease in mortality. People in the “overweight” (BMI 25-30) category actually have the lowest mortality rate. Why are we calling these people “overweight" anyway...?

So, the answer to the question at the top of this post is that some people (but not all) lose weight while they work on eating intuitively and mindfully, but I recommend they not make weight loss a primary goal. In my many years of experience, I have seen that when clients fall back into that trap of focusing on weight loss, they do something that undermines their ability to deeply and accurately listen to their bodies. They shift their focus from self-care to trying-to-please, from inner wisdom to outer judgement about what to eat. And then they understandably push back against the deprivation that they feel and find themselves overeating. They want to lose weight, but feel like a failure. This is all on top of what the initial under-eating did to slow down metabolism.

Many studies have shown that 95% of all people who go on diets will gain the weight back (often plus more). Letting go of dieting and restricting and coming into harmony with what the body is really asking for does take some work, but it’s so worth it. And it is the only way that I have seen my clients grow to feel better about their bodies -- no matter what their size or shape. How can you take care of something that you loathe? So.... love that wonderful shape of yours and all your unique curves, angles, bumps, and smooth spots. Give your body wonderful food, energizing movement, and fresh air. You have a unique bodily form that makes you You.

Focus on what you have to gain in the process of learning to eat more mindfully and intuitively and joyfully -- not on what you have to lose!

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. 

Lose the Diet for Swimsuit Season (why diets don't work)

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As the Spring unfolds around us here in the East (and a mighty long awaited one, I might add), I keep hearing women around me talking about how summer is coming and they need to get in shape or lose some weight to look better in a bathing suit. It makes me sad when the next statement after that is usually about some new diet they are on or some major food group they are eliminating or reducing -- usually flour, sugar, gluten or carbohydrates in general.

Now, some people do indeed have gluten intolerance, wheat and other allergies, or celiac disease and need to avoid some forms of carbohydrate for their health and well-being, but there are more and more people reducing carbohydrates with the goal of weight loss. There is no question that many people eat more grain-based and sugary foods than their body might need. However, the recent fad to lower carbohydrates across the board is reminiscent of the low-fat, no-fat craze in the 80s and 90s that I remember when I started my work in nutrition. (Those of you as old as I am, do you remember Snackwell Cookies? They were fat-free, and we somehow felt like we could eat whole sleeves of them, even though they replaced all the fat with sugar.)

The diet industry is a billion dollar industry, so the diet pushers will not tell you the facts.  Research shows that 95% of people who go on a diet will gain all the weight back (and often more) in the end. In fact, studies have shown that going on a diet is actually a predictor for having an increased body weight, particularly if you went on a diet during your child or teen years.

LDet's take a look at why dieting is particularly nasty...

Some physical risks of repeated dieting include:

 

  • Inadequate nutrition
  • Decreased metabolism
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Alterations in fat deposition
  • Hypertension
  • Increased risk of cardiac and cardiovascular problems
  • Premature aging with weight cycling and nutrient deficiencies
  • Gallstones

Some psychological risks of repeated dieting include: 

  • Obsession with weight
  • Heightened responsiveness to external food cues
  • Decreased enjoyment of food
  • Disordered eating patterns
  • Disordered lifestyle (excessive or inadequate exercise, social life affected by avoiding certain eating occasions, etc.)
  • Increased incidence of eating disorders
  • Increased pressure to conform to society's standards of beauty
  • Increased sense of failure
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Financial burden

So, if dieting doesn't work (remember, the 95% chance you'll gain the weight back is just not good odds), then what is the alternative if you want to feel good in your body at the beach this summer?

First and foremost, remember to view yourself as a whole person (body, mind, and spirit -- not just body) and take care of all of you. See my prior post on body image for more information about loving our amazing, miraculous bodies. Many of my clients have troubled relationships with their bodies and with food, and finding a way to nourish the body with balance and care is a struggle.

So, what is a non-diet way of maintaining a healthy body weight, no matter what body type you were born with?

Non-diet eating involves:

  • Listening to what the body needs
  • Responding to internal cues of hunger instead of external cues (sight, smell, the power of suggestion) most of the time
  • Not turning to food to deal with stress
  • Being personally in control of food choices instead of being controlled by the diet prescription
  • Realizing that feeling healthy and taking good care of your body will make you more attractive than a diet will
  • Abandoning short-term weight loss for long-term and lasting self-confidence, health, and wellness
  • Having space for more nourishing pursuits and for what really matters in life

So... you choose. And remember that it's not that you don't have willpower. Don't let the wealthy diet industry convince you of that. You have the power and control and choice to take the best care of your body that you can. It's the dieting that is making you feel like a failure. Restrictive eating is not sustainable. Our bodies and minds protect us against it by making us want to eat. And eat more.

Do your body and spirit a favor and ditch the diet (and maybe even the string bikini that you wore when you were 18 and you swear that you will get into again some day). Respect your body where it's at and help it ease into the healthiest shape that it can be by vowing never to diet again. And if you need help with a troubled relationship with food, my colleagues and I in nutrition therapy would be happy to help you practice tuning in, listening, and respecting that inner wisdom that we all have within us. Most of us used to eat intuitively and according to our bodies' needs when we were young -- until the diet industry and other well-meaning persons told us that they think they know better.

Learn to trust your own inner wisdom again instead.

 

Full Disclosure

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I haven’t blogged in awhile and I apologize for that. Several of you have asked if I could post more frequently. Please know that I’m not responding to your requests by blogging less. Honestly, I have been preoccupied with life, work, and a presentation that my colleague Charles Strauss and I are presenting at the Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association’s conference. We are speaking about the intersection of eating disorders, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It’s an important topic and I’m excited about it, but the preparations have definitely taken me away from the blog. I’m happy to be back.

In fact, I’m learning a lot from my friend Charlie about how to be sensitive to people who identify themselves as L, G, B, or T. I’m learning about the concept of “diverse gender and sexuality” and thinking about people being on a continuum. I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity, too. Living out who we really are, in our hearts, minds, bodies, souls...

Along these lines, I have a story and a confession to make. I guess it’s a bit of a “coming out” of sorts, although it’s not about my gender or sexual preferences.

A couple of weeks ago, I had my first session of the Non-Diet Book Club, a new group that I started in which the participants read books on mindful eating together. We are starting with Evelyn Tribole’s Intuitive Eating, which I highly recommend. I sat with five remarkable and strong women who came together to share their experiences of trying to give up dieting and disordered eating. They were all working toward building a better relationship with food. Their stories and supportive words to one another were truly inspiring.

To kick off the group, I asked everyone to go around the room and share something about themselves, why they were interested in the book club, and what they wanted to get out of it. They shared their stories of struggle with food and their bodies. They spoke of the challenges they’ve overcome and have yet to overcome. Within each one of them was a sense of hope and belief that things could be better, as well as fear about how to get there.

When the five had finished sharing, I explained how I’d developed the group (the original idea came from a client) and why I do the work that I do. I gave the same response that I always give when someone asks me why I decided to help people heal their relationships with food. I talked about my interest in science and psychology and my graduate school paper on childhood developmental feeding problems. I mentioned the fellowship in adolescent nutrition that I completed at Children’s Hospital Boston, and my first job at the hospital’s psych unit that taught me much that I needed to know about eating disorders. All this is true and brought me to the place that I am today in my work.

But, in the end, I left the group feeling like my sharing was only a half-truth. Here these women had poured their hearts out and I had kept it safe. Part of my hesitation in sharing more of the story had to do with what I have learned about therapeutic boundaries. As the nutrition therapist, like any therapist, I have to make sure that I am not taking up too much space in the room. The time is for my clients and group participants to share, and I’m there to hold that safe space. Still, something didn’t really sit well with me. It felt like I’d put up a barrier to openness by not being real myself.

So, I am going out on a bit of a limb here in this blog post. I have done much soul-searching and feel that it is time in my career to just be honest. Rigid Bostonian boundaries and the belief that I shouldn’t take up too much space have kept me quiet for a long time. But these “shoulds” also kept me from letting my group members know in a more authentic way that I really could appreciate their feelings.

This is what I wished I had said in that first group...

I recovered from bulimia, food restriction, and binge-eating, which I struggled with in my late teens and early twenties. I had a therapist for awhile, but I recovered mainly through a lot of my own work and with love from others. I was a dancer and I did not know how to feed my active, developing body. That left me feeling very confused. I eventually studied nutrition in college because I wanted to help other young people to be less in the dark, and (probably at first) to do the last little bit of healing of my own relationship with food.

Now that I am in my 40s and have been eating disorder free for two decades, I love being in my body and in my life, and I want to help others to get past obsessions with food, self-criticism, and negative body image. I enjoy eating, feeding others, cooking, gardening, and being a nutritionist; but even for a born "foodie," eating is still only one way that I nourish myself. I do this work because I want to help my clients find their own ways to nourish body, mind, and spirit.

If I’d had the courage to say this in that first group, the women might have felt even more held and connected to. Instead of feeling like the nutritionist leading their group can’t possibly know what it feels like to struggle with overeating, they could have felt that their group leader has truly been there, can relate, and has come out the other end. After all, by admitting that we have real human struggles in common, we acknowledge our connectedness. In doing so, we help each other feel less alone, encourage self-respect, and make our time here on this planet more meaningful.

Now, I have no interest in sharing my own journey to recovery from disordered eating. That’s not important, and would only take away from my clients’ and group participants’ journeys. There are many roads to recovery. I don’t presume to have the answers for how to do that for any one person. In fact, I bumbled along because I needed to find my own way. That was how I grew, learned about myself and my needs, and found peace with food, my body, and my self. It just feels right for me to tell the whole truth.

Eating disorders suck. In fact, they suck the life blood out of relationships, among other things. And the road to recovery is bumpy but worth it. Life without so much focus on food and weight is rich and wonderful. It’s not perfect, of course. It’s gritty and challenging and growth-inducing and... real. I want you to enjoy eating, to love taking good care of your body, and to have a full, rich, happy life -- your life, your recovery, your journey. And I am honored and privileged to help you get there, and to help you find ways to nourish your body, mind, and spirit.

And, this, dear Non-Diet Book Club, clients, colleagues, readers, friends, is the real reason that I feel called to do this work.

Body Love

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I recently talked with a client about the dog that is a very special part of her life.  She described how much she loves the dog’s body. With keen sensory awareness, she talked about the way the dog feels, her warmth, and the soft pressure as her pooch curls up next to her.  It blew my client’s mind when I replied, “It’s mutual. The dog loves your body, too!”

At first, my client looked at me like I had three heads. Then she felt the revelation. This body, the one that she has hated for many decades as she battled anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, is actually lovable! In fact, there is a sweet little pup who loves her warmth and softness and cuddliness, who jumps up and down when she sees her. And this little dog doesn’t just love the idea of her or who she represents, this little dog loves her feel, her smell, her actual physical body just as it is.

It was so helpful for my client to see just how relative our feelings about our bodies can be. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines body image is as “the subjective picture or mental image of one’s own body.” The way that we “see” our bodies can be very different from what others see, especially other beings that love us.

Let’s take a look at ways in which you might be promoting either a negative, critical or a more accepting, nurturing body image -- and how you might move closer to the latter.

  • Do you measure your self with a one-dimensional surface? Notice how often you check your body -- or parts of your body --  in the mirror. How often do you step on a scale? How does this make you feel about yourself? 

One way to decrease negative feelings about your body is to vow to only observe your body in the mirror with a trusted friend or therapist present, so that you always get a more objective person’s view. The rest of the time, make a conscious effort to not check out your stomach (or whatever part of your body is a target for negative feelings) in the mirror. Decreasing scale-checking and mirror-checking will positively effect your self-esteem. It will also help you shift away from focusing on the body as the most important part of your self.

  • Do you wear clothes that are comfortable and fit well -- or do you squeeze your body into too-tight clothes so that you feel forced to eat less -- or reminded all day about how much you don’t feel good in your body? 

If you want to feel better in your body all day, then find the clothes in your wardrobe (or treat yourself to some new ones) that fit well, make you feel good, and allow for flexibility with your own body fluctuations.

  • Do you displace negative feelings onto your body by focusing on particular body parts? 

Some things to explore: Do you focus on your tummy when there are “core” issues that you really want to work on? Do you focus on your hair when issues of control are on the front burner? Think about your particular body angst and what it could be telling you are the real concerns underneath. Journal about this or talk to a trusted friend or therapist about these feelings. We can begin to let go of negative feelings that we contain in our bodies if we acknowledge first that they are there.

  • Do you wake up in the morning scrutinizing your body and focusing on every ache and pain and defect -- or do you wake up with self-care and acknowledgement of the miracle that having this body really is? 

If you want to start the day feeling more positive about your body, then remember that those negative thoughts and feelings are just what they are (thoughts and feelings) and they can be changed. We say “fake it until you make it.” Even if you don’t quite believe them, vow to give yourself positive messages every morning, until it becomes a habit to wake up this way. For example, try “I feel vital and strong and I am going to be effective today” or “I am unique and lovable just the way that I am.” Or write your own valentine.

One of my wise clients recently shared with me something that she read: “What if everyone woke up in the morning and asked, ‘How can I bring more love into the world today?’ How would our days be different?”  Let’s start making our days different by first loving ourselves: body, mind, and spirit. If you don’t really believe you have a lovable body, then spend some time with a dog, like my client did. You’ll soon know how irresistible that sweet body of yours can be!

Shades of Grey in the New Year

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I often talk to my clients about “finding the gray” when it comes to food, since many are used to thinking in very black-and-white terms. Foods are seen as either good or bad, virtuous or decadent, on their list or off of it. The idea that there are no wrong foods, just more or less health-giving ways of eating, is a hard concept to digest. In fact, what feels like a health-giving way to eat for one person may not work for another. Look around and observe all the diverse body types out there. You can’t tell me that all those unique bodies need the same kinds of food all the time! Now, I studied nutrition science extensively and I know a thing or two about how the body’s physiology works. But I also know that bodies all over the world have lived on so many different types of diets. I believe that we are what we eat, in a sense, but I also believe that our bodies are quite resilient. When I work with clients to really listen within to their own internal wisdom about what to eat (and how much of it) at any given moment, a wonderful trusting relationship with one’s own body -- and eventually with food -- develops. But this process requires letting go of “rules” and being comfortable with gray.

Let’s think for a moment about the softness of the color gray. I happen to really like this color, but it’s not just because I’m discovering more of it on my head as I move through my 40s. I like gray because it is not too perfectly clean or rigid like black or white. It’s flexible and shifting like fog, which means it requires a leap of faith to perceive what is behind it. Think fluffy clouds or soft gray animal fur or smooth stones at the beach... Embrace the not-so-perfect weather, the softness, the unknowing... Once your thinking allows for more gray, there are more possibilities, and you just might not want to go back to black and white again.

I was recently talking with a client about the part of her that she described as feeling like an impulsive young child when she binge-eats sugary foods. Although some people may find that avoiding the substance that they crave (like sugar) works for them, I generally see that most people don’t find that avoidance sustainable. Instead, the work is about caring for that impulsive young child within and giving her some of the limits that perhaps were not given in a secure, loving way. I encourage clients to work toward an inner impulse control that is neither rigid and authoritarian nor overly permissive and self-destructive. Gray again. Somewhere between the no-sugar-ever and the eat-whatever-I-want-whenever-I-want-to is this inner parent-like force of loving, self-care that says, "You may have a piece of chocolate, but after you first give your body a healthy snack."

The reality is that we make choices. There is no right or wrong way to eat. But there are consequences for every choice, and there are some choices that are physically and mentally more aligned with self-care. Sometimes it's having dessert. Sometimes it's not having dessert. When we are feelings connected to our core self, we don't have to work so hard to make these choices. And then we choose and let go of the outcome, noticing how we feel and what happens over time, and learn from the choices that we make.

Attuned eating is good self-care. But it's not a prescription or a diet or an outside force that decides what attuned eating should be like. Your own internal wisdom really does know what is best for you. Attuned eating is also not perfect, but it is often aware and open to learning. It’s a real practice. In 2013, take time to pause and listen and embrace the gray... There is no need for resolutions, just a resoluteness to tune in and take good care.

Many blessings to all of you in the New Year! May you find more peace, love, and joy in your living...

Recovery Often Sprouts from Suffering

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In the past few weeks, many of my nutrition therapy clients have been talking about just how challenging this back-and-forth New England weather has been. We experienced several warm Indian Summer afternoons, crisp cold winds that made us hunt for our gloves, a surprise hurricane, and a snowstorm or two. Today it's back to 50 degrees and bright sunshine again. For those of us who need time to transition into change in order to feel settled, mother nature's bumpy road can feel challenging. I suppose the plant life becomes equally confused. Regardless, the autumn leaves drop and the spring flowers bloom. The cycle of life continues on, despite the not-so-smooth ebb and flow of the seasonal change. Recovery and growth are like that, and the path is rarely linear. In fact, I don't love those pediatric growth charts, even though I admit to finding them useful at times in my work. Although they are a great framework for noticing changes that are out of the ordinary in someone's growth and development, they give us the mistaken notion that growth is smooth. In reality, physical growth comes in spurts. I remember picking up my baby daughter years ago after a nap and saying, "Wow, did you just get longer in your sleep…?"

Our emotional growth is perhaps even more choppy, particularly during the teen years. This explains the mood swings and drama. I have been working with a young adult client in her twenties who is still going through the separation and individuation that is a part of adolescence because she is living with her parents. Her eating disorder, a major part of her teen years, had been a way to cope during this challenging time. Now she is learning to use other ways to cope with her strong emotions and her ambivalent desire to be in charge and independent. She is writing instead of binging and purging. She is crying and learning to tolerate the pain and hurt and angry feelings instead of harming her body. She is allowing herself to suffer, and seeing the value and maturity in tolerating and working through that suffering, instead of going around it with her eating disorder.

Eating disorders are satisfying to the young person who feels the chaos of change. They are black and white; there are good ways to eat and bad ways. Some of the very challenging work in recovery is deciding just how one feels about things. It's far easier if it's black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, and "this is just how it's done in our house."  It's far more challenging to find the grey areas. My client has to non-judgmentally figure out how she really feels about religion, politics, food, sex, tattoos. She notices that some people might judge her, "How could you think about such a thing?!" while others will just kind of shrug off her question as if it's no big deal. It's confusing…

How do I really feel about this? Where do I stand?  What is best for me? What do I want to eat right now? These are hard questions, and it can be easier to go back to the eating disorder to cope with the confusion and indecision that comes up. It's easier to go back to the diet as a focus than to face the bigger questions about ourselves and our purpose on this planet. If I just lose those 10 pounds, or cut out all the gluten and sugar, or become a vegetarian, then all will be well. We use food to distract us from the real struggles, whatever they may be. And in the process, we lose the pleasure of eating and the nurturing force that feeding ourselves can be.

Spring will bring green and Summer will bring harvest again, despite the erratic weather we're experiencing here in the Northeast right now. Similarly, our adult selves spring forth as a result of this challenge and chaos and questioning. Feeling our feelings and then letting them go, even the hard ones, often opens up space for change and possibility and clarity. From this suffering and confusion springs growth and recovery. My clients work through and learn from the challenges and traumas in their lives, instead of running from them or hiding behind the eating disorder. When they do this, they are like the trees that survive the winter and blossom fully in the springtime.

Welcome and Gratitude

Welcome to Nourishing Words.  My clients -- and their triumphs and struggles as they work to improve their relationships with food -- are the inspiration for this blog. I hope to honor their journeys and encourage others on their own journeys towards peace, happiness, and health. Thank you for reading and please come back soon. May food and eating become and remain a way to nourish, balance, and take good care of your body and your Self. (Something that we do several times per day should, after all, be a gesture of kindness and self-love.) In the meantime, I hope your Thanksgiving is a nourishing day of gratitude.

"We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us. We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water. We return thanks to all herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of diseases. We return thanks to the moon and stars, which have given to us their light when the sun was gone. We return thanks to the sun, that has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye. We give thanks to that Great Spirit, in whom is embodied all goodness."    ~ Iroquois Prayer