"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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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