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