Don’t Label Me

A few years ago, I had a friend ask me to do a nutrient analysis of everything he ate for a week. He wanted to know how much fat, sugar, and cholesterol he was consuming, which wasn’t surprising. But he also wanted to know how many of the micronutrients he was getting. Things like chromium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.

There was nothing wrong with this, of course. It’s great to educate yourself and be aware of what you’re eating. However, it struck me that he was being obsessive about eating some sort of perfect diet that would give him the exact amount of each nutrient he was supposed to get.

I told him that as long as he was eating an overall healthy diet that included a variety of fruits and vegetables, he didn’t need to worry about it. But he was insistent and paid me a couple of hundred dollars to do it.

The problem with thinking like this is that you miss the forest for the trees. You get distracted by how many nutrients are in a food instead of seeing that food as part of your overall diet.

I see this all the time. My friend who hardly ever exercises being concerned about me getting too much sugar and not enough fiber in my fresh-pressed juice. My coworker who wants to know whether she should eat spinach or kale while she pours ranch dressing on her salad. And another friend who wants me to explain how to read the nutrition label on the back of the Lean Cuisine she’s buying.

You don’t have to worry about how many grams of selenium are in a Brazil nut as long as you’re eating one. And the problem with the food you’re buying is not that the label says there are 30 grams of carbs per serving — it’s the fact that the food comes in a box.

Speaking of labels, the nutrients we are so concerned with — saturated fat, calcium, sodium, etc. — are all simply substances that have been “discovered” and then labeled. We came up with these names. But they existed before we named them. And now that they’ve been named, we’re obsessed with getting the exactly the right amount.

The question is, how many more are there that haven’t yet been “discovered” and labeled? I’m sure the nutrients we now know about only scratch the surface of what’s in our foods. Even though a nutrient may not have a name yet, you’re still getting it.

What’s really important is the overall diet you have. If you’re eating mostly healthy foods and getting a variety of them, you are not going to miss anything. The point is that you need to enlarge your perspective. See the big picture instead of getting bogged down in these kinds of details.

In fact, the only nutrition advice I ever really have is this: eat a ton of fruits and vegetables — and not the same ones over and over again — and drink a ton of water. If you do this, anything else really is okay. You can eat pasta, you can eat cookies, you can drink an occasional diet soda. It’s about your total diet, not each individual food.

It distresses me that our society teaches us to constantly pick apart certain foods and have such a militant attitude about what to eat. We totally miss out on the enjoyment of food and the experience of eating because we’re all so freaked out by how many carbs pasta has or how much fat is in an avocado. We think of eating to get rather than eating to enjoy.

By the way, I’m so sick of celebrities promoting these random, streamlined diets fit for an astronaut and telling people that they’re digging themselves an early grave because they eat nightshade vegetables. (That’s tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, among others — seriously.)

You already know what to eat. You don’t have to read the label on the back of a box to instinctively know whether it’s healthy or not. The fact that it comes in a box means it probably isn’t that healthy in the first place.

If you eat a diet that is mostly plant-based and has a lot of variety, you’re going to get everything you need. And concern yourself with what you eat over the long haul rather than for the next week or the next thirty days.

So enlarge your perspective and, most of all, relax and enjoy what you’re eating.

Body Parts

Several years ago, I was on a date with a former boyfriend, and I had my really heavy purse slung over my shoulder. My arm was pressed up against my side, and the skin on the top of my arm had gotten pinched up between my inner arm and the strap of my purse. I was happily chatting away when all of a sudden he said, “Someone needs to work on her arms a little bit.”

I stopped mid-sentence and felt embarrassment and shame wash over me. In that moment I was reduced to a body part — one that was unattractive and clearly unacceptable.

Rather than tell that guy to go f*** himself (which is what I would do now), I let his words rip a hole through my self-esteem and change how I saw myself. It’s sad to say, but I remember those words every single time I put on a sleeveless shirt or throw my purse over my shoulder.

Before that incident, I had never given my arms a thought. After that incident, I added my arms to the group of parts of my body I didn’t like.

You’re probably not aware that you see yourself as a collection of body parts. I like my butt, but I hate my stomach. I have nice legs, but my hips are too wide.

The media reinforces this disconnection with our bodies. I know you already know this, so I won’t go too much into it. But we are all — men and women alike — deeply affected by media messages. (If you want to hear more about this, please watch this powerful Tedx talk by Jean Kilbourne, who studies the effect of advertising on women and their self-esteem:

Thinking of yourself in this disconnected way affects everything: how you walk, how you eat, what you wear — what you do.

It affects how you carry yourself. You suck in your stomach, you hold your arms out just a little bit, you tilt your head down (or up), you stand with your legs slightly apart so your thighs don’t touch. All of these contortions put tremendous strain on your body.

When you feel constricted like this, your body must somehow neutralize the resistance. This physical resistance, in combination with the mental resistance you feel from hating your body, will likely culminate in binge eating, because that’s what you’ve trained yourself to do as a way to feel better. Bingeing makes you feel ashamed and out of control. It also makes you feel desperate for a solution for the inevitable weight gain, so you try and diet your way out of it.

Dieting creates a distorted relationship with food — it trains you to see foods independently of each other rather than working together to nourish you. They are either good or bad, they should be included or avoided.

Dieting disconnects you from the experience of eating and makes food your adversary. All of this reinforces the binge eating/dieting cycle, which makes you continue the distorted relationship you have with your body.

Here are two ways to start reconnecting with your body:

1) Change how you carry yourself.
2) Change how you eat.

Instead of constricting yourself, relax and let your body move more slowly. Walk more slowly, and try to make more deliberate movements. Stand taller. Breathe deeply. Eat more slowly.

Doing all of this makes you more conscious of what you’re doing and, most importantly, it changes your thoughts. Your mind stops racing so much, which makes you less likely to engage in the repetitive thoughts of how awful you look and how much you want to change the parts of yourself you don’t like.

Changing the physical affects the mental, and the mental then affects the physical. You will start to see yourself more whole; you will start embracing your entire body rather than just parts of it. Loving your whole body alters how you see food — you will begin thinking of food as part of an eating experience that supports your overall health rather than in categories (high in fat, too many calories, too much sugar). You will dramatically change your relationship with food.

Relaxed, peaceful thoughts lead to a relaxed, peaceful body. And a relaxed, peaceful body helps you slow down and enjoy the food you eat. Potato chips don’t land on your thighs and cover them in cellulite, and chocolate doesn’t go straight to your arms and make them untoned. You can occasionally enjoy potato chips and chocolate, because they are a part of your overall diet — which probably also includes lots of healthy foods.

You are not a collection of body parts. You are a whole person whose body is supporting you through your life. You can love it back, or you can work against it. Stop resisting it by making these two subtle changes, and move toward a body — a whole one — that you can love.

Slow Down Sister

I used to sit down and inhale my food. I wasn’t paying attention to what I was eating, and I wasn’t listening to what other people were saying. My mind sort of went blank, and I felt like I had no self-control.

Eating too fast set the tone for the rest of my day. If I ate too fast for breakfast, I kept looking forward to the next meal so I could shove down more food. However, on days when I was able to control myself more, I was less likely to overeat throughout the day. I also felt more calm and able to think clearly, so I was able to make even more healthy choices.

I had to train myself to eat slowly. It was extremely difficult, and it took me a very long time to do it consistently. Actually, I still work on it. But changing this one simple habit had a domino effect — it was the catalyst for all the other changes I made, and it changed my relationship with food entirely.

Eating too fast has lots of drawbacks. It means you’re going to eat way more than your body needs, which equals weight gain. It means that you never realize that you actually can feel full without inhaling a plateful of food. It means that you never really enjoy the food you eat or the experience of eating itself.

But the worst thing about eating too fast is that it makes you feel out of control. Feeling powerless and out of control will push you to continue binge eating, because that’s what you’ve trained yourself to do to feel better. So then you pig out at another meal, feel bad about yourself, and continue the cycle.

Feeling out of control also means that you’re unable to make clear, conscious choices — choices to engage in healthy behaviors that lead to habit change. So you never change any of your habits and get the momentum you need.

Eating slowly, on the other hand, gives you tons of benefits, both for your body and (especially) your mind. Here’s how:

1. It changes your mindset. Eating slowly makes you feel calm and in control. Feeling this way makes it far less likely that you will binge eat, feel out of control, and shove down more food to make yourself feel better. It stops the cycle. And eating slowly helps you think more clearly, so you’re able to make good decisions (or any decisions at all). It allows you to make important distinctions by asking questions like, “Is this what I really want to eat?” or “Why do I eat so fast?” It helps you be mindful.

2. It changes your relationship with food and how you eat. Eating slowly helps you see how you can feel full with less food. When this realization finally sinks in, you start making changes like ordering smaller meals or foods that aren’t so filling (for example, getting a side salad instead of fries).

Eating slowly helps you enjoy your food and the experience of eating. It prevents you from having that horrible feeling of being stuffed that overeating gives you. When eating becomes pleasurable rather than something that numbs your pain, you start doing things like taking time to prepare your food and experimenting with new foods. You start taking care of yourself, which makes you feel good about yourself.

3. It affects your other habits and gives you momentum. Eating slowly and feeling calm and in control makes you feel confident. Having confidence means that you are more likely to feel capable of making small, consistent changes to your habits for the long haul, rather than dieting for a quick fix. Once you start changing habit after habit, you gain momentum and start to see exponential results.

Eating slowly, especially first thing in the morning, keeps you on track for the rest of the day. The more you eat slowly, the more that affects what you consistently do. And when you take actions consistently, they become habits.

So how do you start eating more slowly? Here are some small modifications you can make to get you started:

  • Put your fork down between bites
  • Play relaxing music while you eat
  • Don’t eat in front of a screen (this one’s really hard for me)
  • Ask the server to box up half of your meal to go before you get your food
  • Make an actual meal, not just something lying around — you’re more likely to appreciate what you’re eating if you made an effort to prepare it

Come up with your own tiny changes to accomplish this goal. It makes a huge difference in your habits and in how you eat, and it dramatically improves your relationship with food. It also makes all other changes easier, and it gives you the results you want even faster.

Out of [Dis]Order

I was bulimic for three years in college. I was so desperate to lose weight that I resorted to throwing up almost everything I ate to lose it. I would binge eat, make myself vomit, and do it all over again. It was physically very painful and it almost destroyed me emotionally. I have never hated myself so much in my life, and the disorder itself was an indicator of how much I did.

You may never have had this experience. And if someone asked you if you’ve ever had an eating disorder, you would say no. But just because you’ve never had an eating disorder doesn’t mean you don’t eat in a disordered way — which simply means that you have an unhealthy relationship with food.

If you are constantly focused on what you eat, how much you should or shouldn’t eat, or when you’re going to eat next, you have an unhealthy relationship with food. If you feel an uncontrollable urge to eat whenever you feel stressed, you have an unhealthy relationship with food. If you consistently overeat or binge eat, you have an unhealthy relationship with food. If you are obsessed with how many calories or fat grams your food has, you have an unhealthy relationship with food.

And if you have spent the last ten or twenty years of your life on a diet — you have an unhealthy relationship with food.

Disordered eating and dieting go hand in hand. Eating in a disordered way stems from a lack of self-worth; you are trying to fill an internal void with food. And dieting is the natural solution if you have low self-worth, because you believe that weight is the issue and that losing it will solve your problems.

The truth is that if you were really in touch with yourself, you would recognize that your issues go way beyond food. And then there wouldn’t be anything to shove down, and you wouldn’t need to keep dieting to try and fix yourself.

Having a healthy relationship with food means that you enjoy eating for the taste of the food and the experience of actually eating it, as opposed to inhaling it to feel better. It means that you eat to satisfy true hunger instead of eating anytime you feel the urge to. It means that you stop eating when you’re full instead of eating mindlessly and in a zoned-out state. Dieting addresses none of these issues.

Dieting focuses you on getting rid of the weight as fast as possible. So you restrict your intake, engage in all-or-nothing behaviors, and obsessively focus on what you look like — all of which ultimately send you right back into disordered eating.

Dieting is the bridge between eating to fill an internal void and getting rid of the weight that eating this way brings. You diet out of desperation to fix something outside when the real problem is inside.

And this is the point: it’s not what you eat, it’s the way that you eat it. Disordered eating is caused by a lack of self-worth. You have to understand this in order to make progress. When you fix what’s wrong inside, the outside will change.

You have to realize that you do in fact have an eating disorder — and it is just as serious as starving yourself or making yourself throw up. It may not seem like overeating and obsessing about food are that serious, because our whole culture encourages these behaviors. But they come from the exact same place of low self-worth that pushes some women (like me) to extremes. And this lack of self-love will keep you forever stuck, wasting your life trying to lose weight.

Understand that you have an unhealthy relationship with food and that this can be fixed. Stop trying to fix the byproduct of this unhealthy relationship (the weight) and get to the source instead. Dieting keeps you focused on the result of the problem, not the origin of it. And suffering failure after diet failure only deepens the feelings of unworthiness you have — feelings that cause you to have an unhealthy relationship with food in the first place.

Take baby steps toward changing your disordered eating. Understand that you are doing it and figure out why you are. Start making small, steady changes to your thoughts and your habits. Most importantly, quit dieting.

Just making the decision to give up on the dream of quick weight loss and instead committing to doing the inner work required is an act of self-love that’s more than enough to get you started.