I know, I hear you: who’d have thought we’d ever see “contentment” in a piece about weight management. But, in a world of confusing mixed messages, it is possible to find your happy place.
We live in interesting times. Much of what we thought we knew has changed, particularly in the health and weight management arena. In recent years, as we understand more about the impact of “dieting” on health, many nutrition professionals have moved away from restrictive calorie-counting towards a more “weight neutral” perspective. This shift started with the creation of the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement with compassionate body acceptance at its heart.
As someone who has had her share of weight and body image issues, I liked the removal of negative emotions, judgement, and the elimination of self-stigmatisation based on weight.
I embraced the philosophy so fully, I stopped writing ‘weight loss diets’ for my clients, preferring to guide them towards a non-diet strategy that incorporated food freedom, eating for health, and nutritional nurturing. Rather than removing foods from an eating plan, I focused on introducing more.
More nutrient-dense foods.
The idea was that, by adding more good stuff, the less-good stuff might be dislodged. And generally, that approach worked.
I trained in the anti-diet Intuitive Eating (IE) approach that encourages a connection with our body’s physical sensations, eating when hungry and stopping when full (yes, even if there’s food left on your plate), irrespective of the time of day or what else you’ve eaten, or what your family, friends or colleagues are eating.
Over time, this kinder approach may enable the body’s natural wisdom around eating to re-emerge, encouraging achievement of the natural set-point weight for the individual. And because we’re not thinking about food or calories or macros all. of. the. blooming. time. we can get on with the business of living and doing those things that brings us pleasure and joy. I imagine that’s the main reason why IE has been linked to better psychological wellbeing, more nutritious ways of eating, and weight stability.
But, although I connected with the anti-diet concept, I had reservations. I always have reservations about any “movement”, because “movements” are about a ground swell of people united in one direction. And this doesn’t feel congruent with my belief that we are all individual, with our own stories to be told and heard, at different places on our personal path.
The anti-diet movement is founded on the valid principle that diets don’t work; that they set up a well-documented cycle of failure that erodes a sense of self. It’s a given that the entire dieting industry is built upon a model that requires ever participant to fail, to blame themselves for that failure, and to return to the diet.
For all of their failings, “diets” of whatever type provide a structure. This comfortable framework of rules of what to eat and avoid, of “being on a diet”, is a way of signalling to the watching world that we’re doing something about our weight. And for many people, the “diet” and its regimentation provides a structure, a way of controlling their interactions around and with food. Even if they “break the rules” from time to time. Or often. And, if we join a commercial weight management programme, we become part of a tribe, meeting our need to belong.
For me, any successful approach to weight management has to consider our basic needs. And that includes how we choose to feed ourselves.
There’s no guarantee of weight loss on any diet, including anti-diet approaches such as HAES or IE when an individual may lose, or even gain, weight, or experience weight stability as their relationship with their body and food adjusts. Anti-diet approaches tackle something other than “weight”, but what if how we tackle weight enables us to meet other needs?
An “anti-diet” approach is wonderfully aspirational. For me, it is the gold standard of eating, underpinning a well-developed relationship with food. Yet its principles, especially unconditional permission to eat, can still feel rule-based when portrayed in an overly simplistic, straightforward and superficial way. The way many online resources present it.
A big piece in my jigsaw of thinking came when I started doing the Eating Freely training. This helped me to see that, whilst eating intuitively is the ideal outcome, some people just aren’t in that space that. Yet.
Some people need the structure and sense of belonging that a “diet” can bring; others need the structure of eating based on sound nutritional common sense.
In choosing a perfectly valid model of IE and self-compassion, I removed the comforting familiarity of restriction, replacing with something unfamiliar, something disconcerting that might not meet a deeper need. I was working in an evidence-based way, but forgetting to ask the client what they wanted and needed.
In short, I forgot to “hear” my clients.
We all have our own goals for our body, mind, and health. You choose the vehicle that takes you through Life. It is my job to hear your goals, check your outcomes are well-formed, and partner with you on a healthy, sustainable way forward that builds self-efficacy. Your goals don’t have to involve weight; health is more than a number on a scale at any given time and there are plenty of ways to work on feeling better.
We cannot ignore that the bias towards obesity and overweight remains firmly in place. Excess weight is still heavily stigmatised. Yes, we have made great strides forward in body acceptance and positivity, but heavy people still attract judgement and horrible commentary. Yes, even if it’s not spoken aloud it can be reflected in our body language and attitude. And sometimes this comes from within.
You may embrace the concept of diversity – but in others, not yourself. You may intend to talk compassionately to yourself, but your emotional armour hasn’t been fastened in place properly or has those irritating little chinks that allow the hurtful arrows of jibes and snide remarks, or looks, to penetrate. And, for you at this moment, contentment cannot be found in a weight-neutral approach. Yet.
For some of us, it is often far quicker and simpler to address weight and body shape rather than waiting for society’s biases to correct or for us to be ready to do the deeper work that supports an anti-diet approach.
You have a fundamental right to watch what you eat, whatever your size, without commentary or discussion. That’s what “body autonomy” is all about. You have a right to manage your health the way you want. Unless it’s causing you discomfort and you feel a need to change.
Your goal may be to manage a health condition that is made worse by being heavier, such as dodgy knees or hips. Maybe your goal is to have a flexible approach to food, to eat in a way that supports health and fits into Life – your Life. Maybe you understand that walking through those golden arches isn’t particularly ‘healthy’ but it’s the only option, for whatever reason (and don’t get me started on food politics or social inequality) and just need to acknowledge that it’s okay. Perhaps you eat when you’re not hungry as a pre-emptive strategy to cope with shift work and struggle with how that fits with intuitive eating. Maybe you feel the need for change but don’t know how: how to start, how to plan, how to cook.
There is always a reason for the way we eat, and that reason is often one of the factors behind our weight: the key is bringing the reason into awareness and working with it. In my experience, the process of Awareness, Acknowledgement and Acceptance removes a lot of the emotion that we attach to food, enabling us to make conscious choices. We can choose to stay where we are, doing what we’ve always done. Or we can choose different. What is important is that we make a conscious choice, for us, as individuals. For our own reasons.
And that’s where I come in. I can provide a safe space in which to explore what’s best. For you.
My job is to hear you: your concerns, your hopes, your skills and abilities, your preferences. And yes, your fears. You can live a perfectly happy life in a body whatever its weight, but you cannot deny that there are potential health risks associated with a body at either end of the weight spectrum, whether too heavy or too light.
If you summon up the courage and motivation to choose to work with me than it is my professional duty of care to present effective, evidence-based solutions to help you move towards achieving your goals.
If you want our conversation to involve “weight” then great; I’d prefer a weight-neutral approach such as intuitive or mindful eating but, if you decide that your best way forward involves a “diet” then, if that is something you are committed to trying, it is my role to support you.
The “diets” I work with provide a structure, meeting the need we all have for the mental and emotional comfort of routine. Because we know that calories are not made equal, my “diets” place focus on nutrient density and calorie quality, not quantity. This approach, improving diet quality, has been scientifically demonstrated to improve weight management in the long term. They’re less “diet”, more a personalised Way of Eating that encourages you to live life well, your way, honouring your body autonomy.
We work together to ensure that any “restrictions” work to support your sense of self and your wellbeing, not just for the arbitrary “number on a scale” outcome, but for longer-term, wider considerations of health. After all, “restrictions” can take many forms, not just the reductionist “calorie counting”, “clean eating” or food combining of certain programmes. And some restrictions, such as Time Restricted Eating, can be healthy.
My role involves identifying and constructing with you the most appropriate plan for you, as an individual, and supporting you as you embrace change. There’s every chance that it won’t be the same plan your friend follows, or the latest social media guru is paid to recommend. It’ll be a plan that considers your unique goals and nutritional needs whilst incorporating behavioural updating to protect against post-diet weight regain, the “binge-restrict-binge” of yoyo weight cycling, or potential damage to self-belief or self-esteem.
Less punishment, more nourishment: for body, mind, and soul.
I offer a personalised Way of Eating that may, or may not, target weight management. I do that because it leads you, and me, towards a sense of peace around food and eating. Coincidentally, that’s one of the principles of Intuitive Eating. Same destination, slightly different route.
If you’re looking for contentment around food and eating, ask yourself what you really want: another diet, or a personalised Way of Eating.
If you want to learn more about my approach and whether it might be just what you’re looking for, drop me an email.