I received a phone call from a friend recently asking me about how to manage the mindfuckery she was experiencing from her 4 weeks at Slimmers World. Her dilemma? She was always hungry, for was at the forefront of her mind all the time. Eating something because she wanted to became an action riddled with guilt, sums and feeling pretty shitty about herself, her shape and her size.
Previously she had had an enviably sound relationship with her body and food. She ate intuitively without much thought. She ate healthy foods and enjoyed foods from all food groups. Being a vegetarian she naturally ate more veg than the average person. After 4 weeks at Slimming World and 1 week of gaining half a pound instead of losing and a lifetime of being at ease with food and her body began to unravel very quickly.
“I just feel like whatever personality I had before is disappearing because all I can think about and talk about is food and this sodding diet.” I think we all recognise this either in ourselves or others. We all know someone who is so entrenched and involved with their diet that it relentlessly dominates conversation. Slimming World seems to have spread through my local community like a bad contagion. Another friend after months of his diet now responds to “how are you?” with a summary of how her dieting and weight loss has been in the last week. She surely must have an emotional experience but if she’s so incredibly focused on her diet then maybe her diet is a convenient distraction from any difficulties she may be facing in her life.
This is a problem. This is a problem because much of the advocated behaviour by dieting programmes that is praised in those society deems in need of losing some weight is the same behaviours that are a concern in a diagnosed eating disorder. The difference? Merely that some people are big enough to be deemed suitable candidates to be losing weight. In these individuals dieting behaviour and weight loss is celebrated, congratulated and encouraged. Once they become “too thin” then the same behaviours are problematic. Additionally problematic is that our perception of “too thin” is very different to a medical definition. There are plenty of people praised daily for their thin stature when they are far below any threshold their health being hindered by a low weight status.
Thin people are praised and told how jealous they make others feel. Commonly they’re asked ‘what their secret is’. You don’t know. It could be genetic, they could have an illness stopping them from gaining weight, maybe they’re not eating enough to meet their energy needs. Sometimes they may even have an eating disorder which is being positively reenforced and encouraged by people around them. I got more compliments on my figure and looks when I had anorexia than I have ever received in my life. The difference is very stark and that is a scratch on the surface of what’s wrong with weight loss programmes, slimmers world and our current body shape ideals. Much of it is categorically pathological.
The rhetoric behind the programme is not all rainbows and sunshine as the marketing material would have you believe. If you want to sign up to a social support group to fuck you relationship with food and your body then great, Slimming World is the place for you. If you’d rather build the foundations for a positive relationship with food then there are other options including HEAS and a non-diet approach. Food is fuel. Food is for nourishing our bodies and minds. It is fun and enjoyable. It can be so much more than calories, “syns” and pounds lost or gained.
When your body is trying to tell you your diet or lifestyle change isn’t as healthy as you thought
We are constantly bombarded with how unhealthy we are as a nation. We’re getting more obese year on year, our children are more obese than they’ve ever been, we don’t exercise enough, we eat too much and we don’t eat enough of the “right” foods. The government have even written a Childhood Obesity Plan in order to try and tackle the growing problem of our nation’s health. It’s natural to respond to these messages by trying to be healthier in your own diet. That’s perhaps largely the purpose of some of these messages.
Many people set out on diets with great intentions: they want to feel more energised, be more active and hit their daily fruit and veg quota of 7 a day. Alongside those intentions is a dieting industry that is massive just waiting to help you on your way with ‘quick fixes’ and ‘easy plans’.
For example, at Be:FIT 2017 when I was looking at a product the sales person assumed I wanted to lose weight and tried to sell me a formula for that. I was a healthy weight and had no interest in losing weight. It seems that everyone is fair game regardless of their health status because the dieting industry’s message is quite clear, we could all do with losing some weight. Not all diets are healthy and sustainable though. There is a massive failure rate for dieters. The storm of trying to lose weight can look very overwhelming and bleak.
If you have decided that you want to lose some weight, or revamp your diet then there are some tell tale signs that your diet isn’t all that healthy despite how many celery sticks and crackers you trying to fill up on.
You’re always hungry:
If you’re always hungry then your diet isn’t sustainable. Your body makes hunger signals in response to a need for energy and nourishment, e.g. food not some spiritually embodied meal replacement shake. Identifying real hunger from emotional, boredom or habitual hunger however can be tricky but ignoring your hunger regardless of the reason for it isn’t leading you anywhere healthy.
Your diet is stressful:
If you find yourself hangry and stressed because you can’t find a suitable something to eat that you fancy then that’s pretty stressful. This could indicate that you’re diet regime is to restrictive. Food is a form of sensory enjoyment and when that enjoyment becomes a huge stress and you find yourself wishing you could be non-human so you didn’t have to eat because it’s too much stress then it’s time to re-evaluate the sustainability of your diet.
Eating becomes about emotions:
We all comfort eat to some degree. A classic break up scene involves copious orders of pizza and ice cream in front of the TV. Emotional eating becomes a real problem when eating patterns and behaviours become a way of experiencing, expressing of stuffing down emotions, whether that’s overeating or under eating. It can go either way. Responding to emotional overeating with a restrictive diet to “undo the damage” will only fuel your disharmony with food. There’s a whole range of good advice, books and support available out there to help with healthy expression of emotion and regaining confidence with food.
Fat becomes a feeling:
Fat isn’t a feeling. It isn’t an emotion either. If ‘feeling fat’ becomes a regular rhetoric for you when you’re feeling something unpleasant then it’s time to do some digging about what you’re really feeling. When fat becomes a feeling, whether you actually are fat or not becomes irrelevant and you can find yourself feeling ‘fat’ even when you’re very underweight. It also entrenches the negative connotations to the word fat, which gives the word way more weighting than it deserves.
Guilt and shame start hanging around:
A diet that is very rigid can mean more chance of swaying from the plan. This creates and heightens feelings of guilt for eating a ‘bad food’ such as chocolate bar. No one died from a heart attack because they ate a chocolate bar or two on occasion. Feeling so emotionally worn down because you ate something doesn’t have a place in a healthy relationship with food. None what so ever. If the shaming is coming from someone else for your food choices and it keeps happening it may be time to stick up for yourself. I don’t mean punch them, but in a reasonable way saying something along the lines of “I’d rather you didn’t comment on my food Karen” might help avoid internalising their judgement or snapping with a “FUCK OFF KAREN!!”.
We are all constantly bombarded with messages that we as a nation
are unhealthy. We’re getting more overweight and obese. We’re not
exercising enough. We drink too much and eat too much of the wrong
You’re Always Hungry:
One sure fire way of knowing that your new dietary lifestyle isn’t
sustainable is by how hungry it leaves you feeling. Your body makes
hunger signals in response to needing energy and nourishment.
Identifying real hunger from emotional hunger or boredom hunger,
or habitual hunger can be tricky – and if you now live in a permanent
state of hunger most of the time with a growl in your stomach then
chances are something is a miss.
Your Diet Is Stressful:
If you find yourself crying because of a food, then something isn’t right.
If you’re stressing because nothing available to eat is fitting with your
new dietary lifestyle then maybe it’s too restrictive. Food is a form of
enjoyment that is very natural to us. Sometimes making big changes
can be slightly stressful as you adjust, say if you’re transferring from an
omnivore to a vegetarian diet. However, if it feels overwhelming or too
restrictive then maybe a longer transition time might help to gradually
ease into your preferred dietarylifestyle.
Eating Becomes About Emotions: We’ve all comfort eaten for some
reason or another. The problem really emerges when eating replaces
emotions, whether that’s overeating as a way to deal with emotions,
or under eating. Neither scenario is entirely avoidable but as a default
then this starts spelling trouble with your relationship with food.
Dieting as a way to ‘undo any damage’ caused by emotional eating will
only fuel the disharmony with your relationship with food. There’s a
whole range of advice, books and therapies available to help with
healthy expression of emotions.
Fat Becomes a Feeling: Fat isn’t a feeling. You don’t ‘feel fat’ emotionally
speaking. If that becomes a default rhetoric you use when you’re feeling
a bit crap then, without sounding like a psych stereotype, do some digging
about what you’re really feeling. Maybe you’re upset, or angry or annoyed.
It can be anything which solidifies the argument that fat isn’t a feeling.
Guilt and Shame Appear:
We often eat for emotional reasons. A classic break up scene is crying at a
film with a tub of ice cream. It’s a natural reward so if you’re feeling a bit
down or have had a stressful day then a glass of wine, or some chocolate
may be on the agenda. That’s totally cool; no one ever died of a heart attack
because they ate 1 or 2 chocolate bars when they were hacked off on occasion.
Guilt and shame are such strong emotions and they really have no place in
your life when it comes to food. Feeling so emotionally worn down
because you ate something doesn’t have a place in a healthy relationship with
food. None what so ever. If someone else tried shaming you for your food
choices and it keeps happening, it might be time to stick up for yourself and
ask them to not do that as nicely as you can. Maybe a “I’d rather you didn’t
Karen” instead of “FUCK YOU KAREN!” when you’ve reached the end of your
tether might be needed.
How to identify healthy media messages that can help harbour self acceptance and compassion.
Having written about identifying unhelpful media for helping on your journey to ditch diet culture, and protect yourself from a shit storm of dieting onslaught I think it would also be helpful to identify some pointers for identifying health positive media. It’s not all doom and gloom; there is a growing amount of people championing self acceptance, a holistic attitude to health and body positivity.
If you’re considering swapping your magazine subscription, or clearing up your social media feeds then here’s a list of how to identify health positive media that will help and encourage you to be healthy and well without a one size fits all model.
They encourage self acceptance:
Media that helps and encourages us to love ourselves can only be good. When we say “they love themselves” about someone it can be an insult for arrogance, but loving yourself doesn’t need to equate to arrogance. In order to love ourselves we need to first accept ourselves – so if your magazine or social media feed is encouraging you on a journey of self acceptance then it’s a winner. Keep that live.
Encourages a healthy balanced lifestyle
By encouraging balance in our lives, for as unsensational as that is to sell, a harmony can be reached with ourselves, our bodies and our health. Some things you may do in your life may be technically unhealthy, however, often there are worse thing you could d be doing so, is the odd cigarette really the worst thing in the world? Or is a bit of cake really going to make you unhealthy?Balance isn’t about eating high sugar high fat food all the time. It also isn’t eating a restrictive diet of just mange-tout on Mondays, or carb free Fridays. I just made that up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it existed somewhere. It’s about eating healthy food and having some balance in your life so that cake isn’t stressful, you’re not panicking at a buffet and you’re not eating the whole pack of biscuits with the TV each night because you’re swearing you’ll never eat them again. By allowing all foods, regardless of nutrition content allows for a more balanced and healthy outlook and relationship with food.
Advises being inclusive of all food groups
A lot of diets cut out food groups. No grains, no carbs, no sugars… the list keeps on going. Some diets include only eating one food group, fruit for example on a restrictive fruitarian diet. Unfortunately, yes that exists.Nutritionally, excluding any food group can lead to being malnourished, physically and emotionally. Sometimes we need a piece of chocolate for comfort, or a hot drink can be soothing. Discarding any food group only furthers a disharmony in your relationship between yourself, your body and your food.
So yes, if you like cake then cake has a place in your diet just as all the other stuff like grains, carbs, veg, protein.
Gives the power to you over your priorities
With our health, it is largely in our hands when it comes to eating. However, a lot of media will try to tell you what you ought to be eating or not eating. They’ll try to encourage that your priority should be weight loss, or abs, or building muscle. That isn’t for everyone and in fact, a media outlet that gives the power to you to define your own goals and your own priorities is empowering – and you wanna keep that live too.Why let some editor in an office living a completely different life to you define what your values and priorities with you health ought to be? We’re all different and we all have different lives – what is important for one person may be the bottom of the list for another. Therefore, media that helps you identify what you want by asking questions to prompt considering it can be helpful, but if they’re guiding you in the direction of their own priorities then shut that shit up!
Comes from a place of non-judgmentalness
When we’re learning to be self-compassionate the last thing we need is judgements from others infiltrating the good vibes. It can be extremely difficult to develop self-compassion and shut the nagging self-deprecating voice in our heads up. Therefore, it is important to surround ourselves with media and messages that come from a place of non-judgementalness. This stance in approaching not only ourselves, but others as well, can really harbour compassion not only for ourselves but for others.It’s a great lesson to learn to not be judgmental but being surrounded by judgmental media can only lengthen and challenge our journey towards being non-judgemental. It can be hard to identify judgement words, but basically emotionally loaded ways of describing can help sum them up. Lazy or stupid for example are quite harsh judgement words, and when they’re used to describe someone or ourselves can be quite damaging.
How to identify unhelpful media messages for body image and dieting.
Health and fitness advice is everywhere. You could read all day every day and reach no consensus on how to best eat and exercise for your health. There are entire businesses that rely on our need to transform ourselves in search of an elusive sense of happiness and ease in life. The TV is full of programmes showcasing different diets, including crash diets and their success stories. Advertisements bombard us with how their product will help us shape up as if we’re all too shaped down. That’s before we’ve even delved into the unfiltered and unedited online world.
Sometimes media outlets and their messages can be a bit of a trickster, packaging themselves as having our best interests at heart but really the underlying tone of the messages can ultimately make us feel a bit shit about ourselves. This only serves to fuel the diet and fitness industry because why would we be so desperate to spend our money on their products if we were satisfied with ourselves and our lives?
There are some ways to identify unhealthy media for your diet and lifestyle, even if they have ‘Health” in the title and pictures of 6-packs throughout their content. Below are 5 red flags that mark out the shit I should ignore from the shit I should really take on board, and get this, remain balanced.
They’re sure that you need to change in order to be happy. You can’t be too comfortable with yourself. You just can’t because if you were then how would magazines be a leading monthly seller? Unhealthy media assumes that you’re unhappy with yourself, and if you’re not it will give you reason to be unhappy with yourself. Then they’ll tell you how to change in order to not be unhappy with yourself. Of course it will seem like a simple and decent plan, but of course it fuels a cycle to keep you coming back for more like a crack addicted mouse chasing its next hit in a lab.
They have astounding “life changing” promises. If the author of the media is promising to change your life phenomenally then tread with caution. There is no one solution to all of life’s problems; they are too complex and varied. Being a certain weight, size or body shape also won’t make everything in your life easier, smoother and happier. You won’t breeze through life just because you’re a size 10. Life doesn’t work like that. Your boss will still be annoying. Your landlord will still be difficult and your overdraft won’t pay itself off.
They ensures that if you didn’t want XYZ before, you do now…
They will tell you what you want in life. If you didn’t want what is being prescribed before you do now. This can sway you away from what really matters in your own life and values to what someone thinks you need or ought to want. Abs is a big one, with ab workouts and cheat sheets everywhere. To be honest, maintaining my health is more important to me than abs.
They’re judgement loaded A classic lines includes, ‘if i can you can too’, and buzz words are: lazy, should, ought, and why not? If someone is self-righteous about upholding their lifestyle regime, as if anyone who doesn’t isn’t seeing the light yet and are stupid because of it, then that’s pretty unhelpful. Health is different for different people.
Just because someone is following a particular plan and another person isn’t doesn’t make one better than the other. Greedy, pig, and lazy are also unhelpful contexts within which to frame anyone and their habits or behaviour.
You feel shit after reading it and you didn’t before you started. I noticed this in particular with an image that circulated around Insta earlier in January. People who had achieved a level of self acceptance about their bodies were upset and feeling pretty damn shit about themselves. If you have a level of acceptance before reading or seeing something, then afterwards you’re finding yourself self-doubting yourself then put that shit down. Right. Now.You don’t need that shit in your life. Unless you’re feeling empowered to be healthy, I mean genuinely healthy not washboard abs super woman “healthy” then it’s likely not useful for you.
If you really do feel that you need help with your weight for health reasons, a qualified health professional is best equipped to help you out. Check credentials and go for dietitian or registered nutritionists as these are the only regulated nutrition professionals by government standards. There will be a post about this at some point.
Help identifying when diet culture is disguising as health and stop it from infiltrating your relationship with food.
January is one of those times of year when it seems everyone is on a health kick. Changing habits can be a great thing, especially when it is motivated to become a healthier version of yourself. There’s so much evidence for giving up smoking, and in giving it up at an earlier age; for drinking less alcohol; for eating more fruit and veg; for being more active yada yada. You know the drill, but what happens when motives become unconsciously sly?
The quest for health can become untoward and often it goes unnoticed. Before you know it the little bit of healthy competition between colleagues to get the most steps can spiral into a compulsion. The eating less cakes can grow into a pattern of self denial and spread from your own well-being into enforcing no one eats cake around you, and the healthy office snacks become restricted only to celery and seeds with no leeway for the odd chocolate bar. Pretty soon it can become competitive, and border into the realms of the ring leader embodying a food fascist. Often this is done unconsciously and with only good meaning intended.
There’s no room or need in the world for food fascism but somehow it commonly creeps up and into the healthy resolves people make, making a healthy initiative transform to be unhealthy for everyone involved. So how can we prepare and notice the unhealthy undertones to a well intentioned health kick?
Food shaming comes in all sorts of different ways. Whether it’s commenting that someone is having cupcake number 2 and making some sort of announcement about it or posing the question “are you really going to eat that/all of that?” Even if they’re on a health kick and have been reading loads about nutrition, it doesn’t give them a free pass to become the social food commentator. What someone else wants to eat and put in their body is entirely their choice. What is healthy for one person may well be unhealthy for another. There is no one size fits all when it comes to nutrition.If you see someone eating something and you think “they shouldn’t be eating that” maybe the next step is to ask the real question of, “why do I think they shouldn’t be eating that?”. Does it really fucking matter if Karen in the office ate two cupcakes at the office party? Really? As in really? Like it will keep you up tonight kind of matter? Probably not.
What happens if you’ve been food shamed one too many times? Even if you’re healthy, have a healthy attitude towards food and your body but still, you’re going out of your way to secretly shove in a Mars Bar then chances are the health kick that shamed you isn’t all that healthy.Or if you feel so deprived by your new healthy diet and want to appear like you’re keeping on top of it so much that it drives you underground with eating then that’s not healthy either. The thing with eating in secret is that it’s a psychologically and emotionally loaded activity and not in the way that a fun rollercoaster may be. If you find this happening because of your own ideas about food, or those that others are infringing on to you then something needs to change.
Sole Focus is on Weight:
A lot of people need to lose weight for health reasons. A lot of people don’t. A lot of people use diet as a way in which to lose weight however, when weight loss becomes the only focus and purpose of feeding then the health aspect of losing weight is lost. Food is more than the number of calories it contains. Food is nourishment, enjoyment, and social amongst many other things. There’s so much more to gain in terms of health from food than losing weight.
Peer Pressure and Diet Lectures:
What happens when you don’t even want to change your diet, but everyone around you is shoving it down your throat that you ought to because of X, Y and Z? For example, the vegan trend right now is pretty hot and heavy. Just as clean eating was, and a million other dietary trends before that. It’s OK if you don’t want to go on a diet. It’s perfectly fine if you don’t want to go vegan and you’re not a bad person for that.If someone is self righteous about their diet, and figuritively speaking, trying to ram it down your throat, that is a sure fire sign that you need to evacuate the premises from them. That sounds extreme, but by that I mean shut down the conversation and find someone else to talk to – or maybe don’t talk to anyone. You have just as much right to not be bombarded with stuff you’re not interested in as they do for eating the way they prefer.
Size Shaming, Regardless of Actual Size:
We’re all different sizes. We are heights and widths that are personal to ourselves. Some of us are naturally smaller and some of us are naturally bigger. This doesn’t mean that anyone can size shame you, regardless of where you fit on that spectrum. “Are you really going to eat all that?” and “I’m surprised you can eat that much, look at you” and comments along those lines can all jog on. Jog on, jog on and keep on jogging until they’re talking to a wall because that’s the only thing that will reasonably have the patience for such drivel. Just because someone is a size 8 doesn’t mean they’re never hungry and can’t eat a big burger. Similarly, just because someone is a size 18 doesn’t mean they can never touch chocolate again in their lives.
The festive season can be really fun but in that statement it can sometimes feel like we “should” be having SO MUCH FUN, OH MY GOD I CAN’T CONTAIN MYSELF I’VE NEVER HAD THIS MUCH FUN IN MY LIFE. Chances are you have. There’s a lot of pressures at this time of year: to eat certain foods, to buy presents, to see people you may not want to see and schmooze around people you don’t want to be schmoozing with. There’s plenty of stimulus to lose your shit over, the turkey, the roast potatoes or even irritating family members who you can’t eliminate from the annual socialising – and we all know a little tipple can sometimes be the fire starter to set things off.
I’ve just made christmas sound particularly awful. I’m hoping very much that all of this doesn’t happen to anyone this year and that the inevitable stress happens to each person in a small dosage. Even though we can’t necessarily control the things around us there are things we can do to help maintain our mental health and wellbeing throughout the festive season.
Here I’m going to list the methods I try to use to reduce the stress of the festivities and increase the enjoyment, and it seems to work for me so far, so here goes:
Fit in some form of physical activity to get some headspace, reduce stress and help ease the stodgy feeling that some festive foods can leave you with, even if that means just a walk around the park. It’s good to get outside from stuffy overcrowded rooms. A warm house or pub is great and so is some fresh air to make the warmth feel so much more appreciated.
Eat with some balance in mind. Indulging has become intrinsically linked with the festive season but just because of that cultural norm it doesn’t mean you need to eat until your stuffed all the time, on repeat and until you feel unwell from overdoing it.
You don’t need to restrict or diet throughout the festive season either. Diets aren’t cool anyway, and they’re especially not cool at christmas. Ignore diet culture. You do not need to gorge for a few weeks and starve for the following few months to “undo the damage”. Stop that. Stop that right now.
There isn’t a law insisting that festive foods are only eaten in the month of December – there is no urgency to eat them all until the brim because guess what, you can eat them at any time of year if you really want to. They don’t vanish from existence on the 1st of January.
Take some me time. It’s OK and quite normal to want to take a break from the relentless social calendar that exists at this time of year. Have a nap. Go for a walk. Watch a film on your own or sneak off to read your book. You’re not weird for wanting some down time. Especially if you’re more introverted than extroverted, like myself, this down time is super important so as not to become exhausted and overwhelmed.
Reduce the pressure and value of presents. I remember family members getting extremely stressed that I didn’t know which book exactly that I wanted to the point of a near melt down. There’s no point. It’s not THAT important. I would’ve like any book on the topic I asked for.
If you don’t know what to get for someone then guessing is fine. It’s OK if it’s not a perfect present. For as cliché as it is, it really is the thought that counts – so if you’re strapped for cash then baking some sugar cookies is definitely a win.Present giving is fun. I’m a fan of people pretending to like a present I got them even if I didn’t quite get it right – I think gratitude that they tried is important and not losing sight of that.
Take a step away from social media. Christmas is a time when a lot of people use social media as an opportunity to show off the ‘insane amount of presents under the tree’, and how much they got for their kids, and how they can barely move in the house for presents. It’s bullshit – don’t succumb to it; you’re better than social comparisons and competitions about stuff. You don’t need to worry about what Susan from school got because from Boxing Day you probably won’t care anyway. They got something very expensive and lust worthy, well good for them. It doesn’t mean you need to compete beyond your means.
If you’ve had enough to eat it’s fine to leave some on your plate. There can be a pressure to eat more than you physically can because your mum cooked every trimming in Sainsbury’s. If you’re full and you can’t then it’s ok to be firm about that. It’s your body and you’ll be the one experiencing the discomfort of a distended stomach and acid reflux if you push it too far.
Time and attention are probably some of the best gifts you can give to your nearest and dearest. Put the phone down, shut the laptop off and spend some quality time together. Play a silly game. Help the kids with their lego. Dance around the house to Just Dance on the Wii. Chances are these will be the moments you remember fondly.
The most important thing is getting through the festive season in one piece, healthily and as happily as you can.