Sam Finkelstein is an anti-diet dietitian, and she joined us over on the podcast to discuss the idea that being “anti-diet” does not mean being “anti-health”. And honestly, if you don’t truly believe this, it’s really hard to make positive changes and let go of restrictions. Intuitive eating is much easier to embrace and practice when you understand this!
Sam shares that what she remembers about dieting is being totally fixated on food. It seems whenever we diet, we get consumed by paying attention to all. things. food.
From following the rules, dealing with our body crying out for more food, and stressing about instances where we might end up failing on our new diets…once we are engulfed in a dieting mindset, it’s hard to see past it! Once huge downside to this is that it’s super hard to live our lives in a balanced way when we are in the midst of dieting. And many people are constantly engaged in some form of diet!
Food fixation goes hand-in-hand with stress and cycles of restricting/binging. It’s hard to be at your best (or even to enjoy your life) when this is where your mind is! That’s one reason why it’s so important to check your beliefs often.
Dieting and disordered eating is really common in our culture. In fact, it’s become so common that it can be hard to spot. Sam shares that she often hears some version of, “Well, if that’s disordered, then isn’t everyone basically disordered?” when it comes to restricting food intake. Her answer? Yes! If your food patterns create cycles of restricting and binging, if you’re mental space is consumed with what you will eat, or what you already ate, or what you want to eat but won’t allow yourself…
That is disordered. That’s not something to normalize, it’s something to recognize and address!
Sam’s Anti-Diet Approach
As she prepared for college, Sam initially applied for journalism programs. At the last minute, however, she took a year off and traveled. During that year, she decided she wanted to become a registered dietician. She feels this was connected to wanting to heal something within herself, which may be common for many people in the field. Since graduation, she worked in a variety of programs. Gradually, she’s settled into working specifically with people dealing with disordered eating.
As a result, she currently works with lots of clients who are recovering from eating disorders and from chronic dieting. (Diet recovery might mean that you don’t fit the criteria of a full-blown eating disorder, but you’re struggling with your relationship with food and eating. Rather than waiting for things to escalate, Sam believes that we can, and should, start addressing those things early on.)
Her nutrition approach is ant-diet, health at every size. It’s also based on intuitive eating! She finds that people who are first starting recovery can’t usually start with intuitive eating from the get go. It’s really hard to tune into your body’s signals when you’ve repressed them for a long time. That’s okay! Sam notes that you can start slow and build up, with intuitive eating as the eventual goal. For example, principles like —
+ Full permission to eat all foods, and
+ Honoring hunger when it does come up
Are great ways to start moving towards an intuitive approach to food.
Who Decides What “Health” Is?
For a long time, Sam shares that Weight Watchers was the gold standard of weight loss. Their success rate? Around 5%! THAT is what “success” meant in the dieting industry. And their definition of “health” pretty much just meant losing weight.
Eventually, Sam realized that traditional dietary methods weren’t working. She also recognized that health was a much bigger concept than she had ever imagined. Rather than envisioning it as only meaning weight loss, she realized it had the potential to be so much more.
That’s one reason she loves to incorporate intuitive eating into her work. She shares that one common question she get’s asked is:
But wouldn’t I just eat everything then?
And intuitive eating IS about having permission to eat or do anything you want. As an intuitive eating provider, Sam promotes bodily autonomy. YOU get to do whatever you want for your body, and it’s not for anyone else to tell you. (With some eating disorder cases, sometimes there does need to be extra support in the beginning. But even then, she views her advice as a recommendation that clients can choose to follow if they wish.)
However, she also wants to make it clear that intuitive eating is so much more than just eating whatever you want. It’s about listening to your body. This means tuning in, listening to hunger and fullness, and learning to say YES to what your body needs.
She also wants to make people aware that health at every size practices and intuitive eating models achieve success! In fact, studies have shown that the positive impacts of these programs exist with or without weight loss. The size of your physical body does not have to change for you to be a success story! There is so much freedom in this idea, it’s worth repeating:
The size of your physical body does NOT have to change for you to be a success story.
Weight Cycling & Stigmas
If you’re not familiar with the term, “weight cycling” is the phenomenon in which dieters lose weight, and then gain that weight back. Usually, the end weight is higher than the weight before the diet. This cycle continues over and over again. And guess what? Studies show that weight cycling has more links to chronic conditions that have previously been associated to weight.
That means it’s not necessarily extra pounds creating negative conditions…it’s the diet culture stigma and the yo-yo dieting that are creating issues.
Recently, I saw a post Sam created online talking about the idea that we don’t “owe” anyone anything when it comes to our health or the size of our bodies. Basically, you are in charge of your own body, and you know your body best. This is body autonomy. You do not owe it to anyone else to be “healthy”, especially when people are using “healthy” as a code word for weight loss. Because honestly, when people talk about health, they are all too often really talking about weight.
There are many for whom it would be MORE healthy to stop exercising. To stop dieting. To stop experiencing shame or guilt about their body size.
It is absolutely up to YOU to decide what your own big picture wellness looks like. What would it mean for you to be truly healthy? Would you be doing anything differently? What would you not be doing?
If you create your own picture of wellness, it would include so much more than rules about what to eat or not eat, or how many minutes to work out. Let’s start to expand the idea of wellness! It can mean so much more than we currently let it mean.
Wellness is Diet Culture Repackaged
Saying that a diet is a “lifestyle” is just a repackaging of the same old diet culture. How can you tell them apart? Well, diet signs include:
+ Are you asked to rule out a certina food or food group?
+ Have certain foods been demonized or glorified?
+ Are you asked to ignore body cues, like hunger, as part of the “lifestyle”?
If your answer is yes, then you’re probably dealing with a diet. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the word “wellness” automatically means something is going to be good for you.
So what’s another way to wellness? Stop restricting.
Why? Because when you’re restricting, there is something going on somewhere else in your eating. And the more we try to control ourselves and our eating, the more tension builds up. And eventually, that results in binging. We end up really out of balance as we swing between the two extremes, and it’s a never ending cycle. Our body’s respond to our rule-making by going on high alert and searching for food, and no matter how long we hold out, eventually we cave in and consume a massive quantity. Cue the guilt, the renewed pledge to stick to our restrictions, the building tension, and the eventually collapse. If you’ve dieted before, you know that cycle all too well!
Putting Weight Loss on the Back Burner
Intuitive eating can turn into your new diet if you aren’t aware of your tendency to start creating new rules! It’s important to put weight loss on the back burner when you approach this practice, but after a lifetime of dieting, that can be hard to do. Sam recommends that you exercise compassion for yourself as you learn how to listen to your body and respond to her needs. She also reminds her clients that this is a process that takes place over time.
Sam points out that social messaging tends to feed us the message that when we do things right, we get smaller. When we do things wrong, we get larger.
So if you’re new to intuitive eating and you’re not losing weight, or maybe you’re even gaining some weight, it’s easy to think that you are doing something wrong. Good news! You can’t fail when you practice listening to yourself and honoring your needs. It can be really hard to override those messages, so be patient with yourself.
Keep in mind, there is a lot of social messaging and internalized feelings to undo! If you’re here, you’re showing up, and you’re taking steps to recover your partnership with your body. That means you are doing everything you need to do. Trust that things will come together; you don’t have to accomplish everything all at once.
The work of intuitive eating is ongoing. Full recovery from eating disorders and disordered eating is possible. However, recovering doesn’t mean you’ll never have a negative thought about your body, or feel a need to restrict or binge a certain food. The thing that has changed is the way you address it within yourself.
Remember: be gentle, be patient, and practice self-care.