The Pursuit of Health: How Are We Using Food to Get There?

Older couple walks together eating ice cream, talking and laughingFor 13 years, the International Food Information Council Foundation has conducted surveys gathering information about American food purchasing and consumption attitudes. This year, they made an addition to the research: surveying diets and eating patterns. Some of the main findings related to the prevalence of low-carb and restrictive eating patterns and the pursuit of weight loss as a dominant motivator in food choice.

Clearly, Americans care about dieting in part because we care about body image and weight. Interestingly, we also seem to believe that weight is intrinsically tied to health. While I believe all foods are good and accessible in a healthy life, I realize it is not easy to simply ditch all diets and stop worrying about weight when many medical professionals and so much of our culture tells us to do otherwise. So how do we work towards a healthy life?

What Does ‘Health’ Mean to You?

When it comes to health—the word and the concept—there’s a lot to unpack. Health means different things to  different people, so it may be worth asking yourself what definition you ascribe to that word. I am a firm believer in intuitive eating and the idea that a person can be healthy at any size. As such, I believe our size and weight do not dictate our level of health. To me, being healthy means to engage in health-promoting behaviors. These include eating a varied diet without food restrictions, honoring the body’s need for movement, and engaging in regular self-care (including therapy!). In my experience, if we increase health-promoting behaviors, we will gain health, regardless of what the scale says.

When someone comes to me seeking help around body dissatisfaction or disordered eating patterns, I often start by helping them defining and redefining health in order to better focus their attention on these behaviors, rather than on numbers such as weight and BMI. Once we have a functional and agreed-upon definition of health, it’s possible to isolate the health-promoting behaviors the person wants to increase. This isn’t about choosing a new diet to try. Instead, it’s about finding ways we can include these behaviors in our current lives.

To put these behaviors into action, we can use mindfulness and self-reflection skills to learn when we are hungry, what we want to eat, when we want to move, and when we have had enough. Our body will answer us. We just have to listen. Mindful eating, which can be simply described as the act of taking deep breaths and checking in with ourselves before, during, and after our meals, is a great place to start this listening practice. Create a sacred space around your meals and exercise routine so you can better tune into your body’s messages. When your body says, “Stop,” or “Gross, I actually hate kale,” listen to it. See what else it needs in that moment.

I can hear your questions already. “What if my body only wants sugar? Sugar is bad and addictive!” Mindful and intuitive eating does not stop when the meal stops. If we pay attention to how our body feels after meals, we will start to understand more of our natural limits. Have you ever had a headache after too much caffeine? Does your stomach hurt after too many gummy bears? This isn’t because either of these foods are “bad.” Any food, if overeaten, will most likely lead to feelings of physical discomfort.

When someone comes to me seeking help around body dissatisfaction or disordered eating patterns, I often start by helping them defining and redefining health in order to better focus their attention on these behaviors, rather than on numbers such as weight and BMI.

How different might we feel if we could increase our mindfulness during eating, so that when our body says “Yum, those gummy bears were great, but now I’ve had enough,” we could hear it and respond. I know if I am eating something delicious while doing other things, it is more likely I will overeat. But if I’m taking the time to enjoy how delicious something is, I can feel when my body is reaching its limit and more easily come to a stop.

The annual food and health survey certainly shows how prevalent diets and the desire for weight loss are in our country. But these surveys also demonstrate an increased desire for knowledge about intuitive and mindful eating. If we can start changing the dialogue of what health is—the behaviors we engage in—we may be better able to find more useful strategies that focus on the whole concept of health promotion rather than narrow “results” that measure success by deprivation, weight, and size.

If you are curious how you can begin to change your internal dialogue around health and food, I encourage you to reach out. Look for a therapist and dietitian who specializes in disordered eating patterns. If you’re struggling on your own, a professional, compassionate counselor can help you find a positive path forward that includes intuitive and mindful eating concepts.

References:

  1. 2018 Food & Health Survey. (2018, May 16). International Food Information Council Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.foodinsight.org/2018-food-and-health-survey
  2. NEDA. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
  3. 10 principles of intuitive eating. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating
  4. Tylka, T. L., Annunziato, R. A., Burgard, D., Danielsdottir, S., Shuman, E., Davis, C., & Calogero, R. M. (2014). The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: Evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss. Journal of Obesity, 2014. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/983495

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mandy Rubin, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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