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Here I am... Unpacking Diet Culture For You

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes

In my last blog post Trauma is Trauma I shared some pretty personal experiences as well as the dangers of extreme weight loss attempts, from a trauma perspective.

I also left you on a bit of a cliffhanger… I described the dangers of extreme weight loss, but gave no solutions to weight loss approaches that are actually effective.

I hate to say this, but before I give you the beginning of a solution, I am actually going to present you with more ideas to reflect on. And tell you, dieting is never a long term solution to weight loss... Sorry to burst your bubble - I know this is a tough one to swallow.

Let’s start with defining trauma better. I can sense that some of you may be rolling your eyes wondering why that is my focus - yet again. Give me a chance. It’s important.

I know some people are uncomfortable using the term trauma, thinking it is reserved only for huge traumas like the Holocaust or abusive situations. But let's try to understand what trauma truly is, because it can help us find the most effective solution to healing one’s relationship with food.

How can a mother forcing her daughter to go to Weight Watchers when she is ten years old even compare to "REAL" trauma? This mother is acting out of love. How is that Trauma?

As Trauma Specialist Esther Goldstein explained during her #mentalhealthmonday live interview with Project Proactive , major traumas like the Holocaust or abuse are called “Big T Traumas”. It is very obvious why someone would be diagnosed with a trauma disorder after these circumstances. Some might assume that “Smaller” traumas, like neglect, hurtful messaging, and smaller painful experiences are less damaging, but in fact they can eat away at emotional resilience over time, regardless of how extreme the trauma was deemed to be (kind of like water dripping on a rock will eventually eat away at the rock). This is “Small T Trauma”. These traumas can be incredibly damaging and wear away at one’s emotional health just as much as a Big T Trauma if there are no attempts at intervention.

As actress Casey Rose said so eloquently, “Someone who drowns in 7 ft of water is just as dead as someone who drowns in 20 ft of water. Stop comparing traumas, stop belittling yours or anyone else’s trauma because it wasn’t “as bad” as someone else’s. This isn’t a competition, we all deserve support & recovery”.

The results of these traumas can result in the relatively newer discovery - HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). As a highly sensitive person myself, experiencing the world with strong emotions, I do believe that an event such as your mother not letting you eat cake because you were “too big” while all your other siblings enjoyed it … is a huge problem. It is a huge trauma to that child.

I describe my job as follows; “I help people HEAL their relationship with food”. So does that mean I only work with people that have some sort of relationship issues with food? Yes.

PSA... if you’re a human, you have a relationship with food.

You can understand this better if you think about fast days. One day of fasting, and your entire day has to be restructured in order to deal with the reality of tackling a day WITHOUT food.

Whether we notice it or not, whether we like it or not, we have a relationship with food.

Besides for this obvious reality, the world at large is steeped in diet culture. Obsessed!! Look at every single billboard or magazine, advertisement, newspapers, conversations!! Why can’t we enjoy one shabbos meal or outing with friends without hearing “I shouldn’t eat that” or “Diet starts tomorrow.” Its just so annoying at this point. And yes, as a dietitian its compounded –“Are you really eating cake, I thought you ONLY eat healthy?”

So annoying and also… hello ... boundaries?

The reality is that, like it or not, food is a part of our lives. We can’t abstain for the simple reason that we need food in order to live.

And it’s a bit counter intuitive but diet culture actually creates an obsession with food and dieting.

Ancel Keys study illustrates this point so well. The men in the study were put on a slightly restrictive diet, and before you knew it, these men were obsessing over food, exchanging recipes, and binge-ing on the foods that would not put them over their caloric allotment for the day. This was not in 2019, this was in the 1950’s. post war times. Not when every man we see is on the food network famously creating new dishes. Men didn’t cook back then. They didn’t diet back then. (Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive Eating, 3rd Edition. London, England: Macmillan.)

This is the power of the deprivation effect that dieting creates, and perhaps explains our culture's obsession with food, all things foodie and diets.

The consumer is utterly confused by the dual messages screaming “devil dog”- bad food don’t eat, “create your own devil dog at home for an exciting twist and awesome party?” – wait, I should make the devil dog in a diet version? If I can make a healthier version of it, I can eat double the amount... Eeeew healthy version did not give the satisfaction I was craving. I just ate 10 of them and it totally didn’t hit the spot! Uch let’s just go out for real devil dogs now! Human nature: Eat the real thing after already full. Guilt. Shame. Starve tomorrow. Start cycle again...

Which leads people into my office with the common lament – what do I even eat already???

Carbs are bad.

Mercury from fish may kill me so no fish.

Wait but what about omega 3’s from fish, those are good. I can get those in pill form for like $100 a week!

Can I at least have an apple? – nope! Genetically modified. Plus sugar from apples turn to carbs anyways. Carbs are a no no.

Eggs? High cholesterol.

Meat? Also high cholesterol, plus causes Cancer and it’s also genetically modified. You know how they treat the cows...

First of all… what doesn’t cause cancer? And if I buy a grass fed organic steak for $100, they are nicer to the cows and didn’t inject them with anything cancerous… but they hired children to plant the grass the cows ate. So forget it.

Plant based diet? Not enough fat. And Also, why don’t you just take away all pleasures in my life while you are at it???

And you have to watch Jimmy Kimmel interviewing random people on the street and asking them if they eat gluten – everyone answers of course not! And then when he asks, do you know what gluten is…the unanimous answer- um, well, is it a poisonous snake they put into our foods?

It’s so funny because it is so true. And also so NOT funny for the same reason.

So here I am, I am unpacking diet culture for you.

This is usually the first step to healing your relationship with food. The first principle of Intuitive eating is rejecting the diet mentality. There is no specific order that you must work on the principles, but this is usually a good place to start.

This is the beginning of the HOW.

How do I stop binge-ing?

How do I stop being fat?

How do I stop weighing myself?

How do I stop dieting?

How do I stop making myself sick?

How do I leave behind this eating disorder?

We start by asking WHY;

why do you want to make these changes?

What do these changes represent for you?

What were the messages you received as a child, teen and as an adult about your food choices and body?

Now ask yourself, is this in line with my value system? What is your value system?

Do you want to look back on your life and realize you spent 80-90% of your time and emotional energy focusing on the way your body looks?! If you do, no judgement here, I am just saying that you are making that choice. You have every right to make that choice - for yourself. If your choices are impacting others, I highly suggest taking a different approach.

Someone with a healthy relationship with food will think about food 15-20% of the day.

Someone with an eating disorder – can think about food 80-110% of the time. Is this the type of life you want to live?. Yes 110% because they dream about food! (from Jessica Setnicks Eating Disorder BootCamp)

Once we establish our value systems and check to see if our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are in line with this value system, we can move on to coping with emotions without using food as a strategy ALL THE TIME. Some of the time is OK. All of the time can be the problem. I usually work with clients to develop some new strategies when food is their only tool.

Food and emotions are tied together from the time a baby is born. The first thing a baby does is drink milk… sweet milk from his mommy with tons of lactose and sugar. Not only is this milk the baby's primary source of calories and nourishment, it is also the primary source of comfort - the baby loves to be close to his mother who carried him all these months.

As we get older, we continue to use this strategy until we learn new ones. Eating to self sooth is ok sometimes but do you have other tools you have gained over time?

Can you notice when you are not physically hungry but you want to eat anyways? It can take some practice if you are just starting to learn. Try asking yourself… what am I feeling right now? Actually name the emotion. What would help me work through my big feelings? Maybe journaling? A walk by myself or with a friend? Praying? Exercising? Making a schedule to feel more organized? Maybe I just need to let myself sit with the uncomfortable feeling…

Many times when we feel emotionally charged (aka triggered), we can think about a time in our childhood that felt similar. It will generally be a response to a “small T Trauma”. So many people actually experience these triggers from unhealthy food relationships themselves. So food can be both a trigger and a coping mechanism. Are we trying to tackle our strong feelings in the same way we did back then? Or do we have new, more effective tools today? Many adults don’t acquire more effective tools until they get to the point of accepting that they really need them.

We can move through trauma if we allow ourselves to feel. Feel, deal, heal.

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This is so well written and powerful! Really makes you breakdown the diet mentality into its parts and think about all these message we’ve been bombarded with since we were young! Love this! Can’t wait for your next post, keep them coming!

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