Health, Culture, and Intuitive Eating


Health within our culture in the USA. How do we know what’s best for our health, our self-care?

Health experts vary from the self-proclaimed, like medical mediums, to MD’s and related professionals (dieticians, psychologists, therapists, exercise physiologists, etc.). All hold their own theories, all based on their own experiences, all with their own interpretations of science.  Most rely on external resources, from spirit-guides to information from their college days that, some estimates say, could be seriously outdated. Some scramble diligently to remain up-to-date.

Add to that our cultural interpretations of what bodies should be considered positively, the roles of mental and emotional health as well as social connections, and the popular press with their watered-down versions of nuanced scientific studies.

Then there’s the statistical confusion about Causation. For example, I remember reading that people with creases in their earlobes were more likely to develop heart disease. The article suggested checking your earlobes and visiting a cardiologist. Do earlobe creases Cause heart problems? Of course not! Likewise, lots of similar media reports highlight connections (associations and correlations) inferred as causation.

So what happens when there’s some science that shows fat doesn’t equal unhealthy and that food itself has a relatively minor impact on overall health in comparison to environment, genetics, and other factors?

How do we even clearly define “healthy” and “unhealthy” in our culture?

It’s complicated.

According to the book Body Respect, there’s “research suggesting that guilt messes with your metabolism and weight regulation system”[i] and even radical bariatric surgery results long-term (10 years or more later) show weight regain as well as ongoing other health challenges created by the surgery.

Among those who do not diet, though, weight tends to stabilize. What’s up with that? Could it be we’re all not destined to be the exact same willowy size and shape?

Of course, as soon as we start thinking folks in the USA know exactly how and what to eat, look at the French. Their diet is not seen as the healthiest (animal fat, cholesterol, alcohol, oh my!) but apparently people who ENJOY their food are healthier and by eating food they love might even eat less! Shocking!

One of the first non-diet/anti-diet books I read was The Diet Myth (it was titled The Obesity Myth at the time, I believe, but has been updated by author Paul Campos). I picked up a copy of the newer version in which, in the Afterword, Mr. Campos comments “How much longer can agencies such as the CDC announce that we are on the verge of a public health catastrophe, while at the same time releasing statistics that illustrate Americans are living longer – and are markedly healthier – than ever before? Such inconvenient data is making it more difficult for the usual suspects to broadcast their alarmist claims without fear of dissent.” [ii] It appealed to the data queen inside me, but I couldn’t quite ignore the power of our popular culture that says, essentially, what one chubby large-bellied 50-something white man in a stained white t-shirt snarled at me in the aisle of a discount store: “People like you should be ashamed. You take up too much space that’s meant for people like me.”

When that happened, it took me by surprise. Shocked, I noticed I fit behind the shopping cart (I wasn’t overflowing into his shopping-space). I recognized I most likely weighed about what he did (though he was about 4 inches taller than I am) and I felt angry about his apparent notion of moral superiority and willingness to express his opinion about our worth. I thought about responses while he stormed off, and I felt so disappointed to know I lived in a country where people hold so little value for civility or differences among us.

After that experience, I looked for body-positive/fat-positive books. I read Health at Every Size, but didn’t jump on board because it sounded scary to give up what everybody accepted as The Diet Truth (eating less, exercising more is the One True Way to Slenderville). The “health at every size” (HAES) approach seems to show a lot of promise though it appeared to draw fire from folks who insisted on fighting the War against people whose greatest crime is their size. Evidence from six randomized control trials “indicates that a HAES approach is associated with statistically and clinically relevant improvements in physiological measures (e.g. blood pressure, blood lipids), health behaviors (e.g. physical activity, eating disorder pathology) and psychosocial outcomes (e.g, mood, self-esteem, body image)”[iii] What?! Healthier, happier, well-adjusted fat people? What’s the world coming to?

I’m not sure there’s a place for those kinds of differences in our culture today, but I’m hopeful that a revolution is coming.

Through the edX.org MOOC I audited an exercise physiology class through Magee University (Canada) and a nutrition class through Wageningen University (Netherlands). Both were great experiences though my take-aways were simple: (1) all food is broken down in the body into very basic substances, (2) people who enjoy their exercise are more frequent exercisers, and (3) fat people who exercise are healthier than thin people who don’t. [iv]

In the pursuit of self-care, my newest educational foray is a class on Intuitive Eating, taught by Registered Dietician Christy Harrison[v] online. It’s based on HAES principles as well as Intuitive Eating[vi] (3rd edition). It’s giving me time to consider what works in general and what works for me in a compassionate way. So far, I’m discovering habits I’ve developed (for example, postponing eating until I’m ravenous; in theory this gives less time to eat but, in my experience, leaves me unreasonably hungry and difficult to satisfy) and learning more about ways to employ my powerful intuition for the good of all (including myself).

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the journey, still visiting the Y for classes that are fun, loving time with my grandsons, and exercising my creativity in multiple ways. Woohoo! All is well.

Here’s to a fabulous Spring (in the Northern Hemisphere) that propels us all into a great summer (and for those south of the equator, here’s to a lovely Autumn, with time to recharge during the winter months)!


[i] “Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift“ available (free) the following link:  https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-10-9

[ii] “Afterword: Ask Your Doctor If Cultural Hysteria Is Right for You” in the book, The Diet Myth, by Paul Campos

[iii] Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight by Linda Bacon, PhD, and Lucy Aphramor, PhD, RD

[iv] As a lifelong learning fan, I can’t say enough great things about edX. My favorite course so far is The Science of Happiness (what a great opportunity!) and the most difficult was Jazz Appreciation (I didn’t know much more than I liked Louis Armstrong when I enrolled, so it was super-challenging for me but worth it because I really do appreciate jazz now!). Check it out at www.edx.org

[v] For more info visit www.christyharrison.com and PLEASE listen to her podcast, Food Psych, on Podcast Republic, Spotify, iTunes, other online channels, or her website.

[vi] Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA, CEDRD

And Then There’s Food…

Over the last 60 years I’ve had some time to think. I’ve also had lots of time to try different approaches to life. As an older fat woman with a cringe-worthy history of dieting – from the family doctor handing me amphetamine-based diet pills while I was in high school to starving myself until I passed out when jogging one day (there’s nothing like waking up with your face planted against a sea-wall) – my only explanation for jumping on way-too-many faddish programs is… uh… I dunno…

As an intelligent woman, I might have decoded the honest-truth about the dismal prospects that accompany the diet-mentality, but it’s difficult to tune in through the static and disapproval littering the atmosphere.

Without mentioning program or product names (remember, I’ve tried just about everything), I had surprisingly few successes. Worse, those successes were fleeting. I’d hover weight-wise around the higher limits of “normal” until a personal calamity sucked all the optimism out of the air, leaving me bracing for another catastrophe. In those days, when a close friend repeatedly reminded me I was “born under an unlucky star,” avoiding self-reflection seemed a good idea.

Surgery eventually popped up as an option as I moved up the scale and watched my best friend intentionally gain weight to make herself eligible for what she saw as “an easy” solution.  Then I watched her post-surgical turn to alcohol. “You’re killing yourself,” I pointed out during a drunk-and-dial episode. “Yes,” she responded, “but at least I’ll die thin.” And she did die thin. And young. That loss convinced me surgery definitely didn’t fit for me.

After paying attention for a while, I grew weary of the obvious gap between the marketing push toward eat-drink-and-be-happy (consider photos of bikini-clad slender women gobbling fast food) telling us we deserve to eat while the culture upheld the no-such-thing-as-too-rich-or-too-thin value. Really?!

During the 80s and 90s, a lot of good information started invading bookstores and, later, the internet. I still had my heart set on a magical, brilliant, flashy, easy-peasy resolution to my relationships with food and my body. I knew it rested between being furious at the way fat folks are discriminated against to looking suspiciously at an uninformed medical community.

Years ago I examined some data, then picked up Health at Every Size and several other outside-the-norm books (The Diet Myth, The Obesity Myth are others that come to mind, though I know there are a lot more!) ; a couple of years ago, I reached for Intuitive Eating and I thought what the heck – I’ll give this an honest try.

It’s surprisingly basic and easy…almost magical. I committed to eating when and what I believed my body wanted, to noticing when I felt hungry and when I craved something (and wondering, without judgement, what the craving was about). I committed to paying attention to how I felt after eating different types of foods, to paying attention when eating, to enjoy eating, and to not feeling guilty about eating with gusto.

It sounds a little crazy, but I also rediscovered my love of real food and cooking. I quit allowing others to determine what’s “healthy/delicious” and started letting my body tell me what’s good for me. No weighing, no self-shaming, no long lists of forbidden foods. And I’m healthier and happier. The practices described eloquently and in detail in the book earn my two-thumbs-up as an important component of self-care for me. Both books deserve to be on every medical practitioner’s bookshelf.

For now, suggest anyone who feels beaten-down related to food- or weight-issues read Intuitive Eating. There’s data (I am, after all, a geek) to support the effectiveness, but I’ve known since I was 10 years old that one size doesn’t fit all.

May we all find our own best path and may we all enjoy the journey!