An "anti-diet" dietitian’s advice for well-being

How to explore intuitive eating and consider weight-neutral approaches to health

By Julia Clancy

Published January 31, 2021 1:58PM (EST)

 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

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Each January brings the arrival of resolutions: "New year, new you" is peppered into media cycles, social networks, and our brains, like tea slowly steeping. Much of this dialogue can be characterized as an example of "diet culture," a set of customs, rules, and values — some of which contradict each other—that equate body shape or size with moral value and health. Often, this is done by promoting weight loss, vilifying certain foods while exalting others, and stigmatizing those who don't match its suggested image of what "healthy" looks like.

Diet culture is bolstered by the health and wellness industry, which in the U.S. alone is an annual business of $707 billion. Yet evidence that most diets are unsuccessful — in fact, they are the leading determinants of weight gain — highlights that aiming for a certain body size is an inaccurate prescription for improved health. (Research supports that tracking BMI, a measure of body fat based on height and weight, is another faulty model of determining physical condition.) What's more, these external rules usually come at the expense of disassociating from internal cues, like hunger, food preferences, and energy levels. And for all of the aims taken at specifying or promoting an "optimal" path to health, the term itself is innately vague: highly individual and subjectively definable by environment, income and lived experience, to name a few.

Christyna Johnson, registered dietitian and host of the podcast "Intuitive Eating for the Culture," aims to steer away from diet talk as a measure of nutrition, toward sustainable approaches to mental and physical health. As a licensed "non-diet" dietitian, a growing class of health professionals in the field of nutrition and dietetics, Johnson practices from a weight-inclusive standpoint. In her practice, she aims to help nourish all bodies based on individualized cues—the ones your body is sending. She recognizes that positive (or neutral) relationships to food and body image are pillars of long-lasting overall health, and "help you disentangle your relationship with food from diet culture and other systems of oppression."

In light of the new year, Johnson illuminates actionable ways to start building healthy behaviors based on your unique contexts. Instead of rigid rules, she's an advocate for self-investigation: What's the role of well-being in your life? Does your approach to health enhance your life or disrupt the quality of your life? Johnson provides insight on a few places to start.

* * *

Understand The Principles Of Intuitive Eating

Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based, non-diet paradigm grounded by ten principles, steering away from a fixed definition of health toward a nuanced and behavior-based exploration. This leaves room for myriad environments, contexts, and identities, as well as body shapes, weights and abilities. It's "a self-care framework where you're making decisions about food from a self-compassionate place," Johnson describes. "You're asking, What do I need? What sounds good? What's going to help me feel the best in my body? It's respectful to the needs of your body at that time, and it's respectful to any chronic illnesses you might be living with."

Each of these principles revolves around the sometimes challenging work of building introspective awareness: acknowledging internal cues, before external rules, as the signposts of what best serves your well-being moment to moment.

"Intuitive Eating is not a diet," Johnson takes care to clarify. There are no rigid rules without respect for hunger cues and food preferences. And when you're embracing Intuitive Eating to the fullest, she continues, "you spend a lot less time thinking about food and body image."

Consider A Weight-Neutral Approach To Heath

Johnson encourages you to ask yourself: What would your definition of health look like if you took body size out of the equation?

Health at Every Size (HAES) is another evidence-based paradigm focused on fostering healthy behaviors with weight-neutral outcomes. It's underpinned by approaching well-being through health-promoting behaviors (like building a peaceful relationship with food, getting adequate sleep, caring for one's mental health, or finding positive ways to move and connect with your body) over weight loss. This manifests uniquely across a wide spectrum of body shapes, sizes, and abilities, as well as mental and physical conditions. HAES also avoids harmful side effects of dieting like weight-cycling, food and body preoccupation, weight-stigma, and disordered eating.

The practice "[allows] your body to exist as it's going to exist, and to take care of it at every size," says Johnson. " It's not just about being respectful to other bodies, but also my own. It's asking: How can I make the places I exist in better for people in all bodies?"

Historically, representations of bodies in media seem to imply that certain bodies are ideal, nutritionally or aesthetically. Johnson notes the harm it causes. "This creates an 'other,'" she says, stating that diet culture only reinforces the duality of an "ideal" and an "other." This othering, observes Johnson, is a form of oppression fueled by dollars and cents. "This system was invented before you or I were ever born. If [diet culture] continues to make people feel bad about their body, they'll continue to give [the industry] their money." Awareness of this process means seeing the contours of diet culture where they were once invisible.

Ground Your New Year With Reflections Before Resolutions

It's common for new year's resolutions to focus on changing one's appearance. Johnson invites another option: Start the new year with reflection before resolution.

"I always go back to how my body carried me through this year," she says. "Through times of happiness and joy, or times of stress, confusion, worry. How can I show up for my body the way that it is? Because this current body has already served me so well, and has done so much to take care of me."

Curate Your Social Media

Take time to notice how social media affects your experience of things like body image, self-worth, or the standards you set for meals and eating habits. "Unfollow people who make you feel bad about your body, who you compare your body to, or who make you feel like you would be a better person if you changed your body," Johnson suggests. "Replace detoxes, cleanses, and other forms of diet culture with people who fill you up; who help you see your body in an honoring and respectful light, who provide you with body-diversity. The cool thing about brains is when we see things over and over, we habituate to them. If we see body diversity over time, it becomes normal."

Put Rest On Your To-Do List

"Rest" doesn't just mean sleep, Johnson clarifies, but pausing in any way that helps you recharge, like enjoying your favorite latte, setting aside time to call a friend, or taking a hot shower. "Schedule rest the same way you would schedule anything else," Johnson advises. "You schedule a doctor's appointment and show up for those; schedule your rest and show up for it." Whether you feel you've "earned" the rest should not matter at all.

Connect To Your Body Thoughtfully

Instead of starting a diet or "lifestyle plan," Johnson recommends doing something kind for yourself, like booking a massage (or purchasing a foam roller to work out the kinks at home). Rent a kayak for the afternoon if you love being on the water, or go for a long walk in the sun. "Anything that makes you feel more connected to your body in a positive way."

And Finally: Remind Yourself Of The Pleasure Of Food

Food holds enormous potential for joy, connection, and love; it's as nuanced and variable as the cooks that make it taste good. The way we talk about food plays a significant role in fueling these positive connections to cooking and eating. It can also do the opposite.

Removing morally coded language around dishes, for one, allows a return to the pleasure and satisfaction that food can provide, which go hand-in-hand with our experiences of nourishment. Perhaps a meal stokes an appetite because it was the centerpiece of a childhood memory. Maybe it lights up your palate with a tangle of spices, or soothes you with something warm in times of chaos or stress. Food shouldn't be gratifying because it's "low-calorie" or "keto-approved," but because it's a touchpoint to an exciting compendium of flavors, textures and points of connection.

It's worth noting that food rules and diet talk don't always stem from a desire for weight loss or "perfect" health. "For 90 percent of my clients, there is this attempt to push emotions down," says Johnson. "And manipulating food does a bang-up job doing that in the short term." It's effective in the moment, she continues, in that it serves the purpose of mitigating uncomfortable emotions — but this coping mechanism can become harmful in the long run. "That emotion will always come back when not resolved, and you have to keep using that tool to keep the emotion away," notes Johnson. "You're not asking why you're feeling this way."

Like relationships, another topic often written about with an enormous breadth of interpretations and definitions, "health" — and your personal definition of the term—is worth working on.Johnson offers hers: "Health is prioritizing time for rest and time for recharging. It's intentional time with people who are life-giving to me, so I can continue to grow and evolve to be my best self, for me and for the people I care about."

Julia Clancy

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