Category: eating

Fresh starts, clean slates, and you.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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Happy new year.

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last few weeks eating differently than I do most of the year. There were more cookies, more pastry, more mashed potatoes and stuffing, more candy, more cream, and more liquor than usual. There were probably fewer salads, and certainly not my usual measure of frozen berries.

Outside of my plate, there were other differences: more decorations. More jubilant music. More lights. More television specials. More wrapping paper. More shopping. More travel. More more more more of many, many things. And now as I sit at my desk, on the second day of the new year, there has been a sudden ceasing of it all. Things are quiet. Decorations are put into plain brown boxes. Even the landscape is different, transformed on Boxing Day from muddy green and brown, to a white, rather bare scene, a clean slate.

There is a lot of symbolism attached to the new year, and a lot of pressure building to transubstantiate that symbolism into action.

I have always loved this time of the year, because I, like most people, love a clean slate. It is a yearly renewing of hope, even in times that are deeply screwed-up. I crave hope, I love it, and I absolutely need it. Without hope, life may well end. And the hope of a new start brings with it a sort of pleasing purity, as though the past can be obliterated with a fresh coat of paint, or covered over with the blank paper of a turned leaf. I suddenly want to whiten my sheets, mop the floors, scrub the bathtub. I want to wash my face with something that promises me a new one. And, like a lot of people, I want my nice, crisp, clean salad back on my plate.

Humans being what they are, omnivorous seekers after variety, I think it is natural for us to crave, after a period of sensory indulgence, a sort of purifying restraint. I don’t necessarily think this is a negative thing, though it can, like anything, be taken to destructive extremes.

This impulse, I believe, is so common that marketers and product makers seized on it long ago, and have used it to drive sales of various purifying foods, devices, and ideas. You can (allegedly) scrub out your intestines with a cleanse or a fast, you can purchase a cool, precise bathroom scale to measure your progress toward a purer existence, unencumbered by the smelly inconvenient demands of heavy corporeality, you can buy a diet book that encourages you to purge your cupboards of toxic, processed, messy, fattening foods and replace them with clean, wholesome, unprocessed, sanctified super-foods, and you can take the aspirational grocery shopping trip that will achieve this (and deal with the inevitable fridge full of rotting produce that results when the lustre of purity has been dulled by the messy demands of daily life.)

In turn, these products promising a fresh start have reinforced the impulse toward restraint in the new year, and ingratiated themselves into that natural impulse to become almost official rites. The popular custom of new year’s dieting is an example of the impulse capitalized upon and expanded into a collective tradition, heavy on religious and moral symbolism, but expressed in reassuringly crisp scientific prose, complete with numerical, damn near economic, accounting mechanisms.

They allow you to reimagine yourself not as an animal who lives and dies, eats and shits, who is lustful and afraid, full of inconveniently dark and unknowable recesses, both physical and psychological, but rather as a modern biochemical machine, a neatly-labeled schematic on white paper whose mysteries are laid bare, housing a ghost of pure spirit and light who condescends to eat only as an impatient concession to physical necessity, and who therefore dines on distilled biochemistry garnished with the most forward-thinking evolutionary rationalizations.

By March, it will all be over.

All I’m saying is, be careful out there. Enjoy your sense of new beginnings, follow your cravings for foods that provide a bracing contrast to what you’ve recently been glutted with, but be reluctant to deny your humanness in the process.

It is, after all, what you will come home to in the end.

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Ritual purification in comments.

Stuff people assume I believe vs. stuff I actually believe.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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This post has been sitting in drafts for several weeks, but I figured now was as good a time as any to actually publish it.

1) That the food industry is AWESOME.

In one sense, industrialized food production is an amazing thing that allows an unprecedented human population to eat and survive, and we do have regulations in place that largely prevent acute disaster, though there are plenty of reforms that could and should take place. On the other hand, I believe the food industry does try to manipulate humanity’s natural desire for food to get us to eat more than we may actually want or need.

Some of this is normal and to be expected – most good cooks at home as well as in the industry know that adding fat and salt and sugar to things makes them tasty, and of course you want people, especially when you’re cooking for company, to think your food is tasty. The big issue is that pre-prepared food used to be more of an exception than a rule, but with changing lifestyles, people rely on this food more and more as a staple, and hence may be eating richer, saltier, sweeter things in greater quantities than in the past.

However, if this is true, I think the answer is not to clamp down with food restriction, but to build our eating competence skills by being responsible and structured, and also allowing ourselves to seek pleasure, with food. The impulse to restrict seems very intuitive and makes sense on the surface, but if that worked, I wouldn’t have a job because people would be restricting themselves however they like with no problems. But there is a problem – attempted restriction usually backfires because it sets off internal survival mechanisms that drive us to seek food even more intensely, and can even lead to binge eating, making restriction directly counterproductive.

I think the food industry, or at least some decision-makers in the food industry, probably know this – and as such, the food industry is often tied to the diet industry, sometimes by directly owning or funding weight loss centers, and most often by producing “Lite” or “Diet” (or “Natural” or “Healthy”) foods. Which allows them to profit from every part of the cycle: abundant, rich, tempting, cheap food everywhere –> relying more on these foods and perhaps overeating –> guilt and the urge to restrict –> using diet services or diet foods to restrict –> feeling unsatisfied and wanting the abundant, rich, tempting, cheap food EVEN MORE –> finally breaking down and eating a ton of “bad” food, which starts the cycle up all over again, and puts twice the amount of money into the pockets of people who have their fingers both in the food industry and the diet industry.

The answer to all of this is to opt out of the cycle – to learn to eat well, not to try to eat less. The industry at large profits from people eating in black-and-white, all-or-nothing ways: eating a ton of calorie-rich food, then clamping down and restricting and using products to help them eat as little as possible. Learning to eat well results in people eating moderately – by which I mean eating tasty, nourishing foods in comfortable quantities – which isn’t very exciting and doesn’t provide a good platform to sell products and diet books from. And when people opt out of the cycle and eat moderately, you don’t get the self-renewing influx of repeat customers driving your 60 billion dollar industry. You just get a population of people who are basically okay with eating and spend their time obsessing about other things instead, and who wants that?

2) That there are no health risks associated with being fat.

Obviously, there are, or, once again, my blog and the entire “obesity epidemic” concept would not exist. However, even though research shows that there are health risks with being fat, especially extremely fat, the research also seems to indicate that 1) we don’t know for certain whether all those risks are caused by a direct physiological mechanism of adipose tissue, 2) that trying to lose weight does not work permanently for most people, 3) even if it did work permanently, we still do not know whether a formerly-fat person would enjoy the same lowered risk as a naturally-thin person, and 4) that “obese” people with good health habits have less risk, even though they are still fat.

Also, having a condition that means you have more health risks doesn’t make you a bad person or an intolerable burden on society. Lots of different categories of people have elevated health risks (like men), but we don’t stigmatize them in the same devastating ways we do fat people.

3) That people should and must eat junk food.

No. What I believe is that people must make their own choices about food, and probably shouldn’t generalize those choices to other people, because people vary. Some people don’t eat any junk food and seem to be perfectly happy with their decision, both physically and psychologically. Yay for those people. If everyone were like that, this blog would not have to exist and I would not have to do the work I do with clients.

The fact is, most of us live in a world where junk food exists and it is part of our lives. Rather than try to deny that reality, I think it is more productive to learn to navigate and manage it. Most people are going to eat ice cream, drink soda, and have french fries sometimes. There is nothing inherently wrong with this.

I believe that overall variety in the long-term is the most important principle of good nutrition; I believe arbitrarily denying yourself something that is important and meaningful to you and that you take great pleasure in is unhealthy; and I believe that people need to learn to make choices about food that take into account both how food tastes and how it makes them feel, and their bodies will mostly lead them in the right direction.

Some people will decide that certain foods do not belong in their diet, and they will avoid those foods in most situations, and they will have very good reasons for doing so. However, if you try to do this before you have good eating competence skills, you will be putting the cart before the horse, and very likely you will increase your anxiety around food and binge eat the exact food you’re trying to avoid. If this happens, you need to start over from square one and re-learn to eat.

4) That weight loss is always bad, and never happens anyway.

Actually, people’s weights do seem to fluctuate somewhat, both long-term and short-term, though most people do also seem to have a general range that their body likes to stick to. Sometimes people find themselves at a weight that is not their body’s usual, naturally-defended weight, because of various circumstances (environmental stuff, medical stuff, etc.) and when the circumstances go back to normal, so does their weight. And sometimes people lose weight (or gain weight) as a side-effect of eating better and moving more – that’s why we refer to the Health at Every Size approach as a weight-neutral approach. Because sometimes you will lose or gain weight, but the first priority is on how you take care of yourself regardless of those changes.

What I think is “bad,” as in unhealthy and counterproductive, is a focus on weight in the place of health and well-being. (But even though I disagree with it, choosing to do this does not make you a bad person, and I don’t think any less of you for it. It’s your body, which means it is not my business to judge.) There is research that shows this – that people who put their primary focus on weight loss usually don’t maintain it for the long term, and the healthy behaviours (like exercising or eating vegetables or whatever) they were doing to try and promote the weight loss fall by the wayside when they stop losing, or start regaining, weight. That is not good.

Since weight loss is supposedly about “getting healthy,” why not cut out the middle-man? Focus on doing stuff directly for your health, and let your weight sort itself out.

That’s it for now. I’m sure there is a list of these misconceptions as long as my arm, but I’ll have to address more of them later. I just want people to keep in mind that there is a tendency to think in dichotomous, black-and-white, all-or-nothing, with-us-or-against-us terms when it comes to food, eating, weight, and health.

When I haven’t specifically written about a topic, and so people don’t actually know what I think about it, there is a tendency to want to fill in the gaps with what they assume based on my other positions, or based on what other people in the fat acceptance or HAES community have written or said. I do this too. It’s only human. But it’s not always accurate, either.

I’m not very chatty today, but feel free to talk amongst yourselves.

The inevitable holiday post.

It’s true, Thanksgiving is a weirdly imperialist semi-genocidal sort of holiday, but hey, at least we can enjoy the tradition of getting together with family and eating a bunch of mashed potatoes!

Or can we?

If some people’s relatives had their way, the answer would be a resounding HAHA, SUCKER! Because certain people exist only to make your food-eating life as a fat person (or a whatever-sized person) miserable.

So, here’s the thing: whether or not you are fat, you are the only person who gets to decide what food goes in your mouth, what tastes good, and how much of it makes you feel full and satisfied. No matter how many busybodies and dietary conspiracy theorists get in your face, you are still the only one who can decide.

This goes for holidays just as much as any other time of the year. And maybe especially for holidays, given that they have been specifically set aside for centuries as feast days. A time to get your feast on. A time to enjoy food without the usual constraints of looming scarcity, whether naturally- or artificially-imposed.

So, with that in mind, I have a few holiday tips for you. And they are not of the “fill up on celery before the party!” variety.

1) You have permission to eat. Period. You have permission to eat what and how much you want. Food is not poison, your body belongs to you, and you are a grown-up who gets to decide what to eat. That’s it. That’s all. It’s the plain truth. So give yourself explicit permission to eat when you sit down to eat. Remind yourself who is really in charge (it’s you.)

2) It’s your job to take care of your body. I mean, I guess you don’t really have to if you don’t want to, but your body is going to make you pay for any sort of neglect. And when I say “take care of it” that is not code for “eat some ridiculously restrictive diet predicated on the notion that food is poisonous.” It means to take care of yourself in a way that feels good and allows you to function well, both physically and emotionally. When it comes to food, taking care of yourself usually means eating often enough so that you’re not starvingly, desperately hungry in between times, and that you eat enough to feel pleasantly satisfied, maybe even really full, but not physically ill. So, even on holidays, the mandate to take care of yourself with food stands: eat some breakfast. If you’re having an early afternoon dinner, maybe have a snack around midday, or a light lunch. If you’re eating your holiday dinner at regular dinner time, then have a regular lunch. You will actually enjoy your holiday meal more on moderate hunger. Desperation makes things exciting and dramatic, but actually can make it more difficult to taste and enjoy your food. It also makes you cranky and more prone to family blow-outs. Drama-free is the way to go.

3) Eat foods that are enjoyable, but that also make you feel good. For me, this means including roughage and fruits and veggies and whatnot with my meals. Your mileage may vary. You know what foods make you feel good. Milk? Bananas? Chocolate on the side? Provided you like eating them well enough, just add them onto whatever you’re already eating. Make it as easy on yourself as possible. Raw baby carrots will get the job done, as will pre-cut, pre-washed salad from a bag, or some mandarins, or a cut-up apple, or even some applesauce or orange juice. Supplement your meal with feel-good foods, no matter how imperfect.

4) Don’t eat stuff you don’t like, either before the holiday meal, or AT the holiday meal. It is not your job to appease Aunt Bessie’s conscience about her horrible cooking. “No, thanks,” is all adults need to say. Repeat it, repeat it, repeat it if they pressure you. “No, thanks.” It’s a complete sentence. It can stand as an answer even to follow-up questions like, “But don’t you like it? You used to always like it!” Just, “No, thanks.” If they push, they are the ones making things weird, not you. In the wise words of Captain Awkward, “Let it be awkward.” It’s not your job to smooth over the awkwardness from their neurosis. It is your job to do right by your body and not force yourself to eat stuff you don’t enjoy, or that will make you feel overfull and terrible later.

5) Don’t engage with the inevitable weight talk, or talk of food-related sinning (“I’m so bad! This is so bad for you! Watch me eat the entire thing because I am totally in denial about my own neurosis!”) Don’t engage. It’s not your job to educate people about eating, or self-acceptance, or Health at Every Size, although a light reassurance that food is good, and it’s a holiday so lighten up, Francis, may not go amiss – if you think it won’t set off further self-flagellation or lecturing. Gauge the situation. You know your relatives better than I do. But it’s a holiday – you should not have to be educating other people about how to eat on a holiday. It’s your day off. And, here’s a hint, they probably won’t listen to you anyway. So keep your own counsel and save your energy for pie.

6) One simple phrase, “Let’s just enjoy this,” can work wonders. If people are insistent on indicting the food sitting on the table (while everyone around them partakes in it and then feels vaguely dirty), say lightly, “Let’s just enjoy this,” and keep eating. Again – repeat and repeat as often as necessary until they lay off. They don’t have to eat the food if it’s giving them anxiety-hives, or if they don’t like it, or if it doesn’t sit well in their body, but it’s rude for them to vomit their issues all over the food that other people are actively eating and enjoying.

7) In case you were tempted, lay off other people’s eating. Put down that responsibility today. Don’t push food on people. Don’t comment on how much or how little they take. Don’t ask them “Should you be eating that?” or “How’s your blood sugar?” It is not your, or anyone’s, place to police what other people eat, even if they have honest-to-goodness dietary issues. They are grown-ups. If they have health issues, presumably they have seen a doctor and have been made aware of what they should be doing. It is their choice to follow those guidelines or not, and it is not your place to play food cop – doing so is a great way to totally spoil a holiday and potentially wreck your relationship. So sit on your hands, zip the lip, do whatever you need to do to stay out of other people’s business.

8) If the food police descend on you, hear them, then drop it. You can go the passive-aggressive-Southerner/Miss-Manners route and give them a “Bless your heart! Thank you for your concern,” and keep eating or walk away. Or you could go the blunt honest route and say, “I know you mean well, but I know what I’m doing,” and try to change the subject or walk away (warning, this one is likely to start a fight if you have contentious family members. Use with caution.) Mostly, someone just wants to make sure their (usually obnoxious) opinion has been heard and validated, so to save your sanity you can just nod gravely and say, “I see! How interesting. Thanks for the advice,” then completely disregard it and go about your meal. Pick whichever strategy matches best with the unique flavour of neurosis present in your family. Then debrief with an understanding friend or family member later on and get a hug. If you expect this kind of thing, see if you can set up a phone hotline situation with a friend ahead of time – agree to text or phone each other to check in at some point during the day, and offer each other support.

9) Focus on your own food and enjoy it. Eyes on your own plate, if you will. This can be really hard to do on a holiday, ironically, because of all the distraction and hubbub of the holiday itself. So, before diving into the plate of delectation set before you, take a good, deep breath. Give your mind two seconds to settle itself. Take a good look at your food, and smile to yourself, and feel how your stomach is feeling. Smell the food and taste the food. It is usually pretty awesome.

10) If all else fails, go sit at the kiddie table. Sure, they don’t want their food touching other food, and will often end up with peas in their nose, but otherwise they tend to be pretty chill about letting people eat what they eat.

Dig in. Be thankful for your food. That’s what this is all about, right?

Tales of holiday horror in comments.

Food addiction, natural rewards, and self-fulfilling prophecies.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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Warning: in this post I disagree with certain ideas and express opinions based on my own thinking, experience, and education. Ready your smelling salts.

In an earlier post, I wrote about why some people find food restriction comforting and reassuring. Today I want to talk about the idea of food addiction and why some people find it a helpful construct, but why I ultimately do not think it is accurate or helpful in the long term.

To begin with, I do not doubt that people experience feeling out of control with certain foods in a way that feels very much like an addiction.

I also don’t doubt that, at least partially or temporarily, banishing the particular foods that seem to trigger this feeling can result in feeling more in control.

But “addiction” is a specific thing, and feelings alone are not enough to make it a reality. In order for food addiction to be real (behavioural addictions like gambling aside, for the sake of simplicity), food should qualify as an addictive substance in and of itself. Indeed, several writers and researchers would argue that certain foods are indistinguishable from addictive drugs, but I disagree.

It is true that reward pathways in the brain are triggered by foods (some types of food more than others), and those same reward pathways are activated by the use of certain addictive drugs. But this does not mean, ipso facto, that certain foods are identical to drugs.

First, we need food to survive. We do not need addictive drugs to survive (except in some cases where the addiction has progressed to the point of very high drug tolerance.) Second, it is next to impossible to overdose and kill yourself with food (in the form of food, not a concentrated vitamin or mineral supplement) unless you have some disease, food allergy or intolerance – and in this case, it is the condition that is to blame, not the food. Third, while food can certainly impact your mood and give you pleasure, it does not produce altered states of consciousness or affect one’s judgment in the way addictive drugs do.

All of this should be obvious, but people seem to forget these important points in their desperation to compare fat people to drug addicts.

Even more importantly, I would assume that the reward pathways shared by both food and addictive drugs exist, in the first place, because of things like food. These are called natural rewards.

Food needs to be rewarding to eat, or we all would have died off long ago, because it requires a lot of effort to find and prepare. It requires far, far less effort now than ever before in human history, and even still, a lot of people find food gathering and preparation to be such a pain that they avoid it at all costs. Imagine how much worse those people would have fared as hunter-gatherers, or farmers, or even just home cooks before the rise of value-added/convenience/pre-prepared foods.

Even the foods people now think of as very basic staples used to cook from “scratch” are actually pretty highly processed compared to the raw article – dried pasta and legumes, canned tomatoes, bread or milled flour, pasteurized and homogenized milk, ripened cheeses, butchered and packaged cuts of meat, ground and dried herbs and spices. And still, we often complain about how much effort cooking is – meaning that food has to be pretty damn rewarding to make it worth even a moderate effort, while still remaining absolutely essential to survival.

Additionally, certain foods in the wild are more scarce, and more biologically valuable, than others. When food is hard to come by, stumbling upon a source of concentrated calories, such as sugars and fats, or stumbling upon a source of the very important electrolyte sodium, is extremely lucky and makes us more likely to survive and pass on our genes. Finding a stash of honey or a salt lick or seal blubber is like winning the biological lottery, and as such, it makes sense that we would evolve mechanisms to reward us for that.

Yes, it is true that we now live in a world where sugar, fat, and salt are available on demand. It’s also true that many of us have plenty of all kinds of food at our disposal – both macro- and micronutrient dense – provided we have enough money and access to stores and cooking facilities. And, lastly, it is also true that having too much or too little of any nutrient can directly cause disease or generally increase risk.

However, even in an environment where food is abundant and cheap, I believe humans do have the ability to self-regulate, even in the face of extremely naturally rewarding foods containing lots of sugar, salt, and fat. If we are well-fed and nourished on a regular basis, and if we include those extremely rewarding foods as part of our diets along with all the other foods we need to maintain good health, we are far less likely to go off the deep-end when presented the opportunity to eat a random Twix bar.

So why, in this food-secure world that many of us inhabit, do many of us still snatch after the Twix bar like it’s a life raft?

Because, with the rise of the accessibility of food to those who can afford it, also came the rise of food restriction, food rules, and a scarcity mindset around food. You can think of these things as a sort of induced food insecurity. Even if you have adequate access to food and eat enough of it on a regular basis, the continual messaging from both internal and external sources that you shouldn’t eat that food, that you shouldn’t eat that amount of food, that you will start dieting on Monday, that that delicious food will kill you, or even that you are too fat to deserve to eat at all, scares the very ancient and vulnerable part of you that still thinks starvation could be around the corner at any moment, and thus throws a little neurotransmitter party whenever a wild Twix appears!

Ellyn Satter says “permission is the paradox that gives control.” I’ve seen this at work in myself, and in dozens of clients.

With a truly addictive substance, permission and unfettered access would likely perpetuate the addiction and the feeling of loss of control. With food, in the context of eating competence, the opposite is true. The more permission you have, the less scarcity you fear, and the more responsible you become about feeding yourself in the ways that count, the more in-control you feel around food.

I used to have a bit of a fixation on sweets. Since childhood, they had been a mildly forbidden food, and even when I was allowed to eat them, it was always with the understanding that they were somewhat bad, and I assumed that I was somewhat bad for liking them so much, and I believed that I could never really be in control with them.

In adulthood, my experience with dieting only intensified this feeling, and when I stopped dieting and tried to learn to eat normally, it took several years of giving myself permission and sometimes overeating and feeling slightly out-of-control with sweets before I finally calmed down. What seemed to do it was 1) making sure that I ate dessert once or twice a day, usually with lunch or dinner, every day, and 2) keeping at least some basic sweet (like vanilla ice cream) in stock in my kitchen at all times, buying more when I ran out, and 3) acknowledging that part of human nature is to find sugar really attractive, because of the aforementioned biological value.

I feel quite happy now with sweets. I will occasionally eat too much in one sitting and feel a little bit off afterward, and I accept that. It only happens once every few months, and I think it is part of the human experience, and part of eating competence even, to sometimes make mistakes with eating and then let your body sort itself out. I learn from those mistakes because I don’t get caught up in the shame-spiral of judging myself. I usually end up feeling less hungry afterward for the next few meals or the next day, or I start craving a completely different type of food that seems to address the feeling of imbalance.

Most of the time, I eat an amount of sweets that feels fine in my body, even if it’s more than the serving size on the label, and I accept that. And sometimes I don’t think about or crave anything sweet at all, except for the sugar in my coffee, often for days at a time. Candy, cookies, and ice cream can sit in my kitchen without being eaten immediately, waiting for the time when I actually want them.

In my opinion, the model of food as addictive substance ultimately is a distraction from the real issue, which is a lack of eating competence or a rift in a person’s relationship with food. As one of my commenters pointed out in the previous post on this topic, sometimes people simply don’t have the resources to deal with the root problems, and some form of restriction can be a temporary work-around. I agree, this is true with dieting, and it can be true with the idea of food addiction.

However, my problem is that when people take on these temporary measures as a means of self-help, they often don’t leave them at that. They often start to generalize these measures into absolute truths about the nature of food and people, and reify concepts like “food addiction” into actual, concrete phenomena rather than useful metaphors for how they, personally, feel about food.

That is a problem because it adds to the negative, controlling discourse around food and bodies in our culture, and because people within this culture, who have internalized negative, controlling ideas about eating, are likely to take such a concept at face-value because it feels true, even if the biology of natural rewards vs. addictive substances, and the fact that food is essential to survival, say different.

The truth is, food is not an addictive substance, although addictive substances hijack the same reward pathways that were forged by food. That, combined with a fear of scarcity in a very food-negative culture, can very closely mimic an addiction. But the food addiction concept and the subsequent treatment of complete abstinence from that particular food are limited solutions, and they do not reach the roots of the problem, which are poor eating competence and fear of scarcity. If we continue to promote the concept, I believe that it will deepen people’s fear of scarcity, and subsequently their lack of control with food, and become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you call food an addiction often enough, it will scare people. When people are scared, they will have a harder time eating competently. When they are not eating competently, they will often succumb to binge eating and being out of control with “forbidden” foods, which we will then diagnose as a food addiction. So it goes.

The answer is to treat all food like it is food, calm down and manage anxiety about eating, make sure you are eating enough food at consistent times, and eat a variety of different foods, healthy and “unhealthy” alike, with lots of permission and a refusal to beat yourself up over it.

(Or we could just keep doing what we’re doing and see how miserable and food-preoccupied everyone becomes in the coming years.)

Cat Pausé just published a nice, nuanced post that goes into more detail about the research into food addiction. If you’re interested in hearing more than just my opinion, check it out.

Today, I’m not really hosting a debate, though respectful discussion and further points are always welcome.

Why dieting works (for some people, some of the time.)

I don’t actually want to talk about the weight-loss aspect of dieting in this post, even though that is what you’re most likely to think of when you think of whether or not dieting “works.”

If short-term weight loss were the sole barometer of success, then just about every diet you can think of, including the completely nonsensical ones involving cabbage soup or apple cider vinegar + a healthy dose of pseudoscience, works. They will all induce short-term weight loss.

For a very small number of people – those who were going to lose weight anyway because they were somehow temporarily above their body’s naturally-defended weight, or those who have the good fortune to both not regain while still dieting, and have the emotional/physical/financial/temporal resources to devote themselves to the full-time, lifelong project of controlling their weight – they can even trigger long-term weight loss.

That number has never been very high in any diet plan, so it’s hard to count it as a success. By the same marker of “success,” you could say that chemotherapy works, dysentery works, smoking works, methamphetamine works, and chronic alcoholism works – because they all induce weight loss, and yet they are all pretty terrible for one’s nutritional health.

What I’m talking about when I say “dieting works” for some people, some of the time, is the fact that I hear stories from lots of people about how a particular diet approach (which they often insist Is Not A Diet! despite the fact that it comes with a strict meal plan, food rules, or some counting mechanism) helps a person eat normally and feel in control of their eating and feel healthier. To me, these are more important barometers of whether or not something “works” than weight loss ever will be.

So, being a person who is pretty anti-dieting, how can I reconcile the stories I hear about various diet plans making people feel happy and healthy, with what I know to be true about eating competence?

I’ve noticed two common denominators about many of these stories: structure, as in structured meal times, combined with a form of blanket food restriction, like one forbidden food group, counting points or controlling portions, or even a set of complicated food-combining rules. I’m going to talk about structure first, and restriction second.

All by itself, having regular meals at set times, and respecting the non-eating times in between those meals, can give a person a really helpful sense of control over their eating.

In the eating competence approach, structured meal times work for a few reasons:

  1. They are set at reasonable intervals, allowing a person to get comfortably hungry, but not TOO hungry, in between eating times.
  2. Within those times, you are allowed unconditional permission to eat what, and as much as you want. This allows you to have a sense of organization about your eating, but without it feeling restrictive.
  3. Since many cultures, the world over, seem to have organized their eating into mealtimes for much of human history, when you practice eating at meal times, you and your body will fall into a rhythm of hunger and fullness that feels damn near instinctive.
  4. It is also way more convenient if, like most people, you work a day job and don’t have the luxury of simply choosing to drop everything and eat whenever you feel like it.

The second common denominator in many of these stories is a set of food rules or a type of food restriction. Despite the fact that lots of people find rules and restrictions immediately threatening and unsustainable, there are plenty of other people who find them comforting, because they set helpful limits on a world of seemingly endless food choices.

If you just know that you are never going to eat bread (or sugar, or wheat, or meat, or whatever) again, because that’s the universal food rule you’ve decided on, it can making choosing your food much simpler than having to go through the internal mental struggle of asking yourself what you want from the entire universe of foods available, and then filtering your desire through a lifetime of internalized, half-remembered nutrition theories picked up from friends, magazines, family members, Dr. Oz, and diet books.

Similarly, portion-measuring and calorie-counting, while still technically allowing a person to eat any type of food they want, can be comforting because they eliminate the need to decide internally how much you are hungry for, and what level of fullness you want to reach, and then filter that decision through a lifetime of internalized, half-remembered rules about how many calories is too much, what people will think if you eat two sandwiches in one sitting, and whether or not you are a bad person for wanting dessert on top of a really big meal.

Most diets, in fact, attempt to combine a sense of permission within comforting limits, just like eating competence does – low-carb diets pull you in with promises of endless steak while prohibiting mashed potatoes, Weight Watchers says you can technically eat anything you want as long as it stays within your Points allowance, and food combining plans claim you can eat any food as long as it is combined properly with other foods (the upshot being you can never again eat a tuna sandwich or other common food items) – but in my opinion, they fail miserably.

The permission they offer is conditional and incomplete, and the limits they offer are arbitrary, artificial, and sometimes downright cruel, because they disrupt people’s foodways and traditions, and encourage them to override the internal appetite signals that actually are trying to steer them in the right direction.

Unconditional permission to eat food that you truly want, that is meaningful to you (and it might sound silly to say that tuna sandwiches or mashed potatoes have meaning, but they do), in amounts and combinations that feel right in your body, is true permission. Anything less is counterfeit permission.

The helpful structure of predictable, routine eating times interspersed with non-eating times where you are not left hungry or unsatisfied and longing for more, and can actually devote your attention fully to other matters – which requires you to devote enough time and thought to food that you get fed and nourished, but also gives you a break from needing to think about food – is real structure. Other forms of structure are often restriction in disguise.

So why do people find these forms of restriction appealing and helpful? Well, aside from helping people to negotiate a varied, complex, and ambivalent food world, I also believe these things feel comforting because we have been trained to distrust our own appetites.

This is often expressed through the idea of food addiction, which I will talk about in the next post.

You’re welcome to share your experiences, but I request that you not promote dieting or certain diets. People find it triggering, myself included.

Also – apologies in advance if I get a bit overbearing in comments. With the increased traffic and new readers, I’m being extra vigilant, so I may get over-explainy at times.