Your daughter needs to eat more salads.”
My nine year old self heard the doctor’s stern words and took to heart that he was calling me fat. I was an active child and my family mostly ate nutritious foods. But when we ate, we ate a lot.
In high school, my drive to be thin led to disordered eating: starving, bingeing, purging, cutting out whole food groups, and subsisting on sole food groups. Nothing got me closer to fitting into smaller jeans. After days or weeks of trying to lose weight I always gave up. There seemed no point in trying to reach always-unattainable weight goals.
At the time, I wondered why my body wasn’t considered good enough by societal measures and my doctor’s opinion when I could outswim and outrun my peers. Technically, I was healthy. Blood pressure? Perfect! Cholesterol? Perfect! Fitness? I had that, too. But my weight gave my doctor reason to believe I was headed for doom and gloom.
In my mid-twenties, I started working towards a master’s degree in nutrition. One professor in particular had research and clinical interests in both psychology and nutrition. She introduced me to the concept of ‘intuitive eating’ and that’s when my life changed. I found what I was truly passionate about – spreading the word that our body is wise enough to know what it needs and we can enjoy a piece of chocolate without guilt or shame.
My master’s research focused on the feasibility of teaching intuitive eating skills. Afterwards, I was hopeful there were more people out there open to this new way of thinking about their relationship between food and their body. I also wanted more data to back up what my study participants were saying. Listening to their bodies for what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat was not only helping them to manage their weight but, more importantly, it was taking weight out of the picture and helping them to focus on their overall health and wellbeing.
Fast forward to today. My PhD research and a supportive supervisor enabled me to bring intuitive eating into the lives of women looking for the same thing I looked for several years ago: permission to ignore those well-intentioned people who suggest a salad when our taste buds want something else; learning to savour salad because, hey, it actually does taste pretty damn good. Unsurprisingly (to our international research team and me), the study findings supported promoting a health-focused, not weight-focused, lifestyle.
Last year, pregnancy attempted to challenge my idea that my body knew how much food was enough to meet my nutritional requirements. And, admittedly, I was a little suspicious about tuning in to ‘me’ to decide what would satisfy my cravings and appetite. One day I balanced a 2 litre container of ice cream on my baby bump and ate the whole thing. Was my body really wise after all? I didn’t suffer from gestational diabetes, I didn’t gain weight I wasn’t able to take off, and on that day I didn’t feel even a hint of an ice cream headache.
So what? Well, perhaps we are a little misguided when it comes to using weight as a measure of health. Maybe we should prescribe and promote a gentler approach to taking care of ourselves that doesn’t involve shame, guilt or deprivation. It’s worth a shot, since over sixty years of research on dieting hasn’t come up with a one-size-fits-all way to get everyone into those infamous “healthy” BMI ranges. Plus, there are a lot of people spending precious time and money on the latest and greatest weight loss fad when, honestly, there are a lot of better things to do than change those numbers on the scale.
Serious weight-related problems exist, but by intervening early enough they probably won’t escalate. So, to that nine year old in the doctor’s office, I want to tell you to love your tummy. It’s bigger than some and smaller than others and that’s okay. Someday, it will support a whole container of ice cream and grow a tiny baby boy with the most beautiful blue eyes – at the same time! Be willing to listen to your inner wisdom. It will guide you in the direction of the health that is so commonly valued in an uncommon way.
Dr Sara Boucher is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health at the Dunedin School of Medicine, New Zealand. Her research interests include behavioural nutrition, sleep, and diabetes. She has lead intuitive eating interventions in New York, USA and Dunedin, New Zealand. Currently, Sara is developing skills to help individuals identify their health-related values and use those values to guide sustainable health-related behaviour change.