Why Counting Calories is Bullshit (for me)

On Mother's Day I posted on FB a picture of what I got from my kids.  They gave me loads of chocolate with the nutritional information blacked out. I was thrilled and posted it, along with the sentiment that "counting calories is bullshit".  This post is inspired by a conversation I had with a loved one who didn't agree with that sentiment. In our subsequent conversation, I assured my loved one that yes, it's true, people can do whatever they want with their own bodies.  And yes, everyone is on their own journey.  And yes, counting calories might be "working" for some people. (But what does "working" mean?)  I do agree that there is no one right way to do anything for anyone. And my work is all about helping people listen to their own inner guidance to help them make decisions and to trust their bodies above anyone else's opinion. So I explained all that, but at the end of the day, I have to say that I still think counting calories is bullshit and I'll tell you why.  What I will caveat that with is - that's totally fine if you disagree!

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Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Making dietary changes and setting exercise goals in the name of health is often not the way to get where you really want to go.  It might even be holding you back. If you are truly concerned for your health, first, have you gone to a doctor or naturopath and had a full physical and blood work up? Is there something actually wrong with your health?

Ok - so let's say in this case that there is nothing wrong with your health, your blood markers are all in a standard range and yet you still want to have habits that will help prevent an illness or disease.  Or you want increased energy, or you don't want to have more than the occasional ache and pain and you want to feel happy and content and at ease in your life.  These are understandable desires.  How do you do that?

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F*ck the Joneses

A checklist is defined as a list of required items that need to be completed.  For most of my life, I have  been comparing myself to a checklist that I did not create.  My checklist included some typical elements that you might expect and that I relished completing.  However, my checklist also had elements that didn't leave much room for creativity and deviation.  My list included going to college, getting a job, getting married and having kids.   It also included details on how I was supposed to dress and where I was supposed to shop  and how many friends I should have.  It specified what I was supposed to do to be a good mother, how my house was supposed to be decorated and how much money I was supposed to make.   And it even included what I was supposed to weigh and what foods I was supposed to eat.  It was an extensive list. I have always been a conscientious person who wanted to do what was expected of me.  I took my checklist to heart and worked diligently to complete  it's challenges. On paper, everything was going according to plan. Until one day,  I realized that while I was doing a good job at completing everything on the checklist, I was not enjoying  my day to day life. Things felt hollow, like something was missing.   I wondered what was wrong with me.  Of course it must be me, I figured.  I must not be a very interesting person, I assumed. I'll need to try harder. What I didn't realize is that I had never questioned why I was doing what I was doing and whether I even wanted to do it or not.  I was trying to keep up with the Joneses without regard for whether I even wanted what they wanted.

The first time it occurred to me to question the validity of the checklist came when I  learned that there was something called "diet culture" and that I had bought into it -  hook, line and sinker.  I never knew that I was processing everything in my life through this diet culture filter.  Diet culture told me what weight to put on my checklist and how many times I should workout during the week (to look good of course, not because it's good for you).  Diet culture told me what I should eat and how much.  Diet culture also taught me I was supposed to be embarrassed and ashamed and I wouldn't be loved or respected if my weight didn't fit the societal norm (i.e. the checklist).

Soon I realized that diet culture was a microcosm of a much bigger and more troubling picture.  Our entire culture is built upon shaming people into feeling like they need to look and behave like everyone else in all areas of their lives. It's been shocking and painful  to awaken and realize that the world is trying to turn us into Stepford wives while it promises to make us into our best selves. So our best selves all look the same and live life the same way?  It feels like we have all been slipped a roofee in our drinks  and someone has taken away our power to make decisions on our own behalf.  How had I not seen this? How did I not know I was being manipulated to feel the need to buy beauty products that would fix my "problem areas".  How did I not see how our culture squelches individuality? How did not I not see dieting as the internalized oppression that it was?

Once I saw this, I started to take back my life.  I stopped dieting. I stopped talking to myself negatively and judging everything I did as good or bad.    I stopped reading People magazine. I stopped comparing myself to my friends and neighbors.  Thanks to Theodore Roosevelt, we all know comparison is the thief of joy.  I noticed gossip for the insidiousness that it is when it crept up around me and I changed the subject every chance I got.  What right does anyone have to judge or comment on anyone else's life? I changed who I followed on social media, I stopped looking at my Facebook feed and assuming that all the shiny happy people had better lives than I did.  I realized there was nothing to be fixed in my life because I was not broken.  The way I was taught to look at the world is what was broken.

Newsflash - the checklist that defines the societal norm is bullshit.  All of it.  There is no one way any of us should live our lives. We can't get this life living thing wrong.  Our biggest failures are often our biggest lessons.  Ultimately,  we are here to discover the beat of our own drum, even if it is messy and looks nothing like anyone else's experience.  Success can be defined in an infinite number of ways, not the few narrow ways our checklist suggests.   The true goal is to follow your unique path and see where it takes you and to make room at the table for both the highs and the lows that will ensue.   Trying to make everything in your life look nice and neat and perfect is soul sucking and frustrating and so worrisome!   In the end, there is no extra credit given for neatness.

If you can relate to this, I suggest you stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. How are you trying to live up to a checklist that you did not create? How are you trapping yourself  and striving to achieve something you may not even care about? What feels like a "should" every time that you think about it and creates a knot of tension in your belly? What things in your life make you worried because they don't seem to fit the "norm"?  Many of us have a high level of stress in our lives and are chasing new ways to reduce the stress. I suggest we go to the root of the problem and recognize it's the checklist that is causing the stress.  It's time to toss it out and challenge what we keep telling ourselves that we need to achieve.

We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. - Joseph Campbell

Create your own checklist for how you want your life to look and taste and feel and smell.  What brings you joy and satisfaction? What makes you smile and feel good?  Try to control less.  Be more curious.  Cultivate playfulness.  Become aware of your desires and preferences.  Explore and experiment.  Let go of the worry and the doubt.   Be willing to be different. Be willing to fail and fail big. No matter how much you try and control things - life is going to continue to happen and it seems to me that it would be much more enjoyable to invite it in from a place of wonder than to try and keep it out from a place of fear.  And most importantly, when you don't know what to do or how to proceed, seek guidance and trust the advice from the only one who really knows the answer.  You.

My Path to Peace with Food

When people first hear about the principles of Intuitive Eating, they think it's mainly about eating whatever you want whenever you want.  Many people may react to the idea with disgust, thinking it is irresponsible and can only lead to weight gain. (And we all know what our society thinks of weight gain.) I remember when I first read about this concept a few years ago.  This is what I wrote in my journal: So the latest book I read says eat whatever I want. I am going to do it. I know this isn’t entirely a new concept. It’s “intuitive eating” and apparently your body will go a little nuts with freedom and then will start craving salad.  But what if it never does? What if it is perfectly happy with a plate of nachos for dinner every night? Then where does all my healthy and clean eating research go? All the paleo ideas, the natural sugars, almond flours, healthy fats and all the things I’ve focused on for the last several years. I actually like eating that way but I’m afraid I will eat crap just because I can and if I don’t eat the crap I will feel like I am subconsciously depriving myself. Wow – it gets really messy and complicated fast. Add to that the emotional eating aspect and I’m a mess. But what an awesome time to do this eat anything you want experiment! It’s the beginning of summer and I’m going out with friends and out for my birthday and to the Cape and to a bunch of parties. I would love love love to eat whatever I want! Onion dip and ice cream here I come. Margaritas and guacamole with a bowlful of chips, baked potatoes with butter and sour cream, fried mozzarella (I never ever eat that and now I am craving it because I can). Oh but wait, eat only when I’m hungry, stop when I’m full and don’t make it a rule.  This is so messed up. I feel like I will be walking off a cliff. I can feel the weight coming on and it’s summer, I want to be light and fit, not bigger than ever.

This book also said that exercise doesn’t matter. What?! Now I have actually been doing exercise so long that I like it but if I don’t have to do it 7 days a week then 3 is probably all I’ll do. The book says that’s ok.  Then it says you should go walking because it’s good for your mood. Ironic how that would also get you off the couch and not eating and moving and burning calories. I think all these books are just trying to trick people into doing things to lose weight without saying move more and eat less because lets face it, that would suck. No one wants to hear that. How boring and awful is that? So anyway, I’m going to give this all a try.  We’ll see what happens! Oh and I’m not going to weigh myself. I know if I’m getting fatter or thinner and sometimes the scale agrees and sometimes it doesn’t. I am going to accept myself as I am and say Fuck it to the scale.

And so I began my journey.  It can take awhile for the principles of Intuitive Eating to really sink in. It is also a practice and as such, some days are better than others.  I have been practicing it for a few years now and I still have debates with myself in my head over it.  I realize that the negative side of the debate is often fueled by what I think other people must think about it.  So I am constantly seeking to quiet the critic and remind myself of the evidence that Intuitive Eating is the right thing.

As it turns out, Intuitive Eating is the "right" thing.  For me.  I recognize that it is a choice and it may not be for everyone.  Some people may choose to keep dieting and if that works for them then that is ok too.  We are all different people at different places in life with different wants and needs and we all need to make our own choices.

Scientifically, I know that diets fail 98% of the time.  Scientifically, I know that overweight people actually have lower mortality rates than thinner people. Scientifically, I know that intuitive eaters are happier and healthier than their peers.  Intuitive Eating is evidence based, which means that there have been studies that show it is a safe, healthy and effective way to feed and nourish our bodies.  There is not one study that can say the same about dieting.

So scientifically, I'm sold. I am on board and I will never diet again.  I get it and it makes so much sense and I love it.  It is validating and empowering and freeing and has brought so much more joy to my life in feeding my body and my family.  Where I stumble is with the external appearance/body image part of the work.  This part is so much harder.

When we live in a world that is constantly telling us we should be thinner and we are unattractive if we are fat, and in a world where diet talk is the norm, and people are admired and praised for restricting themselves, it can be very triggering and challenging to hold your ground as an intuitive eater.  Especially if the journey leads to weight gain.  That might be where some folks simply want to get off the train.

The truth is, intuitive eaters may gain weight, may lose weight or may stay the same when they start intuitive eating.  It all depends on the history of the person and at what point in the diet cycle they may be in.  I gained weight when I started intuitive eating.  And for two years I blamed that weight gain on intuitive eating.  It wasn't until a few months ago that I realized - wait a minute - what was I doing before intuitive eating? I was DIETING. So what was bound to happen when I stopped dieting? I gained weight. I was a really "good" dieter. I was able to restrict myself for years and years until it started to get harder and harder. I stopped for the sake of my sanity.

I can't believe it took me so long to make the connection between my weight gain and dieting even after reading how dieters gain back their weight plus more within 1-3 years of every diet. That was eye opening for me. It helped me understand that it's not my way of eating now that is "causing" my weight gain and that my weight is simply trying to find it's normal place in the world after 30 years of my fucking with it.    It doesn't know what it's doing right now and my mission is to help it out and to give it some time. "Do what you need to do body - you are now running the show.  I'm sorry I tried to control you and override your needs and wants for so long. I hope you can forgive me. "

The other thing I would like to note is that when I started eating what I wanted, what I wanted changed.   So for the people who think they will eat cookies , cakes and pies and continue to gain weight, that is simply not true.  I ate my fair share of all the forbidden foods that I would deny myself on diets, and then I got sick of them.  They didn't hold their appeal when I knew I could have them anytime.  And while I gained weight, it also then leveled out and has been the same for the past year or so.  I know because of how my clothes fit.  I haven't stood on a scale in years.  (I face the other way when I go to the doctor and ask them not to tell me, I know the number is completely irrelevant to my state of health).

So what is my long winded point? If you are curious, Intuitive Eating is more than worth checking out.  I want people to know there is another way to live that does not involve restriction and misery.  If you are tired of hating food and your body and have spent years on diets and are still miserable, it is the light at the end of the tunnel.  And that light will guide you through even though the process may be long and is not at all a straight line. It's a process and can be slow and does not promise any quick fixes. But it gave me my life back and maybe it can give you yours too.