In a previous post, I wrote about the harmful effects of dieting in order to promote weight loss.
“But Dana,” you may say, “I’m supposed to follow a certain diet plan because I have _____ health condition.” A healthcare provider may have told you to lose weight to “manage” a health problem.
I wanted to discuss the distinction between dieting to lose weight, and following nutritional advice to manage a health condition.
It is all about intention.
As I discussed previously in “The Perpetual Battle with Weight, Part 2,” there isn’t sufficient evidence that focusing on weight loss leads to healthful, sustained behaviors. Restriction through dieting can adversely affect your health and well-being. It can also lead to disordered eating and exercise behaviors. For this reason, I don’t agree with prescribing “weight loss” as a means to improve a health condition. It does not get to the root of the problem, and it perpetuates weight bias. You cannot make assumptions about behavior based on body size. The feelings of isolation that result from being judged by your body size, known as weight stigma, has also been shown to negatively affect health. It also prevents people from seeking needed medical intervention when they feel stigmatized by their healthcare providers.
The Health at Every Size approach to health has been researched and shown to lead to sustained, healthy behaviors and improved health outcomes. This is the approach that I practice from. When you take weight out of the equation and focus on self-care behaviors, it can positively affect mental and physical health.
So, when the intention for your behavior is self-care, not shrinking your body, it promotes a much healthier relationship with food and your body.
Healthy habits motivated by self care are different than rigid food rules imposed on you by yourself or from someone else. Self care behaviors are characterized by listening to your body and giving it what it needs.
I will use myself as an example. In a previous post, I wrote about my history of disordered eating. If I were to restrict my portions, only allow myself to eat at certain times (instead of listening to my hunger/fullness cues), and demonize certain foods because I fear weight gain, it would come from a “restrictive” approach to eating.
For years, I suffered with what I now know were inflammatory symptoms in my body. Based on an evidenced based blood test identifying food triggers and an eating plan designed to calm down my immune system, I saw resolution of these symptoms. I could go on about my history of stress and gut issues and what role that played, but that post is for another day. The point is, there are foods that still trigger a reaction in my body—wheat/gluten and milk products. I avoid these foods out of motivation to take care of myself and to feel good. It isn’t that these foods are “bad,” and that eating them causes me to feel guilt. In fact, as part of my recovery from disordered eating, I go out of my way to avoid unnecessary food restrictions. But, I know these specific foods cause my body to feel bad. I know in my body, they cause harm. I choose to avoid them most of the time in order to feel good. I am in charge, not food rules.
In my career, I have worked with people dealing with diabetes, heart disease (my own husband), dialysis, etc. There are certain ways of eating that can help manage these conditions. My husband eats a lean, plant based diet. He made the choice to eat this way to prevent progression of his disease—this is based on research and his own experience. Eating patterns play a huge role in managing kidney disease. Through your diet and dialysis treatment, you are working towards making up for what your kidneys are not able to do. When the kidneys are unable to excrete excess fluid and certain minerals out of the blood effectively, it’s important for those on dialysis to limit these things in their diet. It can cause harm to their bodies and make them feel bad when these things get out of whack. For those with diabetes, high blood sugar can cause bodily harm. By balancing certain nutrients throughout the day, it can help keep blood sugar within a healthy range.
I think the best approach to managing conditions through eating are making the focus self-care, feeling good, listening to your body, and being aware of how certain foods affect you. It isn’t that foods are “good” or “bad”—you are no better or worse of a person if you eat certain foods. Just try and do the best you can with what you have, but have compassion for yourself. It isn’t about being “perfect,” but just taking care of yourself.
Let your eating habits come from an internal place, not because someone imposed food rules on you. Know that you are in charge–no one else. I believe that my role as a dietitian is to inform, then provide support and a compassion space for you to do what you choose. I have never felt right when people perceived my career as being the “food police.”
To sum everything up, remember the following: Dieting through restriction in order to lose weight can cause harm. Creating healthy habits in order to feel good is self-care. Adopting eating patterns to manage a health condition, when it comes from a compassionate place, can help you feel your best and keep your symptoms under control. It is not about perfection, but feeling good and taking care of yourself the best way you know how.
When your intention is self care, not restriction, you can give your body the love and support it deserves.
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