In a previous post, I shared the philosophy phy behind the Health at Every Size, or HAES, movement and why I choose to practice from these principles—in my career, and in my own life.
In this post, I am going to share practical tips for pursuing self-care in a more compassionate, sustaining way. I will be pulling from my own experiences—as a human and as a dietitian, and also what I know from the body of research many wonderful people devote their lives to studying or contributing to.
There are many things to consider when it comes to health, or well-being, if you choose to pursue it. There are things within our control when it comes to health, and things outside our control—this is important to remember. Focusing on taking care of ourselves can mean just feeling better in your own body, improving a health condition, managing a health condition, or positively affecting health markers associated with disease risk as much as you are able (things within our control). Feeling good in your body is subjective and individual to you. Health markers associated with disease risk may not affect how you feel–such as high cholesterol or blood pressure–but health conditions associated with these markers do affect how you feel as they worsen. When it comes to well-being, I believe it is important to tune in to how you feel, and use medical tests (such as blood tests, measuring blood pressure, etc.) as a tool to help you further tune in to what is going on in your body.
No one is obligated to pursue health. This may sound nutty coming from me because it is a priority in my own life, and my chosen career, but pursuing health is really your own choice. We have the freedom of choice in our lives–we aren’t forced into doing anything. When it comes to caring for yourself, it is more meaningful and sustaining when it comes from within, not just engaging in behaviors because you are told to by others. (We all naturally rebel anyways when our autonomy is threatened! :))
When it comes to “health,” most people only consider the effects of food and exercise. But, there is more to health than just food and movement. We are also more than physical bodies—we have souls, we have a brain, we have emotions. There are more things to consider when it comes to our well-being.
I am going to discuss different aspects of what we call “health,” starting with food and movement, then briefly discuss other important ways to feel good in the body you are in.
Where do I even start? Before you can even think about nutrition and how food affects your physical health, it is important to consider your relationship with food.
Does eating stress you out? Do you tend to associate “healthy eating” with eating cardboard meals off of tiny plates? Do you constantly restrict, then binge because you cannot take it anymore? Do you deny yourself nourishment in order to pursue an “ideal” body size? Do you turn to food as your only way to cope with difficult emotions?
My relationship with food was quite disordered growing up, as was my relationship with movement which I will discuss in the next section. You can read my full story here, but growing up I had a disordered relationship with food, with exercise, and with my body. After being healed and ceasing to engage in disordered behaviors, I did not truly let go of the need to “control” my weight until more recent years, when I discovered “intuitive/mindful eating” and the science behind HAES.
Last year I read the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, both Registered Dietitians who helped pioneer this movement—getting back to the way we were designed to eat. (In an nutshell, tuning in instead of following strict food rules.) I moved on to the workbook, and then started the training course to become a “Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor” because it turned my life upside down. I have also studied the work of other great professionals on the subject of intuitive eating, or mindful eating, or innate eating. It opened my eyes to how I still had remnants of disordered thinking hanging around, and also changed how I approach my work as a dietitian. It changed the direction of the entrepreneurial endeavors I was pursuing at the time.
Eating intuitively is a more flexible, compassionate, and sustainable way of eating. It is how we naturally tend to eat before being given “food rules” or restrictions. It works from the inside out by helping us pay attention to our internal cues, approach eating with curiosity instead of guilt and shame, and make peace with all foods. It promotes a more healthy relationship with food and our bodies, making eating a more enjoyable and satisfying experience. It is never meant to be rigid as in “I am not allowed to eat unless I’m hungry” or “I have to stop eating when I am full.” You can approach your eating behaviors with mindfulness and curiosity, helping you understand the “why” behind what you do instead of simply beating yourself up when you feel you have strayed from a plan. It is a process of approaching eating the way we were meant to. It is not meant to be used as a tool for weight loss—if you see mindful/intuitive eating being advertised as a weight loss plan, know it is not being used as intended. Our body has a weight range that it favors to feel and function at its best—trying to manipulate our bodies into a range it was not intended to be in misses the point and your body will fight back, making you feel as if YOU failed.
Intuitive, or mindful, eating has been shown to help people break free from disordered eating, diet cycling, and settle into a weight range your body favors instead of constantly cycling up and down. (Disclaimer—some people with severe eating disorders may need a structured plan as part of their treatment to help them heal, like a “cast” on a broken leg, until their internal cues resume regular functioning.) It has also been associated with improved health markers and well-being. A restrictive approach to eating tends to trigger overeating and binging, increasing our cravings and desire for certain foods we deem “bad.” By removing the food rules and making peace with all foods, eating does not feel so “out of control.”
As I mentioned, in the past year I recognized I still had remnants of disordered thought patterns in that I felt the need to be in “control” all the time. I felt I had to “control” my weight and feared losing this “control.” I learned to let it go by tuning in and listening to my body. I feel more free and at peace. It has been a process of progressive mental reframing, especially living in a culture that perpetuates the thin ideal and need for “weight control.”
Improving your relationship with food and movement will always be a process and not something you have to do “perfectly,” like a diet plan. I noticed this recently. I used to feel like I ate to the point of uncomfortable fullness when I ate dinner—I always felt miserable afterwards. (This is a common response to restricting during the day–restricting “forbidden” foods or not consuming enough fuel.) When I embraced the principles of eating intuitively, I found it easier to just stop eating once I felt full. I could put my food in the refrigerator and finish it later. It wasn’t going anywhere, and I could eat that food whenever I wanted it again, so there was no reason to overindulge in it. But, I was triggered recently—I don’t know if it is because I am a dancer, a dietitian, or just a human, but people talk freely to me about my body sometimes. It is ironic because I received body comments as I was in the process of writing a post about the effects of commenting on others’ bodies. The desire to “control” snuck back in very subtly after I had let it go. I started overeating my dinner again, to the point of feeling uncomfortable. I did some digging and tried to pinpoint the reason for it. Then it hit me—“Dana, you have been trying to ‘control’ again.” And then I thought “wow, this intuitive eating process is legit.” I have read about how restriction affects others, but experiencing this process myself was a great learning experience.
So, in order to approach nutrition in the best way—without causing stress and inflicting strict food rules—it is important to consider your relationship with food first. One of the first things you can do is let go of dieting. (I know, it is hard in our culture—we get bombarded with advertisements all the time.) Give yourself permission to eat when you are hungry, and eat what you will find most satisfying. And, I encourage you to read the Intuitive Eating book or workbook if you are interested and want to work through the process on your own.
Once you make peace with food and learn to tune in to what your body is telling you, nutrition information is a fantastic resource to help you determine what is going on in your body and how you can best care for it. Nutrition awareness puts you in charge. For instance, if you have diabetes, you may feel like everything you eat makes your blood sugar shoot up quickly. When you learn which foods and food combinations have a bigger impact on your blood sugar, you can be more aware of which foods affect you the most instead of just feeling like your blood sugar is out of control. If you always feel hungry between meals, learning about which food combinations are more sustaining/satisfying for you can help guide your decisions—such as including more fiber, protein, or fat in your meals and eating what you truly want in the moment. Think about foods you can add in (such as experimenting with cooking more vegetables or eating more fruit) instead of focusing on taking things out of your diet.
I am currently dealing with SIBO, among other things. (This is a subject for another day.) Being aware of what foods are feeding the bacteria hanging out in my small intestine can help me feel better while trying to kill the suckers. I don’t perfectly avoid foods that trigger the SIBO symptoms. In the moment, I know I am free to choose whatever I want to eat—I’m allowed to eat all foods—but I mostly choose to avoid certain foods that make me feel lousy right now while I’m healing. Since I am in charge, I choose to feel good and to fight what is making my gut fight me.
Nutrition is not meant to put us in a miserable box, eating foods we don’t enjoy. Being aware of nutrition can help us be in the driver’s seat when it comes to how we feel. It should be flexible—not beating ourselves up when we feel we have strayed from “rules.” Nutrition means nourishing our body and giving it what it needs to function at its best. Intuitive/mindful eating can help keep you from turning what you know about nutrition into a miserable “diet.” It gives you the space you need to maintain peace with food and take care of yourself in a more compassionate way, which can apply to all areas of health and well-being.
As I previously mentioned, I also used to have an unhealthy relationship with movement. I viewed exercise as a way to lose weight or control my weight. Even when I was not actively engaging in disordered behaviors, I needed to feel “in control” of my weight and part of doing that was through exercise. This may have seemed harmless when I was feeling great, but if I was sick or injured and could not exercise, it caused me a lot of anxiety to “lose” that control.
I believe it is important to have a healthy relationship with exercise just as it is important to have a healthy relationship with food. Before you think about moving that body around (if you are able), ask yourself why. Is it just to lose weight, or look a certain way? Do you move because it feels good? What type of activity do you enjoy? Do you enjoy doing things alone or with a group? (Also, do you need medical clearance from a physician to begin/resume exercise?)
I had to change my approach to movement just as I did with food. I had to approach exercise in a new way, “redeeming” it as a way to help me feel good and strong, not just as a way to manipulate the way I look. After all, movement can have many benefits for those who choose to engage in it—improved energy, increased stamina, improved health markers, increased flexibility, and improved stress/mood just to name a few benefits. Exercising just to lose weight can make it a miserable experience, especially if you are restricting foods at the same time. (It is hard to drive a car with no gas—believe me, I’ve tried. :))
Part of changing my approach to movement involved really listening to my body. I do enjoy challenging workouts that help me feel strong, but if I’m super exhausted, I refrain in order to not put unneeded stress on my body. Other times, I enjoy pushing myself. Either way, I have to listen to what my body is telling me. Lately, it has been very therapeutic for me to do a lot of yoga. I drive all over the place as part of my career, which I love, but when I get home I feel like someone glued all my muscle fibers together. I do yoga every night because it feels good, and helps me unwind and stretch those muscles back out. I have also been dealing with some muscle issues I’m seeing a physical therapist for, so I have limitations on what I can do right now. During my days of disordered thinking, I would have pushed past injury to work out, causing more harm on my body, in order to stay in “control” of my weight. Now, my motivation for moving is to feel good, so my approach is different. Just like changing my relationship with food, changing my approach to movement has been a process.
Identify activities you enjoy when you consider moving for the fun of it, to feel good. If you hate running and sign up for a 5K, it may make you miserable. (Unless you really just want the challenge for the fun of it.) If you enjoy dancing, turn on the music and move! Shut the shades if you have to. Or find a fun dance fitness class. If you are naturally competitive, you may enjoy team sports. If you need some stress relief, or want something more gentle on the body, consider yoga. You don’t have to be flexible to do yoga, but it can help you improve your flexibility. If you enjoy nature, consider walking around your neighborhood or finding some nearby parks/trails. Know that in the beginning, it may be a little uncomfortable (as anything is in the beginning). But, if you don’t enjoy it after time passes, move on to something else. Be flexible—give yourself structure if needed, but don’t beat yourself up if you stray from the structure.
I believe sleep does not get enough attention when it comes to feeling good. It is absolutely vital for us to feel our best, for our body to repair itself and work efficiently, and for our overall well-being. When you don’t get adequate sleep, you are more prone to accidents (behind the wheel or tripping as you walk down a hallway :). It affects those hunger cues I talked about in the “food” section. (Do you notice how you have more intense food cravings when tired?) It affects your mood. Our bodies were designed to rest and recharge, just like we have to recharge our cell phones. (Hello 21st century!)
When I was in school, I had terrible sleeping habits. I was an overachiever and put work and studying and activities above everything. I remember a year when I would sleep in 3 hour increments. (How did I function?) I look back and recognize how it made me more prone to depression and anxiety, two issues I dealt with growing up that also run in my family. I was so tired, all the time. I didn’t give my body the rest it craved. Dealing with depression and anxiety made it harder to go to sleep, and not sleeping worsened the depression and anxiety. The cycle just continued.
I had to create better habits as I entered the real world, and man, I love sleep. I need it. It is a gift. It is therapeutic. I even talked my husband into investing in high quality mattresses and bedding because we spend so much of our lives sleeping. I listen to my body when it tells me it is tired (again, tuning in). Although I cannot always sleep when my body tells me it is tired (unless those self-driving cars take off), if I am sleepy during the day, this can give me great information as to whether or not I need to make some changes. Am I getting good quality sleep? Do I need to go to sleep earlier? Do I need to give my dogs ear plugs so they don’t bark at thunder in the middle of the night?
I previously wrote an entire post about stress and how it can affect your well-being. Stress can wreak havoc on your body and make you feel lousy. It can negatively affect our health when we live in constant “fight or flight.” I had to make changes in my life and in my schedule to decrease the stress in my life. I have to pay attention to my physical signs of stress, and do things I know will help me return to a more calm state, such as deep breathing. I have to intentionally keep myself from living in stress.
We are more than just physical beings. Our mental outlook and how we deal with emotions greatly affects how we feel and view the world. I can cause myself a great deal of stress when my perspective is out of whack. I have done a lot of mental reframing over the years—I enjoy reading various books about how your mental outlook affects your life, your emotions, etc. You may be able to identify stinkin’ thinkin’ through things you read or hear, or through talking with close friends/loved ones. You may need to speak with a professional to help you work through some things in your life, or may need to write out your thoughts. No matter which path you choose, don’t discount how your thoughts affect your feelings and your well-being. I discussed meditation in my post regarding stress, which can have positive effects on your mental outlook as well as help you deal with stress—it is like mental strength training. Take time to stop, to breathe, and tune in. I speak from the perspective of being a Christian, so this time helps me be still before God and hear from Him while working through the mental clutter.
We were made for connection—we need healthy relationships in our lives for our well-being. When our relationships suffer, we suffer. Are you open to connection, or closed off? What is holding you back, or driving a wedge in any important relationships in your life? Are you hustling for others to make you feel worthy and accepted? Are you holding a grudge you need to release? Are you communicating your needs to your loved ones? Are you giving your loved ones the quality time they need, or the words they need to hear?
As I previously mentioned, I speak from the perspective of being a Christian. Spending time with God, in the Word, being still before Him in prayer and meditation, and being with other believers affects my well-being. It is refreshing and rejuvenating—God is my driving force. Without Him setting me free from the chains of depression and anxiety I dealt with growing up, I don’t know where I would be today. I would probably still be the shy little girl who was scared to talk to people; who lived in a mental world of hopelessness. Thank God He set me free—free from my chains, free from my mistakes, free from things I’m not even aware of. I treasure this time and need it to be refilled.
I have a natural tendency to worry about things, often things that have not even happened. I mentioned earlier in this article that many aspects of health are not in our control. I have worked in healthcare for 10+ years and I have spent a significant amount of time with people dealing with various health issues. While fulfilling, for someone who thinks like me, it can cause me to worry about negative things or health issues happening to my loved ones. (I previously mentioned how our perspective can affect our thoughts/feelings.) The only thing that helps me deal with this, honestly, is praying and putting my loved ones in God’s hands. After dealing with my husband almost dying 4 years ago, it has turned me into a prayer warrior. It keeps me from being a worried mess, all the time :)). After his heart attack, I wouldn’t turn the lights off while we slept, for months–I had to be able to look over and know he was ok. Thankfully we have gotten beyond that point :). I have to daily put Him in God’s hands, doing the best we can with what is within our control and trusting God with the rest. I am grateful Ricky treats his body with care and does the best he can in minimizing his health risks/preventing progression of cardiovascular disease.
In conclusion, our health and well-being involve our whole being. Do some inner searching and figure out what may be making you feel lousy, or holding you back. What could be making you feel out of balance? How is your relationship with food? With movement? With your body? Are you treating your body with respect and love, just as you would treat someone you love? What have you been telling yourself about health? Are you offering yourself compassion on this journey? Take some time to be still and reflect.
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