Nutrition classes are usually characterized by disguised attempts to disguise anti-fat targets. Is this really what impressionist teens need to hear?
At the age of 10, I didn’t eat: I ate calories. Low-fat yogurt with a handful of granola wasn’t lunch—it was 208 calories (fun fact: I was in Israel once when I found out that one cup of low-sugar cereal had 836 calories. I freaked out until I realized the unit of measurement was a kilojoule, not a kilojoule, not Calories). My weight was no account of my substance, of the cells and bones that support me: it was worth.
Seven years later, my 11th grade nutrition class—a necessary course for my graduation—was just over a quarter of the credit I needed to flip my skin. It became a chance to reimagine everything I was feeding – oops – since then I can add calories or understand the difference between trans fats and saturated fats. (“I’ve never been good at math,” she once remarked in a poem about my past struggles with an eating disorder, “but I can add up those numbers so sharply they can’t be mine.”).
The feeding class started – as they all do – innocently enough. We learned about complex carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Then came the documentaries, full of PhDs/PhDs/MPHs comparing sugar to the devil, spreading an all-or-nothing mentality when it came to anything that wasn’t deep water or green budding, using the terms I’d like to keep hate crimes perhaps? Or domestic violence? (“Sad,” one MD/MPH/RD doctor watched as she drove down an empty street in Louisiana, the sun shining on her back.)
Unexpectedly, the class discussion after the documentary sparked a burgeoning flurry of chatter among my classmates about the “military diet” (mostly composed of grapefruit, toast, eggs and dairy) and intense exercise plans.
After I’ve tried every diet out there (except for ketones – measuring ketones just didn’t work for me, I think), I had a thing or two to say about each of them. The Military Diet – which is a very short but intense plan – helps a person shed only water weight and not actual fat. Keto isn’t sustainable unless you want to get buried under a cheese factory (one bite of lemon, garlic, and basil fettuccine gets you straight out of ketosis). Ah, and the old-fashioned calorie count – a personal favourite.
I know I’m not alone when I say that calorie counting takes the focus entirely off of health and takes the focus entirely on numbers – not in the same way that grading makes the focus entirely on learning either. Striving for good grades at least leads to learning as a byproduct – but with calories counted, countless healthy foods are discarded just for the potential energy they provide.
For example, an avocado has about 200 calories (234, if you really must know), but a bag of Little Bites is 190. And for someone trying to keep calories as low as possible, you can guess what they’re going to eat. However, what people leave out when choosing a bag of mini muffins is that avocado will keep you full for longer, and that if you listen to your inner hunger cues, you will eat exactly what and how much your body and mind need.
It took me years to discover this: that I didn’t need to eat my celery sticks at lunch and three ice cream bars at night in the darkness of my kitchen, lit only by my deep shame and the freezer-light puddle beside me. Instead, I can eat the ice cream bar when and if I crave to avoid overeating later.
The only thing that can be very useful are “and” statements – blanket sentences expressing simultaneous facts. (“I’m going to eat pizza and pasta” – just kidding). In all seriousness: “It’s really exciting to start a diet,” you might say, “and I wouldn’t do that because I know diets aren’t a scientifically proven way to lose weight.” (80% of diets fail 1).
So what should you try instead? I’m glad you asked! What totally pulled me out of diet culture into a healthy self-image and relationship to food was Intuitive Eating (IE).
Intuitive eating, developed by nutritionists Evelyn Tribull and Elise Rich (trying to read it out loud three times quickly) consists of ten basic principles, the first of which is the rejection of the diet mentality.
Rejecting the diet mentality does not mean rejecting the concept of food as medicine (the last principle, gentle nutrition, involves respecting your taste buds and your health – now how is that for a compromise?). It simply involves avoiding the idea that you failed at diets (spoiler alert: they failed you). Be curious as to why dieting continues, even though it fails (and sometimes leads to weight gain). I won’t deny it – the start of a very exciting diet. The idea of all your problems disappearing and evaporating into thin air is very confusing. Just look at all those smiling models! It’s fun to be skinny, isn’t it? the correct. It’s also fun to be known as Debbie Dieter, the woman who couldn’t do anything because carrot bread adds up to her glycemic index.
The second principle involves honoring your hunger, an act that seems easier than it is. This means you’ll have more jalapeño rice and lemonade even though you put it in Tupperware an hour ago, only because you’re hungry again. This means saying no to the third margin just because you don’t want one. It takes practice, and the best part is that it doesn’t have to be perfect! It’s okay to eat a square of chocolate – or five – at the end of a long day as long as you do it on purpose and with joy. The idea is that most of the time you eat within the framework of innate hunger cues.
There are many other basic principles of intuitive eating – such as gentle nutrition, where high school nutritional knowledge really comes in handy. Do you eat rosemary candy as a snack? Cool, what can you add to make it more satiating? Maybe some ricotta cheese, or some 234 – oops, I mean avocado?
Craving fries for the fifth night in a row? Yum – what do you think about making it in an air fryer for a cheaper, more nutritious option?
Principle #8 requires that you simply respect your body – a concept that aligns with the set point theory. The idea is that if you respect your hunger cues most of the time, they will fall within your set point, which is the range of weight your body likes to be in (and no, that’s not a size 6 guarantee). All of our set points are different.
The point is, you deserve simply because you’re human, not because you still fit your wedding dress or because your doctor just shakes his head approvingly when she tells you your weight. As such, your body deserves to be fed a variety of delicious and exciting foods, including foods that boost heart health and invigorate your soul (personally, the lentil burger does both for me. I’m just saying).
scientific.com/ article / Unexpected evidence emerges about why diet fails /
intuitive.org/ 10 – Principles of Intuitive Eating /
Suggestions for reading:
Intuitive eats from Evelyn Tribull and Elise Rich