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Health At Every Size and Big Is Beautiful/Fat Acceptance: What These Movements Stand For and Why They Are Important

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Health at Every Size and the Fat Acceptance Movement started as small, barely recognised movements. Due to the hard work of those involved and the (very) gradual shift in views around weight, shape, and size, these movements are now beginning to get the acknowledgement and publicity that they deserve. The more exposure these movements get, the more people will start to be enlightened to the real facts, figures, and evidence around size, health, and weight set point theory. Hopefully with time weight-based myths, discrimination, and stigma will be something that we as a society look back on and cringe with shock and humiliation that we got something so wrong and treated millions of people so badly. However, we still have a really long way to go until then.

You might be new to these movements, or you might not be, but either way, you may be unsure about what they stand for and why these things are so important. So let’s have a look at each movement and discuss a little bit about them.haes-4

Health At Every Size (or HAES) was first developed by American psychotherapist and nutritionist Linda Bacon, who wrote the book Health at Every Size (first published in 2008), and the sequel, Body Respect. Health At Every Size is a movement that is promoted by those who believe that health and fitness can be achieved regardless of weight, shape, and size, and that weight-loss is not a requirement for those deemed “overweight” or “obese” by BMI in order to live a healthy and happy life. HAES encourages people to accept their weight as it is, and promotes mental and physical well-being without weight loss as a goal. HAES cites studies that have shown that weight loss often leads to worse health regardless of the starting weight, and presents evidence that suggests that obesity is not the cause of health issues or premature mortality. It provides strong arguments for the idea that correlation does not equal causation, and picks apart flaws in studies that apparently connect obesity to poor health. HAES supports self love, self care, and body positivity, as well as healthy physical lifestyle choices such as being active and eating a balanced diet. HAES promotes this in a way that is conductive to mental health: it urges people to engage in activity that is enjoyable first and foremost, and not gruelling and repetitive work-out routines, and it supports the idea that food is not just for survival but also for pleasure. It maintains that weight loss should never be a goal, and that weight loss is frequently damaging, and encourages people to follow intuitive and instinctive eating and activity. It also supports weight set point theory.

The Health At Every Size® Principles are:

  1. Weight Inclusivity: Accept and respect the inherent diversity of body shapes and sizes and reject the idealizing or pathologizing of specific weights.
  2. Health Enhancement: Support health policies that improve and equalize access to information and services, and personal practices that improve human well-being, including attention to individual physical, economic, social, spiritual, emotional, and other needs.
  3. Respectful Care: Acknowledge our biases, and work to end weight discrimination, weight stigma, and weight bias. Provide information and services from an understanding that socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other identities impact weight stigma, and support environments that address these inequities.
  4. Eating for Well-being: Promote flexible, individualized eating based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plan focused on weight control.
  5. Life-Enhancing Movement: Support physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose.

Health At Every Size is a movement that I strongly agree with. Its main principles on exercise, food, weight, and body positivity are ones that I advocate with every fibre of my being. It’s incredibly important because we live in a culture obsessed with dieting and weight loss; a culture preoccupied with attaining the “perfect body – a body that is not achievable for the majority of people without sacrificing their mental and/or physical health. Even if you are someone who naturally has society’s idea of the “perfect” body, the dieting and weight loss industry will find ways to make you feel inadequate and flaw-ridden in a bid for you to buy their products to “fix” yourself with. The diet and weight loss industry controls much of our research into food and weight, and sweeps any evidence that contradicts their interests under the rug and publicises in a selective and biased way research that has questionable study methods or sample sizes, contentious results, and tenuous correlations. So do I have any criticism of the HAES movement?

Firstly, I think that although HAES is absolutely correct in that we should intuitively eat and listen to hunger and fullness cues, it underestimates how difficult that can be to relearn, especially if you are someone who has suffered with an eating disorder or severe dieting. In our society, feelings of guilt, self-loathing, shame, anxiety, and, on the other hand, superiority and control, have become inextricably linked with food and weight, and so it can be incredibly difficult (and perhaps even impossible) to entirely disentangle our emotions from our biological signals. That’s not to say that it cannot be done, but we need to address the context in which we live in our bodies  before we can start to challenge and relearn the way that we feed and view our bodies. Being presented with the principles of the Health At Every Size movement can feel like ordering flat-pack furniture and taking it home, only to open it up, lay out the pieces of the floor, and realise that the instructions aren’t there. You’re left with all the parts, but with no idea how to assemble it. And in reality that’s not exactly a flaw of the HAES movement itself, as HAES aims to educate and promote a mentally and physically healthy and positive way of living, but it is an area it sometimes fails to recognise and address.

Secondly, I’m not really a fan of the name. Heath At Every Size is misleading. Although I absolutely 110% agree that the what we view as “healthy” should be a much much much broader range of weights, it is undeniable that there are certain weights at which you just cannot be healthy at. You cannot be a healthy adult at 50lbs, just like you cannot be a healthy adult at 500lbs, and so the name of the movement leaves it open to criticism from the onset. Prader-Willi syndrome, hypothyroidism, cancer, depression, anxiety, or eating disorders are a few examples which can cause a person’s weight to plummet or skyrocket, and there are weights that are too low or too high for anyone to be healthy at. So for me, I believe in Health At (Pretty Much) Every Size, and whilst Health At Every Size is much more catchy, it’s technically incorrect, allowing those against the movement an easy starting point on which to discredit it.

Last but not least, HAES aims to provide people with the information to start working towards accepting their bodies whatever their weight, shape, and size in order to improve both physical and mental health. However, it also has to be addressed that we live in a society where fat people are constantly subjected to prejudice, body-shaming, weight stigma, and discrimination. Fat people who agree with HAES may still struggle to accept their body size in a culture so cruel to them, and their inability to find peace with their bodies may well become yet another source of shame. Again, this isn’t a flaw in the principles of HAES, but a topic that may need more recognition.

So what is the difference between Health At Every Size and the Fat Acceptance Movement? Let’s take a look at the latter:
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The Fat Acceptance movement (also known as the size acceptance, fat liberation, fat activism, fativism, or fat power movement) is a social movement seeking to change anti-fat bias in social attitudes. Those involved seek to change attitudes towards fat people in areas of life including the aesthetic, legal, and medical approaches to people whose bodies are fatter than the social norm. The Fat Acceptance movement focuses more on the way fat people are perceived and judged due to their weight, shape, or size, and although it does address physical health and the research to back up the same principles as the Health At Every Size movement, it is more focused around changing the way fat people are treated and discriminated against. Fat people are often dehumanised and shown far less respect than those that are at a socially “acceptable” weight. One of the main examples is medical care. Fat people’s medical issues are often inaccurately dismissed as being caused by their weight, are shown less respect, and are often shamed for their body size.

The Big Is Beautiful movement is a smaller movement that comes under the Fat Acceptance movement, and focuses more on aesthetics. Its message is that people whose bodies are bigger than what is considered socially “acceptable” are beautiful too, and that you don’t have to be a certain weight, shape, or size to be attractive. Its aim is to help people find beauty in their bodies regardless of any contributing factors that make them look a certain way: health is besides the point.

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Both movements are focused around respect, and also talk about health as irrelevant. The ideas is that even if you believe that someone IS unhealthy due to their weight, its not your business what lifestyle choices they make, and they should be treated with respect regardless of those choices. For example, we all know people who smoke or binge drink, but we do not treat them as less human on an everyday basis because those choices lead to poor health. We do not assume their personality, or directly link their personal lifestyle choices with their moral character. This is why these movements are so important: they address the way society perceives and treats people who are fat.

My only criticism of these two movements (Fat Acceptance and Big Is Beautiful) is that there are some people involved in this movement who look down on those who diet as betrayers of the movement, when they should be seen as victims of a diet and weight loss obsessed society. As I stated above with HAES, it can be forgotten how powerful and pervasive “thin ideals” are, and all of us are affected by it in some way, even if we do constantly work to disentangle ourselves from it and rise above it. We should all be working together to support one another and help to lift each other up not put anyone down. We should aim to educate, not shun; support, not vilify.

Health At Every Size, the Fat Acceptance movement, and Big Is Beautiful, are all extremely important in terms of physical health, mental health, feminism, and education around food, weight, and health, amongst other things. They are powerful and uplifting; inspiring and motivational; enlightening and passionate. They can give us the information and confidence to live in a better way; a way that makes the aspirations of health and happiness more achievable.

To find out more about weight set point theory, and to read discussions around and evidence to support Health At Every Size, you can visit the resources section on this website. There is a drop-down menu that displays many sub-sections, including one for each of these topics.

And as a last little titbit of information, check the photo out below:

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Fat Girls Can Wear Crop Tops Too

Yep, you heard me. Fat girls can wear crop tops too. Let me say it again for the people in the back:

Fat

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girls

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can

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wear

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crop tops

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too.

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But this article isn’t just about crop tops.

I understand that we live in a society that has brainwashed many of us into believing that fat bodies are worth less than thin bodies; that fat is synonymous with ugly; that there is nothing worse than being fat; that we cannot be fat AND happy (these are all lies by the way) but I still do not understand why anyone would feel that it is acceptable to attempt to police the clothing choices of any other human being, regardless of their weight, shape, or size.

Fat girls are told implicitly and explicitly that they should not wear leggings, or crop tops, or bikinis (or even go on the beach at all), or bear their legs in dresses, or wear mini shorts, or…the list goes on. There is even a hierarchy of privilege amongst fat bodies, depending on how fat you are or where your fat is stored or whether you have big enough boobs to even out your thick thighs and hips. And frankly, I find it all disgusting.

We are all people. We all lead different lives and have different values and passions and hobbies. And we all have different bodies. And the weight, shape, or size of our bodies does not alter our self worth or how beautiful we are. It also does not give anyone the right to dictate what we wear. Fat, slim, curvy, thin, chubby, muscular, pear-shaped, apple-shaped…you can be star-shaped for all I care and wear the same clothes as anyone else. Certain clothes are not reserved for certain body sizes or shapes, and whether you are a size 6 or a size 26, you are the only one who gets to choose what you wear. Don’t let ignorance get in the way of your clothing preference. If you want to rock a crop top, a mini skirt, and nine-inch heels, you do that. If you want to wear a cute summery dress to the beach and then whip it off to reveal an itsy, bitsy bikini, you do that. If you want to wear leggings and a bralet, you do that. And if you feel more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt, you do that too. Because you should be able to wear whatever it is that you feel the most confident in. And if our fatphobic, asshole of a society has made you feel too uncomfortable to wear a crop-top even if you really like them, it doesn’t make you any less badass if you save the crop tops for another time, or even never.

You do not have to wear whatever society thinks is most “flattering”. I only recently took a real long hard look at this word, and saw it from a totally different angle to what I previously saw. People use it as a compliment towards each other all of the time, and it seems like a genuinely nice thing to say someone until you examine what it wearing something “flattering” really means. The word “flattering” in itself is oppressive: it implies that we should be aiming to look a certain way – and that certain way is “as thin as possible”. No one should feel that they have to disguise their hip fat or accentuate their waist or push up their breasts or flatten down their bellies. You do not have to hide any part of your body as if it is shameful. Not one part of your body is shameful, and you have the right to wear whatever you want, at all times. Everyone deserves to embrace the body that they have and everyone deserves to love it for what it does for them and for what it looks like.

It is summer time, and it is hot outside, and fat girls are entitled to dress in the clothes that make them feel coolest – both in temperature and in style. Don’t ever shame anyone for wearing what they want to wear. It is their right to do so and to feel confident in doing so. Respect everyone’s clothing choice. Respect everyone’s bodies. Respect everyone.

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(Here’s me and my crop top)

Celebrating the Day that I Chose to Live

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TRIGGER WARNING.

This article contains before and after photographs of someone who has previously suffered with an active eating disorder, and also names eating disordered behaviours that they previously engaged in. This article could be triggering for vulnerable people, those with eating disorders, and those recovering from eating disorders.

Today holds an extortionate amount of significance for me: four years ago today I made the decision to make the first steps towards recovery from my mentally and physically destructive and severe mental illness: atypical anorexia. It didn’t feel like much would come from the vague, half-hearted decision, but it was a monumental moment that put me on the road to recovery. That moment has gotten me to where I am now: a healthy, happy woman who has been in remission from an eating disorder for over one and a half years, after an intense two and a half year battle in which I emerged victorious.

I’m well aware that I wrote a post last year which will probably be very similar to this one, but the topic isn’t an insignificant one: this day four years ago saved my life in many ways, and celebrating it is, in reality, celebrating the day I decided not to die slowly, and to fight tooth and nail for my health, my happiness, and ultimately, my life.

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Four years ago today I was entirely, unequivocally, weary of being sick and miserable. I was weary of being in a living hell. I was weary with the despair and the darkness and the anger and the devastation. I was weary of watching my hair fall out in clumps in the shower; of watching it become thin and dry and brittle; of being dizzy; of living in a grey world where my senses were dulled as if my brain was smothered in cotton wool. I was fed up of the insomnia; of the nightmares; of the calories circling around my head all day and all night, leaving little space in my mind for much else. I was tired of counting down the minutes until I was “allowed” to eat; of the starving and compulsive exercising, and eventually, the purging; of the intense fear I felt at going anywhere near food; of the absolute and utter desolation of my mind and body that meant that I lived in a starving shell that could not function, and a mind controlled by  a single focus: lose weight lose weight lose weight. A focus that meant I could not think about anything else; could not deal with anything else. A focus that meant that I did not have to confront the emotions and experiences that had caused my eating disorder in the first place. A severe mental illness caused by a combination of genetics and my environment was my way of handling the world and myself, but finally, after 8 years, I had decided that this could not go on. At first, I viewed death as the only escape from the torment my eating disorder wreaked upon me, but moments of clarity started to push their way to the forefront of my mind, until the possibility of recovery developed from rejected thoughts to cautious actions. And over time my strength grew, and grew, and grew.

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I know: you’ve heard it all before. You’ve read my posts or the posts of others, you’ve watched a loved one battle an eating disorder, or you’ve experienced it first hand. But today I also want to talk about where my recovery took me and how it might differ from that of others.

I have come across a lot of people who live under the title of “recovered”. It may be a title they have given themselves or a title a professional has given them. It doesn’t matter. What I see are a lot of very slim people who use the word “recovered”. Some of those people will be naturally slim – people whose natural, healthy weights are down the lower end of that “healthy” BMI category. And that’s great! All weights, shapes, and sizes are fab, as long as the person is at their natural, healthy weight and is healthy and happy. However, I tentatively would suggest that there are those that maintain a certain weight by closely monitoring and restricting their intake and controlling their exercise. And if that is where you end up at in recovery because you are unable at that point in time to go any further or feel that that is all you can manage, then I applaud your progress and your strength and bravery in getting to that point – you are amazing and strong and wonderful. Some people will manage their eating disorders and live with it in a state halfway between being free of their eating disorder, and being utterly consumed by it. That is absolutely okay, and if you want to call that full recovery, who am I to decide that it is not by your own personal definition? But I also want to stress that that is not where you have to be if you want to choose differently. You can push further. Whether that is now, or in the future, there is the option to press on forwards to a life where you live pretty much entirely free of your eating disorders influence. I know, because I decided to take the path to that place.

I decided to reject the idea of an “ideal” body. This took me a very long time. It took years of research into health at every size and weight set point theory. It took getting involved with feminism and the body positivity movement. It took learning about the impact of diet culture and how the diet and weight loss industry intentionally make us hate ourselves for profit. It took deciding to be as healthy and happy as I could possibly be in both body and mind. It took deciding to let go of the importance that I had placed on being a certain weight.

I turned out to be one of those people who naturally have a higher body weight than others. It can mean dealing with increased stigma around weight and size, and comes with knowing that I am at a weight where some people will look at me and decide that I am unhealthy/lazy/greedy, whilst knowing nothing about my lifestyle, or indeed myself as a person. Some people will look at me and see me as a weight/shape/size. I am also aware of my own weight privileges in that there are people at far higher weights than me that suffer a hell of a lot more stigma and discrimination. I am aware that although I am far from society’s “ideal” body weight, shape, or size, I still wear “acceptable” clothes sizes (as in, the clothes stores that I shop in cater for my size, even if it is a size some feel shameful about). It is also a size that I maintain effortlessly eating a balanced diet (and by that I mean I eat what I want, when I want, which leads me to eat a wide variety of foods from all food groups), and with physical activity that I do for enjoyment rather than to alter my weight, shape, or size, or any other disordered reasons. It is the size that I can live my life as a healthy and happy person. If I wanted to be smaller, I would have to focus on calorie restriction and possibly an excessive amount of exercise, and we all know where that would lead. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not going to lie and say that if I had to option to do all this at a smaller size, then I would choose not to. Because of the importance society places on our bodies, being at a smaller size would mean not having to think about or deal with the discrimination of being at a higher weight, and I would rather choose not to deal with that. But my body and its weight/shape/size is not at fault for those stigmas, and nor am I. I accept my body. It is everyone else accepting my body as happy and healthy and beautiful that is the problem, because not everyone does. But that’s okay, because I choose my health and happiness over the approval of others. I choose me.

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To get to where I am now, I chose to reject the ideas and ideals that are so entrenched in our culture and our society. I chose my actual health over the idea that you have to be a certain weight, shape, or size to be healthy. I chose my happiness over the absolute lie that you have to be a certain weight, shape, or size to be happy. Those lies are fed to us all day, every day, everywhere we look, but I just don’t buy it any more. I’ve seen enough evidence of all kinds to call bullshit. And I have decided to live my life in a way that means working with my body and letting it be whatever weight, shape, or size it needs to be to enable me to be healthy and happy. I will not change that for anyone. I choose me.

Is Intuitive Eating a Good Idea in Eating Disorder or Dieting Recovery?

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Intuitive eating is a concept that really resonates with me. In a society entrenched with diet culture, a huge percentage of people have lost the ability to trust their bodies, and instead opt for counting calories or macros, or eliminating food groups, or trying out various juice fasts, veggie cleanses, cabbage soup diets…the list of restrictive diets and ways to self starve is endless. The fact that we do not ignore other bodily signals: emptying our bladders or bowels; sneezing; coughing; itching; removing our fingers from a burning surface; blinking; but ignore our body’s signal for hunger and then call it a good thing is absurd. We have decided to stop trusting our biological body; a body built for survival, and instead listen to the multi-billion dollar diet and weight loss industry, our unhealthy thin-obsessed culture, and the media which panders to both (again, to make money). It is nonsensical. It is ridiculous. It is madness. And yet nearly all of us are guilty of listening and responding to it.

Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight, rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods.

This is why I love the idea of intuitive eating (although do remember when reading the above that a “healthy weight” is whatever your body needs to be at naturally, and has nothing to do with BMI). Reconnecting with your body; listening to it; honouring its cues and signals; respecting it and giving it the treatment it needs and deserves…this is exactly the right attitude to have, and exactly the right action to take. However, when it comes to recovering from the effects of dieting, or even more serious, an eating disorder, intuitive eating becomes a little trickier to throw yourself into.

Months or years of damages done to the body through restriction can cause huge issues with the way the body communicates with you, especially when it comes to hunger. Your hunger cues may have become suppressed, and therefore will be unreliable during the recovery process. When this is the case, it means that both hunger for the correct amount of energy and cravings for the right types of foods that the body needs won’t be felt by the person experiencing this, and so intuitive eating would be a disaster for them. It would mean that they would not get the energy that their body needs for daily energy requirements, and would not get the types of food that the body needs and nutrients that the body is lacking in. For these people, intuitive eating would not be something that they could jump into straight away, and would have to be a goal for later on in the recovery process. Those without reliable hunger cues would need to count calories to ensure that they are eating enough (I wrote about calorie counting in recovery here), and also keep an eye on the types of foods that they are eating to make sure that they are getting enough of each food group.

Those with reliable hunger cues will find that they are able to move to intuitive eating sooner, although I would always suggest counting at first whilst you establish if you have reliable hunger cues or not (and I have a video on when to know when you are able to eat intuitively here). Those with reliable hunger cues may find themselves ravenously hungry, or may be hungry for the amount that they need day to day, and then find themselves absolutely starving most of the time. This is normal and expected and in recovery is called “extreme hunger” (I have a video on this here). This is something those in recovery often experience, but not always. Those with reliable hunger cues find that they are hungry for the amount of energy that their body needs each day.

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Some people in recovery go through periods of both reliable and unreliable hunger cues, and during this time it is best to keep counting calories and keeping an eye on what you are eating until you are receiving consistently reliable hunger cues.

For both those who have reliable and unreliable hunger cues it is important to make sure that you are eating all food groups, as they are all important for health. It is important to note for both those with reliable hunger cues and those with unreliable hunger cues that it is normal in recovery from restrictive eating disorders or dieting to crave foods that are high in energy, especially foods with a high fat, sugar, or carbohydrate content. This is because processed food can be one of the best things for recovery, especially during the initial stages. Foods high in energy  help to fill the calorie deficit and repair the extensive damage done through starvation, as well as providing energy for the day. Foods high in fat help with regaining your period, aid bowel movements, and most importantly, the brain is made of at least 60% fat which requires eating fat in order to heal and maintain its health. Fat is also most easily processed by the body, which is quite essential to your damaged digestive system. Usually in recovery people crave “junk” food because this is just what their bodies need, and that is okay. If you are eating far more carbs than any other food group, that is okay. If you are eating far more sugary foods than any other food groups, that is okay. What is not okay is if you are only responding to these cravings and not having any other food group. Responding to the cravings is really important, but it is also important that you don’t go without an entire food group. Some people find that whilst their bodies are busy craving foods high in energy, it can end up not sending signals for fruit and vegetables. It is quite common for those with eating disorders or even dieting to have issues with filling up on fruit and veggies, and for these people, cutting down and thinking about it less is the goal, but for others, they can find that in recovery they can have reliable hunger cues for the energy that their body needs, but do not have the cravings for all the food types that it needs. The body, in this way, is being reliable in letting you know exactly what it needs in order to become energy-balanced (by craving foods high in energy), but has made this a priority and is not giving the right signals in order for the body to get all the nutrients that it needs. So if you realise that you are going days without fruit or veggies, make sure to incorporate some into your diet. Don’t become rigid or fixed upon a certain number, but just make sure you are having some throughout your day. The same applies to any other food group that you might find yourself not eating through lack of cravings.

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Whilst many people crave “junk” food, you may also experience cravings for dairy, cereal, and meat/fish. You can have cravings for anything! You may also find that you have cravings for odd combinations of food, and that is perfectly normal too. Just respond to what your body is asking for.

If you are experiencing extreme hunger and/or having intense cravings for only one food group or particular type on food – don’t panic. Appetite settles down when the body is healthier to include cravings for a massive variety of foods: chocolate, milk, fruit, cereal, doughnuts, pizza, pasta, vegetables, fish, steak, cake….EVERYTHING. No foods should ever be off limits, and your body will start giving you more and more reliable hunger cues as your body gets healthier and healthier, until you are able to really connect with it and trust it. Throw out your magazines. Forget the media. Forget diet culture and societies unhealthy obsession with thinness. Trust your body and work with it. There is no wrong way to have a body (and please please please check out weight set point theory, and health at every size under my resources section).

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For some people, intuitive eating can be something that they start doing fairly early on in recovery from an eating disorder or dieting, but for others, it can take time for their bodies to adjust and be able to communicate correctly. Whichever is the case, intuitive eating is a fantastic goal to work towards, but it is important to recognise that it can take time, patience, and perseverance. I would always suggest it be the goal, and would never want anyone to have to return to listening to diet culture – it’s what got a lot of people into a terrible place emotionally and physically in the first place (particularly those recovering from dieting as eating disorders are nearly always a lot more complex . However, recovery is certainly not helped along by diet culture). Listening to your natural, biological, earth-given body is the best thing to do for your mental and physical health when it comes to eating. Not concepts created by society. And always know that food is not just about nurture and nourishment, but about pleasure and enjoyment too. Do what makes you happy and healthy, both physically and mentally. You deserve it.

 

Why Do We Find it So Hard to Accept that Our Weight is Not as Within Our Control as We’d Like to Think?

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Most of us have grown up in countries preoccupied with weight. We have grown up being told that it is down to us what size we end up at, that we have control over what weight we are, and that it’s about having willpower and making the “right” choices about what we put in our mouths. We’ve been told to count calories, exercise at the gym, resist cake, fill up on fruit and veggies, and even to curb hunger with glasses of water. We’ve been told to ignore hunger, wage war on our bodies, and to trust the information given to us by the media and the weightloss and dieting industry. Even our doctors have gotten on board with the “healthy is only for the slim” message, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

But recently, health at every size and weight set point theory are finally starting to become recognised as fact. Information about our bodies having varying, individual, healthy weights that the body will attempt to stay at regardless of what you eat is at last wedging itself into the media. Information about the fact that you can be fat and be healthy is now getting noticed, rather than being swept under the rug and buried by the pharmaceutical and weight loss industries that benefit hugely from the majority of the population trying to alter the way that their bodies look.

But even though this evidence is coming to light, people still seem to be having a hard time accepting it. By people, I mean healthcare officials and others who get to make the big decisions about what information is given as guidelines for health. By people, I also mean the public. Even though the evidence showing those who are in the “overweight” BMI category are living longer than any other BMI category (yes, including the “normal” category) was so overwhelming that it was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people are still trying to find reasons to why this could be other than it actually just being the obvious: that it’s healthy to be “overweight”, and that “overweight” is not overweight: that we have to accept this as reality, like we would with any other comprehensive scientific study. Even the medical community keep trying to bury their heads in the sand and subtly hide or erase the information that the (many) studies have given us.

Other studies show that you can be any shape, weight, or size, and be healthy (this becomes less likely with the very morbidly obese and the underweight, but that is not to say that there are not those in both categories that are healthy), and many, many studies show that food and weight is not as correlated as we have been told it is (for more information on weight set point theory go to “Weight Set Point Theory!” under my links section). In fact, it probably doesn’t play much of a part at all, unless you are starving yourself so that your body cannot maintain its weight because of the lack of energy, or you are stuffing yourself to the point of nausea every time you eat so your body cannot cope with the excess energy. The latter is not a common occurrence, except for those with binge eating disorder (which is far less common than you think it is, but that’s a conversation for another time), whereas, unfortunately, the former is – because of the influence the dieting and weight loss industry has had on us, and the prevalence of restrictive eating disorders. The body actually has it’s own system for regulating body weight when you are listening and responding to it properly, not ignoring hunger, and following cues from the body to eat whatever it wants, whenever it wants. If you are in touch with your body and can eat an amount comfortably within your day, then you’re not eating too much, and your body can regulate the energy it is being given so that you still maintain within your healthy weight range that is individual for your body.

So why, even with all the hard facts and evidence, it is so hard for us to accept that a) you can be fat and healthy and b) if you want to be healthy, you have to let your weight be what it is supposed to be naturally?

It’s something that I’ve had to think about, because this is a topic close to my heart and one that helped my recovery from atypical anorexia, and because I’ve come across people on the internet and in my life that have point blank refused to even look at the research showing them that the misinformation that has been drilled into us from our fatphobic, thin-obsessed diet culture isn’t actually reality. It’s frustrating, and it’s sad. I am lucky that most of my friends are at ease around food, and – even though they have their own insecurities about the way that they look – accept their bodies as they are. However, I have a few friends that include those who go on and off diets, desperate to find a way to feel better about their bodies, those who flit between diets and disordered behaviour whilst loathing the skin they live in, and those who battle eating disorders (and before I end up validating the myth that diet culture is a common cause of eating disorders, it’s not, but it sure as hell makes recovering all the more difficult). It’s these people that I feel so sad for, and all the billions of others that are at war with their bodies, that don’t know about – or can’t accept – the fact that their natural, healthy weight is not under their control. And I feel sad for all those who are naturally in the overweight or obese BMI ranges, whose natural, healthy weights are where there bodies are at, but are constantly shamed and abused for those bodies that they are in. And I feel sad for those who have spent their life yo-yo dieting, only to see their weight go up and up and not understand why (side note: it’s because your metabolism slows down during the diet because your body is being starved, and then it stores energy as fat when you go off the diet and so you subsequently gain weight, so you end up back on a diet again, and the cycle continues, rather than letting your body heal and settle back at its natural, healthy weight range). And I feel angry at those who remain wilfully ignorant and keep judging and condemning those who are overweight or obese.

culture

But back to the question: why is it that we find it so hard to accept that maybe body diversity is great, and that people can be healthy at any weight, shape, or size,  and that we can’t dictate what our weight is if we want to be healthy and happy?

The first, most obvious reason to me is that we have had misinformation drilled into us for so long. We have grown up being told fat is bad and that we are responsible for saying no to so many of the foods we want to eat, responsible for exercising frequently, and responsible for maintaining a slim body. To then hear such opposing information means that our world turns upside down. Food and weight are such integral parts of our culture and society that to have what we think we know turned on its head is disturbing. It’s confusing. It’s shocking. It means we have to rethink everything about that topic. For some people, that’s just too much, so they refuse to believe it: they reject the new knowledge outright. People don’t like change. It’s scary and it makes people feel uneasy and unstable. It also means that if you accept that we are being lied to, then it makes it hard to know what information to trust, and that makes life a hell of a lot harder.

For some people, making choices about food and maintaining a certain weight through those choices are a form of control. People generally like to be in control. And even though we associate food and control being two parts of an equation that results in an eating disorder, those without eating disorders often engage in what is called “disordered eating”, and that can most definitely include feelings of control. Disordered eating is not a mental illness, but it’s an unhealthy relationship with food (and most probably involves body image issues too). It’s also really, really common because of how obsessed our society has made us with food, and because our diet culture literally encourages it. To be someone who uses food and weight maintenance as a way of feeling in control, and then finding out that you don’t need to have that control and actually to not be controlling about food and weight is the best way to be healthy, is an anxiety-provoking experience. So they reject it.

People also don’t like to have laboured under false hope. Those who feel unsatisfied with their bodies (and who doesn’t after our bodies have been attacked and shamed and ridiculed by the media and the dieting and weight loss industry in order to get us to buy their products) and who have gone on to diet, don’t want to know that their efforts are in vain and that they will not maintain any weight loss, that they will probably end up gaining more weight than the weight they originally lost, and that their dieting and subsequent weight loss and weight fluctuations can actually create health issues including higher risk of developing diseases, and a higher mortality rate. People who feel unhappy in their bodies don’t want to hear that they actually can’t make those changes to their bodies, especially if they want to be healthy. They don’t want to know that they are stuck with the body that they have, even though it has been shown over and over that changing your body doesn’t make you any happier (and again, changing your body isn’t sustainable). To actually learn to accept your body as it is can – sadly – seem like a much bigger challenge than changing it.

In addition, there’s a darker reason why people don’t want to accept the changing of the tides where food and weight is concerned: people who make what are considered “healthy” choices about diet and exercise feel morally superior.

Untitled-1

from “How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food” By Leon Rappoport

This makes me feel highly, highly uncomfortable, and it should make you feel the same. What people eat or don’t eat is not a reflection of who they are as a person. It doesn’t make someone a better person if they eat whole foods and abstain from any kind of “junk” food. It doesn’t make someone a worse person if they enjoy burgers and fries. Eating “healthy” doesn’t mean that they have more willpower than someone who chooses to eat “junk” foods. It doesn’t make anyone more superior than anyone else. It doesn’t mean that they are making better life choices. It doesn’t even mean that they are doing the best thing for their body and souls. It doesn’t mean anything except that they are making different choices to someone else. That’s it. That’s all it means. But somehow, it has become ingrained in us that we are morally superior if we make “healthier” choices. And yes, I chose to put that word in quotation marks because I don’t believe that you are necessarily healthier if you only eat “healthy” foods. I also believe that distinguishing “healthy” and “unhealthy” perpetuates a negative relationship with food because it then leads to “good” and “bad”, and there we are, back to morality, guilt, and shame again.

Accepting information that affects us in so many different ways is a really, really tough thing to do. Food and weight is inextricably linked with feelings of superiority and willpower, shame and guilt, with privilege, abuse, money, hatred, insecurity, laziness, greed, power, and sexuality – if not much more. To look at it all anew and recognise how much of it is wrong, and the devastating affect it has had on so many people takes time and patience. It also takes acceptance that those providing us with our health information don’t have our best interests at heart, and that can make some people feel embarrassed for having such blind faith in such a corrupt system.

So I get it. I get that it’s not something that people can just accept at a moment’s notice. But on the other hand you can’t bury your head in the sand and protest blindly against that which is proven fact, however much others try to muddy the water and cloud your judgement. Think for yourself. Educate yourself. Whatever conclusion you come to, make sure you’ve got the information and the knowledge. Don’t just blindly accept whatever you are told as the truth. That is all I ask, for your sake, and the sake of those affected by our obsession with food and thinness…for the sake of everyone. Take control by educating yourself, making the right choices for your physical and mental health, and taking steps towards making peace with your body, as it is.

Food is Not a Moral Issue

cake

“I’m being naughty today”, the woman in front of me paying for her coffee and brownie says to the cashier. I grit my teeth and bite my tongue. I want to tell her that the word “naughty” does not apply to food. I wanted to tell her that being naughty is doing something wrong, and food is not a matter of right and wrong. I wanted to tell her that food is not a moral issue.

“I’m treating myself today” is another one I hear often when in the queue at coffee shops; the women looking guiltily at the cashier, wanting to justify their hesitant decision to buy a slice of cake. The underlying message is always “I’m disciplined usually! I swear it’s just this one time! I don’t usually eat cake!” And underneath that, is the belief that cake is bad.

How can a food be bad? It doesn’t make sense when you really think about it. Food fits into the category of inanimate objects. They are not alive, and do not possess a personality or a concept of right and wrong. Food cannot be good, and it cannot be bad. Food is food. Food provides energy, and different types of nutrients dependent on the type. Eating one type of food doesn’t make you good, and eating another type of food doesn’t make you bad. It just means that you are eating a food type. Having cake does not have an impact on your morality, and therefore, neither the cake nor you are bad.

Bad, indulgent, naughty, sinful – these are all words to describe a personality or moral status, and yet we – and the advertisements that we watch – use them to describe some of the foods that we eat. Why only certain types of food? Who decided that cake, chocolate, or ice cream was indulgent or sinful? Who came up with the idea that eating a burger is bad? Who suddenly felt that consuming a bag of crisps was naughty?

But what about gluttony? you ask, gluttony is one of the sins. If you are of a certain religion, then you’re right: gluttony is, in some Christian denominations, viewed as a sin. I also want to point out that, according to the Bible, wearing two types of material together is a sin, as is divorce, eating shellfish, and your wife defending your life in a fight by grabbing your attacker’s genitals (no seriously: “If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity.“). We seem to over-exaggerate some “sins” and ignore others entirely to suit our society. Gluttony – derived from the Latin “gluttire” (to gulp down or swallow) – means to over-consume food, drink, or wealth items to the point of extravagance or waste. Note that it is not limited to food and is about the immoral actions of wasting food or wealth that could be given to the needy. Note again how it does not specify certain types of foods and is not related to weight or healthy but rather to greed – having so much that it goes to waste. That does not mean eating a piece of cake because you fancy one. It means buying two cakes, eating to the point of nausea, vomiting so that you can fit in more, eating again, and throwing away the rest. (In this example I want to make it very, very clear that I am not talking about vomiting as an eating disordered behaviour. Vomiting to fit more food in was something that historically was used by wealthy citizens so that they could continue to eat more when extremely full, and I would imagine is linked to how gluttony was historically viewed in its accurate portrayal rather than our ridiculous twisted version of “gluttony” in our diet culture orientated society).

Even when I’m aware of all of this and have a healthy and happy relationship with food, it is still sometimes near impossible to not become sucked into the feeling of shame for buying foods that are considered “bad” in our diet culture, even though I myself do not feel that way. Standing in the queue at a store, chocolate in hand, I have felt anxious that I might be being judged for my choice of purchase. This is heightened by the fact that I am not someone who is super slim, and people are far more likely to judge those who are not super slim for their food choices than those who are. This type of judgement becomes more prominent the bigger the body – which is utterly inappropriate and stems from the incorrect belief that food and weight are intrinsically linked and that those who are bigger should eat less or differently to those who are smaller (check out my section on set point theory under “links” for more information), so I dread to think of the way those without any kind of thin privilege might feel at the prospect of being harshly judged for buying chocolate and the like.

I was talking with a friend recently about how people feel they have to behave in a society like ours in regards to food and exercise. My friend, for your information, is the epitome of the “ideal” woman that our society says we should strive to be: a blonde beauty: very slim but with curves in all the “right” places, but she is not exempt from the multitude of insecurities that our society pushes upon us. You can be the “ideal”, and you are still not ideal enough, and that is how the diet and weight loss industry makes billions of dollars per year, because we are always striving to change our body and make it “better”. She says, “I can be dressing up to go out on a night out, and I will have the same amount of insecurities as someone else [with a completely different body type] – they are just different insecurities about different things.”  In our second year of university she was miserable, and on reflection, she now puts a lot of that negativity down to the fact that she was forcing herself to go to the gym and eat salads, just because she felt that was the “right” thing to do. She was restricting her body in the name of being “healthy” and being “good”, when in actuality she was starving her body and subsequently destroying her emotional state at the same time. She has no history with an eating disorder in any shape or form, and even so, our diet culture told her that what she was doing was “right” – something she continued to do for the majority of that year, in spite of  both mental and physical effects.

The message our society gives out about food is toxic and damaging. Start trying to repair your relationship with food. It’s okay to eat what you want, when you want. You do not have a moral obligation to eat in a certain way (the same applies to exercise). Don’t label foods as “healthy” and “unhealthy” (read: “good” and “bad”), as this perpetuates a negative and unhealthy relationship with food. Enjoy your food. See it as a wonderful thing that provides for your body, brings people together, and gives you pleasure.

Food is food. Food is not a moral issue.