How language can impact our relationship with food

How language can impact our relationship with food

Co-Written with Serena Hodge

The way we think and talk about food may either help or hinder us from building a healthy relationship with food and body.

Using language like ‘bad’, ‘naughty’, ‘junk’ or ‘treats’ can affect how we, and the people around us, think and feel about food and our bodies. It has been observed that when we use this type of moral language around foods, we tend to crave them more, and may feel guilty or judge ourselves.

While there can be a whole host of reasons as to why we may be craving foods more, one large culprit for this increased urgency around ‘bad’ or ‘forbidden’ foods, is the deprivation mindset, which can lead to an all-or-nothing approach to eating.

Tell me, do any of these situations feel familiar?

Oh man, I’ve blown it now, I’ll just eat the whole block. Diet starts tomorrow”

“Oh gosh, I’ve eaten so ‘badly’ today, I’m only allowed [x, y, z] tomorrow”

This inner dialogue often leads us to eat a lot more than we may genuinely feel like, and unfortunately, this process often repeats. Whereas, if we were to enjoy the food we were eating, without the feelings of guilt or shame that comes with moralistic language, we may feel more relaxed to eat the food and move on, simply because we have given ourselves permission to have it again another time.

It is important to remember that food is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and neither is a person for eating a particular food. Removing these labels can help lower the stress that can come from eating. It can also help us appreciate that all foods are allowed, and we are allowed to enjoy them!

This does not dismiss that some foods provide more nourishment for the body than others. It is about recognising what your body needs to feel good. It also reinforces that food is more than just fuel – it is also a source of celebration, culture, tradition, connection and love. If we eat just for fuel and don’t get any sensory pleasure from eating we tend to feel unsatisfied and want to ‘finish off’ our meal with something else, even if we aren’t physically hungry anymore.

By granting ourselves unconditional permission to eat and eating foods that we truly want, we ease the psychological deprivation and over time we are no longer driven to ‘give in’ or binge on particular foods.

Focusing on making enjoyable and satisfying meals and snacks that include both more nutrient-dense and less nutrient-dense foods allows for both pleasure and health.

A little experiment:

Come with a little curiosity and try to describe a meal or snack you have recently had without the moral tag attached.

Can you describe a food you found enjoyable without the moral tag attached?

Enjoyable examples may sound like:

  • This cake is delicious and reminds me of tea with my Grandma.
  • This pasta dish is SO satisfying and flavourful.
  • I had such a delicious meal last night – I really enjoyed it.
  • This meal is exactly what I wanted! It is so tasty.

Can you describe a food you found not so enjoyable without the moral tag attached?

Not so enjoyable examples may sound like:

  • The chips sounded great, but I didn’t really enjoy how salty they were. I’m really thirsty now.
  • This pasta dish smelled amazing, but the sauce is very rich in texture. It’s not quite to my taste.
  • This cheese looked amazing, but I didn’t really enjoy how pungent the smell and taste was.
  • I usually love this chocolate but I’m not enjoying how sweet it is anymore.

Next time you are eating with a group notice how people around you talk about food. Are they assigning moral value when describing the food, or is it from a place of curiosity? Does it sound like enjoyment or guilt?

PS: the only foods that are ‘bad’ are the ones past their expiry date!

 

References:

Kausman, R. (2004). If not dieting, then what? Crows Nest, AUS: Allen & Unwin.

Urbszat, D. C., Herman, P., & Policy, J. (2002). Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet: Effects of anticipated deprivation on food intake in restrained and unrestrained eaters. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111(2), 396-401. doi: 10.1037//0021-843X.111.2.396

Why the Body Mass Index (BMI) tells us nothing about health. An exposé.

Why the Body Mass Index (BMI) tells us nothing about health. An exposé.

*Trigger Warning: this blog post discusses weight and body changes, which may be triggering for some readers.

 

You’ve probably heard all about the BMI – the calculation that supposedly tells us if we are “healthy” or not.

But did you know the formula was never even meant to be used to assess an individual’s health?

The BMI was developed in the early 19th century by a mathematician (note: not a physician). He created the formula as a quick and easy way to measure the average weight of a population. He, himself explicitly stated the BMI is “inappropriate for individual evaluation” and it was designed only for the purposes of statistics, not to measure an individual’s health.

The formula was developed based on the measurements of French and Scottish male participants. In other words, it was created exclusively by and for white Western European men. It doesn’t consider a multitude of factors, and therefore, can’t be considered a good indicator of health. Even those who support the use of BMI admit that it has its problems…

So, why is the BMI not a good indicator of health?

It does not distinguish between different types of body mass

The BMI is based on two factors – height and weight. It does not distinguish between muscle mass, fat mass or bone density. A great example is in athletes. Using the BMI calculation alone, many athletes such as footballers would be classified into a higher BMI category because of their greater muscle mass, even though they may be considered healthy and physically fit.

It does not consider genetics

As we mentioned before, the BMI formula was created based on French and Scottish male participants. It doesn’t account for differences in ethnic and racial groups, age, gender or ability. For example, women need more fat on their body than men to support hormonal health and fertility.

It does not consider health behaviours like nutrition and movement

The BMI calculation simply doesn’t give us enough information to determine someone’s health. Time and time again the research shows us that health behaviours, regardless of weight or BMI, improves the health of individuals. Things like how we move and fuel our bodies, manage stress and what our sleeping habits are like.

A ‘normal’ BMI doesn’t necessarily mean someone is healthy and an ‘overweight’ BMI doesn’t mean someone is unhealthy. Our health simply cannot be defined by a number – it includes various other aspects than just what we look like or how we fit into an arbitrary category.

So, what are some better indicators of health?

Consider:

  • What are my sleeping habits like?
  • How do I manage stress?
  • Do I participate in movement I enjoy?
  • Am I fuelling my body with satisfying and nourishing foods?
  • Do I practise positive self-care habits?

Put simply, the BMI (a.k.a. Bullsh*t Measurement Indicator) tells us absolutely nothing about a person’s health. Zilch. Zero. Nada.

Why do I “crave” foods during my period?

Why do I “crave” foods during my period?

A question we get asked commonly as Dietitians is how to stop cravings. And if you are familiar with any of my other blogs or content, you may know by now that I am not a huge fan of framing “cravings” as a negative experience.

What “cravings” indicate to me as a clinician is that our bodies are trying to tell us something, and usually this is something quite important.

In the context of everyday eating, menstral cycles aside, “cravings” may be an indication we are not eating enough, or restricting ourselves at certain times throughout the day.

Similarly, it could also be a sign the foods we are eating are not satifying enough, a concept I could probably write another whole blog piece about to be honest.

Now… if we switch our line of thought to “cravings” during our period, there is certainly a lot to unpack here.

So let’s explore some of the common thought pieces around eating during our menstral cycles.

  1. It is generally accepted, both in media, and our everyday lives that we eat more during our periods. Eg: the visual of the someone reaching out from under the covers for a chocolate bar.
  2. Many people accept that they tend to reach for foods higher in sugar or carbohydrates.
  3. And, unfortunately in many circumstances, experincing these cravings is framed in a negative context.

Ok, interesting right. But what does the science tell us?

Current literature shows us that in the days leading up to our period (aka the luteal phase), our energy (caloric) needs increase. Meaning we require more food than usual for our body to continue functioning.

Research also shows that individuals who have a menstural cycle can also experience preferences toward certain for foods, particularly foods that are high in carbohydrate and fat.

So what does this tell me as a clinician.

One, it tells me our bodies are doing some really hard and amazing work to prepare our bodies for our periods (or pregnancy).

And two, that our bodies are doing a really great job of signalling us to let us know we need a little more food to keep us going!

How clever are our body’s innate cues?

And why do we tend toward carbohydrates and fat. While the research is inconsistent, it makes a lot of sense that when our energy needs are increased we prefer carbohydrates (our main energy source) and fat (the most nutritionally dense macronutrient).

So, what are my take home messages:

  1. Food cravings are not necessarily a sign of weakness of poor self control, it is most likely your body trying to tell you something important.
  2. Cravings during period is our bodies’ way of kindly asking us for a little more nutrition to support their brilliant everyday work.
  3. Our bodies are pretty darn clever!

Trigger Warning: Some of the language in the literature below may be triggering for certain readers. We hope the research world will catch up with body inclusive language soon.

Cross GB, Marley J, Miles H, Willson K . Changes in nutrient intake during the menstrual cycle of overweight women with premenstrual syndrome. Br J Nutr 2001; 85: 475–482.


Davidsen, L., Vistisen, B. & Astrup, A. Impact of the menstrual cycle on determinants of energy balance: a putative role in weight loss attempts. Int J Obes 31, 1777–1785 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0803699 (TW: Fatphobic Language)

How Self-Care Might Look At The Moment

It’s safe to say we are experiencing surreal feelings at the moment as we continue to work together to find a new normal.

During this time you might be noticing changes to your thoughts and emotions which is expected and completely valid.

Our instincts might be to look out for those around us, especially those most vulnerable. Which while that is so important, in the long-term it will become difficult to do so without taking time to support yourself as well.

This is why I feel the need to bring up self-care.  Below is a list of ideas for self-care and what it could look like during these times:

 

 

  • Allow yourself to be human and acknowledge your changing capacity to handle situations day by day.
  • Allow yourself to acknowledge your needs and boundaries for how much you can tolerate. This may continue to change.
  • Remind yourself that it is OK to not want to engage in social media. One way to get a feel for that is when using social media, invite yourself to increase awareness about what it is providing for you.
  • Encourage self-compassion and kindness towards yourself as we go through a time of change. It is OK not to be OK.
  • Keep a note of support networks you have access to in such a time. If you are concerned about reaching out to others, one helpful tip can be the ask permission to speak to them first. “I am struggling at the moment, do you have capacity for me to talk to you about what’s going on at the moment?”
  • Allow time for yourself to stay nourished. It is expected that the food we have access to is likely to change and that is OK. It is still important to keep your body and brain fuelled to continue your day.
  • Allow time to honour your body with movement however you can.
  • If you feel you can, think about taking time to slow your thoughts and re-connect with yourself. This can be done with mindfulness, meditation, going for a walk and even yoga if that’s your thing.
  • If appropriate, taking opportunities to find humour in situations can help take the edge off. After all we are all in this together.

 

 

There is no right or wrong way. These are thoughts that I’ve had shared with me by my clients and colleagues and I’d like to share them with you as options for self-care.

I invite you to think how they might resonate with you and also how you would like to make some additions to this list to suit your needs.

Things to Keep You Positive and Connected During a Time Of Change

With current feelings of uncertainty and many of us having to change our routines or be at home more than usual, I wanted to put a blog together with some of the useful links I have come across that can offer some go to’s for support. Plus offer some ideas for what you can do at home to keep your mental health positive and keep you busy.

I also feel it’s important to say that it’s very normal to feel extra stress or anxiety during these times. While we might need to be physically distant from people, it doesn’t have to mean we can’t stay connected. Connection is what’s going to help get through these times, because after all we are all fighting this thing together. Within my own social group I have been encouraging people to reach out every so often and even share ideas for what they are doing to keep going.

Also note that if you currently have a team of medical and health professionals that you see regularly, feel free to talk to them about phone or online forms of support. Likewise if you are noticing changes and feel you’d benefit from support, please reach out, as us health care professionals are doing our best to stay in contact.

Now….

Here are a few links that I came across regarding information and support:

Ask Izzy- which is a highly useful and well put together website for helpful information regarding Corona Virus. Not only can you find health information but also you can search your local area or supplies, where to find food, health care, support services etc. You can basically ask Izzy anything.

https://askizzy.org.au/?fbclid=IwAR2qV3XX6eF9emoXtkdhsATM_AZ-zVroRZtUizo7gCwz6HCVQgA-KyhOlyc

Headspace- These website links below are how Headspace are offering their supports. Lots of useful information about coping with stress and anxiety and other free resources like meditation clips and other videos. They are also helping healthcare professionals and other workers dealing with COVID-19 on the front-line. I was a little hesitant to include the first link as it’s mainly US based but times might change so just know the support is out there.

https://www.headspace.com/covid-19?fbclid=IwAR3YhDQQ3do_Afj2aL-xQQ2VzfKIeiiewaK7tGAG4xkqRKDJ-HhgvgOoMww

https://headspace.org.au/young-people/how-to-cope-with-stress-related-to-covid-19/

Calm blog- I love the Calm app and all the resources it has to offer but even better I found this blog that has compiled everything like meditation clips or yoga videos all together for your use and they are free! Like they say keep calm, take a deep breath and let’s meet this moment together.

https://blog.calm.com/take-a-deep-breath

Beyond Blue – This blog has some useful tips for managing your mental health and considers all/most aspects that might come up during these times. As always they are a great support service, over the phone and 24/7 and aim to be there when you might need them.

 

ABC Life blog: There are many blogs out there which are talking about what you can do while working at home. I decided to add a link to this one simply because I felt the advice was practical and related for people doing office work from home, however please feel free to seek out other blogs and tips as there’s no right or wrong.