Diet culture, health at every size, and social determinants of health from the perspective of Christy Harrison.
About Christy Harrison
Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN is an anti-diet registered dietitian nutritionist, certified intuitive eating counselor, and author of the book Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating (Little, Brown Spark 2019). She offers online courses and private intuitive eating coaching to help people all over the world make peace with food and their bodies. Since 2013 Christy has hosted Food Psych, a weekly podcast exploring people’s relationships with food and paths to body liberation. It is now one of iTunes’ top 100 health podcasts, reaching tens of thousands of listeners worldwide each week.
Christy began her career in 2003 as a journalist covering food, nutrition, and health, and she’s written for major publications including The New York Times, SELF, BuzzFeed, Refinery29, Gourmet, Slate, The Food Network, and many others. Learn more about Christy and her work at christyharrison.com.
To apply/learn more about the MINDFUL STRENGTH TEACHER’S IMMERSION click here.
About This Episode
In this Podcast, Christy Harrison and Kathryn talk about the social determinants of health, and why looking at social structures is vital to understanding health i.e. it’s not all about diet and exercise. Christy talks about her experience as a dietician working specifically with people who have eating disorders and disordered eating. She talks about diet culture, fatphobia, and weight stigma. Christy also shares about intuitive eating, and how you can understand what your body needs, rather than following rigid diet rules.
Kathryn: All right Christy welcome to the podcast.
Christy Harrison: Thank you so much for having me.
Kathryn: [00:02:13] Yeah. Thank you so much for being here. Your podcast Food Psych has really affected me in so many ways. I’ve been listening to it for the last few years and I remember the first year I found your podcast and honestly I don’t even remember how I found it but the first year I listened to like every episode you had like every other day.
I think I listened to one of your podcasts and I’ve just learned so much from it and I’ve signed up to take one of your webinars before. I feel like I’ve just learned so much from hearing you speak and tell your story and have all these other wonderful guests tell their stories. So I feel very very lucky to have you here and I know you’re really busy but I really am such a fan of your work so thank you so much for being here.
Christy Harrison: [00:03:00] Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate that and really glad my work has been useful.
Kathryn: So for the folks who maybe don’t know so much about you or the type of work that you do do you want to take a couple of minutes and tell people a little bit about who you are and the type of work that you do. Just to give them a little bit more context.
Christy Harrison: [00:03:19] Sure. Yes. So I am an anti-diet registered dietitian and certified Intuitive Eating counselor and I worked to help people make peace with food in their bodies and you know, stop the fat phobic and food phobic thinking that we internalize from diet culture. And diet culture is a system of beliefs that really demonizes some foods and elevates others, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, and makes people feel like they’re broken and not okay if they’re in a larger body and oppresses people who don’t match up with it suppose a picture of health.
And as we’re talking we ‘re in the midst of a huge uprising in this country for racial justice and it should be said that diet culture is actually a white supremacist racist institution. It actually came out of really racist ideas about bodies and Sabrina Strings who’s a sociologist who writes about these issues has a wonderful book called ‘Fearing the black body: the racial origins of fat phobia’ .
And I would definitely recommend folks listening to check that out because you know I think most of us want to be on the side of justice on the right side of history and anti-racist in doing this work. I think now more than ever it’s really important to highlight that diet culture and the desire to be thin and the idealization of thinness really comes out of racist beliefs about which bodies were supposedly “worthy”, which bodies were you know supposedly “disposable” and “less worthy”.
So I think it’s really fascinating to look at diet culture through that lens and to say that you know those of us who get caught up in ideas about needing to shrink ourselves and shrink our bodies to match this unattainable ideal, are actually operating under a racist oppressive system that needs to change if we’re ever going to have true justice in this country in this world.
Kathryn: [00:05:15] So I’m so curious how you got into this. I know you’re a dietitian by you are obviously talking about things that not every dietitian is getting training and so how did that start to happen for you? Like was there one book you read or post you saw that that made you think “huh there’s there’s something more down this path that I want to get into”.
Christy Harrison: [00:05:36] It’s really been kind of a slow and steady drip honestly, and you know none of this the discussions about the racial origins of fat phobia or the fact that diet culture is a system of beliefs that really is endemic to Western culture. Like none of that was from my training, my academic degrees. I do have an undergraduate degree in rhetoric and like critical studies. So basically applying that lens to diet culture, you know, I had the tools to do that once I met once my eyes were open to that but that was not something I learned in school.
I really have learned all of this through continuing education, specifically continuing education and the eating disorders, and Health at Every Size field. Which my first specialization when I became a dietitian was eating disorders and I was going to conferences and trainings and getting mentorship and listening to people and reading books and you know trying to learn everything I could about eating disorder treatment. T.
[00:06:32] The thing that kept coming up, again and again, was the concept of the thin ideal. The concept that people with eating disorders oftentimes got to that place through cultural pressure or familial or individual pressure to be thin. And we live in this culture that is systemically designed to push people towards thinness and dieting and oppress people in larger bodies and that that’s not OK.
[00:06:56] The more deeply I got into this work and the more I started to understand the concepts of Health at Every Size which is a framework for providing health care that is you know destigmatizing of larger-bodied people that takes the emphasis off of weight and looks at other ways that we can help promote people’s health to the extent that they’re able to engage in health-promoting behaviors and access health.
[00:07:21] And that also we need to look at the social determinants of health that really have such a huge and really disproportionately large impact on our health outcomes that, you know, it’s not all down to individual behaviors. Not by a long shot.
There’s actually population-level research showing that of the modifiable health determinants that, modifiable meaning the things that we have some individual or societal control over as opposed to genetics which we can’t change, and genetics is a huge factor in health too, you know of those modifiable determinants of health only 10 percent is down to food and exercise. Only 10 percent of our modifiable health outcomes can be attributed to food and exercise.
[00:08:01] And you know in our culture it’s made out to be especially among those of us who are health care providers, it’s made out to be like 100 percent right. Like what you eat and how you move your body is going to change everything. And really it’s this tiny tiny piece of the pie. And only 30 percent total, so in only another 20 percent on top of you know eating and exercise behaviors, is any other health-promoting behavior.
[00:08:25] So things like getting sleep, going to the doctor. Taking care of yourself in various different ways like only 30 percent total can be attributed to individual health behaviors, The rest of it, that other 70 percent, and some studies show like 75 percent, is attributable to social determinants of health which are things like care. Because a lot of poorer people or people in larger bodies have poorer quality health care. Access to like non-stigmatizing and compassionate care. Access to freedom from stigma in general, right.
[00:09:02] Racism is a huge determinant of health. Weight stigma is a huge determinant of health. Those things have disproportionate impacts on you know black people, people of color, higher weight people, and those folks have disproportionately worse health outcomes than whites, thin, able-bodied, cisgender people. And that is because of structural determinants of health and because of the structural racism and oppression that people face in those marginalized groups.
[00:09]:32 And so you know, I will say too, I want to acknowledge that like, my talking about this stuff I am not an expert in the lived experience of someone in a higher weight body. I’m not obviously the expert in the lived experience of someone in a black body or body of color. I’m only speaking from my perspective as a dietitian and activist and journalist who covers these issues and works with clients and works with people and has a lot of training to try to understand these issues. But I will never walk in the shoes of someone in a larger body.
[00:10:05] I will never walk in the shoes of a black person or brown person but I am here to listen and here to try to amplify the voices of people who are doing this work and have the lived experience and from my perspective, as a health care professional, I think I can really infiltrate some of the spaces that don’t even listen to the lived experience. Especially of people in larger bodies, especially people of color and larger bodies.
Because unfortunately our healthcare system and our system around wellness and physical fitness and all of it, is so geared towards maintaining the status quo, maintaining that thin-ideal usually is very inaccessible to people in larger bodies or actively stigmatizing. And of course, people in larger bodies who have other intersecting identities like being queer, being a person of color or black, or whatever, makes it all the more difficult to access the kind of compassionate and non-stigmatizing care that everyone deserves.
Kathryn: [00:11:05] So well said. I work primarily in yoga and movement and even like fitness world and you mentioned that 10 percent comes from food and exercise. And, I mean in my world, it’s like movement is so important right.
[00:11:28] Like whenever we’re talking to people about their health we’re talking to them about their exercise and I think even in the movement and fitness world where folks don’t have a lot of nutritional background, they go a little bit beyond their scope of practice and in bringing all of this nutrition stuff.
It’s just so obvious to me especially after listening to you speak for so long how much we’re hyper-focused on those two things and how much we are not trained as movement professionals or yoga professionals to look at the broader picture of health. And as you said the other social determinants of health.
Christy Harrison: [00:12:10] Yeah it’s wild and I get that you know when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail. Right. So when you’re someone in the fitness world you see things through the lens of fitness. When you’re someone in the dietetics world you see things through the lens of food. You know I think it’s pretty understandable and natural and we need to have compassion for folks who are coming up in those fields and just don’t know what they don’t know.
[00:12:31] But you know I went through it to myself of being a dietitian, getting a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition my original background is in journalism and I covered food and nutrition for years before going back to school to become a dietitian and so like I had you know I mean now it’s like 17 plus years of working in these fields around food and nutrition. Only within the last seven years have I started to unlearn all these harmful beliefs about how smaller bodies are supposedly better and how food and movement are the be all end all of health.
[00:13:07] Really, it was in school to become you know to get my master’s in public health, that I first heard about social determinants of health, and my mind was blown. You know it was just like “nobody ever talks about this”. And in all the reporting I had done for seven years before that in the media reporting on health reporting on nutrition. Nobody talked about that. You know that was never on my radar. That was never on any of my sources radars.
[00:13:31] It was just you know it’s mind-blowing to think about and it kind of makes sense in a way because I think our country is so geared toward individual responsibility and individual solutions to what really are collective systemic problems.
It kind of benefits the status quo to keep the focus on the individual rather than looking at systems change and things that we really need to change from a government and policy perspective rather than just making individuals fend for themselves and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and all that stuff.
[00:14:03] You know that kind of emphasis on individual responsibility is endemic and rampant in the dietetics field and the public health field. Even public health, which is supposed to be ironically about policy, about collective solutions.
Still, the focus is so much on individual choices. Like public institutions will teach people how to like “make good choices” instead of actually looking at what they can do policy-wise and systems-wise to change things to make them more equitable for people.
[00:14:34] I’m not talking about soda tax legislation which demonizes certain types of foods right which is part of diet culture. That demonization of some foods while elevating others. I’m talking about legislation for equal pay and equal access to care and helping people get the health care that they deserve without weight stigma being piled on top of them at every turn.
[00:14:55] Because we know that weight stigma is actually an independent risk factor for a lot of the things that get blamed on weight itself. Like diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer, early mortality, and so in order to help address those inequities it’s not about telling people to eat less and move more.
Which does not work anyway. There are decades of evidence that diets don’t work. I talk about that a lot in my book and on my podcast.
[00:15:21] But you know not only do diets not work but they actively cause harm by causing people to weight cycle which is another independent risk factor for all of those things that get blamed on higher weight. Many of those things rather than get blamed on higher weight. And you know weight stigma as well as an independent risk factor.
[00:15:38] And if we looked at those two things, if we looked at the impacts of weight stigma and weight cycling in any research that is done on weight and health which sadly researchers just don’t tend to do. I’ve only seen like one or two pieces of research that ever controlled for weight cycling in looking at the risks for people in larger bodies of certain diseases.
Yet there’s this whole rich literature on weight cycling. There’s this whole rich literature on weight stigma, showing that they really are independent risk factors for all of these health outcomes but like the mainstream research just is not getting that picture and controlling for those things.
[00:16:17] So I think you know to anyone who’s listening to those who might be thinking “But weight really does cause poor health. But weight really is a risk factor”. I would ask you to just dig deeper and to look at you know why would it be that weight is a risk factor other than the lies that we’ve been told by diet culture because they are lies.
You know the lie is “it’s the weight itself, it’s the fat cells that cause these poor outcomes”. Okay, let’s take that. Let’s put that aside for a second and just recognize that that comes out of this already fat phobic system of beliefs and think about what some of the other reasons could be.
[00:16:51] And when we do that we really see that you know stigmatizing people for their weight. This fat phobic system of beliefs itself is likely responsible for some or all of the excess risks we see for some people and in larger bodies.
And the same is true for weight cycling you know and those two things together may explain the lion’s share if not all of those excess risks we see for large body people. Other explanations can include poverty, lack of access to care, those social determinants of health that we were talking about and maybe some small amount to do with you know health behaviors and inequitable access to those things.
[00:17:28] But the lion’s share is really these systemic issues that have to be addressed in a culturally systemic way. So that’s why I really focus so much on diet culture as a system of beliefs and not on like individual health behaviors as much.
Kathryn: [00:17:42] The diet culture “thing” is so strong and I’ve heard so many different guests on your podcast talk about like “it’s like the soup we’re all swimming in”. And I so relate it to that because I think I had ideas about diet and body size and health.
[00:17:59] Honestly even before I ever started practicing yoga or fitness or anything like that. I think it’s this thing that, as you say, we’re all swimming in and we’re growing up with and some of us are growing up with maybe stronger ideas about certain things. But it almost feels like it’s unavoidable.
Christy Harrison: [00:18:19] Yeah it really does. I mean it is the culture that we’re swimming in. Like David Foster Wallace says “culture is basically the water that we’re swimming and that we can’t see” you know fish don’t see the water. Right.
[00:18:31] They just swim around in it. And so it’s really something a lot of us absorb without question and from a very young age. I think when people can become awake to this maybe we can start to raise the next generation of kids without internalizing so much diet culture.
But it really does take constant vigilance because it is embedded in children’s TV shows. Peppa Pig constantly telling her Daddy Pig to lose weight or like Disney Junior stuff telling the fat character to run around. By the way, I use the word fat in the spirit of the fat acceptance movement and as a neutral descriptor.
[00:19:06] Not as a negative term and oftentimes I’ll say larger body or higher weight you know in substitution for that just because I am a smaller bodied person and sometimes I have to explain myself if I use the word fat. Right. So.
[00:19:20] But you know the sort of demonization of larger bodies and the fat phobia that is baked into even children’s TV shows. Even like lessons that kids get in school right, about nutrition and about some foods being good and others being bad and seeing a stoplight.
Which for kids who are very literal thinkers is going to translate into thinking about foods is good and bad and being scared of certain foods or policing other people for eating certain foods and feeling like they’re only good and worthy if they’re eating the so-called good foods. It’s setting kids up for a lifetime of disordered eating.
[00:19:55] I have seen a number of those kids who now are teenagers and young adults in my practice and in my courses and my podcast audience and my writing audience who have gone through those kinds of lessons in school and had BMI report cards sent home and that weighed in front of their peers at school and it set them on a path of disordered eating and eating disorders that they’re spending years and even decades trying to get themselves out of.
[00:20:24] So I think it’s really essential that we wake up to this and for anyone listening who is social justice minded, who is thinking about everything that’s going on in the world in a critical way and trying to do what we can to help. I would just say that this issue of fat phobia and weight-based discrimination is part of the mix. Is part of the same thing the part of the same system of beliefs that we’re trying to undo. The same oppressions that we’re trying to undo in other areas and we can’t look away from fat phobia, we have to do something to change that.
[00:20:56] Because otherwise, as you said, it’s just going to be this embedded part of the culture that we don’t even see and that we grow up with unquestioning and we’re going to have to keep helping people recover one by one instead of really changing the culture so that people aren’t struggling in the first place.
[00:21:13] I love the quote by Archbishop Desmond Tutu who says, at a certain point you know we have to stop pulling people out of the river one by one, we have to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in. I think that’s really applicable to any sort of care based or sort of organization that is making an effort to help people in whatever way we can. It’s not enough just to do you know helping people one by one and basing it again on sort of a personal responsibility model.
[00:21:47] It’s that we need to make structural changes and systemic changes to stop people from having these struggles in the first place and needing to go on these long recovery journeys in order to heal themselves.
Kathryn: So what’s the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating?
Christy Harrison: [00:23:04] Yeah that’s a great question and I don’t like to harp on that distinction too much other than to say that disordered eating is a spectrum. Right.
[00:23:13] Intuitive eating or sort of being the kind of eater that we’re all born being which is really intuitive. It’s being connected with our hunger and fullness cues, pursuing pleasure and eating and pursuing satisfaction. Knowing when we’ve had enough that food will be there again whenever we want it. And trusting that. That sort of innate birthright that we’re all born with of relating to food in that way gets ruptured by diet culture.
[00:23:39] And it also gets ruptured by things like food insecurity and trauma right, where people are not really sure that they’re going to actually have enough food and their environment shows them that they, in fact, aren’t going to have enough food and that they’re hungry sometimes and that can create a rupture in a relationship with food that we’re all born with too. So that whether it’s coming from diet culture or whether it’s coming from food insecurity or other forms of trauma, the result is the same in that people are in survival mode.
[00:24:08] People go into this survival mode where they feel like they’re not going to have enough. And so they need to you know eat whatever they can when they can. When they have access to it. Which is so natural and understandable. And it’s our body’s way of helping us survive.
It’s our species way of having survived periods of famine in the past. We go through it as a way to survive and so you know oftentimes that leads to people binging right and having binge eating episodes or feeling like they’re emotional eaters and really the root cause of that is the restriction and deprivation. That’s what we need to address if we’re gonna address the disordered eating behaviors.
[00:24:45] And you know binge eating and restrictive eating are just too disordered eating behaviors among many. There is believe bulimic behaviors, there are other forms of compensation that sort of fall under the umbrella of bulimia like medication abuse or over-exercise. You know there are lots of different behaviors that qualify as disordered eating like fasting only eating certain types of food and cutting out entire food groups, not because of any sort of allergy. Right.
[00:25:14] Like if you have diagnosed celiac disease and you avoid gluten that is you know for self-care. Right. Or if you have a peanut allergy and you avoid peanuts that’s for self-care. I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about like someone who just doesn’t eat carbs at all. Right. Even if they can because you know even someone with celiac disease if they can’t have gluten-containing carbs they can still have corn and quinoa and all these different types of things that they could substitute. Right.
[00:25:41] So you know disordered eating is really a spectrum. That’s what I wanted to say. There are lots of different disordered eating behaviors that the clinical criteria for eating disorders are very specific. It’s like you have to be using this type of behavior X number of times per week for a certain amount of time you know a certain number of months or whatever.
And a lot of people just never fit into those criteria or they’re sort of morphing between different eating disorder categories and they never kind of land in one. But they are still struggling and still suffering and still deserve help.
[00:26:14] So if you’re someone who has any kind of disordered eating behaviors, any of those behaviors that I described, and you’re like “oh God you know I need help” when you go to try to get help and someone’s like “well you don’t meet the criteria for an eating disorder so you’re good” which happened to me by the way. This happened to a lot of people I know where it’s sort of dismissed as “well because it doesn’t fit these full-blown criteria then it doesn’t really matter” or “you’re not really suffering”. I think that’s really not the right way to approach it.
[00:26:43] I think clinicians who really are aware of this stuff and who’ve done the work and the training to understand eating disorders recognize that any level of disordered eating and any disordered eating behaviors that people are engaging in even if they don’t meet these strict specific criteria, people are still struggling people still deserve care and support.
[00:27:03] I will say that people who do meet those full-blown eating disorder criteria tend to get, not all the time, because access to care is also a very weight biased situation because people larger bodies who have full-blown eating disorders still often don’t get the kind of care that they need and deserve because of weight bias and eating disorder treatment. But you know if you do have a full-blown eating disorder per those diagnostic criteria of course it’s like taking over more space and time and energy in your life.
[00:27:35] And for some people they’re eating, you know again disordered eating being a spectrum right, for some people, it’s like literally that’s all they do is engage in disordered eating behaviors.
And of course, that’s so painful and that’s a different experience than someone who is dieting and maybe not spending as much time and having as much of their life sucked away by these disordered behaviors. But dieting still is a disordered behavior and just as the person who is having their entire life consumed by disordered eating behaviors needs and deserves help, so does the person who’s dieting.
[00:28:07] So does the person who’s fasting, so does the person who’s abusing medication in order to try to lose weight or change their body, so does the person who is engaged in sort of orthorexic health-ist behaviors. Fearful of certain foods and only eating the most “clean whole plant-based food” blah blah blah. All of those folks are having their lives stolen by diet culture in one way or another and all of them deserve care.
Kathryn: [00:28:35] So what do you say or how do you help the person who is listening to this type of information and starting to have these feelings like “oh boy a lot of the diet and exercise things that I’m doing probably fall into the category of disordered eating”.
Then they start to have thoughts like “oh no I’m disordered” or “oh I’ve been doing this wrong” and maybe they’ve just been doing it because they thought that that’s how they’re supposed to get healthier and like maybe it came from this well-meaning place and they’re trying to kind of sort out what they can do next. Like how do you communicate with that type of person?
Christy Harrison: [00:29:16] Yeah I mean first of all I just want to say there’s nothing wrong with you you’re not broken. You’re not bad for engaging in this. Disordered eating behaviors are not your fault. It’s really the fault of this culture. It’s this cultural conditioning that we’ve all been steeped in that tells us that’s what we need to do right? It tells us that we need to eat in a disordered way but they don’t call it disordered, They call it healthy right. The culture calls it healthy.
[00:29:41] And so it’s so understandable that so many of us have fallen into this trap and again myself included. I went through this myself too 15 years ago. You know 10 whatever 12 to 15. It wasn’t just a discrete period right. It was like a long process of coming out of it and of healing that disordered eating. So I get it and you’re not alone and you deserve help for you know reclaiming your life and getting yourself to a place of true self-care, not self-control.
[00:30:11] That’s what I always say in terms of the way to approach health and well-being and the true goal of intuitive eating and a peaceful relationship with food is to get to a place where you’re making food choices based on self-care and permission and abundance and not self-control and deprivation and misery. So I think you know it’s nuance right. It’s not saying that you’re a bad person for having a disordered relationship with food. It’s saying you deserve better and there is help available to you and you don’t have to constantly be thinking about food in your body 24/7 right.
[00:30:46] That’s the experience I think that so many people have in this culture, again through no fault of our own, but through the culture that has instilled those beliefs in us. That we have to be constantly monitoring and measuring and weighing ourselves and thinking about how we’re gonna fit in our workouts and how we’re going to fit in our jeans and doing food prep and taking pictures of our food and all of these things that just take away so much of our mental energy from the things that are really important.
[00:31:15] Like at this moment, again I keep going back to this I feel like the world is never going to be the same and I hope it’s never going to be the same after this. But we’re seeing an anti-racism uprising and we’re seeing an uprising against the structures and cultural institutions that have perpetuated violence against black people and other marginalized people for way too long. And that to me is the thing that we can be focusing our energy on collectively and so many other injustices in the world as well.
[00:31:41] If we can get rid of this monkey on our back of like obsession about food and body because those kinds of obsessions really keep us from showing up to truly change the world. To do work that is truly needed in this moment and in all moments going forward.
Kathryn: [00:31:56] So I think that sometimes when people start to learn about health at every size and intuitive eating they start to maybe have this idea that like “oh well nutrition doesn’t matter” I guess and so “it doesn’t matter what I eat”.
[00:32:10] And I think that the world that I live in, there’s a lot of athletes where nutrition does matter for them, to have the recovery and do the things that they want to be doing. I’m wondering like how do you balance that? How do you balance this message of like intuitive eating and then where does that leave nutrition?
Christy Harrison: [00:32:30] Yeah. So again it’s very nuanced right. And I will say like for people at the beginning of this anti-diet journey it often is so powerful to just, I don’t know if I can swear on this podcast but to just say “fuck it”.
[00:32:42] Right. To just say “fuck nutrition I’m not thinking about that I’ve spent too much of my life consumed by that” and just start getting back in touch with pleasure around food and satisfaction and eating to a place of fullness and learning what that means right. Learning how to honor your hunger and how to feel your fullness in a way that isn’t shaming of fullness but that is understanding of what it means to feel satisfied. And those are kind of the main focus.
[00:33:12] In addition to rejecting the diet mentality and unlearning all these diet culture beliefs that we’ve been instilled with, those are the focus. At the beginning of the intuitive eating practice that I and fellow certified intuitive eating counselors and even the authors of the book “intuitive eating”, the creator of this model really emphasizes.
It’s that the first principles reject the diet mentality. The second principle is to honor your hunger. The third principle is to make peace with food. The fourth principle is to challenge the food police. The fifth principle is to discover the satisfaction factor.
[00:33:43] Right. So it’s like all of these things come first. The tenth of 10 principles of intuitive eating is honor your health with gentle nutrition. So gentle nutrition meaning not faddish nutrition like fad based nutrition. Not obsessive minutia you know the calculating, the macro counting, the stuff that I think so many people in the health and fitness world get sort of obsessed with. Gentle nutrition is learning some very basic building blocks for how to create satisfying meals and snacks and thinking about how foods are going to support your well-being.
[00:34:17] And we can bring that in at the end of the unlearning process that really has to happen first in order to come back to nutrition in a way that is not constrained by diet culture. I think really the emphasis with gentle nutrition and all the other principles of intuitive eating is on having enough.
It’s on nourishing your body in order to feel energized and satisfied and able to do the things you need to do in the world and able to engage with other people around food. Connect over food and enjoy food and have pleasure in food and all the cultural meanings that food has for people of different backgrounds.
[00:34:54] All of that is so much more important actually than what you put in your mouth and the nutritional value or minutia of what you’re eating. Intuitive eating really is an approach to nutrition I think that’s very different than diet culture’s version but we see in the research that intuitive eaters, people who engage in intuitive eating and who are not dieting, actually have better nutritional variety.
Which is a positive nutritional indicator than people who are dieting and don’t actually eat any more of the demonized foods like the “junk foods” than people who are dieting and junk food is diet culture’s term right because intuitive eating sees all food as morally neutral there’s no such thing as bad or junk.
[00:35:34] There are different kinds of foods that function for different purposes and it’s really interesting how people who are dieting are so obsessed with them not eating certain things right with avoiding certain types of foods. And yet all of that obsession doesn’t actually really translate into eating any less of it than someone who is just an intuitive eater and relaxed about food. Because with all that obsession comes the sort of swing of the pendulum from restriction to the feeling out of control around those foods. Right.
[00:36:04] We can’t just you know avoid those foods forever. So when we are around them it tends to start to feel like a free for all. And I remember that from my dieting days as well when I was trying to avoid carbs and then suddenly I was at a party that had chips or cookies and I just could not stop until the whole bowl was gone. Like now and before that too, before I was a dieter, I had the privilege of being an intuitive eater and because I grew up in a thinner body nobody really messed with my relationship with food which is unfortunately not the case for people who grow up in larger bodies.
[00:36:35] So I was able to basically maintain my intuitive eating skills until I was 20 years old and up until that point I had always been like you know eat chips at a party if I feel like eating chips at a party but I’m not standing by the food table the whole time like obsessing and like thinking about it constantly and can’t stop until the thing is gone and then feeling guilty about it and shaming myself and all of that stuff right.
[00:36:58]0 So that really came from the food obsession and for me and for countless clients of mine and all different body sizes from all different backgrounds, what we’ve really found is that when you stop the restrictions and the deprivation that compulsion around food really dissipates and often disappears completely.
Kathryn: [00:37:17] So this restriction leading to the swing of the pendulum, being really obsessed with a certain type of food or maybe feeling kind of out of control with that certain type of food, is that like an evolutionary human thing that’s built-in? Like if this is not going to be available for a long time the next time we see it like it’s time to stock up?
Christy Harrison: [00:37]:4 In some ways. Yeah. I mean I think the main thing is like deprivation of specific foods doesn’t usually happen in a vacuum.
[00:37:46] It also happens along with deprivation of food in general right. Because when you’re depriving yourself of specific foods you’re usually also trying to eat less overall. There might be some sort of calorie limit or like time limit when you’re allowed to eat during the day or whatever it might be right. So you know I’ve seen so many diet books that are like “all you have to do is avoid this particular macronutrient” and then it’s like all the recipes and the daily meal plan lead up to these ridiculously low-calorie diets.
[00:38:16] You know that it’s still about calorie counting too it’s still about portion sizes too. And even if you’re not doing it from a specific diet book and you’re kind of just making it up as you go along, the tendency really is to have this accumulation of diet beliefs that never totally go away or change. So like for myself for example I first started out calorie counting, then I layered on low carb. But even though some of the low carb advocates were like “Oh you don’t have to worry about calories you just cut carbs” it was like I couldn’t let go of the calorie counting and I’ve already been in that world.
[00:38:50] So then I layered on the low carb then I layered on the whole food plant-based diet from like the early days of Michael Pollan that sort of morphed into this wellness thing that we’re seeing now. Then I layered on gluten-free and I layered on… so that’s like becomes this sort of topographical map. I’m thinking of like the layers of the earth you know when you see those maps of like the cutaways of the layers and going down into the Earth’s core and at the core really is this idea I think of like eating less and depriving yourself and all of the other layers are sort of built on top of that.
[00:39:24] So I think that the deprivation of specific types of foods can’t really be divorced from the deprivation of food overall. We know scientifically that the deprivation of food overall drives the human body to turn down the fullness hormones, turn up the hunger hormones so that were driven to eat, and less likely to stop, less able to stop. It makes us disproportionately crave high carbohydrate foods because those foods are quick energy that sustain our body in times of famine in times of deprivation.
[00:39:56] And all these different things right. Your body temperature goes down to try to conserve energy or energy output goes down which is why some athletes often find that when they’re restricting or depriving themselves of particular types of foods especially carbs but also food in general that their performance tends to be not as great. Their strength tends to lower their endurance tends to be less. You know there’s all these different ways that your body looks out for you and tries to survive in a situation where not enough energy is coming in and it preferentially drives you also towards those foods that diets deem off-limits.
[00:40:30] So you have this uncontrollable craving for carbs but those are like the foods that are demonized in diet culture today. So it’s this catch 22 where you’re just craving all these things that your body really needs to survive and it’s pushing you and pushing you to try to get your survival needs met. Eventually you “give in” a.k.a. do the thing you actually need to do for self-care. Right.
[00:40:55] By eating those foods by eating a lot maybe in one sitting your body is so deprived and then you feel bad and you’re guilty and you shame yourself and you’re like OK diet starts tomorrow I’m going to buckle down even harder and I’m going to add x y z disordered behaviors as well random and add compensatory exercise. I’m going to add you know restricting this other type of thing you know it just becomes this sort of multilayered thing and I think people really need to kind of take a step back from all of it in order to see relief.
Kathryn: [00:41:24] Yeah I mean what you said about the layers and how you ended up layering one on top of the other like the gluten-free and then the low carb and then the low calorie and like you said once you’ve already got one of those layers into your mind it’s hard to let them go and I totally relate to that. I grew up as a vegetarian and I think that just came from, I don’t know like my hippie parents? Like I’m going to say my parents weren’t huge into restriction but I also understand that I’m saying I grew up as a vegetarian so maybe that is the thing right there.
[00:41:53] But I remember it like I grew up as a vegetarian and then when I graduated high school and I went to do a two-year holistic nutrition program and that for me I think was when a lot of these layers started to accumulate. Like the gluten-free layer and no sugar or no this or continue being a vegetarian and really not listening to my own body.
[00:42:17] Then I remember when I decided that I needed a little bit of a break from postural yoga because my body was giving me some feedback. I signed up to go work with a personal trainer and so he did like his intake he was like “do a couple of squats do some of those do some of that”. We talked a little bit about what I eat.
And the first week before I went in to start training with him he was like “This is your homework, I need you for the next week to just eat whatever you want. If you feel like eating ice cream I need you to eat ice cream. If you want to eat this I need you to eat that. Just literally for seven days eat whatever you want”.
[00:42:51] And I was so confused by that almost and it was at that point, this was six years ago, it was still kind of impossible because I had all these layers built up and all these ideas built up are over all of these years. But that was the first time that I got that advice from someone. And that was so interesting to me. I feel like that’s when my thinking. Even just a little bit started to turn over and then of course I find your podcast and I find other speakers and I read Health at every size and little by little it all starts to make more sense.
Christy Harrison: [00:43:23] Yeah. That’s so interesting. And it often is that sort of first little door opening right. Someone just saying you know you have permission to eat these foods you don’t have to make them off-limits like how radical of us of a statement in this culture.
Kathryn: [00:43:38] So the last thing that I want to comment on because we’re coming to the end of our interview here is, again I’ve listened to a lot on your podcast and it’s been really really interesting to me, is that this idea that eating disorders come in all sizes and that’s sometimes what we recommend for people in larger bodies is actually like the eating disorder behavior.
[00:44:02] And that really struck me and really makes me reconsider any food advice any diet advice it’s like. Yes. That was like a mind-blowing moment for me.
Christy Harrison: [00:44:18] It’s so interesting right. I mean Deb Burgard, who’s one of the founders of the Health at Every Size movement, always says “we prescribe for fat people what we’re diagnosing as eating disorders and thin people”.
Kathryn: [00:44:29] Yeah.
Christy Harrison: [00:44:29] You know and it really is mind-blowing in that way. That the same behaviors and that was part of what started to turn my thinking around too because when I started in the eating disorder field I was committed to helping end eating disorders and I was aware of the sociological underpinnings of eating disorders but I also was like you know had one foot in each camp. I was still doing weight loss with some of my larger-bodied clients who didn’t have eating disorders.
[00:44:53] Like so you know it takes a long time I think for those of us in this field to come out of that and to really stop straddling the fence and get to the place where we’re saying “yeah it’s fucked up that we’re prescribing these types of behaviors to anyone regardless of their body size” because these are actually disordered behaviors.
Like restricting what you eat for non-medical reasons and you know it gets complicated right because doctors sometimes prescribe diets. Doctors are often very fat phobic and have a lot of internalized weight stigma of themselves and their prescribing weight stigmatizing things to their patients.
[00:45:26] But if you don’t have any sort of restriction I’m talking about like you know diabetes and needing to sort of carb count to match your insulin dosage or having a peanut allergy or having a shellfish allergy or whatever you know those kinds of restrictions I can totally understand. I don’t even necessarily think of them as restrictions so much as just self-care behaviors with food to keep yourself safe you know and so that’s a whole other story.
[00:45:50] But like any sort of restrictive eating where you’re restricting the amount you’re allowed to eat or the times of day or the types of foods you’re allowed you know the major food groups like carbohydrates or fats or protein or what have you. If you’re restricting calories, if you’re fasting, if you’re engaging in compensatory behaviors for your eating, all of those things are unfortunately disordered for anyone for any body size.
[00:46:16] I know that’s a lot to sort of wrap your head around because there’s so much training that we all get as health and fitness professionals it’s like “here’s how to help people lose weight and here’s why that’s important”. And recognizing that that’s based on a foundation of very shaky science that conflates correlation and causation right. And it says “oh we see an association of higher body weight and these poor health outcomes” so because our culture is already fat phobic it’s like the interpretation is the higher weight must cause these poor health outcomes.
[00:46:45] Even the research that supposedly says you know “fat cells are creating all these inflammatory cytokines and inflammation throughout the body” we can’t detach the fat cells of people from the people who own those fat cells right. And what they’ve been through in their experience in life. And we actually see that experiences of stigma like weight stigma and racism and other forms of discrimination literally increase the inflammation in people’s bodies by increasing their stress levels.
[00:47:12] And so we can’t say that it’s the fat causing the inflammation when we know that larger-bodied people experience weight stigma at a disproportionate rate. They are the recipients of institutional structural weight stigma and they’re having people at all walks, you know, every turn of life, they step outside on the sidewalk and they’re hearing fat phobic slurs from people driving by in a car or whatever. It’s rampant.
[00:47:37] It’s constant and the experience of that and the effects that that has on your physical and mental health from you know you have to like recognize that those are the things that are actually the underlying causes and not the fat itself. We just don’t have evidence to say it’s the fat itself it’s the weight itself causing these health problems.
Kathryn: [00:47:56] So how can people order your book and people right now are listening. Like really really internationally. So even if they don’t live in the US how can they order your book and where should they go to learn more about what you do? Or take one of your courses or work with you.
Christy Harrison: [00:48:11] Oh yeah. Thank you so much. So there’s a lot of info about ordering my book on my website which is christyharrison.com The page with my book is christyharrison.com/book but you can just look at the top navigation menu and you’ll find it. I really encourage people to buy from local bookstores if they can.
[00:48:27] I know sometimes in other countries it’s not necessarily available in your local bookstore and it’s the American English speaking book although we do have a UK edition that’s available in the UK, in Australia, and New Zealand. And there is a Russian translation in the works, an Estonian translation in the works, and actually this is my first time announcing this because it’s just got like formalized this week, a French translation in the works that is going to be available in French-speaking Canada and France and other French-speaking countries as well.
[00:48:58] You can look out for news about that although traditional publishing takes forever so it’s gonna be like a year and a half before those editions are available. But right now we have the US and UK editions available all over. There’s also an audiobook edition if you like to listen and learn rather than read on text. There’s an e-book edition as well, and you can also check out my podcast which is called Food Psych where I talk a lot about this stuff as well and you’ll find that wherever you’re listening to this podcast.
Christy Harrison: [00:49:31] I did. It was delightful. I mean it was exhausting because it was like three or four eight hour days. Not talking the entire time obviously I had breaks for lunch and stuff but you know just like really a lot on the voice and I’m so glad I had been podcasting for so long I had been podcasting for like six and a half, seven years by the time I did that narration because I got used to speaking for long periods of time and even then my voice was just shot by the end of it but it was really fun to do.
Kathryn: [00:50:11] So cool. Well, thank you so much for coming on and having a chat with me today. I really really appreciate it. And we’ll have all those links in the show notes and we’ll share them all. So I hope people order your book and listen to your podcasts and just absorb all the stuff that you’re putting out because I really really appreciate it all.
Christy Harrison: Thank you so much. I so appreciate you having me.