health

'I didn't feel any better at a smaller size.' 10 truths I wish I knew earlier about weight and health.

One memory from my childhood sticks out to me still now, even though I’m over a decade older: When I was around 8 years old, I went to an Asian restaurant where the chef cooks your food right in front of you. As he handed our food to us, I mentioned I was "on a diet".

I’ve struggled with food, my body image, and my weight for a large part of my life. I’ve judged the shape of my thighs and compared my body to other people’s. I’ve felt guilty for eating certain foods I thought were 'bad'. I’ve restricted, binged and purged. I’ve let weight fluctuations and food choices consume my life.

I thought I was in control, but I wasn’t. I thought I was making myself happier, but I wasn’t.

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In fact, those years were probably the unhappiest of my life.

When we let food and weight consume such a large part of our lives, it’s hard to leave room for any of the good that life has to offer. Something that doesn’t truly matter or determine who we are begins to dominate and rule us.

When I got to university, and started to learn more about health, I realised just how many misconceptions I’d held onto for my entire life and how negatively they impacted me. I realised a life filled with freedom, gratefulness, and excitement was possible, and I could love myself and feel better at higher weights while eating foods I'd labelled 'bad' in the past. 

I learned a lot of lessons that truly changed my outlook, my beliefs, my passions, and my life. When I look back and think of my younger self, I hurt for her. She lost out on so much because she didn’t know those truths.

I want to share them in the hopes they help others who need to hear them as much as I did. I also want to share these truths because I know even those of us who know them could benefit from a reminder.

If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell her the following.

1. Even intuitive eating and 'eating in moderation' can be diet-like, so be careful and self-compassionate.

Dietitian Christy Harrison wrote an important article about the myths surrounding “intuitive eating,” a recent buzzword. One tenet of intuitive eating is listening to your hunger and fullness cues.

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However, hyper-fixating on that can be unhealthy. Harrison reminds us the body signals tenet is one of several that make up intuitive eating, and that trying to 'perfect' our level of hunger versus fullness can lead to diet-like behaviours and restriction. 

People with a history of disordered eating may have messed up hunger and fullness cues, in which they have to stick to a schedule and dietitian-approved food plan to help restore their body cues.

Additionally, eating is about more than health — it’s about happiness and rich life experiences too. It’s about enjoying birthday cake at parties, trying new foods when visiting other countries, and comforting meals with friends.

2. You and your body aren’t 'wrong' or 'bad'.

Sure, your legs may be bigger than someone else’s. Or you may be less muscular than the person next to you. That doesn’t mean you or your body are 'wrong' or 'bad'. 

Your body doesn’t determine your worth, and it doesn’t need 'fixing'. 

Just like people are different, bodies are different. We must celebrate, respect, and embrace their diversity, knowing no one’s body is wrong.

The messages we hear about our bodies or eating needing 'fixing' are coming from the $72 billion diet industry that thrives off of making us feel insecure and scared for no reason. 

Health isn’t behind these messages — capitalism is.

3. Focus on this simple definition of 'normal eating'.

Therapist and dietitian Ellyn Satter's definition of 'normal eating' changed how I saw myself, my eating, and my health. I’d needed to hear her words for years. Her definition of normal eating says:

“Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. Normal eating is being able to choose food you enjoy and to eat it and truly get enough of it - not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.

“Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day - or four or five - or it can be choosing to munch along the way.

“Normal eating is leaving biscuits on the plate because you will let yourself have cookies again tomorrow, or eating more now because they taste so great! Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable… and under-eating at times, wishing you had more…

“Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible: It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your food, and your feelings.”

So, according to a health professional, “normal” or “healthy” eating isn’t eating mostly vegetables or avoiding desserts. It’s not eating just when you’re hungry or only a certain amount of meals. Eating looks different all the time, and it allows for flexibility that allows for a fuller life.

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Stop putting so much pressure and guilt upon yourself. You’re not doing anything wrong by engaging in the behaviours Satter mentioned. Trust your body and remember it will do what it needs to do to survive and function at its best.

4. People can be healthy at any size - our bodies are different, and thinner doesn’t equal healthier.

Bodies are different, and they have different needs. Even if we all ate and exercised the same, we’d still look different. Many aspects play a role in health - probably more than we realise - meaning we can’t determine someone’s health simply by looking at them.

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Further, some people with smaller bodies are struggling with mental health challenges, like addiction or eating disorders, which negatively affect their health. They may experience malnutrition, in which case they aren’t necessarily healthier than someone who weighs more.

While we all aren’t healthy at all weights, we each have our individual weight ranges at which we have nearly optimal physical and mental health. Health is about so much more than food, exercise, and weight.

5. Eat the ice cream.

It’s more than okay to eat dessert. 

Ice cream is one of my favourite desserts simply because it tastes so good. Eating ice cream doesn’t make you a bad person, and it’s a normal part of a healthy life. 

Eating ice cream won’t cause you to gain five pounds overnight, and if it does, so what? Weight fluctuates, and it’s okay to be and have fat.

Life is too short to not eat ice cream or to eat the 'healthier' versions. Find the ice cream that truly tastes the best to you and makes you feel good.

When you listen to your body’s cravings and don’t let yourself feel guilty for enjoying a dessert, you’re less likely to binge on it later. You’ll feel better emotionally and physically, as you treat your mind and body right.

6. Mental health is just as important as physical health.

In our culture, we often place a lot of importance on physical health while neglecting our mental health. More stigma surrounds mental health, ranging from who struggles, what struggling looks like, and more.

We must remember mental health is just as important. For example, if you’re only eating 'health' foods, but it’s because you’re hyper-focused and rigid about your eating, you may struggle with orthorexia, an eating disorder. 

Take care of your mental health and understand it’s okay if maintaining your mental health includes eating foods that society deems 'unhealthy'.

Foods aren’t 'good' or 'bad' anyway. Eat what makes you feel good physically, but mentally too. Let go of guilt and live your life freely, trusting your body and working towards a healthy, happy relationship with yourself, food, and exercise.

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7. Food has no moral value.

In my advocacy work that focuses on eating disorder education, we often say some version of this:

“An apple didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize and a biscuit didn’t rob a bank. Food has no moral value.”

And that’s just it. Food is food, so don’t make it out to be more than it is. What we eat doesn’t determine our worth or goodness. No, you’re not 'bad' for eating a brownie, nor will I respect you more if you eat a salad.

Further, when you let yourself eat what your body wants, you’ll be less likely to binge or develop an unhealthy relationship with food. Dieting is the biggest predictor of an eating disorder, and eating disorders are the second deadliest mental illness.

8. Losing weight isn’t a cure for bad body image or emotional pain — in fact, you may feel better at higher weights.

Years ago, I used food and weight loss to show I was hurting and in need of support. I didn’t know how to communicate effectively, and I thought my body needed fixing (it didn’t). No amount of weight loss was enough, and I still dealt with many negative emotions, both in general, and because of my mental illnesses.

Now, I’m well into recovery. I’ve reached out for support and learned how to use words to express how I’m feeling. I know I’m more than my body; I know the importance of appreciating my body.

Image: Getty.

And although I’m many pounds heavier than I was at my lowest, I feel happier with myself.

I honestly thought, at my lower weights, I looked the same as I look now. Body dysmorphia had taken over my life, and I’m so thankful I got it back. I know how to handle my emotions now, and I’m feeling body positive even though I probably weigh the most I ever have.

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I now know emotions influence body image and we can’t 'feel fat'. I know weight loss isn’t a cure to my emotions or bad body image days. I’m better equipped to overcome challenges, and I work hard to love myself the whole way through.

9. You and your life are so much more than your body size or a diet.

This world offers us so much: beautiful nature, fun events, loved ones, delicious food, sightseeing, and more. 

Don’t let something as small and unimportant as your body size or diet steal your life experiences. Don’t ruin your biggest moments with worries about food or your body.

People love you for you, not because of any other reason. When you die, people won’t talk about how much you weighed or how small you were — they’ll talk about who you were and the changes you made in people’s lives.

If you died today, would you like what people said about you?

10. Stay away from numbers.

Did you know your weight is just your body’s relationship with gravity, and calories are a measurement of energy? 

Calories, weight, and other numbers can’t determine our worth, and they often make us feel worse about ourselves. 

Those numbers have nothing to do with the people we are. 

Further, looking at numbers can keep us stuck in unhealthy eating cycles and leave us with poor mental health. 

To have a healthy, happy relationship with yourself, food, and your body, do your best to stay away from unhelpful numbers and focus more on how your body and mind feel.

I want to acknowledge that reading, learning, and living into these truths can be emotional. 

We may hurt for our younger selves and fear change. We may still hear the voice in our head or from the media that tells us differently. We may struggle to implement helpful changes, even if we know just how helpful they are.

I encourage you to not only challenge yourself but also to remain as patient and self-compassionate as you can. Learning these truths is a journey; it’s undoing years of hurtful, amplified messages that stick to our brains like magnets.

Despite the heights of the challenge you’re about to face, remember that the results — and the journey — are worth it. I am happier now than when I was stuck listening to diet culture’s and society’s messages that were meant only to hurt me. They succeeded in their mission, but I was drowning.

Float with me. Life is better when you’re on your back, under the sun, letting yourself be.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. You can follow Ashley Broadwater on Twitter here.

Feature Image: Getty.

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