During the spring semester of the first year in my Dietetics program, I was introduced to Intuitive Eating. I warmly welcomed and fell in love with this revolutionary program after a semester of weighing, tracking, and calculating my individualized macronutrient and caloric needs. This was an actual assignment in my Community Nutrition class.
We paired off, weighed and measured each other. Then, plugged those numbers into a series of equations. In those days, calorie tracking apps didn’t exist. We had to look up everything we ate in a book called, Calorie King. We also learned about the Diabetic Exchange System: a common method Dietitians use to create meal plans. I too used this throughout my career. What started out as a week-long project grew into a full semester of my mission to become as “healthy” as I could be. For some distorted reason, this meant getting the bottom of my Ideal Body Weight. I wasn’t that far away. It was a practical and realistic goal. To get there, I tracked everything I ate and exercised 1-2 hours a day. It was also a very demanding semester academically. I studied all the time. Organic Chemistry, Nutrition Epidemiology and Food Science required so much of my time. I completely isolated myself.
When the semester ended I found myself filled with anxiety about going home. As I was driving home, I internally panicked about eating the foods my mom would prepare. I had been intensely cooking certain foods on my own for months. I began to reflect on my recent experience. When was the last time I had my period? I was so focused on the weight loss, I hadn’t realized I had missed it for several months.
When I walked in the house, no one was home. I went straight to the freezer, grabbed the ice cream, and scooped myself a serving. As I sat down to enjoy this dessert that I had recently been denying myself, I had an overwhelming feeling that what I had been doing wasn’t right. It wasn’t healthy. Right then and there, alone at my parent’s kitchen table with a bowl of ice cream – I promised myself I would never obsess about food or exercise again.
I believe with all my heart that my introduction to Intuitive Eating came exactly when I needed it. I was immediately reminded of my passion for all foods, something I developed as a little girl. My professor was amazing. She exposed us to new recipes and food experiences. I bonded with other girls in my program and was accepted into a study abroad in Italy, which was another experience that solidified my love of food. As I engulfed myself in Italian cooking classes and researched the Mediterranean Diet, I truly discovered that eating is meant to be pleasurable.
A month after graduation, I was married and driving across the country to Long Island, New York. Here, I would start my Dietetic Internship and master’s program. My new husband and I were so excited. A foodie himself, we loved exploring and eating our way along the east coast. While we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, I quickly noticed that I was gaining weight and I needed to do something about it. I was also about to be engulfed in diet-culture innocently disguised as nutrition education.
I remember the very first day of my internship so clearly. A tray of bagels sat in the center of the conference room table. I watched my Director grab one, scoop out the center and toss the excess in the trash. She was a thin lady with very toned arms. She spoke openly about her weight loss journey. During our lunch break later that day, I sat with my new peers and listened as they discussed rBST. They were shocked when I asked, “What’s that?” – a cool move when you are trying to make nutrition friends. I still wonder how I didn’t know what that was, I graduated from an agricultural college for crying out loud!
My time in New York is something I am incredibly grateful for and I deeply treasure. That year was very busy. Balancing newlywed life with rotations and school was overwhelming at times. My nutrition focus was changing. Nutrition interventions for the “obesity epidemic”, particularly among children and digestive disorders were the epicenter of my education. The biggest culprit, sugar, was a subject readily discussed. My professors were fervent in their efforts to promote weight loss. I became incredibly educated on food quality, ingredients, and organic farming which was all very fascinating.
A big component of my internship was a program that aimed to get food out of the classroom. I sat through many PTA meetings as the Dietitian would spout out stats and research findings. This only seemed to make the moms annoyed. They were very passionate about giving the entire class cupcakes on their child’s birthday. Yet, I was developing an out-right fear of sugar.
As my interest around whole foods intensified, my appetite did as well. My clothes were feeling tighter and I was getting frustrated. I tried to go back to my calorie counting days, just until I lost this extra weight. But, my hunger wouldn’t let me. After only being married for six months, I found out I was pregnant.
Early Career and Motherhood
Three weeks before my first child was born I passed the national exam for Registered Dietitians. My entire career has been a balancing act of motherhood first and pursing my professional passions second. I know I am not alone when it comes to the current pressures of raising kids. A combination of information overload, social media, beauty and fitness trends, household chores, and the intense desire to do what is best for your children (some of which have special needs) can be suffocating.
In the early days of my profession, I felt a strong obligation to feed my children well. Plus, I’ve always been passionate about food and cooking. In my mind, my kids deserved the best I could feed them. My son had a from-scratch, applesauce cake made with naturally-dyed frosting on his first birthday. Of course, he loved it. He didn’t know what real cake tasted like!
The promise that I made my 20-year-old self and the principles of Intuitive Eating have always been incorporated into my practice. Although I am not one to be overly trendy, I felt that it was my duty to stay current in the nutrition world. But, staying current and not being influenced by diet culture can be confusing - even for professionals. For many years, I had hidden food rules guiding my messaging.
Throughout my career, I have primarily focused on helping people lose weight. As someone who always gained “more than the recommended amount” of pregnancy weight, I had a special place in my heart for individuals who wanted to make a realistic change. For my clients with weight loss goals, I was adamant that it was done in a practical way. But, it became more evident every day that Intuitive Eating and weight loss don’t belong together. I knew that I needed to completely step away from that realm of dietetics.
As human beings, surrounded in diet-culture – it is completely normal to desire weight loss. I haven’t found a single person (this includes Dietitians) who hasn’t been impacted by diet-mentality. However, being smaller does not translate to health and happiness. In fact, I strongly believe that focusing on the size and shape of your body eradicates your ability to experience both.
With age, better education, mothering four uniquely different children, and gaining life experience - my desire to have a healthy diet has shifted away from purity and superiority to solely finding joy in the eating experience.
The research is clear, and it has been reinforced in my career: a long-term solution demonstrating how to maintain weight loss longer than two years simply doesn’t exist. Instead, a desire to be as fit and healthy as possible will only lead to obsession, confusion, and frustration.
If you find yourself suffocating in your desire to be thinner. If you want to get off the diet and weight rollercoaster and find what it means to be happily fed, work with me. You will make it out with peace, confidence, and respect for your amazing body.