FOOD is not the ENEMY

Restrictive eating, extreme and yoyo diets are damaging to both the body and mind and rob us of one of life’s greatest pleasures. An eating disorder survivor who went on to become a chef and nutritionist tells how to end the war.

With summer and the onslaught of Body Blitz Diets, Summer Resets and Clean-Eating Challenges, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s a war brewing and the enemy is food.

The war against food is actually a war with ourselves. I know, because I’ve been there, fought that fight and the battle wasn’t worth it.

Our weapons are willpower and dieting and the casualties are many. Guilt-free eating, relaxed socialising, resilient mental health and a life free from calorie counting lie strewn across a battlefield of our own making. 

We command our self-control to reduce our carbs, count our macros and whip our food cravings into submission. 

Clean eating is king and we are its soldiers fighting the good fight against food. Except it’s not the good fight. It’s exhausting. And stressful. And unhealthy. 

The war against food is actually a war with ourselves. I know, because I’ve been there, fought that fight and the battle wasn’t worth it.

Thirty years ago, I spent my teens fighting against food in a highly restrictive eating disorder. 

Dieting was a way of giving structure to a life which felt out of my control and my whole existence revolved around food and exercise. 

Different hospital admissions, therapies and experts mostly focused on my eating rather than my relationship with food, but my dieting was not the problem. It was just a symptom of the difficulties I had relating to myself and the world around me. 

I describe this period of my life as none of food; a toxic relationship with eating and atrocious health.

After a decade of this, I was beyond rock bottom and decided I had to do something, anything, to drag myself away from restrictive eating. This was 20 years ago and before the ease of being able to Google anything unknown. 

I describe this [eating disorder] period of my life as none of food; a toxic relationship with eating and atrocious health.

I had not heard of intuitive eating back then but realise now that I used that approach to turn my life around. 

I decided that I would simply do the opposite of what I had been doing. I replaced restriction with permission to eat, self-criticism with compassion and dragged myself slowly through two years of recovery. 

I recovered so well that in rediscovering how amazing food is, I decided to become a chef.

Soon I was winning apprentice awards, representing NSW at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and earning a hat in the SMH Good Food Guide. 

This decade of my life could be described as enjoying ALL of the food, a great relationship with eating but not looking after my health particularly well. I was working long hours, scoffing down a meal while standing in a busy kitchen and not getting much sleep. 

As I gradually chose chef jobs that had better work/life balance and started to think about having children, I wondered how I could use food to reach my health goals without falling back into restriction. 

I had a growing interest in nutrition but didn’t want to fall for the seduction of the latest low-carb “lifestyle” and social media half-truths.

I refused to believe that being healthy always meant being on a diet but I wasn’t sure exactly what was the healthier alternative. 

So I enrolled in fulltime nutrition studies and three years later, qualified as a nutritionist. Thus began a new time of my life which includes enjoying all of the food, a joyful relationship with eating and being able to support my physical and mental health with both.

Now, in my nutrition practice, I help clients to not go through what I did and create a healthier, happier relationship with eating. 

I help them realise that they don’t have a problem with food, they have a problem with restriction. 

Most of my clients come to me completely overwhelmed after years of yoyo dieting and with no idea of what they “should” be eating. 

Their mental health is struggling and they’re sick of obsessing about food. But how did we get here when we know the vast majority of diets fail? How did we get to the point where something essential to life has become so complicated? The answer is money.

The global weight loss industry is worth almost US$200 billion. It profits from a pervasive diet culture that tells you thin is healthy, weight loss is an accomplishment and living in a size any larger than a model’s makes you lazy and less worthy. 

Diet culture has us convinced that we can’t be trusted with our bodies and that our hunger, physical and emotional, betrays us. 

With so many of our food options demonised, we are convinced only a diet can guide us through the confusion. The more we believe this, the more insecure we become, the more inclined we are to buy the latest, greatest diet and the superfoods that go with it. Ka-ching.

Food is not the enemy. Food gives us life and keeps us alive. It fuels our body and brain, helps us to grow and move through our day and yet it is so much more than fuel. 

We use food to celebrate, socialise, honour traditions, give us pleasure, as self-care, to show love and to have fun. Food is the foundation of good health but our relationship with eating is just as important as the nutrients we consume. 

So, from the depth of my experiences with eating and health, I beg you to consider this: the next time you’re tempted to fight against food, what would happen if you replaced self-control with self-care and made friends with the enemy?

About the author 

Kate is a qualified nutritionist, creator of the Diet Jailbreak program, award-winning chef, eating disorder survivor, media nutrition expert, member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society and a 2019-2020 WELL global Nourishment advisor for the New York-based IWBI. 

You can find her at www.katespinanutrition.com or on Instagram.

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