The messages most of us have received about nutrition nutrition and health can lead to a lot of chaos. And ironically, the things we've been taught to do to improve our health and nutrition often backfire and can even lead to poorer health outcomes. These teachings, messages and notions come from diet culture, not from the true meaning of health.
It's important to identify the difference between diet culture and true health and wellbeing so we can slowly start to separate the concepts. It can be really tough to break out of the diet mindset even when you're armed with lots of knowledge and awareness. This is an ever-evolving and ongoing process, so be gentle with yourself as you learn and unlearn.
Most of us have absorbed messages throughout our life that we need to follow this plan exactly, or be "good" for a time with food to promote health, or to constantly be in a state of "I'll do that tomorrow" with food. While these thoughts are completely normal, they don't tend to lead to overall improved nutrition or health status. When it comes to nutrition, it's important to consider what actually helps us with our nutrition vs. what thoughts make it more difficult to care for ourselves.
One of the things that can make it harder to care for ourselves is self-defeating thoughts we inherit from diet culture. So, let's look at the most common self-defeating thoughts related to nutrition and health and learn how we can re-frame these thoughts to guide us toward a more positive and productive approach to food.
Self-defeating thought #1: I failed yesterday.
One of the most liberating realizations to make in your relationship with food is that every experience you have—the pleasant, the unpleasant and everything in between—is just more data, more information, and ultimately learning opportunities. There's truly no such thing as failure with food. There's only continuing to move forward, finding what works and what doesn't.
Think about it like this: how do you learn anything new? Do you do it perfectly right away? (Side note: there's no such thing as perfect eating, so let that idea go, too.)
How do babies learn to walk? They have to fall. Each time they fall or get off balance, they learn more about how to walk successfully and skillfully. Falling isn't failure for them, it's merely serving its purpose to help the baby fine-tune its walking/running skills. If babies just stopped trying to learn how to walk each time they fell down, they'd never learn. You are the same. You will have moments of joy with food, moments where all of this really connects and makes sense. You will also have moments of discouragement. The trick is realizing that this is actually a good thing. The moments of discouragement are not signs you're doing it wrong. Those experiences are just a nudge to keep digging, to keep exploring, to find what will ultimately work well for you.
Say it with me: There is no failing with food! There is only continuing to learn.
Self-defeating thought #2: What do people think of me?
This might seem like a strange one for a dietitian to help you re-frame. But, here's why this matters: when we're so caught up in what other people think of us, it can be really difficult to connect to your needs, including your needs with food. In other words, obsessively worrying about what other people think can make it more difficult to connect to—and show respect for—our bodies.
Instead of worrying about what people think about you, could you try focusing more on how people feel around you? You could spend your whole life worried about what other people think of you. You’re too this, not enough that, on and on. And at some point it becomes painfully clear that it’s a logical impossibility to please everyone. You just can’t.
But, you can work on embodying your values. You can consider how you want people to feel when you’re around. Do you want them to feel loved, included, listened to, honored, respected? Can you work on those things? And even then, what you’re trying to exude won’t always be perfect, but it sure does feel better than the alternative.
All the people pleasing you’re trying to do is likely taking you further from your own self care, values and trust. So, when anxiety about what people think of you pops up, try re-framing by asking yourself: how do I want people to feel around me?
Self-defeating thought #3: I shouldn't eat this.
Work on pausing the minute you hear yourself saying "should" or "shouldn't" with food. Take a step back and ask yourself where this is coming from. Is it a dieting rule you picked up at some point? Chances are very good that the answer to this question is yes.
Instead of shoulding all over yourself (yeah I went there, hehe), re-frame the "shoulds" around food with this simple question: what do I want right now?
You might object to this thinking, "If I just ate what I wanted all the time it would be complete chaos!" While I hear this and I understand why you might wonder about this, I want you to know that you can be trusted around food. Getting quiet and still and really working to connect to how you want to feel, what you really want, and what you need, can be such powerful forces for good in your health and wellbeing. You might surprise yourself—most people who connect to this question actually find that their wants/needs around food are actually fairly reliable and not as chaotic as they initially imagined. Your body gives you cues that positively reinforce it getting what it needs. Your body is trying to help you take great care of it. Slow down, pause, tune in and try to start listening to those cues. It might surprise you what you find out about yourself!
Self-defeating thought #4: I can't do this.
It's totally normal to feel incapable of improving your relationship with food at times. While it's normal and understandable, it's really discouraging and can make you feel stagnant and stuck in your progress.
When the "I can't do this" thoughts pop in, remind yourself that you can do this and it will be messy and imperfect. To access some self-compassion, consider checking in with how you would respond to someone you loved who was feeling discouraged and thinking they couldn't do this? Would you berate them and tell them they're right? Or, would you find yourself listening, validating, and creatively brainstorming action items? My guess is you would instinctively respond with the latter example. If you'd respond that way for a friend, can you work on supporting yourself similarly?
You don't have to do this all perfectly. We're looking for progress, not perfection. And when in doubt, you can always access some self-compassion and just work on doing the next right thing.
Self-defeating thought #5: I've already ruined today, I'll start again tomorrow.
This is one of the most common self-defeating thoughts I hear in my office when working with clients. It's very common to develop an all-or-nothing mentality with nutrition and food. This is one of the most pervasive lies we're told repeatedly by diet culture.
But here's the truth: there's nothing magical about tomorrow. There's nothing magical about Monday, the first of the month, or a new year.
Promising yourself you'll restrict in the future breeds present chaos with food. It seems like you're making it "okay" to "go off-plan" by promising you'll "get back on track" tomorrow. But the truth is it's already okay to eat that thing. And, there's no "getting back on track," there's simply continuing on and learning.
The people I know who engage in the most rigid all-or-nothing thinking with food tend to have a tough time caring for themselves with food. In other words, people who can recognize all-or-nothing thinking and can practice more flexibility, presence, and gentleness tend to have an overall improved nutrition quality of life. Beating yourself up and promising to restrict do not help you! Self-compassion does.
There's nothing ruined by eating something yummy and enjoyable. Be present in the eating experience, work to give yourself permission to eat that again, and let go of the reactive thoughts that make you want to promise you won't do this again.
This stuff is hard. There's nothing wrong with you if you read this post and find it difficult to put these ideas into practice. While I love podcasting and blogging about these topics, there's always so much more to explore individually. And, you're not alone if this is hard. That's why there's three dietitians in this practice. We are here for you.
If you could use some individual help with your relationship with food and would like to make an appointment with one of the dietitians at Positive Nutrition, click here to check out schedules and availability. And, don't forget: we're in-network with BCBS, Cigna and DMBA (and soon-to-be in-network with UofU Healthplans including Medicaid and United) so your insurance may even cover your visit(s) with us.