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{Intuitive Eating with a Chronic Condition} Principle #1: Reject the Diet Mentality

This is the first in a series of posts on adapting intuitive eating for a chronic condition. I would like to acknowledge that I personally don’t have a chronic condition, and am open to learning from the lived experiences of those who do. Please leave your feedback by commenting below, or by sending me a private message.
Other posts in this series include:

Principles #2 & #5: Honour Your Hunger and Feel Your Fullness
Principle #3: Make Peace with Food
Principle #4: Challenge the Food Police
Principle #6: Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Principle #7: Honour Your Feelings Without Food
Principle #8: Respect Your Body
Principles #9 & #10: Exercise – Feel the Difference & Honour Your Health with Gentle Nutrition

“Reject the Diet Mentality” is the first principle of intuitive eating, and also the principle that most people tend to spend the most time on, regardless of whether they’re “healthy” or not. We live in a culture that has normalized the diet mentality, so rejecting it means going against messages that we hear not just from mass media, but from friends, loved ones, and even health professionals every single day.

What is the Diet Mentality?

I used to think that rejecting the diet mentality meant rejecting “extreme”, temporary diets and promoting “small, sustainable changes” instead. Little did I know that I was actually still stuck in the diet mentality.

How? I believed that these small, sustainable changes would help a person “manage” their weight. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I would have someone in my office telling me about what a “good” week they had of watching their portions, avoiding high-calorie foods, drinking water, exercising, etc, only to have their weight stay the same or increase. Then it would become this “game” of, “maybe you gained muscle”, “maybe it’s water weight”, “maybe you’re not measuring your portions properly” or “maybe you’re forgetting to count the times you lick the spoon when you’re cooking.”

The message? You’re doing something “wrong” or you’re not trying hard enough.

The truth is, we have less control over our weight than we’ve been led to believe. Attempts at weight loss are associated with weight cycling, disordered eating and weight gain. (Not to say that weight gain is a bad thing, just to point out that is the opposite of weight loss.) Our society’s obsession with weight management only serves to uphold weight stigma, which may have negative health consequences in and of itself.

Rejecting the diet mentality really means rejecting the idea that weight/fat is something that you can and should get rid of. It means recognizing that there isn’t one food, or one way of eating that’s “right”, or even objectively “better” than another. It means caring for your body as it is right now, instead of working toward a future outcome.

How Does This Apply to Having a Chronic Condition?

While intuitive eating is often framed around weight, I would like to expand the definition of diet mentality to rejecting the idea that a specific food or eating pattern can “fix” you.

Rejecting the #dietmentality means rejecting the idea that a specific food or eating pattern can 'fix' you. Click To Tweet

I’m not saying that food and eating don’t have an impact on health. (I am a dietitian, after all.) But when you look at people with diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, IBS, cancer, chronic pain, mental illness, or any other chronic concern, no two people are eating in exactly the same way. What might cause a really high blood sugar, flareup or other reaction in one person might have minimal impact in someone else with the same health concern. Scientific research can tell us what happens in most people, and can often serve as a starting point for lifestyle change, but at the end of the day, your needs might be different.

Even in conditions with obvious diet restrictions, like food allergies or celiac disease, I would argue that rejecting the diet mentality still applies. While it’s absolutely clear that the allergens (or gluten, in the case of celiac disease) need to be avoided, avoiding these foods is a treatment, not a cure. Also, it doesn’t make these foods “bad”, it just means that your body reacts differently to these foods compared to others who don’t have the same concerns.

More importantly, health is just one of the many, many reasons why we choose to eat the foods we do—cost, convenience, taste, familiarity and availability are some other factors that affect our food choices. Diet mentality has taught us that health should be on the top of that list every time we eat; rejecting the diet mentality is recognizing that you are not “bad” or “wrong” for eating for reasons other than health… I mean, what is health, anyway?

Rejecting the #dietmentality is recognizing you are not 'bad' or 'wrong' for eating for reasons other than 'health'. Click To Tweet

What does Rejecting the Diet Mentality Look Like?

So you’re beginning to understand the concept of rejecting diet mentality, but what does that look like in “real life”? How can you tell the difference between someone who is in diet mentality, versus someone who is not?

Observe How You Think About Food

How often do you think about food? Do you have rules around what, when and how much you “should” eat? Do you see yourself as “good” or “bad” when you eat a certain food, or in a certain way? Are you looking for a way to use food to treat a condition?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, please note that there is nothing wrong with being in the diet mentality, particularly given the culture we live in. For some people, having some flexible “rules” helps to create structure and ease in decision making. The questions above are about increasing awareness around your thoughts, and giving yourself the space to check in and see whether your “rules” are serving you, as opposed to just following them unquestioningly.

Different, not Better/Worse

I have taught many chronic disease management classes, and often as an icebreaker I will ask people to share one thing that they hope to learn. Often, the response is how to manage their disease to avoid or stop taking medications, reinforcing the belief that “natural” is better and that requiring medications is a “failure”.

While lifestyle management can slow the progression of a disease, sometimes medication is necessary for better management and improved health. Someone who manages their blood sugars or cholesterol through diet and other lifestyle changes is not “better” than someone who manages it through medications. Someone who has a well-managed condition is not “better” than someone who does not. Each person is on a different path, with different needs.

The Discomfort of Trial and Error

It’s human nature to want to have the answers; to get it right the first time. It can be frustrating to learn that what “works” for symptom management can be different from person to person. No wonder I often get the question, “Can you make me a meal plan?” or “Can you just tell me what to eat?”

Learning to manage a chronic condition often takes trial and error to figure out what works for you. What makes it extra scary is this belief that when we aren’t getting better, or when we’re experiencing a flareup, that we’re hurting ourselves and making ourselves worse, which sends us running back to the rules and “allowed foods” lists.

In most cases, no single food, snack, meal, or even day or week of eating is going to make or break your health. Usually our bodies are really good at telling us that something is not working, whether it’s through discomfort, pain, or abnormal lab values (when we have access to that). Often, that initial pang is just our body saying, “Heyyyyy” and unlikely to cause permanent damage if we respond to it accordingly.

I will also add that there is nothing wrong with sometimes being so scared that you just need to press pause with all the experimenting and stick with what works. It’s not better or worse, just different.

Trial and error can be scary and uncomfortable, and that is why working with a certified intuitive eating counselor or HAES®-informed dietitian (like yours truly!) can be helpful. We can point you toward some of the paths that others have travelled, away from the paths that might lead you astray, and more importantly, hold space and provide support for this difficult work.

What are some of the ways that the diet mentality shows up for you? What, if anything, have you done to try to reject the diet mentality? Please share your thoughts and insights in the comments below.

5 Comments

  • Diane J McRae on Aug 27, 2018 Reply

    “Diet mentality has taught us that health should be on the top of that list every time we eat;”
    I would say that diet mentality teaches that WEIGHT is the priority rather than health. Our culture teaches that if you are in certain weight categories you cannot possibly be healthy, regardless of objective measures of health like lab results. Otherwise, bravo!

    • Vincci Tsui on Aug 27, 2018 Reply

      Hi Diane,

      Thanks for your feedback! You are absolutely right – I think what I meant to say was diet culture’s narrow definition of “health”, but your phrasing is much clearer!

  • Cheryl Strachan on Jul 24, 2018 Reply

    Hey Vincci, great article, and great answer to Julie’s question above. I always learn something from you. 🙂

  • Julie on Jul 05, 2018 Reply

    I have had diabetes for 20+ years and am on several oral medications for it. I also am very fond of chocolate. I know that when I have 5+ servings of chocolate a day by blood sugar readings are high, whereas if I have 2 or less servings a day, they are lower.

    So is this the kind of trial and error you’re speaking of in this article? And if so, since I know continuous high blood sugar levels are unhealthy for me, is it “okay” for me (in terms of intuitive eating priniciples) to strive to limit the number of servings of chocolate I eat to 1 or 2?

    Thanks for this article!

    • Vincci Tsui on Jul 05, 2018 Reply

      Hi Julie,

      Great question! I think what you are describing is definitely intuitive eating. You’ve found a way to incorporate a food that you’re really fond of in a way that doesn’t impact your blood sugars as much.

      Scenarios where it might be slipping back into diet mentality would be if say, for some reason you ate more than 1-2 servings of chocolate and you get really upset at yourself for it and think of yourself as a “bad” person. Or, if you decide that because this is what works for you, everyone “should” limit their chocolate to 1-2 servings at a time.

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