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6 “Conscious Uncouplings” to Make for a Better Relationship with Food & Body

I’m skeptical of Gwyneth Paltrow as much as the next evidence-based practitioner, and I can’t help but feel my eyes roll as I type the phrase “conscious uncoupling” (it’s actually not a goop original, but a phrase coined by author and family therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas. (Amazon Associates link)) So, I’ll fully admit here that I’m riding the coattails of Gwyneth’s popularity and February being about Valentine’s and love as a way to explore the idea of breaking up with and unlearning old, unhelpful (and possibly harmful) ideas in order to make way for new ones.

1. Weight & Health

Just as the first principle of intuitive eating is “reject the diet mentality”, it makes sense here that the first conscious uncoupling is weight and health. Specifically, the idea that thin/weight loss = healthy, and fat/weight gain = unhealthy. I’ve shared some of the science behind why we need to dissociate weight and health before, but here are a few brief points:

  • A person’s body size says little, if anything, about their health, well-being, and quality of life. I think we can all think of someone who is in a larger body who is perfectly healthy, and someone in a smaller body who is struggling with their health.
  • While higher weights are often associated with negative health outcomes, there is no definitive proof that they are the cause of poor health. Most weight studies ignore the confounding factors of weight stigma and disordered eating, which have both been shown to independently lead to poor health.
  • There are no safe and reliable interventions that result in long-term weight loss for most people, so we don’t have definitive proof that weight loss improves health. On the other hand, there is evidence that weight loss interventions can cause harm by increasing the risk of disordered eating, weight cycling, and malnutrition.

That being said, I’m not saying that weight, and in particular, changes in weight, have no bearing on health whatsoever. However, I do think we need to be more critical in regards to the relationship between weight and health. Is this what a person’s weight or weight change is really saying? What treatments or advice can we offer when we consider the evidence that weight loss is statistically improbable, and weight loss goals are likely harmful?

2. Weight & Self-Care

Some people have argued that although they understand that weight is a poor indicator of health, they still see weight gain as a sign that they’re “not taking care of themselves.” They believe that “trying to lose weight” is really shorthand for practicing in self-care behaviours like changing their eating habits, engaging in activity, getting more sleep, or managing their stress.

While I can absolutely get behind the idea of practicing self-care, here’s why it’s problematic to include weight in the conversation:

  • Many self-care behaviours don’t result in weight changes, so weight can only be a temporary motivator at best. Additionally, using weight as a measure of “how well you’re taking care of yourself” narrows the definition of what is considered a self-care behaviour.
  • Sometimes weight loss can be a result of disordered behaviours, and/or factors outside of a person’s control. Praising weight loss can thus be reinforcing a negative behaviour or situation.
  • Using weight/weight gain as a measure of self-care implies that people of higher weight “aren’t taking care of themselves properly,” which is really fatphobia in a nutshell and frankly, total bullshit.
Using weight or weight gain as a measure of #selfcare implies that people of higher weight 'aren't taking care of themselves properly,' which is #fatphobia in a nutshell and frankly, total bullshit. Click To Tweet

3. Health/Self-Care & Static

Since we’re on the topic of health and self-care, may we also consciously uncouple with the idea that there is a single, unchanging definition of these two concepts? Health and self-care can mean so many different things depending on who you ask. Heck, health and self-care can mean different things to the same person, depending on where they are in space and time. Sometimes health means being free of chronic conditions, or it can mean being able to get out of bed. Sometimes self-care means manicures and bubble baths, and sometimes it feels like work. Consider the different ways that you define “health” and “self-care,” and how those definitions have evolved.

4. Weight/Health & Worth

I was listening to a podcast interview with fat activist and scholar Cat Pausé recently, and she spoke about how she doesn’t talk about fat and health anymore (i.e. Conscious Uncouplings #1 & #2) because she considers it a “fat herring.” In other words, it distracts from the true motivation behind fat activism, which is that people of all sizes are deserving of respect and dignity, full stop. Including health in the conversation creates a false hierarchy—a higher-weight person who is struggling with health concerns, or not engaging in “healthy” behaviours shouldn’t be considered less worthy than a higher-weight person who doesn’t have health problems, or lives a “healthy lifestyle.”

On that note, I will also add that our worth should not be defined by our health, productivity, or achievements. I know this is completely counter-intuitive to what we’re taught in our culture, (I personally struggle with the productivity one) and especially coming from someone who works in a health-related field. While it’s absolutely normal to value those things, and want to have more of those things, you are not any less if you don’t have, or don’t value them. We are worthy simply by existing.

We are worthy simply by existing. Click To Tweet

5. Weight/Health/Food & Morality

Similarly, we need to consciously uncouple from attaching morality (i.e. “good” and “bad”) when it comes to weight, health, and food. This ties in with the Intuitive Eating principle to “Make Peace with Food,” or give ourselves unconditional permission to eat. While many people seem to accept the idea that “all foods fit” or “everything in moderation,” there are still tons of euphemisms to imply that there’s a morality hierarchy when it comes to food—how often do you use the words “clean,” “natural,” “processed,” or “healthy” to describe the foods that you eat? Or that sneaky “always” versus “sometimes” food that we often use with young children?

Knowing that no single food can make or break your health, can we really name any foods “healthy/unhealthy” or “good/bad”? In the same vein, what would it be like to not attach morality to a person’s weight or health status?

6. You & Absolutes

Throughout this post, we’ve been talking about concepts that we need to consciously uncouple from each other. This last one is about YOU.

Our brains love efficiency. It’s why it seems like sometimes we’re on “autopilot.” It’s why we like to use stereotypes, put things in categories, and make associations. So I invite you to challenge your efficiency and notice the ways that you find yourself thinking in absolutes.

One example that I really love comes from The Intuitive Eating Workbook. (Amazon Associates link) When it comes to our lifestyle habits, it’s easy to fall into the trap that we have to do something “every day” or “every week” in order for it to “count.” Instead, co-authors Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch ask, what if we used “for the most part?” What does this phrase make possible when it comes to considering your habits, or trying to make a change? What are some other ways that you can move away from absolutes?

Have these “celebrity couples” been a part of your life? What other ideas have you had to consciously uncouple to help improve your relationship with food and/or your body?

5 Comments

  • FellowDietitian on Feb 17, 2019 Reply

    Thank you for posting these thoughtful comments!!

    • Vincci Tsui on Feb 19, 2019 Reply

      Thanks for your kind feedback!

  • Cora on Feb 13, 2019 Reply

    I love the idea of concious uncouplings. Thank-you Vincci. I have managed to seperate weight and health and weight/health and worth but it’s still a process for me to seperate worth from accomplishments. Also… I am wondering how you feel about the celebrity couple health & self-care ?

    • Vincci Tsui on Feb 13, 2019 Reply

      Thanks for your feedback and for your great question, Cora! I think my answer traces back to what I shared above about how “health” and “self-care” don’t have singular definitions. I think the two concepts can be related or not, depending on how a person chooses to define “health” and “self-care”.

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