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Diet Culture, Our Bodies, and the Apostle Paul

“What are your food rules?” she asked me.

“What do you mean, food rules?”

“You know, the foods you let yourself eat, the types of meals you allow in your diet, and the types you don’t, when you eat, where you eat…”

“Oh, gotcha,” I said. “Hm, I don’t know. I don’t have too many.”

“Name a few,” she insisted.

“OK. No white bread or pasta, only whole wheat.”

“OK. Others?”

“No late-night snacks. If I have a cocktail, just vodka soda. Nothing with added sugar.”

“Mmhmm. Any others?”

“I can’t have certain foods in my house or else I’ll eat too much of them like peanut butter, tortilla chips, peanut M&Ms…”

It turned out I had a lot of food rules. This therapist—a certified Intuitive Eating therapist I saw for several months two years ago–methodically talked through them with me, how they became rules, and how I might let them go. It was part of working through principles one (Reject the Diet Mentality), three (Make Peace with Food), and four (Challenge the Food Police) of the ten principles of Intuitive Eating developed in the ‘90s by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. In the last half-decade, their research and work have seen a resurgence, and their book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, has turned into a movement.

There are now certified Intuitive Eating nutritionists, dieticians, and therapists. Seeing one of these therapists was the most radical and profound move I have made in my journey toward improving my relationship with food and my body.

“But I don’t want to let go of my rules,” I finally confessed to her. “I’ll get out of control.”

“You only think you’ll be out of control because you don’t trust your body,” she explained. “Our bodies know what they need and they’ll tell us. But we have to learn to listen. Most of us have stopped listening to our bodies. We don’t even know when we’re hungry because diet culture has taught us to not trust our hunger.”

She gave me an assignment: Sit down with a large bag of peanut M&Ms and eat them until you don’t want to anymore.

“If you eat the entire bag, that’s fine,” she said. “If you eat three, that’s fine.”

For someone who’s been dieting for as long as I had, this was kind of like telling me, Here, just walk off this cliff. You’ll be fine. Trust me.

To my surprise, when I did my assignment, I didn’t fall to my death. Instead, an amazing thing happened. The first few M&Ms tasted really good. Then the next few were pretty good, but the few after that started to taste like nothing—sweet crunchy things without flavor. I ate one more and then closed the bag.

I reported this back to my therapist.

“Good job,” she said. “You listened to your body.”

Listening to my body, trusting it, being in it—these are new lessons I am learning. Strange ground I am trying to navigate, just now, in my mid-thirties.

I have had numerous moments like the M&Ms one over the past two years. Moments of listening to my body and hearing what it is telling me:

You’re still hungry. Eat more.

You’ll be full after a few more bites.

You need a snack. I know you just ate a couple of hours ago. You still need a snack.

Sometimes I do what my body tells me. Sometimes I don’t. After years of being conditioned to not trust my body, it will take time to trust it again. But that, I’ve learned, is what this journey is about. Not health. Not discipline. Not even self-love. Trust.

***

If you’re a Christian, trusting your body can feel like heretical territory. As Paul said a few different times in a few different ways:

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:6-8)

The desires of my flesh are wrong. The needs of my flesh are wrong. What my body is telling me can’t be trusted because I cannot trust my body and God at the same time. This message I internalized from a young age taught me that the voice within leads to destruction. The voice outside and above is what I need to discern, decipher, and follow, even when I’m not sure what that voice is telling me.

By the time I was baptized into diet culture, I had already been baptized into the spirit-versus-flesh culture. This priority of the spirit over the flesh made diet culture a natural fit for my adolescent self. The foods you crave—carbohydrates, fat, sugar? The amount you crave—over 2,000 calories in a day? Those are desires of the flesh. Therefore, they must and can be overcome.

Ironically, the first official diet I remember going on was disguised in religious observation. In ninth grade, I decided to give up fried food for Lent. For the Lord? Probably not. When I went all forty days without a French fry or chicken finger, I was hooked by my seeming talent for strict disciple and rule-following. For the next 18 years, I followed a restrictive code of eating. In high school, I restricted myself to the baked potato and salad bar at lunch. In college, I made a rule of no eating after dinner. (During the time of life when you eat dinner at 6 p.m. and go to bed, oh, six or seven hours later.) By the end of college, while training for my first half marathon, I played a game of seeing how little I could eat at each meal.

In adulthood, my diets sophisticated. I completed multiple rounds of the Whole 30, ninety days of the Pegan diet, I counted macros, I intermittent fasted, you name it. All diets were accompanied by regular workouts even when I didn’t feel like working out. Especially when I didn’t feel like working out.

Over the course of 18 years, I successfully completed what religion had begun: a complete dissociation from my own body.* I didn’t know what it needed. I didn’t know what it wanted. I didn’t listen to the voice within. I didn’t care what it had to say. It would lead me down the path of destruction (weight gain). I listened to the rules, shame, and fear that came from outside and above.

Since seeing the Intuitive Eating therapist, I have been on a quest to reintegrate with myself. To not divorce flesh from spirit, as Paul did so effectively, but to marry them. This has been difficult. When a quest goes against not only a culture you’ve been swimming happily and naively in for 18 years but also the very religion that formed you, it is a messy, grief-stricken, one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of quest. It isn’t clear. You can see nothing through the trees and the whole time you wonder who you’re betraying: God, the culture, or yourself?

By the time I started meeting with the therapist, I had only recently heard the phrase Intuitive Eating. It was over smoothies with someone I had just met at my church. Quickly, I don’t remember how, our conversation turned to our mutual histories in dieting. She, being much farther along in her journey than I, used this phrase Intuitive Eating and explained what it was.

Intuitive Eating is just that: intuiting how and when you want and need to eat. Because research shows that about 80-97% of people who go on a diet end up gaining the weight back if not more, Tribole and Resch knew what their profession had taught them wasn’t working. In addition, research was also showing that yo-yo dieting was hazardous to our physical and emotional health. So they developed a new method based on research and studies that defies the rules of dieting and rejects the idea that thin is the only way to be healthy, the only goal we should all have. Health is possible at all sizes. Yes, all.

It’s a radical idea and one I wasn’t ready for then over smoothies. I had worked so hard for 18 years. It would take time to let go of that work. But several months later when I had redownloaded MyFitnessPal for the umpteenth time and finally felt fed up with feeling underfed, I googled “intuitive eating therapists in Austin.” A few weeks later I was staring down a family-size bag of peanut M&Ms on my dining room table.

I’ve done a lot more staring down of “forbidden” foods—pizza, milkshakes, chocolate chips—over the last two years. Whenever I relapse into dieting (and I do, believe me, I do), I notice my threshold for restriction shortens each time. Two weeks, one week. Then, I hear the quiet voice of my body, and—this is key—I listen to it. I can’t ignore it anymore, which is strange, considering that’s all I did for so long. I’m so grateful that every time, no matter the length of my relapse, it is still there. The voice telling me what I need and want. The voice asking me to trust it.

 

*It might be good to note this is part of a longer essay I’m working on. This isn’t the final word I have to say about religion. Maybe it is about Paul (we’ve always had a complicated relationship) but not Jesus. I think talking about the embodiment of Christ, the divine in flesh, is a crucial part of this conversation, and it’s something I’m sifting through.

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