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A New Holiday Tradition: Making peace with food and weight

Jenni Schaefer

It starts with Halloween—the candy. Next comes the smorgasbord at Thanksgiving. Then, more holiday food enters the picture throughout December with a grand finale on New Year’s Eve. And, with the roll of the calendar to January 1st, resolutions to diet and lose weight begin across America.

People of all ages join in this crazy cycle. At the young age of four, even though I was a normal sized child, I already believed that I was fat and was afraid to eat certain types of foods for the fear of getting bigger.

Society tells us that to be thinner is to be happier. But when I reached my lowest weight at 22-years-old, I was far from happy. In fact, I was miserable and struggling with a life-threatening eating disorder.

I sought help, and after many years, I am fully recovered. Strangely, my eating disorder forced me to develop a healthier relationship with food and weight than I ever would have without it. In recovery, I was able to talk with trained clinicians about my obsession with fat grams and even express how I felt about the size of my thighs in body image therapy group. Because most people never have the opportunity to utilize these kinds of resources, I like to share my lessons learned.

Wisdom about how to eat in a balanced way can actually be found by observing babies. They eat when hungry and stop when full—an approach known as intuitive eating. Unfortunately, as infants grow older, they stop responding to internal hunger and fullness cues and instead pay attention to external ones. Even young school-aged children will eat simply because the bell rings for lunchtime or as a result of watching a fast food commercial. Society trains us to stop listening to our bodies.

Yet our body is masterful. It will tell us when and even what to eat.

If we have been ignoring our internal signals for a long time, patience and practice will be necessary in order to re-connect. We might even need to consult with a dietitian for assistance. Children can often make improvements rather quickly as long as they are given proper instruction and have an example to follow. What if we all made our New Year’s resolution to be that example?

The multi-billion dollar dieting industry will be sure to push back. But make no mistake: this monetarily successful industry has a 95-percent failure rate. It is no secret that diets do not work.

Dieting is based on the misconception that food has a moral value. At holiday parties, you have probably heard someone say something like, “I’ve been good all day. Now, I’m going to be bad and eat a slice of pumpkin pie.”

Eating pumpkin pie is not a “bad” thing to do. Throwing pie into someone’s face would be bad! Food does not have a moral value. Food is just food.

Eating intuitively means we stop using categories like good or bad. The minute we label a food negatively is the same moment that we obsess about that forbidden item and possibly binge on it. I will not argue with the fact that some foods are more nutritionally dense than others. But, if we listen to our bodies, we will crave the appropriate amounts of a wide variety of foods—to fuel our specific needs. All food has its place on the dinner table.

Intuitive eating is flexible like this without rigid rules. Even if we end up consuming more during the holiday season just because the food tastes so good and it is only around one time of the year, that’s okay. Unlike what the dieting industry wants us to believe, our bodies can actually handle changes in our daily intake without us having to “make up for it” by restricting later or spending hours on the treadmill. If we listen closely, we will know what to eat and even how to exercise all year round. And we will, in return, reach the size we are genetically supposed to be.

This ideal weight is the size at which we have plenty of energy, can think clearly, and experience joy. It has nothing to do with the number on the scale.

This holiday, let’s view our body as a vehicle for life rather than something to be controlled. Let’s cherish each warm embrace and feel gratitude in the ability to laugh with family and friends. What a wonderful holiday tradition to pass along— loving and respecting our body in a world that doesn’t. A gift for generations.

Chair of the Ambassadors Council of the National Eating Disorders Association and consultant with Center for Change, Jenni Schaefer is a singer/songwriter, speaker, and author of Life Without Ed and Goodbye Ed, Hello Me (McGraw-Hill). Her debut music CD is titled “phoenix, Tennessee.” For more information, visit www.jennischaefer.com or www.facebook.com/lifewithouted.


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