Last week I attended a public lecture on healthy eating behaviour and weight management (which I realise is a pretty dull start to a blog post – but bear with me). The reason I feel compelled to write about it is that actually, it was the best Tuesday night I’ve spent in ages. There was no mention of menu planning, protein to carb ratios or meal replacement shakes – but get this: we all had to eat a Mars Bar together. Now that’s what I call professional development.
Colleagues reading this post have probably guessed who I’m talking about. Dr Rick Kausman has been working to help people eat well and take control of their weight for over twenty-five years, but the big news is that he doesn’t believe in dieting.
So how on earth does he help overweight people without putting them on a diet? Well that is just it.
Rick recognises that dieting (however you do it) only works in the short term. Because whether you’re counting calories, or banning whole food groups – you’re essentially suspending ‘normal’ behaviour, for the purpose of losing weight. In an existential way, he describes it as a bit like holding your breath.
But here’s the thing that really struck a cord with me: Instead of blaming the diet when it all goes to pot, we always blame ourselves.
“The diet worked and I lost some weight, but then I mucked it up. I put the weight back on”
Sound familiar? In the long term, diets do more harm than good, with the vast majority ending up right back where they started, plus a few extra kilos and an extra dollop of shame – thanks for playing. Case in point is our national treasure and ex-Jenny Craig poster girl Magda Szubanski – who lost upwards of 35kg with Jenny Craig back in 2009, only to be resigned in 2014 to do it all over again (and then dropped six months later).
The truth is that most overweight people have a pretty decent idea of how to eat better and exercise more. Many are good at losing the weight – but just not keeping it off. They’ve been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt (in a variety of sizes).
But what Rick Kausman’s experience has taught him is that exercise and nutrition are only two small pieces of a very large puzzle. And you can’t solve a puzzle when you’re missing most of the pieces. Fabulous – right there. I think I have nerdy, non-sexual crush on an older married man.
So what are the other missing pieces? Here’s my three take away messages:
1. Mindful eating. We need to start listening to our bodies.
So many of us have lost touch with the way we eat. We’re wolfing food down so fast that we barely have time to register fullness or pleasure. Or we’re mindlessly nibbling our kids’ toast scraps at the kitchen bench. Sometimes, we eat just because it’s there, and sometimes because we’re anxious, exhausted or bored.
This is what Rick refers to as non-hungry eating. It’s normal and totally okay to do some of the time, but do it on a regular basis, and you’re tricking your body into consuming more fuel than it really needs.
Rick teaches his clients to practice mindful eating, by recording their hunger levels and state of mind using a food awareness diary. He uses the Mars Bar exercise (God bless him) to demonstrate how with practice, mindful eaters are able to eat less, and enjoy it more. The simple, yet powerful question he proposes is ‘I can have it if I want it, but do I really feel like it?’
And that leads me on to my next point:
2. We need to ditch the food guilt
Fitspo? Clean eating? Detoxing? How have these ridiculous, self-riteous concepts ever helped overweight people? I’ve said this before, but man, we really need to stop thinking of foods as good or bad, right or wrong, clean or dirty. That goes for us, and doubly so for how we talk to our children about food.
As parents, most of us have done it before – and I’ll put my hand up here. Against my better judgement, I’ve caught myself calling food ‘rubbish’ in front of my children. But does it stop them wanting the alluringly packaged, disturbingly coloured, salty-sweet ‘junk’ in question? No. This kind of language just encourages guilt and shame around food. And as a mum (and a dietitian), that’s certainly not what I want to impart.
It may sound a bit naff when you first say it out loud, but talking about ‘everyday’ and ‘sometimes’ foods is an infinitely more helpful and effective approach.
3. A number on the scales shouldn’t be mistaken for a measure of health and wellbeing
On my final point here, please don’t get me wrong – I’m well aware that obesity is a huge health and economic burden in Australia today. It’s just that I don’t see how our obsession with weighing and measuring, diet ‘policing’ and fat-shaming is going to help.
It’s time to recognise and foster the idea that healthy bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes. As health professionals, we need to shift the focus onto the person – helping them to improve their self esteem, and motivating them to nurture (rather than detest) their bodies. It’s called the person centred, non-diet approach, and the word is slowly spreading.