Bunny Shaming

Last weekend, my children took part in a yearly ritual involving a fantastical giant fluffy bunny and a shite-load of chocolate.  Some call it Easter, but in our (seriously non-denominational) family, it’s known as The Chocolate Holiday.

The holy chocolate day starts with the adult rising uncharacteristically early, and sneaking outside – under cover of darkness – to scatter the goods throughout the garden.  It is quickly followed by the stampeding of little feet, the ripping of foil, and the unbridled joy (and heavenly silence) that is legitimate chocolate consumption before breakfast.

At 8 years of age, my daughter is undoubtedly too old to believe in a giant, chocolate-bearing bunny (just as she’s surely too old to believe in Santa or the tooth fairy, yet steadfastly clings to such notions).  But she’s not letting go, or letting on, because …

CHOCOLATE

And you know what?  I totally get that.  In fact I applaud that.

As a dietitian, and a foodie, I believe that finding pleasure in food is a good thing. And following on from that, I believe that it’s okay to eat some foods not for their nutritional value, or health-giving properties, but simply because they’re luxurious / indulgent / insanely delicious.

And that’s why something I read this week made me feel very sad.

Surprise surprise, it was Pete Evans.  Pete with his special brand of blue-eyed, slightly unhinged dietary zeal, preaching once again to his tribe on Facebook.  But what got me this time was that he wasn’t just talking about himself. Nor was it another emotive, highly crafted ‘over to you’ tale of paleo triumphing over the woes of chronic disease.   This time, it was about kids – his kids – and how he was teaching them the ‘right’ way to eat.

Here it is what he posted on 13th April.

Pete Evans and the bunnies

On the surface it’s kind of sweet – is it not? The protective, nurturing father, guiding his daughters through life with a charming tale of (pure, disease free, enlightened) bunnies. And judging by the volumes of adoring comments it garnered, that’s exactly the way Pete’s tribe saw it.

But it’s the subtext that made my stomach churn.  Because when you read between the lines, Pete’s message to his daughters is that eating lollies at a party is a bad thing to do – that it would harm them, and essentially make them less pure.

His is a lesson in the dichotomy of food, and the warped idea that no amount of lollies is ever okay, if they want to lead healthy, happy lives.  It perpetuates the idea that foods are either righteous or sinful.  Tonic or toxin.  Pure or dirty.

To me, the bunny story is food guilt, dressed up as good parenting.  And it makes me sad to think what foundations are being laid down right now in his daughters’ impressionable young minds.  And – for that matter – in the impressionable young minds of children all over the country who’s parents buy into this militant way of thinking.

No bunnies were harmed

Because humans are not bunnies Pete.  We are emotionally complex, intelligent creatures who develop a relationship with food very early on in life.  We don’t just mindlessly nibble away on whatever we are fed – we learn and develop a belief system around foods from our family, friends and life experiences, which will lay the foundation for our eating patterns in the future.

Will Pete’s ‘bunnies’ grow up subscribing to his dogma and never want to eat a lolly?  Or (more likely) will they eat the lollies one day, and then feel the guilt?  What other ‘bad’ foods will they grow up feeling ashamed of eating?  Chocolate surely, and maybe grains, dairy foods, legumes, potatoes?  And how will they fare in their teenage and adult years when their world opens up to reveal a minefield of dangerously available, ultimately alluring ‘banned’ foods?

My opinion is that such teaching is a recipe for disordered eating in susceptible individuals.

And that’s why I won’t be banning my children from any particular foods, regardless of how nutritionally bereft they may be.  I won’t be staying at the party to slap their little hands away from the fairy bread, or cautioning the grandparents against buying them an ice cream.

I’ll be offering them mostly nutrient dense, minimally processed foods that I know will support the growth of their bodies and minds.  I’ll be teaching them that we eat not only to fuel our bodies, but also to indulge our senses, and to socialise, and be part of a community.  I’ll be letting them know that sometimes it is okay to eat food just for pleasure, and hoping to instil in them a mindful, moderate approach to eating, rather than a rigid, fearful one.

And so, ends my little Friday night stint on the soap box – with that vexatious, unsexy message of moderation again.  That, and a couple of questions to ponder:

1.  Are you sure no bunnies were harmed in the making of that statement?

And

2.  Is food the new rock?  Or for some, is it the new religion?

Pete Evans

Is Food the new rock? Image: http://www.news.com.au

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Last night a Mars Bar saved my night

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.

Image: coffeedundee.com.au

Image: coffeedundee.com.au

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.  hungry as f***

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).

ironic much?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.clean eating pulp fiction

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.

grumpy bird

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.

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Do you need help, or do you want to learn more?  You can sign up over here to access Rick’s free resources, and find the link to his inspirational book If Not Dieting, Then What?