Wins and Losses: Old Habits Die Hard

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The following piece was written by one of Jonah’s patients who wishes to only be identified as a 36-year-old male.

Befitting the New Year, you would think I’d be writing about my resolutions for 2017, but I have a win from this past Thanksgiving that I’d like to share.

A little about me

I was a dancer as part of a performing arts group, and I traveled throughout the world dancing and performing in various venues — some as big as football stadiums and others as intimate as a small conference room. I was very fortunate to have this experience growing up (I began performing at the age of 16 and “retired” at the age of 26.) and feel grateful to have the talent and courage to pursue this sort of lifestyle. I’ve been to almost every U.S. state (excluding Alaska and the Dakotas) as well as various cities around the world — Paris, Amsterdam, Taiwan, Yokohama, Toronto, etc. I loved seeing all the different cities and how different cultures interacted within themselves, with other cultures, and even with their surroundings.

As you can probably imagine, traveling the world was glorious, but it was not easy by any means. I lived out of a suitcase for 6 months at a time; missing family events while I was on tour was the norm; and our sense of “home” was based on how long we would be staying in Anytown, USA. We were also at the beck and call of the directors and the schedules they created. Rehearsals every day, 7 days a week from 9am to 6pm (or some days even later if we didn’t have a show); additional performances that really strained every minute for “ME” time; and when and what to eat (and usually how much to eat) were always decided for us. It’s not as bad as I just made it seem. Like I said, it was quite glorious. It was nice to not think about the outside world — everyday tasks were managed for me. It really allowed me to focus on why I was there: to be the best performer I could be.

Perfection is attainable…right?

Dancing, much like any other sport, is really tough on the mind, body, and spirit. To be the best, you really have to work hard and be committed to the craft (not to mention have good genes and be somewhat of a natural talent). After all, the producers don’t give solos to the 2nd-best dancer. Dancing is also very specific — there is only one correct way to stand in first position. Any slight variation thereof is, well, simply incorrect. One might perfect their skills in other sports (i.e., one might work hard enough to make 9 out of 10 free throws), but in dance, there is always something that can be improved. So the idea of dancing “perfectly” does not exist. Yet, to be accomplished in dance, you constantly strive for this perfection. The struggle to jump higher is real. Turn faster. Turn faster! TURN FASTER! Even though these pressures mainly came from within myself, I became so worried (and obsessed) about being the best that nothing I did was ever good enough. Somehow, I thought I could achieve something better than perfection.

This battle bled into all aspects of my life: from personal relationships and self-confidence to body image and diets. Especially the latter. I distinctly remember a moment during the high point of my career. We were in dress rehearsal, putting together the finishing touches before our big opening night. At this point, we were all dancing 7 days a week for 6 to 7 hours per day. I was in peak fitness. I also wasn’t eating much because there was a portion of the performance where the men had to perform shirtless, and well, I was self-conscience about that since I wanted to look perfect. I mustn’t have weighed more than 130 pounds (I’m 5’10”.). My director approached me and suggested I watch my diet for the next few days because I would be standing next to some of the other men. She glanced over at the skinniest performer. She didn’t need to say the words, “and you are bigger than he is,” as the look was enough for me to really think about what I was doing and, more importantly, why I was doing it.

That moment was so pivotal to my career as a dancer. For me, dancing was like having a relationship with a double-edged sword. I loved to dance and was so passionate to share that with the world. I was enamored by the craft, while being pricked by both ends, as dancing created an environment that allowed me to neglect healthy eating and nutrition choices. I have trouble dealing with and embracing my own body image (The constant critiques towards a dancer are never-ending.); I struggle with the concept of working out to live a healthy life versus exercising to burn calories/lose weight; and even more, I have a hard time figuring out how to tune in to my body to find what I want to eat, when to eat it, and, more importantly, when to stop eating because I’ve reached an acceptable level of fullness.

Now (over 15 years later), my life is completely different. I’m not dancing anymore, so there’s that. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to dance into retirement, so I decided to pursue a different career and won’t bore you with those details now…just know that my life as a world traveler is much less exciting. What is exciting though is that I’m the leader of my own ship. I am in control of how my story goes, and I’ve come to love this freedom in most aspects of my life.

Setting expectations

Years following, I had the hardest time staying “in shape” — I would try any sport that would help me keep the pounds off: yoga, running, triathlons, obstacle course races. And even though all the training helped to maintain my body shape, I was still unhappy with the results I was experiencing. After talking to my sister-in-law about her nutritionist, I thought I’d give it a shot.

You should’ve seen me in my first session with Jonah — looking back now, I think it was quite comical — I came into the office, strong and confident, ready to establish expectations for our future work. I said, “Listen, you can put me on any kind of diet, but I won’t give up my sweets. I love them too much!” I didn’t realize I had the experience all wrong — it wasn’t about the sweets. I would then be educated about the different theories of nutrition, their applications, and the work I had ahead of me.

During our sessions, we would work on binge eating, recognizing fullness, honoring my hunger, and celebrating my relationship with food. We talked about embracing my body image and what that meant for me. We formalized strategies for upcoming occasions where my old habits would challenge my new relationship with food. Most importantly, we didn’t give up my sweets!

So…about that win!

As I mentioned earlier, I have trouble accepting my level of fullness. I went from being told what to eat to complete eating freedom, so you can imagine the binge eating every Thanksgiving, year after year, leaving the dinner table filled to the brim with stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes. You name it, I would eat it — if I didn’t really like the taste — or even if I was already full — or because there was something about missing out on the taste that I couldn’t let go — or because I didn’t want to upset the host by not eating the food they’d so lovingly prepared for us that day.

I wanted this Thanksgiving to be different from previous years, however. This year, I came to dinner with a plan on how I was going to eat during this meal, and I was determined to stick to it! (Spoiler alert: I did!)

Plan of attack

Through my work with Jonah, we were able to formulate a plan, and it was simple (in theory). I was going to take an inventory of the available foods during our Thanksgiving feast. As I walked around, I recognized foods that were appealing to me — I really tried to tune in to my intuitive eating skills — and what foods I could skip out on. I say “in theory” because by doing inventory, I also had to accept the foods that were appealing and give myself permission to eat those foods without guilt (For the record, I love bread and butter…lots and lots of butter.).

The result: I don’t really like all three varieties of stuffing, I don’t need to eat them all, and no one was going to heckle me about trying them all. Most everyone else was too busy serving themselves anyway. This quick walk-through allowed me to really honor and respect my hunger. It gave me the opportunity to carefully select the foods I was so excited to eat — it was Thanksgiving after all.

For the first time I can remember, I left Thanksgiving dinner feeling comfortable in my own skin (and clothes) by not overeating. I am still on the high from this win, and it helps give me confidence going in to whatever meal comes next. It might not be the most exciting win, nor does it mean I am over battling my other eating issues. But it is a “W” in my column.

Don’t get me wrong

I have good days and bad days. There are days where I eat multiple times throughout the day without ever consulting my intuitive eater. There are times when I feel like I really need to get to the gym to burn off that cookie I had earlier. Even though my day-to-day’s nutrition success fluctuates, what I’ve realized is that it’s a work in progress, and I won’t deny myself (and you shouldn’t either) the ticks in the “W” column (the everyday wins). I’ve earned that “W” and proudly display it on my sleeve (Ok, not literally. I am writing this anonymously, so if I wore a “W” on my sleeve, it might give me away.). You should too. No matter how big or small.

Psychology

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At a large family gathering over the weekend, a distant relative asked me about my work. Upon hearing that I am a dietitian, he smiled, leaned in, and asked me one of the most common initial questions that dietitians field, “So, do you practice what you preach?”

Whenever this question comes my way, I experiment with different permutations and phrasings of the same core truth in order to see which version best resonates with people. In this instance, I told him that what I “preach” might not be what he imagines, and that in reality a large chunk of what I do involves helping people to listen to and honor their internal cues regarding hunger, fullness, and food cravings.

His eyes wandered elsewhere as I spoke, and I could tell that this version of my answer was most definitely not resonating with him. When I finished, he reflected back to me, “That sounds like psychology.” He is not alone in his confusion, as other people have reacted similarly upon hearing a summary of intuitive eating. However, reconsider my answer within the framework of the following examples.

When a diabetes educator discusses the symptoms of low blood sugar with his or her patient, is that psychology?

When a physical therapist instructs a patient on how to modify an exercise in response to pain or discomfort, is that psychology?

When a primary care physician listens to his or her patient recount the side effects he or she experienced on a particular medication, is that psychology?

When a personal trainer talks with his or her client about the difference between the temporary discomfort that sometimes accompanies exertion and warning signs of injury, is that psychology?

Of course not, none of these examples are psychology; they are just examples of various discussions that take place between patients and practitioners regarding the feedback that our bodies give us in particular situations.

Yet when a dietitian engages in a similar discussion with a patient, whoa, suddenly it is seen as psychology. What does it say about how disconnected our culture teaches us to be from our internal signals regarding eating that an approach that encourages us to pay attention to said signals triggers connotations of therapy?

Dietitians are not psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers (Well, some are, but the vast majority do not hold such a license in conjunction with their dietetic credentials.) and we know our professional boundaries. Discussions of said internal signals are not only within the realm of our work, they are critical to its success.

Just as my relative expected a more concrete and specific answer that would have put some label on my personal style of eating, new patients often expect that a similar external structure, such as a meal plan or a calorie recommendation, will drive their care. Nutrition is not that simple. In fact, long-term success often hinges on paying less attention to external cues regarding what and how much to eat and putting more focus on the internal signals that our bodies give us. Does that sound like psychology to you?