Friday, January 8, 2010
Health at Every Size... All Aboard the Soul Train
When our group initially gathered for, "The Big Fat Lie" intuitive eating and sustainability project we had the intention of reclaiming our health while also giving back to the earth. It seemed a win-win situation that we could do something for our personal benefit and extend that healing effect to the planet and all who share this little blue ball in the galaxy with us. Many of us had faced health challenges and had been urged by medical professionals to take preventive steps to safeguard our well-being. We had been admonished ad nauseam to drop some weight in the name of health. Everyone wants to look and feel their best. However, our group's focus has always been on health. It was very important to us that we remained rooted on the path of intuitive eating. The intuitive eating approach has been a compassionate guide leading us to a place of peace with food and our bodies. The initial inspiration for our project was in response to obesity research that had been conducted using traditional diet approaches as the testing field. Certain conclusions were reached as a result of those studies claiming that the best an obese individual could hope for would be a 10% reduction in weight. The reason... genetics.
While I could acknowledge that genetics do play a powerful role in the body type we develop... all I have to do is look through family albums and I can spot plenty of bodies that look just like mine... I also felt that self-care is a big component. I felt, and continue to feel, that the highly-processed foods that grace most Americans tables play a great role in the state of our vitality, or lack thereof. I was disappointed to see that all the research that has been conducted used the model of severely restricted calorie diets as the basis of their study. Of course diets are doomed to failure! You cannot work against your body biologically and expect it to cooperate with your agenda. I found it humorous when I read how obesity researchers marveled that those who had been on medically supervised crash diets of under 1,000 calories a day over a period of six months behaved like someone who was starving when allowed the freedom to finally eat of their own accord. Seriously... this isn't some light bulb moment. These case study subjects were starving which is exactly why they became so obsessed with food and found it impossible to stop binging. Of course every pound tortuously shed came piling back on.
By now, many people have heard of the studies conducted during World War II at the University of Minnesota between November 19, 1944 and December 20, 1945 where a control group of completely healthy men who never had any kind of food or body image issues were put on a controlled diet. This study was conducted in the hopes of discovering the physiological and psychological impact of enforced restrictive eating, as well as the potential benefit of using dietary measures for rehabilitation. The study was divided into four separate phases; 12 weeks of observation to determine the test subject's baseline psychological and physiological profiles, 24 weeks of controlled starvation where calorie adjustments were made to produce a 25% decrease in weight from the men's starting point, 12 weeks of a controlled recovery phase where dietary rehabilitation was employed to nourish the subjects back to a state of health, followed by 8 weeks of unrestricted rehabilitation where there were no limits in food choices or calories but the subjects were monitored and their dietary patterns recorded.
Very quickly, the 36 men who participated in this research became obsessed with food. They drew out their meager meals as long as possible, shuffling the food about on their plates. They talked incessantly about food. Some even compiled lists of foods they planned to eat once the study was over. Others took to reading cookbooks. By the time the study was completed the research overwhelmingly confirmed that restriction and deprivation breed disordered eating. This impact was noted both physically and psychologically. All of the men involved in this study developed food and body image issues. The subject's demeanor mimicked behavior classically exhibited in clinical eating disorder. They also gained weight, in most cases becoming larger than they were at the beginning of the research.
More disconcerting was the severe emotional distress and depression experienced by the subjects. There was decreased sexual interest in the men. They also withdrew themselves from social interaction and became isolated. On the extreme end of the scale, one of the men mutilated himself by chopping off three of his fingers with an axe. His level of confusion and mental distortion was evident in his statement that he didn't know if he physically hurt himself accidentally, or with intention.
Overwhelmingly, the research has demonstrated time and time again that diets don't work and often are a gateway to eating disorder. This much is clear. What is unclear to me is why the research has focused on deprivation diets as a route to health when the evidence is vehemently contradictory to this claim. Why hasn't there been more research utilizing an intuitive approach? Could an individual reach a size that is health-supporting through the path of intuitive eating? That remains to be seen and was the initial impetus of, "The Big Fat Lie" project.
Now a new question has begun to formulate in my mind... "How much does body size have to do with health at all?" My change in thought was inspired upon reading a very important book by, Linda Bacon, PhD., "Health at Every Size". I strongly urge everyone participating in our project and all followers of our blog to obtain a copy of this life-changing book. I believe this book should be on the office shelves of every medical professional and individual working in the field of human services. "Health at Every Size" should be required reading in schools. In essence, the wealth of knowledge outlined in its pages contains important information that everyone should be aware of.
"Health at Every Size" took everything I ever believed about how my body size affects my health, every harsh warning uttered by the many physicians I have been treated by over the years, along with numerous well-meaning comments of concerned loved ones and turned it all completely upside down. What a relief! I learned that I can have health here and now. Claiming this as my reality is not dependent on the size of my body. I came to understand that I don't have to fit in the rigid range deemed 'healthy' by medical weight charts and BMI guidelines. I can own my unique body and embrace it for the gift it is. In a revolutionary act of self-love, I can provide myself with the best quality care, not in the hopes of diminishing my size, but because I deserve this compassion and attention. I can claim vitality as my birthright in this moment whether or not taking steps to nurture my health lead to weight release. This realization was liberating!
"Health at Every Size" presents the facts... solid facts based on years of scientific study. Linda Bacon outlines a direct route to health. She doesn't make it convoluted. She keeps it simple and I can appreciate that. How does one select foods to nurture well-being? Emphasize real food... whole foods that come from the earth, not foods that are engineered to get you hooked and leave you craving more. As much as you can, let plant foods form the foundation of your food choices. Foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds are the fertilizer needed to nourish a strong healthy body. They provide a vital ingredient that is sorely lacking in the Standard American Diet (SAD)... fiber. The more you can gravitate toward plant foods and decrease your reliance on animal products, the healthier you will be.
This doesn't mean you have to run out and become a vegetarian, but how about trying to have a few meatless meals within the week? What about trying some new vegetables or fruits and incorporating more produce into your meals? Even something as simple as using a heavier hand with the beans and a little less meat in that batch of homemade chili has an impact, not only on your personal well-being, but the welfare of the planet. If protecting our natural resources is important to you... if you are a steward for the environment... one of the most powerful changes you can make that will directly lower your carbon footprint is to gravitate toward a more plant-based way of eating. Each individual will have their own comfort zone with this. It's something you have to personally feel out for yourself. However, having the knowledge that something so simple as being a little less liberal with animal products can have such a potent effect on our health is certainly food for thought. What you choose to do with this information is your decision alone.
It's not like there is anything so revolutionary about this approach to wellness. I learned from my college nutrition class that the more you can emphasize plant foods, the better off you'll be. This is information registered dietitians have been privy to for years. The problem is that we rarely get our nutritional information from the professionals who have made this their field of study. Medical physicians clock very few educational hours learning about nutrition. Why then, do we look to our doctors and expect them to have the answers when we have questions about the most nurturing way to feed ourselves? Why has our society allowed the mega-corporate machine of the diet industry to provide us with nutritional counsel when their investment is not in our well-being, but in fattening their wallets?
The best customer is a repeat customer. That's business baby. Why would the diet industry want to reveal that the route to health is so easily accessible? It works in their favor to have us buy into the fear-mongering... the belief that our lives are in jeopardy and we are facing an epidemic of gastronomical proportions because we are carrying around a few extra pounds. They have also duped us by making the solution seem so complex and not the simple reality it is. That is how they get us hooked.
The current food climate is mired in confusion. Never before in history has eating been such a complex proposition. Every day we are faced with a headline vilifying a new food that is supposedly 'bad' for us and the cause of disease. Give it a month or two and the same food once maligned will now be redeemed by new evidence that it boasts a high-antioxidant content, or some other such dribble. What it boils down to is lobbying and the bargaining chip is your health. Our current nutritional guidelines as determined by the USDA are established by the highest bidder. Whichever food industry is willing to cough up enough cash is the one that will monopolize more space on the Food Pyramid.
We have also seen the same confusion surrounding exercise. Ironically, in spite of our fitness obsession, many Americans are out of shape due to sedentary lifestyles. Once again, I believe this is because of conflicting messages. We've become a slave to the grind because we have bought into this idea that in order for exercise to be beneficial we have to spend grueling hours punishing ourselves at the gym with relentless workouts. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
All movement is exercise. The key to building a life-practice of self-care through the vehicle of fitness is to do what you love, not what you think you should. Americans are sedentary in large part because we have made the experience of exercise so miserable. It is a chore... something to get over and done with. Why would anyone want to dedicate themselves to a life-practice that is so utterly unrewarding? Our current mindset around fitness is based on punishment, not reward. Each New Year millions of Americans stalwartly set out on 'the last' diet and exercise plan they genuinely believe they will ever need. This is it! This is the year that everything will be different. We set ourselves up and then feel disappointed when we fall flat on our face and find ourselves settling into old patterns of neglect. In order to embrace a new way of being, it needs to be more gratifying than the old way of doing things. If you set out with the intention to deprive yourself by whipping yourself into submission with workouts only a trained athlete could stomach, why would you be surprised to find yourself a few short weeks later burnt out, couch bound, depressed and unmotivated?
It's time we brought the fun back into fitness. Think back to when you were a kid... always on the go... a vibrant being in perpetual motion. Life was different then. You didn't move because you wanted to drop some quick pounds. You weren't trying to fit into that little black number. You were moving for the sheer joy of it. What gives you joy now? Do you know? Perhaps this is an area we could all benefit from exploring.
I've had my own personal revolution with fitness. I used to strongly identify with the gym rat persona. I worked my body into the ground. I found myself suffering repeat injuries and episodes of over-training. I used to equate this to my fiery personality. "I like the intensity"... I would often try to convince myself. The reality was that all my exercise had the same intention... to build the 'dream' body. It really had nothing to do with having fun or trying out new activities that interested me. It was all about the burn. How many calories did I just use up with that sweat session? How many pounds will I lose if I exercise a little harder, a little longer? My exercise stints always came in bursts. They would start off full of vim and vigor, then rapidly fizzle out when my body couldn't meet the demand of the expectation I was putting on it.
In recent months, I've reconnected with that part of me that was the little girl stomping through the creek on hot summer days. I've recalled hours spent holed up in my teenage bedroom, dancing like no one was watching. I've remembered long walks shared with friends while we gabbed away, enjoying each other's company and the natural scenery. I also had visions of my 13 year old self taking those first steps to awaken the yogini within. I remembered opening the pages of a yoga book I picked up at the library and giving the exotic asanas a whirl. It's funny... I came to realize that these are the same types of movement that I love now as an adult.
The illusion was shattered. I hate going to the gym. If I have to hoist another weight I think I will die of boredom. I can't stand running like a hamster on a treadmill when I could be outside in the fresh air enjoying a hike surrounded by the beauty of nature. Forget aerobics classes! I love to dance. It frees up space for me to come into direct contact with my creative energy... the language of my soul. I still enjoy going for a stroll with a good friend in tow. Yoga continues to provide me an island of peace and renewal within the backdrop of a busy life.
It's time that we collectively shed the expectations placed on us by the so-called 'experts' and instead, reconnected with ourselves, our bodies and our own internal source of wisdom. Everything about the way we are biologically designed is geared to seek a state of balance and radiant well-being. The problem is, we continue to look for the answers outside of ourselves. We approach the care of our bodies in a cut and dry fashion. We get in our heads instead of getting into our bodies and feeling our way through. With our brains chocked full of so much useless contradictory information, how are we supposed to wade through all the muck so we can arrive at 'what is'? We never take the time to touch base with our own internal data bank of wisdom.
In so many ways, the material presented in, "Health at Every Size" is in direct alignment with, "The Big Fat Lie" project. On many levels, I felt validated after reading Linda Bacon's words. I could see that our project was built on a solid foundation rooted in established research. However, Linda Bacon brought something new to the table. She opened my eyes and made me realize that our project doesn't need to have weight release as its ultimate goal. Our health doesn't depend on us shedding pounds. What is important is that we show up every day with the intention to treat ourselves in a loving compassionate way and that we encourage others to do the same by taking steps to promote awareness. All bodies are sacred. Instead of chasing an 'ideal', even one medically established, we should be moving toward loving the body we have here and now. We should celebrate diversity by understanding that there are many shapes and sizes in this world of ours. Not one body type can be labeled as the 'right' type.
This is the critical way our project has been impacted by the work of Linda Bacon. As a group, we are releasing the goal of weight release in the name of health as an end result. Instead, we are going to focus our energy on providing ourselves with the best self-care from the inside, out. We will eat foods that we love... foods that tickle our taste buds... while deeply nourishing our bodies. We will bring the spirit of pleasure, nurturing and renewal back to our dining tables. We will move in ways that give us pleasure so we look forward to our time to exercise. In this way, fitness becomes a life-practice of self-care... a time to give back to ourselves with a little TLC. We will make peace with our present body, no matter its shape or size. We will take time to feel and honor our emotions. We will reconnect with the sacredness of our being. We will nurture a state of vitality and wholeness in our lives, whether or not this results in a smaller body size. We will start a self-love revolution by owning our bodies and our right to life, liberation and the pursuit of happiness.
All aboard the self-love express. There are plenty of seats available on this soul train. I hope all of you will grab your boarding pass and come along for the ride.