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Kids Don't Need to be Fed Toxic Diet Culture in the Nutrition Classroom
Nutrition classes are usually characterized by thinly-veiled attempts to obscure fatphobic aims. Is that really what impressionable teenagers need to hear?
At age ten, I didn’t eat food: I ate calories. A low-fat yogurt with a handful of granola wasn’t lunch–it was 208 kcal (fun fact: I was once in Israel when I discovered that 1 cup of a low-sugar cereal was 836 calories. I was appalled until I realized the unit of measure there was kilojoules, not calories). My weight wasn’t a calculation of my matter, of the cells and bones that sustain me: it was my worth.
And seven years later, my eleventh grade nutrition class–a course necessary for my graduation–became more than just the quarter of a credit that I needed to flip over my tassel. It became a chance to reimagine everything I’ve been fed–pardon the pun–since before I could add up calories or grasp the difference between trans fat and saturated fat. (“I’ve never been good at math,” I once confided in a poem about my earlier struggles with disordered eating, “but these numbers I can add with an acuity that cannot be mine”).
The nutrition class–as they all do–started off innocuously enough. We learned about complex carbs, amino acids, and vitamins and minerals. And then came the documentaries, rife with MD/PhD/MPHs comparing sugar to the devil, promulgating the-all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to anything that wasn’t a deep eau de Nil or a budding viridescent green, using terms I would reserve for perhaps, hate crimes? Or domestic abuse? (“Deplorable,” seethed one MD/PhD/MPH/RD as she drove down an empty Louisiana street, the sun beating on her back).
Unexpectedly, the post-documentary classroom discussion sparked a wave of blooming chatter amongst my peers about the “military diet” (composed mostly of grapefruit, plain toast, eggs, and dairy) and intensive exercise plans.
Having tried every diet out there (except for keto–measuring ketones just wasn’t for me, I guess), I had a thing or two to say about each one. The military diet–an extremely short but intensive plan–helps a person shed only her water weight and no actual fat. Keto isn’t sustainable unless you want to be buried underneath a cheese factory (one bite of lemon-garlic-basil fettuccine pulls you right out of ketosis). Ah, and good old calorie counting–a personal favorite.
I know I’m not alone when I say that calorie counting takes the focus completely off health and completely onto numbers–and not in the same way that grades take the focus off learning, either. Striving for good grades at least results in learning as a byproduct–but with calorie-counting, countless healthy foods are cast away merely because of the potential energy they supply.
For example, an avocado is around 200 calories (234, if you really must know), but a bag of Little Bites is 190. And for someone who’s trying to keep her calories as low as possible, you can guess what she’s going to eat. However, what people discount when they pick the bag of mini muffins is that the avocado is going to keep you full for longer, and that if you listen to your internal hunger cues, you’ll actually eat exactly what and how much your body and mind need.
It took me years to discover this: that I didn’t need to eat celery sticks for lunch and three ice cream bars at night in the dark of my kitchen, illuminated only by my deep shame and the pool of the freezer light beside me. Instead, I could eat the ice cream bar when and if I craved it to avoid a later binge.
One thing that can be very helpful is “and” statements – inclusive sentences that express simultaneous truths. (“I’m going to eat pizza and pasta”--just kidding). In all seriousness: “It feels really exciting to start a diet,” you might say, “and I’m not going to do it because I know that diets aren’t a scientifically proven way to lose weight.” (80% of diets fail1).
So what should you try instead? I’m so glad you asked! What completely pulled me out of diet culture and into a healthy self-image and relationship with food was Intuitive Eating (IE).
Intuitive Eating, developed by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (trying reading that out loud three times fast) is composed of ten key principles, the first of which is to reject the diet mentality.2
Rejecting the diet mentality doesn’t mean rejecting the concept of food as medicine (the last principle, Gentle Nutrition, involves honoring your palate and health–now how’s that for a compromise?). It simply involves eschewing the idea that you have failed at diets (spoiler alert: they’ve failed you). Get curious about why you keep on dieting, even though it fails (and sometimes results in weight gain). I’m not going to deny it–the beginning of a diet is insanely exciting. The idea of all your problems disappearing and vaporizing into thin air is pretty tantalizing. Just look at all those grinning models! It’s fun to be thin, right? Right. It’s also fun to be known as Debbie Dieter, the woman who couldn’t get anything done because baking carrots adds to their glycemic index.
The second principle involves honoring your hunger, a feat that sounds easier than it is. It means going to get more jalapeno-lime rice even though you put it in a Tupperware an hour ago, just because you’re hungry again. It means saying no to a third marg simply because you don’t want one. It takes practice, and the best part is that it doesn’t need to be perfect! It’s okay to eat a square of chocolate–or five–at the end of a long day as long as you’re doing it intentionally and with joy. The idea is that most of the time you’re eating within the framework of your innate hunger cues.
There are several other crucial principles of Intuitive Eating–like Gentle Nutrition, where high school nutrition knowledge actually comes in handy. You’re eating rosemary Triscuits as a snack? Great–what can you add to make it more filling? Maybe some ricotta cheese, or some 234–oops, I mean avocado?
You’re craving French fries for the fifth night in a row? Yum–how about you make them in the air-fryer for a cheaper, more nourishing option?
Principle #8 requests that you simply respect your body–a concept in alignment with set-point theory. The idea is that if you’re honoring your hunger cues most of the time, you will fall within your set-point, a range of weight in which your body likes to be (and no, that’s not a guarantee of a size 6. All of our set-points are different).
The point is that you are worthy simply because you are human, not because you still fit into your wedding dress or because your doctor nods approvingly when she tells you your weight. And as such, your body deserves to be nourished with a variety of delicious and exciting foods, including ones that promote heart health and set your soul on fire (personally, lentil burgers do both for me. Just saying).
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
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