Guest Post // Finding Food Freedom
Today I am sharing an amazing post written be Jess Rann, a registered dietitian who I met about a year ago. She shares her journey with food, and how her relationship with food and her body has changed from teenagehood, through her years of studying nutrition and dietetics, to where she is today. I can relate to so many of the things that she shares here and hope that her story will touch your heart in some way too. You can read more about Jess at the end of the post, and find a link to both her blog and learn how you can work with her to repair your relationship with food and find food freedom.
When Kirstin very kindly asked me to write a post for her blog I ummed and ahhed over what exactly to write about. I settled on reflecting on how my relationship with food has changed from late teens, through a Nutrition & Dietetics degree to now. I’m a registered dietitian currently working privately with an intuitive eating counsellor. We spend a good portion of our time with clients really digging into their history and relationship with food to help deconstruct the layers of food rules and restrictions that have been laid down over years of living in our diet-obsessed culture. Now, I don’t want this article to sound like ‘Intuitive Eating worked for me, so it’ll work for you’ – because I’m not trying to say that at all. My intentions behind writing this article are:
Firstly, I think we need to be more open about the fact that people studying nutrition and dietetics may very well have stuff going on with food and exercise which they might need support with.
But to also consider that maybe if I hadn’t experienced food and exercise anxieties, I might have been less likely to come across IE, and if I did I probably wouldn’t have realised that it matters that much, and now I’m currently working in this field!
When I was little I had a fairly “normal” relationship with food aside from the fact that I had childhood allergies to wheat and cow’s milk. During the 90’s and early 2000’s in the UK there really wasn’t much awareness of allergies or products available like there are today so my mum did a lot of home cooking and baking. We have also always had regular family meals around the table which has probably led to my love of cooking for guests with candles and wine and chatting. So, at home I developed a love for cooking and helping my mum prepare food. But when I was out at restaurants or at friends’ houses I learnt to be very careful about what I ate – I suppose I developed a hyper-vigilance around foods. Unfortunately, we (my family) weren’t aware at the time that children often grow out of these allergies. So, I continued to not eat wheat or dairy most of the time.
Aside from my food relationship history, I have always been quite a perfectionist which is something that I’m working on reducing primarily because it’s not useful to me and tends to be inversely related to self-compassion and wellbeing. I think this increased my susceptibility to internalising the messages that we are constantly fed in our culture that ‘slimmer/leaner is better’ and that there is a ‘right way’ to eat. I became quite attached to being the ‘slim/ healthy one’ – I associated a lot of my self-worth to these identities which became problematic as I grew more and more fearful of gaining weight or being seen to eat the ‘wrong thing’. The rise in wellness culture and clean eating played into this as gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo, vegan etc. became the ‘in’ things and heaps of young women were flocking to Instagram and blogs professing that they ate this way which is why they looked beautiful or attractive. (I’d quickly like to highlight here that our cultural beauty ideal is incredibly narrow largely influenced by the dieting industry, our fat-phobic culture and the patriarchy. To read more on this thread and the danger of seeing women’s bodies as ornaments, check out the Beauty Redefined website).
My desire to please others and portray a ‘perfect’ image, the dieting messages that we all receive from our culture, and the rise in wellness culture made for a perfect storm and this is where my disordered eating really kicked off. I was never on a ‘diet’, it was always a ‘lifestyle choice’ or I was being ‘good’ or trying to be ‘healthier’, but I tracked everything. I was also heavily compensating for eating foods which I deemed ‘bad’ with over-exercise. I would feel anxious if I hadn’t worked out each day, I continued to exercise when I was injured or unwell and I only ever did forms of exercise which were recommended on blogs to deliver a particular aesthetic. I also routinely cancelled social events if they interfered with my scheduled workouts. I engaged in these disordered behaviours through my late teens taking me through my gap year after finishing my A-levels and the beginning of starting university. During this time, I wouldn’t have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, however I was displaying disordered eating practices which sadly is rather common in our culture. The main emotion that I feel now is sadness towards the girl who was travelling round Australia and was incredibly anxious about what foods she should and shouldn’t eat and how much exercise she was able to maintain. This isn’t what you want to be obsessing over when you’re travelling outside of Europe for the first time in your life!! My dieting behaviours didn’t really get better when I started university. When I stop and think honestly about what influenced my decision to study nutrition and dietetics a few things come up:
I have always wanted to work with people in a caring capacity. I originally wanted to be a doctor when I was younger but a combination of not getting the grades and realising that I wasn’t super passionate about the medicine and surgery side of healthcare led me to look elsewhere.
I was very interested in nutrition, partly because I had had allergies when I was little and have always LOVED food (just sometimes had a tricky relationship with it) but also because I was in pursuit of this concept of ‘optimal health’ that always felt just out of reach. Truthfully, maybe I thought that studying nutrition would help me achieve this.
Starting university and moving to a big city is hard, and this change affected my complicated relationship with food. I also think that studying nutrition in the minutiae can complicate an already turbulent relationship with food, but I didn’t say anything to anyone because I was worried about what could happen. I began eating my ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ foods in secret. I now know that this feeling of lack of control around food was driven by my restriction in the past and that was still occurring during the day when I was around people, and a sense of deprivation. I was still eating ‘clean’ or ‘gluten-free’ or ‘healthily’ in front of other people, particularly those that I was meeting at uni for the first time. But when I was in my room in the evening, this seemingly insatiable hunger and drive to eat all the foods that I usually restricted came over me. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Last Supper’ effect where you vow to be ‘good’ again the next day, your body doesn’t know when it’ll next have access to these foods, so you feel unable to stop. I was also incredibly lonely when I started university, so I found great comfort in eating. There is nothing wrong with emotional eating and it served a purpose at the time in helping me cope, but it isn’t great if that is your ONLY coping mechanism mainly because there may be some emotional or physical needs that you’re not fulfilling. (For more info on this check out this Instagram series on self-care or this article by Kelsey Miller).
Whilst at uni I attended an event where Laura Thomas was one of the speakers. She wasn’t talking about non-diet approaches or intuitive eating at the event but had mentioned that she had a podcast, so I gave it a listen. Suddenly I was introduced to a completely different side of nutrition and health in terms of learning about Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating and making peace with food. I started reading the articles, listening to the podcasts and following body positive, non-diet social media accounts. It helped me to challenge my deeply held beliefs and fears about food, weight, and health and to slowly relinquish the control that I had been so desperately trying to maintain over food. I learnt that gaining weight was not something to worry about and isn’t actually very indicative of health, despite what we are currently taught in our culture and by most of the medical establishment. I started to learn that what felt like a ‘food problem’ was likely a manifestation of other things going on (like the aforementioned loneliness and perfectionism). I also tried out eating wheat and dairy and slowly came to realise that these foods didn’t cause me the GI discomfort that I had previously thought they did.
At the same time, I made a few other changes which helped; I moved home and commuted into uni for a while so that I was surrounded by a well-established support network (uni friends please don’t read badly into this – you were immensely important in keeping me at uni! I just needed to live with my family again for a while) and I unfollowed social media accounts which made me feel terrible about myself, among other things. I started to develop self-care practices such as reaching out to friends or family when I’m having a hard time, getting enough sleep, clearing out all the clothes that I was hoping to ‘get back into’, working on reducing my critical self-talk.
After working on my relationship with food and exercise I reached a happier, more “normal” place, whatever that means! For me it means that I eat when I am hungry and eat foods that I enjoy and that I know will satisfy me, I will sometimes get too full but I don’t beat myself up about it as I know that this is totally ok, I have found forms of movement that I thoroughly enjoy but I don’t force myself to do if I’m feeling tired or am busy. I can’t fully explain how liberating this feels compared to the fear that used to grip me at the thought of not fitting in a workout. I still have some days where I am self-critical, of course, that is part of being human – nobody is perfect, but it’s not related to food anymore and I have learnt to take a pause and examine what is really going on.
Whilst I was working on my dietetic placements I worked with a huge variety of people with many different health conditions. I found this incredibly rewarding, but what I started to notice was that a lot of people were also telling me about their relationships with food. This isn’t something that we get a lot of training on within our degree so I started to read everything I could and learn about the science behind Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating and how I could apply these concepts in my clinical practice. Through a lot of learning, workshops and supervision it has become an area that I am deeply passionate about. For me it is the most compassionate and evidence-based way to practice.
For anyone stuck in the midst of the dieting cycle, I hope that this article can be a source of hope, particularly for anybody studying or working in the field of nutrition – sometimes it can feel like we should already have our shit together around food. And finally, I want to acknowledge that getting help with this stuff is hard, but it is so definitely worth it.
Jess is a registered dietitian based in London where she is currently working privately as an Intuitive Eating & HAES dietitian. She also authors The Simple Nutrition Blog where she shares compassionate and evidence-based nutrition and lifestyle articles as well as a sprinkling of recipes. Having ignited her feminism flame at uni, Jess' current passion is to learn more about the intersection social inequalities with health.