This is a question that came up in a recent conversation with a colleague. And if you are someone who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder or feel like your relationship with food and your body is not in a great place, you might be thinking the same.
How do you know that you are in eating disorder recovery or how do you know that your relationship with food has improved?
This is one of those questions that don’t really have a definitive answer. Because unlike dieting and intentional weight loss pursuits where the scales clearly defines success or failure, our relationship with food, eating and our bodies are not as clear cut as that.
Alongside this, when we’re in the throes of feeling obsessed and out of control around food, reimagining something else, is unthinkable.
This journey and the outcomes in not about a specific number at all. It is about a reduction in certain behaviours, yes, and it is about the spaciousness that comes with you and your body being on the same team. Respectfully caring for one another.
When I think about my own journey, I notice how many shifts have occurred over time, sometimes a very long time. Often it wasn’t until a big new life stressor hit that I realised that stuffing my feelings down with food was no longer my main coping tool.
Or like when I discovered that I still body check from time to time (because it is such an unconscious ingrained habit) but that the harsh inner critical voice has soften significantly. The old familiar feeling of dread, panic and self-loathing towards my body when noticing some recent weight gain, was not there. Instead, an open and kind newfound acceptance is there, in its place.
Our journey towards peace and freedom around food and eating looks different for everyone one. Your journey might not look like mine, and that is ok. I see this with my clients all the time, each person’s journey is unique to them, and there are many elements and steps on the way that overlap and are same or similar.
The Journey towards healing our relationship with food might include any and all of these:
Giving oneself unconditional permission to eat all foods
Wearing clothes that fit and are comfortable for the hear and now body
Learning about Diet Culture / weight stigma / anti-fat bias both culturally and internalised ones
Practicing body acceptance
Practicing self-compassion (over and over and over)
are just some of the parts that make up disordered eating recovery.
These are not just ideas but practices and explorations that often requires time, curiosity, patience and self-kindness.
Getting curious about what got us into a disordered relationship with food, eating and our body and connecting some of the dots often provides not just a deeper understanding of it all, but often we can hold our past self with greater kindness and compassion, knowing that we did the best we could with what we had. From here it becomes easier to explore what a different less chaotic or rigid (or both) relationship with food can be like.
What do you expect a more peaceful relationship with food will look and feel like?
Often the goal or intention is something like, stop bingeing / purging or restricting. But the benefits of recovery extend far beyond that.
It is important to mention here too, that perfectionism is NOT a goal of disordered eating recovery. It is unlikely that you will never ever binge or purge or restrict ever again. But instead of this being one of your major coping skills you will have built a full toolbox of skills to choose from, many that offer relief in the moment but also beyond.
One of the things you will find is that you have more tools, practice and skills for dealing with life.
Another one is that you have more capacity and resourcing to deal with life in general. I hear this again and again from my clients when their bodies and brains are better nourished. A fully nourished body and brain simply have more capacity to deal with everyday living, than one that is continuously underfed or starved. (Looking at you 800-1200kcal diets!)
You will find that you are not thinking about foodall the time. This is also a physiological consequence from eating regularly and adequate meals. When your body is getting enough, typically the only times we think about food is when we are getting hungry and when we need to shop / plan / prepare meals.
Typically, improved sleep, more energy and a reduction of headaches (if that is something that you suffer with) is other things I hear my clients often talk about when their bodies are feeling fully nourished again.
Having more energy and more executive functioning means that the gap that the preoccupation with food and weight has left can be filled with things you really enjoy that feels nourishing beyond the physical. Like friendships, hobbies, creativity, fun!
I have often witnessed that the further people get in their recovery journey, the less food and weight takes up space in their lives. Even when the desire to lose weight was there (and sometimes dominant) in beginning of the journey, the further you get in recovery the less this feels like a meaningful goal to pursue, because the cost of it has become too high.
That’s not to say that we will never desire a smaller body again (and this might even be truer if you are at the receiving end of weight stigma and anti-fat bias), and that’s ok. As long as the world around us is fixated on thinness as the most important thing to be, do, have, it is likely that this thought and desire will pop up at times. Thinking something is not the same as acting on that thought. And remember recovery is not about perfection!
All of these things are great and important but I think the most powerful shifts that come from working through any disordered eating behaviours and healing your relationship with food, eating and your body is the peace that comes with acceptance and the nourishment that comes from the practice of self compassion.
Being able to hold space for the challenges that comes with being human in a body, with acceptance and kindness changes things at the root. Any sharp self-critical edges can soften and we can meet ourselves where we are at, at any time, with gentleness and care.
This is what having a peaceful, supportive and caring relationship with food and with yourself.
It is possible for you too and you are so worthy of having it.
I have always been a voracious reader. When I was about ten or eleven, I won a class competition in reading the most pages in a set amount of time, beating my best friend whom I was always in some kind of competition with.
A library bus used to stop in our tiny rural village every two weeks and I would borrow stacks and sit in the cosy nest I had made underneath the stairs and just read and read and read.
I have other memories of laying in bed on a Sunday morning, ignoring my body’s need for food, whilst I kept turning page after page.
My child self was a horse girl through and through and almost all of the books I read from age eight until I was in my late teens were in this genre but over the years my tastes and interests have evolved. However, I have kept reading.
I also got into the habit of buying the books I wanted to read. Which is fine. I don’t mind spending money on books, especially if it will support the author. There is just one small challenge with this though… and that is that the books accumulate over time. And even though I have kept buying more bookshelves over the years I still seem to end up with stacks of books on the floor.
When I moved about three years ago, I notices yet again that I owned mostly books. Followed by a large amount of house plants…! Moving in with another book-lover has meant that we’ve had to compromise or allowing our small living room to turn into a mini library. Not a shabby idea perhaps.
The space constraint has also meant that I have gotten into the habit of using the library again, which is such an amazing service. Libraries makes books widely available and affordable and I count myself very lucky that we have a great one in the small rural town that I currently live in.
Because I love to read, and I love to learn, reading books about weight inclusive approaches, intuitive eating, moving away from dieting, how to heal your relationship with food, body image and any and all other related things, have been a big part of both my personal and professional journey.
So today I want to share with you five of my (many favourites) in this space. I could see this turning into a series because there are several topics within this genre.
Let’s talk about five of my favourite non-diet books that focuses on healing your relationship with food.
(And apologies in advance to anyone who finds these kinds of lists inspiring to*more* book purchases#sorrynotsorry.)
I also want to say that this list is by no means exhaustive and that there are so many new amazing non-diet books coming out all of the time. I will most likely do another round up of these in the future. Another caveat worth mentioning, because this is internet after all is that Mindful Eating have some bits that are not 100% weight inclusive or that tangents on some healthism. So why have I included this one in my list anyway?
Well because I believe in reader discernment and that it is important to not fall into the same black-and-white thinking that keeps us stuck with food. It is also interesting to read work that are written years ago to see how much, or not much at all, thinking and knowledge can evolve over time.
I mention this book here too, because I still believe that there are more good and helpful content it than what is problematic. You may not agree with me on this, and I am ok with that too.
I have listed them in no particular order. If one suggestion calls more to you than another, trust that. Happy reading x
– Intuitive Eating – A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch. 4th Ed. Published in 2020
This seminal work is, I would think one of the most popular books of entry point when someone is contemplating moving from diets but unsure of where to go next.
The first principle of Intuitive Eating is reject Diet Culture, so there is no qualms about what needs to happen first before anything else can happen.
I first read Intuitive Eating in 2014, then the 3rd Ed, and what I can remember was a feeling of relief as well as a recognition that here was something that I had been feeling for a long time but had not been able to name, until then.
Evelyn and Elyse wrote their initial version back in 1995, when many of the current day advocates were barely born(!). They have done some heavy editing since that early version to remove any and all content that was not entirely weight inclusive and I think this clearly demonstrates how things evolve and the work necessary to keep editing and updating work, as one’s own personal learning and feedback grows.
When I read this book back in 2014 it opened up to a new direction for me professionally and it confirmed a large part of the personal recovery path that I was already on, however I didn’t know any other nutrition professionals that were familiar with this kind of approach. It felt lonely. Thankfully things have changes and the number of weight inclusive, non-diet professionals are growing, even here in Ireland.
What I like about the Intuitive Eating book and this approach is that it is organised in 10 principles. That gives a good framework, as well as some helpful structure to the process of working through it.
That said, you can read through this book from cover to cover but doing the actual work takes time. Weeks, months and even years. And it is not necessarily a linear process either. But, starting by reading the book is indeed a good place to start. There are over 400 published studies to date that shows up on PubMed if you put intuitive eating into the search bar so it is safe to say that it is becoming increasingly more validates by the research field in the almost 30 years since the original book’s inception.
– Body of Truth by Harriet Brown. Published 2015
As far as I can remember this book was recommended to me from the professional non-diet community. The tagline to this book is “How Science, History and Culture drive our Obsession with Weight and What We Can Do About It.”
Harriet shares her own journey of yo-yo dieting and healing from weight obsession to a place of body acceptance. Her background is in journalism and her writing is really accessible. The book weaves personal stories, both her own and others’, with exploration of the science around weight and health.
If you are someone who really enjoys this type of writing and story telling, rather than having it all lined the facts lined up with bullet points and advice, then this book is for you.
It is not so much about sharing ideas of what you can do instead of dieting but rather taking you on a journey of exploration of why you feel compelled or pulled to do it, and reflections about how things might be different if you don’t.
Harriet Brown invites us to “ Think beyond the messages we are getting a thousand times a day. To question the conventional wisdom. You may wind up making the same exact choices in your life as you do now, but at the very least you’ll be making those choices more consciously. Or you may wind up with an entirely different point of view, one that could help set you free from the painful and punishing rules we’ve been living by for so long.”
– A Shadow of A Diet by Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel. Published 2014, 2nd Ed.
This book is written for professionals who work with clients who are struggling with binge eating and emotional eating. If you are someone who fits this description, I cannot recommend this book enough! It is detailed, written from a weight inclusive, non-diet lens and contains both different concepts such as attuned eating as well as a host of case studies to illustrate the dynamics which are present when it comes to binge eating and emotional eating.
Again, this was a book that was recommended to me through my professional network and it has been an incredibly valuable learning resource since I read it initially in 2017.
Judith Matz is a wealth of knowledge and has been working in the field of eating disorders since the mid 1980s. What makes this book so incredible, in my eyes, is that it does a beautiful job of explaining all the challenges, as well as all the nuances when working with healing binge eating and emotional eating from a truly weight inclusive, non-diet approach. Something that still feels rare when a lot of people who are struggling with this both actively seek out diets and therapists / nutrition professionals / health care professionals either suggests that they should lose weight or believe that losing weight will result in better body image and greater self-esteem, not recognising that dieting doesn’t work for the majority of people long-term or that dieting and restriction is a big part of what is driving the binge eating behaviour…!
If you are not someone who works with clients on their relationship with food, but rather looking at a resource so support your own relationship with food, then Judith’s other book The Diet Survivor’s Handbook might be a better fit.
– Reclaiming Body Trust – A Path To Healing and Liberation by Hilary Kinavey & Dana Sturtevant. Published 2022.
This is one of the more recent books that I have added to my collection. Having been a big fan of Hilary and Dana’s work for years, buying this book was a must when it came out last year was a must.
Their work was some of the first place where I came across the intersection of the intersection of eating issues with wider systems of oppression such as racism, poverty, gender non conformity and weigh discrimination. The have been talking about these topics and intersections for a long time and I for one, am immensely grateful that they have put their knowledge and learning in a book.
This book is about both our personal experience and healing of disordered eating, as well as exploring and educating on the wider systems and influences at play. Hilary and Dana shows us all the external influences and injustices that impacts our relationship with food, eating and our bodies. Many factors that are outside our individual control. However they are also giving us tools, practices and questions to reflect on moving forward so that we can reclaim our sovereignty but more than that, hope and insights to how we can collectively work towards dismantling the oppressive social structures and work towards body liberation for ALL bodies.
It is a powerful read, though it can be challenging too, if you are new to non-diet approaches. There are as much to learn as there is to unlearn here.
– Mindful Eating – A Guide to Rediscover A Healthy and Joyful Relationship With Food by Jan Chozen Bays, Published 2017. Revised edition.
There is so much I love about this book. Jan Chozen Bays is an MD who is also a Buddhist practitioner and this book is rooted in mindfulness meditation and the spirit of mindfulness. The part I particularly love is her deep dive into what she calls the Nine Hungers. In this part of the book she explores the many facets of hunger, both physical and the more emotional types of hunger like heart hunger. Recognising hungers that can be satisfied with foods, as well as hungers that we may try and rectify with food but that are also about yearnings for deeper emotional and spiritual needs, is powerful work.
For me this is the more profound part of Mindful Eating, which is more that just eating slowly and chewing diligently. She does talk about these elements too, towards the end of the book and it is here, where some of the practices feels a little more “diet-y” to me, and where you might have proceed with caution depending where you currently find yourself on your journey with a more peaceful relationship with food, eating and your body.
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I hope that this list will prove helpful on your journey of learning, unlearning, repairing and healing. This is only a small selection of some of my favourite non-diet books. There are new ones being published all the time, which is truly amazing. Though I am guessing for every non-diet, weight inclusive book on creating a better relationship with food there are probably ten others who will promise the world and his mother through the “weight loss diet that *will* work”. Only none of them really do, long-term.
When someone comes to me to work on their relationship with food, and in this case binge eating and emotional eating I often find myself starting by showing them a visual of the Diet – Restrict – Binge Cycle.
I do this for two reasons.
To show my client that they, nor their body is broken
To show my client that the binge or emotional eating is s symptom, and not the root cause of what’s typically going on.
When you find yourself in a binge episode, it feels so out of control. It is so uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. It really *feels* like the food and the lack of control is the problem that we have to fix.
And if you’re gaining weight as a result of the binge or emotional eating then you might panic even more and this thing with food and eating *really* have to get under control. I know for sure that this is how I felt, when I was smack bang in the middle of it.
Years later, I learned about the Diet – Restrict- Binge Cycle and I felt such a relief. No wonder I had spent years going around this cycle. Any and all of the diets that I tried was never going to work to get my binge eating under control.
Why? Because they all implied some kind of restrictive eating. It was either restricting calories or sugar or gluten or fat or some other kind of food group. The restriction kept fuelling my binge eating.
And I had no idea (at the time) that these two were connected and that it in order to stop bingeing I would have to stop restricting.
How does restriction drive binge eating?
The cycle will always start from some kind of restriction. It might be a diet, a need to cut out some specific foods for medical reasons or it might be as a result of not having enough food available for awhile due to lack of financial means. It doesn’t really matter why you are restricting as the body will experience the lack of food the same, as a state of famine.
(Step 1 – Restriction) For this example let us imagine that you are starting a new diet. One that is going to support your “health”. (I have health in quotation marks here because diets are rarely about actual health but about thinness.)
(Step 2 – Feeling hungry / starvation)The diet is going well… until you find yourself hungry, and perhaps also tired and stressed out. It is hard to have the bandwidth to deal with life on an empty stomach and undernourished brain.
(Step 3 – Breaking the Diet ) Maybe someone has brought in a cake or donuts to work and even though you say no to when offered, you still find yourself eating a large slice in secret afterwards.
Once you’ve stepped outside the confines of the diet a few things tend to happen:
You find yourself thinking “Well I have already blown my diet so I might as well keep going now”. And then proceed to binge on all or the foods you don’t normally give yourself permission to eat. Or you might polish off the rest of the cake / packet of biscuits, even though you don’t really feel like eating them but you want them gone now, so that they won’t be there tempting you in the future.
(Step 4 – Shame / Guilt / Frustration / Anger) Another thing that can happen is that the shame and guilt over eating in secret and eating more than / something that wasn’t on your diet plan sends you into a spiral and because food is the main coping tool you have, you find yourself planning a binge later. Or maybe you just keep eating because why the H*ll not?!
This backlash binge eating often comes from hurt, pain and wanting to punishing ourselves for the initial “transgression”. And the initial “transgression” happens as a result of undereating, leading to feeling overly hungry and food being present.
It is natural to eat when we are physically hungry! And when we are overly hungry, it is even harder to make executive function decisions, so grabbing what is available makes total sense.
(Step 5 – Fear of weight gain / desire to get back in control) This is where you’ll find yourself in the aftermath of the binge episode. Often sitting a pool of shame, self-blame and self-loathing, it makes sense to reach back out for another diet or to “get back on the diet-wagon” again. Something that will simply put you back in the place of restriction, and so the cycle continues.
This is why we have to address the restriction in order to heal the binge eating.
This cycle can happen is a day or it can happen after days or weeks or even months of restricting. If the restriction has been going on for weeks or months, then it is not unlikely that the binge eating will happen over several days or weeks too.
With the Diet – Deprivation – Binge Cycle we are trying to fight physiology, and that is not supposed to work. If you are finding yourself binge eating after restricting food (or food groups) for a while, there is nothing wrong with you. In fact I would argue that your body is working quiet well.
Our bodies don’t want to be in a state of famine, that is not helpful to survival so when food becomes available we will naturally eat more than we need, because we are trying to make up for the restriction and as well as that we might also eat more because who knows when food will become available again??
It is important that this is often happen subconsciously. This is your body doing its best to keep you alive.
How do you step out of the Diet – Deprivation – Binge Cycle?
In my 3 part mini course I will take you through three practices that can help you get out of this diet – restrict binge cycle. You will get access to the course when you join my weekly newsletter (which is full of supportive things, I promise!)
Over the past 5 years or so I have been learning a lot from colleagues, teacher and people with lived experiences, who are doing incredibly courageous advocacy for the right to health, respect and care of people in bigger bodies and otherwise marginalised bodies.
It shouldn’t have to be seen as brave work, but advocacy and activism, especially when done by people who are marginalised is brave because of the pushbacks and often threats of violence to that person.
My own Thin Privilege has protected me in many ways from this harm and it was not until I learned from people with lived experience that for example, when you present at the Dr Surgery with any type of condition that as a person in a bigger body, you will most likely be served with unsolicited weight loss advice. That is how weight bias in medicine works.
Maybe you have had this experience and it has left you feeling full of shame, or perhaps you had no idea, like I did, that this is a all too common experience for folx.
It wasn’t until I stated to learn about the systemic oppression that happens to bodies, who are outside the societal norm, that I began to understand that body image and how we feel about our own reflection isn’t just an individual issue. It has much deeper roots than that.
Yes it is important to become aware of how we speak, think and judge our own bodies, but we also need to wake up to how we, and society at large speak, think and judge other people’s bodies.
We need to realise the internalised fat phobia and anti-fat bias that we have been steeped in through society’s influences. You might have gotten it directly from you caregivers, but even if you didn’t pick it up at home, the message that thin is best is really everywhere.
The thing about internalised fat phobia / anti-fat bias is that it seeps into everyone. No matter what body size you are, chances are that you are carrying some of it, and until we dismantle weight stigma and weight discrimination, it hurts everyone. But it doesn’t hurt everyone in equal measures.
I am really no expert in talking about weight oppression so I am going to link to a group of excellent people whom I have learned from and that I am continuing to learn from at the bottom of this post.
I live in a straight sized body and the one thing that I have been, and that flares up every so often is my own internalised BS.
I also witness in my clients that the internalised fat phobia / anti-fat bias does not depend on body size. Which is why trying to make our bodies smaller will really not make it go away. It might give some relief temporarily but since dieting doesn’t work for 95% of the people who try them and is the leading cause of developing an eating disorder then it really isn’t the way to go, is it?
If you want to heal your relationship with food, eating and your body letting go of intentional weight pursuits, aka dieting is a necessity.
A few years ago when reflecting on my own relationship with food and eating, and the journey I have been on, I discovered a triggering comment on the size of my body (which in fairness at the time was still well within what society is considering “normal” & “healthy”), which lead me to start my first diet and subsequently struggling with over a decade of disordered eating.
From then on, I was at war with my body.
Denying my body its needs in form of food, rest, play and connection.
I can realise now, with my adult eyes and knowledge, decades later, that what I was most likely looking for was a sense of safety and belonging. A desire to fit in.
And in my desperate desire to fit in and belong, I abandoned myself. I disconnected me from my body, without understanding that my body is also me. It is my home for this lifetime and it is the vessel from which I experience life.
How can we feel safe, grounded and anchored into ourselves if we are simultaneously trying to force our bodies into some societal norms of what bodies “should look like”? Always trying to fix them and make them conform, so that we are acceptable, even palatable and thus fit in.
The desire and external pressure to do so is what is known as Diet Culture. It is very insidious and we are being bombarded from all angels with the message that we are not good enough as we are.
Somehow our bodies are not trustworthy. They are unruly and need to be controlled, often at all costs. Regardless of what body size our bodies actually are, this message all too often becomes internalised and we decide to do something about it. I.e. diet.
*It is also worth noting here, that this message of “not good enough” and body conformity conveniently commodifies our bodies in new ways, so that we can be sold “fixes”, to our internal struggles. Which means someone is making a lot of money of our body insecurities. Convenient huh?! And I doubt that is by accident. This is how capitalism works. (A topic for another day).
Diets, by design are restrictive. Often it is about cutting calories, or portion sizes. Or food groups. With the intention of trying to control the size of our body. Sometimes it is even disguised as something we do in the name of health. But as long as you are following a plan, set by someone else that has a bunch of food rules and is aimed at helping you lose weight, it is a diet.
Here’s the thing; How can we move beyond surviving into thriving if we are not honouring our physical needs in the first place?
Is it really possible to establish a sense of belonging, if we are always trying to make ourselves and our bodies into something they are not?
I doubt it.
Each time you are denying your body’s cry for food, you are essentially telling yourself in real time that you are not worthy of love and care. It’s oppressive and abusive. (And just to be clear I am not talking about situations of food insecurity or specific feeding challenges here. I am talking about dieting and restrictive eating).
In order to (re)build body trust, which is a two way connection between you and your body, you need to consistently over time meet that physical hunger with food. Over and over and over again. This is how the repair will happen and trust will build.
But you still really want to lose some weight? I get it. It is ok to want it. We all live in Diet Culture land.
As discussed previously, weight stigma is real. It does make it easier to live in a body that is not discriminated against. Yet actively pursuing weight loss is such a futile, life sucking pursuit, which it turns out is also a pretty good predictor of weight gain, over time(insert research resource).
So how can you move forward?
I believe it is important to acknowledge the internal voices of fat shaming, examine and understand where you learnt these, and if/how they might still be trying to keep you safe in some way.
Ask yourself, “Whose voice is that?”.
If you are in a smaller body and experience Thin Privilege, learn about what it is like for someone to live in a body where society feels like it has some right to judge and criticise based on a particular body size. And also spend some (potentially uncomfortable) time to examine your own thoughts, believes and biases about people in bigger bodies.
Pay attention to the words you use when you speak about your own body or other bodies, because as we know words hold tremendous power.
Shame never helps or heals. Kindness does.
May we together create a compassionate space where ALL bodies are welcome to heal, worthy of care and to be blessed with health.
May we let go of the oppression perpetuated by Diet Culture through actively pursuing weight loss.
May you recognise your worth as a human being, just as you are.
Some great people to follow and learn from when it comes to body liberation: