Reclaiming Nourishment, Redefining Wellness
If you feel run down or stressed out by modern "wellness," I hear you. The swirling cloud of conflicting nutrition claims and health advice and not knowing who to believe is exhausting and frustrating. The deprivation and lack of sustainable results from perpetual dieting is deflating. Add a dash of shame and stigma into the mix and we've got a recipe for burnout and despair.
We don’t need more pat answers, over-simplified or extreme advice. And we definitely don’t need more shaming, guilt, and overwhelm around what we eat, how we move, the size of our bodies, our health status.
What if wellness didn't have to be so complicated?
Imagine if wellness could start with what's most important to YOU, and YOUR definition of what it means to be healthy smack in the middle of your own unique life, abilities, tastes, finances.
What if being well involved adding in nourishing things that you enjoy, that delight you and make you feel better, rather than focusing on what to cut out, what to stop doing, all the ways you’re supposedly “failing” at health?
That’s exactly what we’re going to dive into today….
We need to let go of performing health
Today a disturbing graphic popped up while scrolling my instagram feed. It was a post meant to drive traffic to a business pushing “fast weight loss” via appetite suppressants, meal “replacements,” and lifestyle changes. And oh by the way, they sell botox, in case you want to tame your wrinkles while you’re at it. Here’s what it said:
“Control your hunger with appetite suppressants. Eliminate cravings, eat properly, get healthy, lose weight.”
If your first reaction isn’t “WOW. ICK, GROSS… RAWR!” like mine was... that's understandable. Because these are the kinds of messages we’re used to being bombarded with and have come to seem normal, even reasonable.
The problem is, messaging like this insinuates that:
there’s something wrong with us that needs fixing (weight, wrinkles, being hungry),
that we are this way because we’re not performing health “properly,”
that there’s something inherently wrong and even harmful with our normal body experiences (hunger, cravings, wrinkles, aging),
that it’s reasonable and healthy to lose weight fast,
that losing weight is inherently what we should want to do so that we can be healthy, or that losing weight is the way to be healthy
and that someone can sell us quick solutions to all these “problems.” (products, botox, meal replacements, appetite suppressants)
Let’s unpack this a bit, because this is representative of the messed up approach to modern wellness, food, pleasure, and everything we’re told about how to be healthy—that’s actually making us sick and super frustrated.
Let’s start with the myth of eating “properly.”
This is something that comes up with nursing and coaching clients I work with all the time— the idea that there is a correct way to eat, move, be healthy. And usually they feel they are NOT doing it properly. This is something that is constantly reinforced by diet culture, the beauty industry, photo-shopped images of unrealistically perfect bodies in the media everywhere we turn, and even the medical community.
I have a lot of questions about this assumption about this mystical “proper” way to eat or be healthy:
Defined by who!? Who gets to decide for you what the proper way to eat is?
Why? Because they’re an expert? ARE they an expert (i.e. do they have any kind of education, training, research, experience, success in this area)?
Where does that leave you in the hierarchy of your own health?
Also, who is this definition of proper health, proper eating benefiting? You? Or someone trying to sell you something?
As a client said to me the other day: “I’ve been told my whole life [by diet programs, doctors, etc.] that if I do A, B, and C, then _____ will happen.” [I’ll lose weight, etc.] “But,” she said, “I did A, B, and C— and that didn’t work for me.”
I hear some version of this story over and over again from frustrated and disillusioned folks who have tried SO HARD to be healthy the “right” way, but no matter how hard they tried to conform to someone else’s definition of health and the proper way to get there, they’re still struggling. And feeling like failures and at a total loss where to go from here.
If this sounds at all familiar— you’re not alone!
The fact is, there’s plenty of common ground between sound scientific research and cultural traditions around the basic care and feeding of humans. But everyone is unique, and how we apply this to our unique lives in a wholesome, nourishing way can look really different from one person to the next.
All bodies are not the same. Cannot be the same. So it is insane and cruel to try to convince people that we should all be striving for the same body ideal or the same way of getting there. But that’s exactly what diet culture constantly tries to convince us.
There’s more to life than weight loss
Nearly everyone tries to sell us weight loss. All sorts of self-proclaimed coaches and sales people, diet programs, personal trainers, snacks and packaged foods, every other commercial we see pushes weight loss. The medical community is full to bursting with well-meaning providers trying to get folks to lose weight so they are healthier.
The problem is, research and repeated human experience show that most attempts at weight loss are unsuccessful. Even if they are successful in the short term, most people not only gain the weight back before long, but usually gain more than they started with (this is known as weight cycling and is more damaging to our health than being overweight). This obsessive cultural focus on weight loss and all the hurtful baggage that goes with it often leads to disordered eating, anxiety, depression, etc.
Diets don’t work. And focusing on weight loss is not only ineffective and harmful, but it’s beside the point if we’re talking about actual health and wellbeing. There are lots of ways to lose weight that are far from healthy—cholera, anorexia, being stressed and busy and forgetting or not having time to eat regularly, C. diff. infection, etc. And being thin is not inherently healthy. There is NO evidence base that dieting and weight loss focused interventions work long term.
So what do we do health-wise if we’re not focusing on weight?
We focus on how we want to feel.
We focus on healthy markers (blood pressure, cholesterol, heart health, etc.), energy levels, flexibility, strength, endurance, confidence… There are myriad ways to track well-being that don’t involve a number on a scale or a waistline measurement.
We focus on adding in the nourishing foods and behaviors that make us feel better and healthier, that help us reach the markers that matter to us.
So it’s important that we start to redefine health and wellbeing for our own unique selves. YOU are ultimately the expert about your own body, your experience in it, and what experience you want to have in it.
It’s important to work on creating sustainable ways to be healthy on our own terms, for the long term. These become natural ways of being in our everyday lives, unlike a diet we can “fall off of.”
So if you could set aside, just for a minute, all the things you’ve been told about how to be healthy, how to eat, how to feel about it, how to do it “properly,” and think about what being healthy means to you in your unique life—what would that look like? Feel like? What experience do you want to have in your body?
What is it for you? Maybe it’s eating so you don’t feel bloated and tired, but rather happily satisfied and nourished; moving your body in ways that make it feel more limber or strong, make you feel happier, and that you enjoy; going to bed earlier or later or taking a nap when you can because being rested feels better than being sleep deprived.
It’s time we stopped running ourselves into the ground in the name of “health.” It’s time to explore our own definitions of what being healthy looks and feels like, and how we get there.
There’s nothing wrong with you or your hunger.
Our hunger doesn’t need to be controlled. Hunger is a normal sensation that the human body is meant to have. It’s there for a reason. I realize many of us feel that our hunger has become the problem, or out of control, and maybe feel that’s part of the issue we may be experiencing with weight or a health concern.
But I’d argue that the twisted messages we’ve been absorbing since childhood from our culture’s messed up beauty and health standards is the problem, not our hunger. AND our industrial food system that subsidizes cheap, easily accessible, addictive “edible food-like substances” everywhere we turn, while fresh produce and nourishing foods are not propped up the same way—that’s a problem. Or that people often have to work long hours or multiple jobs just to get by and we modern folk are understandably stressed out. That’s a problem.
But not our hunger. And cravings? We crave stuff sometimes—so what? Or even a lot of the time. Even if hunger and cravings were a “problem,” is control really the answer?
Why is so much health advice about control? Hunger control. Portion control. Craving control. Weight control. If you want to be a “good” person, and therefore a healthy person, you apparently need to be an “in control” person. Hence the phrase that’s said in hushed, judgmental tones about large people who have “let themselves go.”
This tight-fisted straining for control starts to smack of some sort of Puritanical obsession with controlling primal (aka normal) and supposedly sinful urges and drives. Which isn’t surprising since the idea that we could have an unashamed and direct connection with the wisdom of, delight in, and autonomy over the experience of our own body majorly upsets the apple cart of capitalism, patriarchy, and a fair bit of religious dogma.
You ate chocolate cake and enjoyed it without feeling guilty!? Gasp.
You have a large body but aren’t trying to lose weight!? Dramatic and judgmental gasp!
I get it, though. Much of this obsession with control comes from the fact that yes, so many of us modern folks are struggling with some kind of health problem, or headed for one. For a lot of interconnected and complex reasons beyond just “personal responsibility.” And we’ve been told forever that the way to get healthy, or lose weight, is through control and elimination—eliminating the “bad” stuff and “bad” behaviors. So it’s hard to even imagine there being another, less controlling way.
But wellness is about more than just avoiding illness. If we’re always focused on what health is NOT, we are going to miss out on all the delicious, beautiful, enjoyable experiences that also happen to make us healthier, happier, feel good.
We can address the health issues facing modern folks, start to feel better, and live out our own very personal definitions of health without all the deprivation, control, homogeneity. We can be healthy, per our own definition, in a disabled body. In a fat body. In a chronic-pain ridden body. In a quadriplegic body. In a depressed mind…
Health is not some static state of perfection we arrive at one day if/when we’re successful at performing health “properly.” We don’t arrive, get our gold star, and then we’re done. Yay us!
Health is a spectrum that’s different for each of us. And we can choose where on our own spectrum we want and need to be, or at least which way we want to be facing. True wellness is about moving on our health spectrum in ways that feed our well being.
So what feeds your wellbeing?
Interventions that are about control, deprivation, elimination do not feed wellness.
Appetite suppressants and meal replacements and all the other band aide products out there are not the answer to our problems. (Please note, I’m not talking here about necessary medications that truly help support our mental or physical well being. Medication certainly has a time and place) Does an appetite suppressant give you sustainable energy or nourishment or satisfaction? Controlling your hunger is not the same thing as feeding your wellness.
Have you ever avoided a medical appointment because you’re pretty sure they’re going to tell you to give up something you don’t want to give up? Or afraid they’re going to lecture you about what you’re doing or should be doing? This is really common, and it’s an example of one of the problems with health advice that starts with elimination, deprivation, etc.
Who needs another lecture!? Who is motivated by giving up the things we enjoy? No one- that’s who.
When we think of food or forms of movement as “bad” or “good” it leads to anxiety, shame, and confusion around food and movement. Even when we try to be “good” by sticking with the elimination advice, we inevitably end up “falling off the wagon” or making “exceptions” that involve some form of either avoidance (not moving at all, not going to the doctor, etc.) or bingeing. These superficial or elimination-focused interventions are not sustainable through a lifetime. And they’re a drag.
What if food wasn’t “good” or “bad” but just FOOD?
What if you could be fully nourished and satisfied and still enjoy reasonable amounts of tasty food you love without “losing control?”
What if you could move in whatever way you enjoy and makes you feel GOOD, without feeling like you “should” be powering through some form of exercise you hate?
Reclaiming nourishment with the power of Delight
It’s time for us to reclaim the pleasure of eating, moving, and resting minus the “shoulds.” This happens by changing the focus from cutting out “bad” foods or behaviors to adding in more of the nourishing things that we love and make us feel good. Starting with delight rather than deprivation naturally leads to nourishing ourselves well.
When we nurture our well being this way, we’re more likely to stick with it (because it’s enjoyable, not a drag). We feel more curious, confident, and eager as we experience small wins that build on each other. We start to feel better without strain, anxiety, or self-flagellation. A health journey based on delight and adding in nourishment becomes a sustainable, regenerative experience because it’s something we want to do, enjoy doing, and can keep doing in our day to day lives long term.
You don’t need a diet. You don’t need to run a marathon (unless you want to). It’s not about deprivation, elimination, and “powering through.” In fact these are a sure recipe for burning out, feeling like a failure, weight cycling, disordered eating, and endless frustration.
So let’s try something different. Let’s start with delight. With deliciousness and sane nutrition. Instead of focusing on all the things we’re supposed to avoid, instead of feeling guilty about “falling off the wagon,” let’s focus on adding in more good stuff and enjoying it.
Where do we go from here?
Diet culture had its go. It's failed miserably. Healthism, Nutritionism, (ALL the isms!), Puritanical philosophy and boot camp energy have also failed us. They're not sustainable. They're no fun. They're actively harmful (hello weight cycling and disordered eating). It's time to decolonize food, health, and pleasure. Time to stop trying to force ourselves to fit someone else's definition of health or harmful ideas on how to get there.
Instead, we need to start with delight, with adding in nourishment (rather than cutting out "bad" stuff), with small doable steps that work in our unique lives, to feel better.
Over the last 10 years working as a visiting nurse & health coach, I've watched folks over and over again experience energy gains; healthier, nourishing relationships with food; joyful ways of moving their bodies; relief and healing from putting themselves and their health and enjoyment first more often.
This stuff WORKS. And I want lots more people to be able to experience it.
It's time to reclaim nourishment. You deserve to feel better. And have fun doing it. On YOUR terms. Your way. For YOU.
There are lots of ways to eat and move and feel well on your own terms. But it’s hard for a lot of us to even imagine what wellness that starts with delight looks and feels like. How that really works.
We need support around this because it goes against the grain of everything we’re taught about how to be healthy.
When was the last time a medical professional asked you what experience you want to have in your body? Asked you what you want, what your goals are?
When has a diet program asked you to think about what foods or spices become JOY in your mouth?
I’m guessing probably NEVER.
So we need to talk more about this stuff in safe, supportive spaces. Because I’ve seen this work over and over again with the folks I’ve worked with this way. I know it’s possible. And I want this for you. For everyone.
That’s why I created NOURISH—for folks to have a safe space to explore and start practicing reclaiming nourishment. So if you want to learn more about practical ways to shift your focus away from cutting out “bad” stuff, and toward adding in joyful nourishment, join me for this Free, 5 day online program where we’ll explore how to deeply nourish ourselves, start to feel better, and ENJOY the experience without dieting, shame, or powering through. Without ANY “shoulds” whatsoever. And have fun doing it!
Either way, find a safe someone to talk with about these things. Get support and give support to each other as we walk these new paths through new wellness territory. And be gentle with yourself.