Discover how to help clients reclaim their relationship with food and find joy in eating
Anti-diet experts Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CEDS, and Judith Matz, LCSW, recently came together to answer questions about body image, anti-diet culture, and disordered eating. As co-authors of The Making Peace with Food Card Deck, they shared their insight on some of clinicians' most-asked questions.
Q: What does “anti-diet” mean? How would I explain it to someone else?
Judith: I’ve been doing this work for 20 to 30 years now, and when I first started, the term we used was “non-diet.” We were trying to move away from the dangers and harms of dieting and look at what it means to become an intuitive eater. I’m going to turn this over to Christy, because “anti-diet” is actually the name of her book, and I think she may have been one of the first people to use the term.
Christy: I had probably heard the term somewhere before, but I’ve really embraced it. I started calling myself an anti-diet dietician and called my book Anti-Diet because it’s about taking a stance against diet culture. With the term dietician, the word “diet” is right in the name, and I wanted to be able to distance myself from that by saying, “I might be a dietician, but I’m different than what you might expect. I’m not going to put you on a diet. I’m not going to engage in diet culture.”
What I mean by diet culture is:
Stigmatizing larger bodies and lionizing smaller ones.
Demonizing certain foods while elevating others.
Promoting weight loss as a means of attaining higher status.
Oppressing people who don’t match a supposed picture of health.
These are the four tenants of diet culture as I define it. Anti-diet is a nice way to say that I stand against those things. I think the term non-diet is also great. There are a lot of people in the anti-diet camp that will self-identify as non-diet. It’s just a matter of preference. “Anti” may to some people feel a little strident, but to me I think that sort of stridency is stronger and sparks a conversation.
Judith: I want to address the second part of this question. In diet culture, the expectation is that it’s good to lose weight and you should always be trying, and if it didn’t work last time, then here’s a new diet to try. Being anti-diet means recognizing that the diet in and of itself is the problem, that the restrictions that come along with dieting set people up to either rebound eat.
If I say starting tomorrow, you can never have ice cream again, what are you going to do tonight? You’re going to want ice cream even more. So anti-diet is a way of telling people you understand that the restrictions and deprivation of dieting actually lead to more eating and more discomfort, as well as that you’re making a commitment to stop those kinds of restrictions, even if it takes time, patience, and a lot of compassion to do that.
Q: Do you have recommendations for people who are just starting their journey of changing their relationship with food?
Judith: I just mentioned the word compassion, and I really want to emphasize that for most people I work with, they’ve been dieting for years and even decades. This is a process of unlearning. People already have foods categorized as good or bad, and they’re counting points or whatever it might be. It takes time to undo that.
The first step is patience with the process. In The Making Peace with Food Card Deck, we have cards about how to get started with things like tuning into your hunger, giving yourself permission to eat all types of food, and let go of judgment so you can slow down, reconnect with your body, and figure out in the moment what will truly satiate you.
Then there’s knowing that you can have that food again and again. It makes it safer to stop eating if you know it’s not going away. Make sure you don’t change this into a new diet, which I call the “stomach hunger diet” where there are rules like “now I have to eat when I’m hungry” and “I have to stop when I’m full.” That is not what the journey to making peace with food looks like.
This is a process that involves unlearning so much, so be patient with yourself and the process, but hold on to that commitment that if a diet was going to work for you, it would have already. But actually, diets increase the probability of feeling out of control with food.
Christy: To that point, I would say that rejecting the diet mindset is really the first foundational piece of healing your relationship with food. One of the first elements that I’ve found helpful is to start tuning into what your diet mindset beliefs are telling you. What’s going through your head that’s coming from the diet mentality, and how can you start to challenge those beliefs? Even just start to notice your thoughts, like “I’m hungry for this much, but I’m serving myself less. Why is that?” Start to interrogate those diet culture values that you might have internalized without even realizing it.
Q: What are some diversity considerations in doing this work?
Christy: First of all, I have to acknowledge that I’m a person with a lot of privileges. I’m white, relatively thin, cisgender, and relatively able-bodied although I have multiple chronic illnesses and PTSD. While I do have an eating disorder history, it’s not going to be the same as someone who’s more marginalized and has lived through experiences that I haven’t. Having humility and understanding that everybody’s experience is going to be different and conditioned by their backgrounds and their identities is important.
Typically, in this process of healing, the more areas of marginalization a person has in society, whether it’s racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia, the more challenges they’ll likely have in making peace with food.
One example of this is fatphobia. It’s really a form of anti-blackness, or rather, that’s sort of the history under which it was originally construed. Sabrina Strings, a sociologist, has a really great book called Fearing the Black Body that is great to check out if you’re interested in diving deep into those historical roots. I cover it a little bit and quote from her in my book Anti-Diet in the history chapter where I laid out the history of diet culture’s racist roots, as well as its roots in misogyny and xenophobia.
If you’re someone who values diversity, inclusion, and equity, knowing those roots and history can be helpful in helping you build some bulwark or the fire to stand against diet culture. If you belong to a marginalized group, it’s also important to have compassion for yourself and know that this process to end disordered eating might be harder because you’re going to face additional barriers.
Judith: I want to add something just slightly different, which has to do with where people live and the accessibility they have to food.
Sometimes when we talk about intuitive eating, we’re saying to get exactly what you’re hungry for. Well, it’s easier said than done for many people. So if you’re living somewhere or working with clients who live in food deserts where what they want isn’t available or they can’t afford it, we need to be aware of that too.
I think to me at the core of intuitive eating is letting go of that diet mindset no matter what a person’s circumstances are, but also we have to be really flexible with how intuitive eating gets used. I also have a lot of privilege, so I’ve had to make sure I’m aware that the way I might talk about intuitive eating isn’t accessible for everyone.
Christy: Extending on that, I’ve had conversations with individuals who are in a lower socioeconomic status, and maybe they can’t afford the foods they want all the time or are concerned about food security.
Intuitive eating is not about checking all the boxes or doing all the principles perfectly, or eating exactly what you want when you want it, because if we really took that to its logical conclusion, I think that would be inaccessible for almost everyone. But if you’re craving something that is out of reach for you, and you are using food benefits like EBT in the US, destigmatize the foods that you can have.
If you’re having a craving for a food that is demonized in diet culture, but that’s the food you have access to, challenge those beliefs that would stigmatize you. Say to yourself, “I’m doing the best I can with what I have,” and know that that’s intuitive eating too. You’re doing your best to get your needs met while honoring your hunger cues to the best of your ability.
Q: What's your take on emotional eating?
Judith: Eating is an emotional experience, so we all engage in emotional eating. Emotional eating gets a bad rap, but let me tell you how I think about it as a therapist.
All of us sometimes turn to food when we’re bored or stressed, and that’s normal. What happens for some people, though, is that it becomes their primary way of managing emotional distress, and that’s often what causes people to seek me out as a therapist.
But the thing that might surprise you is that emotional eating is never where I start with a client, because what I know is that diet culture is almost always part of this. Before I work on emotional issues, I want clients to understand the deprivation of dieting, because I can assure you just about everybody who’s struggling with emotional eating is also engaged in diet culture in some way.
If someone comes home from work and starts eating some bags of potato chips and they said it’s because they were upset at work, how do they know it’s because they were upset at work or if because chips have been restricted and they broke through their restriction?
Restrictive eating is one of the biggest causes of people eating in ways that feel out of control, so I always start by talking about letting go of the diet mindset and beginning to notice hunger and identify what they’re hungry for, as well as their “fear foods.” In this example, I’d work with a client to help them begin to eat chips in a way that feels more comfortable and more satisfying to them.
Once I’ve helped people start to build that internal structure of eating when they’re hungry and stopping when they’re satiated, then we’re in a much stronger position to look at the emotional eating. When you’re anxious about food all the time, it’s harder to slow down and deal with uncomfortable feelings. But once the restrictions are lessened and we see less of that deprivation-driven eating, then people can start noticing that they’re reaching for food when they’re not really hungry.
Eventually it’s helpful for people to have other skills and other ways to deal with those feelings. The first step is naming these feelings, because sometimes people are reaching for food before they even have a chance to figure out what’s really going on. It starts with naming a feeling and then starting to think about how else they can get through these times of emotional distress and build their window of tolerance. What are their needs in that moment, and what other ways can they meet those needs?
There’s an idea in our field that if people can just understand why they’re eating, it will go away. That’s just not true. You have to intervene directly with the diet cycle and then the rebound eating cycle before you can effectively work on emotional eating.
Christy: One thing I’ll add is that something I’ve seen is people wanting to do something instead of eating. “If I could call a friend instead of picking up these chips” or something like that. I think this comes from the popular self-help books about emotional eating, this idea of substitution and the implication that if I’m able to do that, then I’ll eat less and lose weight.
This goes back to the diet mindset. It’s very much this message of “don’t ever eat when you’re having a feeling” instead of figuring out what you’re actually feeling and how to meet your needs.
You’re allowed to eat. You have unconditional permission to eat. But also, there are other ways to meet your needs in addition to food.
One other thing I find interesting about emotional eating from a dietician’s perspective is that a lot of times people have subtle signs of hunger that are more mental in nature. They’re thinking about food, starting to feel irritable, or having low mood and difficulty concentrating. Those can actually be signs of needing to eat, and sometimes I think in diet culture, it gets framed as “I’m angry, so I’m eating my feelings” or “I’m distracted and bored, so I’m eating to soothe that boredom.”
We forget to recognize these subtle levels of hunger because diets condition us to wait until we’re ravenous to eat, which is why many people lose touch with those earlier signs of hunger. Being able to meet those needs when the thought of food pops into your head can help us have more compassion for ourselves rather than thinking of eating as something pathological.
Judith: I think it’s really typical of both self-help books and weight management programs to say things like “Don’t eat. Go for a walk instead.” The problem there is that it’s all about control. There’s something you want that you’re not supposed to have. You’re being told to go do something else.
The way I often talk about it is if you can identify for what you’re hungry for right now, whether it’s connection or stimulation, and then decide to take a walk, you’ve recognized the need first. It’s important that people label what that need is, as well as what the food does for them. Some people will say it numbs, it distracts, or it calms.
Food is always an option. It’s not a failure if you end up going to the food. At the same time, you might find that there’s something else that would soothe or satisfy you right now. So it might look the same as what those weight management programs tell you to do, but you’re not just controlling. You’re actually connecting to yourself and making a decision about the best way to meet your needs in that moment.
Q: I’ve had people tell me I look like I’ve lost weight. How should I respond?
Christy: I’ve thought a lot about how compliments can be so toxic in this culture. It’s hard to know what to do when you feel like someone’s trying to be nice to you, but this is really triggering you or not in line with your values.
It can be helpful to say, “I haven’t been intending to.” If you want to get more deeply into it with someone you’re closer with, you could tell them something like, “Well, I’m actually practicing this thing called intuitive eating and I’m letting go of efforts to lose weight, so I really don’t know what’s happened with my weight, but I’m trying not to make that a value.”
You can also thank the person for giving you a compliment, but let them know that it’s actually triggering or upsetting to have someone make comments about your body. Let them know that noticing and comparing your body to what it was before is not helpful. Depending how close you are with the person, you could say, “I’m working on healing my relationship with food. I’ve had a history of disordered eating, so talking about my body or making comments about my body is not helpful for that process.”
Judith: It’s still just so complicated because these are great explanations, and yet sometimes people just aren’t comfortable giving such a full explanation. Yet at the same time, they feel like if they say thank you then they’re validating that it’s better to lose weight. I’ve had clients say very simple things like “I don’t keep track anymore, but I am feeling good.”
The flip side of this is that we need to make sure that we’re not complicit in giving compliments to people, because in this culture it’s just expected. That can be difficult too when you notice a friend or colleague has lost weight. Sometimes they want the compliment. They’ll say, “Hey, have you noticed I’ve lost weight?” This puts us in a bind because we want to be kind but don’t want to reinforce the diet mindset. I’ve had people say things like, “I see you’re feeling good and I wish you all the best.” It’s tricky, but I do think it’s important to just visualize ways to respond in these situations.
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Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CEDS, is an anti-diet registered dietitian nutritionist, certified intuitive eating counselor, certified eating disorders specialist, and journalist. She's the author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating and the forthcoming 2023 release, Rethinking Wellness. Christy is the host of the podcast Food Psych, with tens of thousands of listeners worldwide.
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Judith Matz, LCSW, is co-author of the Body Positivity Card Deck and two books on the topics of eating and weight struggles. Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Comprehensive Guide to Treating Binge Eating Disorder, Compulsive Eating and Emotional Overeating has been called “the new bible” on this topic for professionals. The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care was a #1 bestseller on Amazon and is a favorite resource for therapists to use with clients. She is also the author of Amanda’s Big Dream, a children’s book that helps kids to pursue their dreams – at any size!
Judith has a private practice in Skokie, IL, where she focuses her work with clients who want to get off the diet/binge rollercoaster and learn to feel at home in their bodies. Through her individual counseling, groups, workshops, presentations and books, Judith has helped thousands of people to develop self-care skills that increase physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing without a focus on the pursuit of weight loss. Through educational programs, she is dedicated to helping people end the preoccupation with food and weight.
Judith is a frequent contributor to the Psychotherapy Networker magazine and a popular speaker at national conferences. Descriptions of her work have appeared in the media including the New York Times, LA Times, Allure, Fitness, Self, Shape, Today’s Dietitian, Diabetes Self-Management, NBC News Chicago, Huffington Post Live, and she appears in the documentary America The Beautiful 2.
Learn more about their educational products, including upcoming live seminars, by clicking here.