Q & A with Eating Disorder Specialist Sari Fine Shepphird: Part 1
Q: With so much bad information out there, how can people distinguish between accurate and inaccurate advice?
A: The old adage applies: “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.” When you hear about new fad diets, it’s something that should be considered suspect, because what we know about nutrition and healthy eating isn’t new; it’s long-standing. It’s important to eat certain servings of fruit, vegetables, grains, protein and carbohydrates, but watch the saturated fats and avoid hydrogenated oils. It’s best to stick to the basics that we know about healthy eating and exercise. When you go beyond those simple rules about eating, then you’re probably getting into some sort of a fad, or new training method someone is trying to sell.
Trainers make money when coming up with a new approach. New or different sells, because so many people are looking for that quick fix, for that shortcut to a healthy lifestyle. The straight path, the one where you don’t need a shortcut, is actually the simplest. I teach others about the concept of intuitive eating, which has these basic principles: to eat what satisfies you, to eat when you’re hungry, stop when you are full; to enjoy movement and to find pleasure in it; to eliminate the diet police, the diet way of thinking. To do these kinds of things and to approach food in an intuitive way is the most natural way. Yet many people are skeptical of this because there isn’t some sort of a gimmick. It’s almost as though we are confounded by the simplicity. Also, if people aren’t being deprived, they may believe they aren’t doing enough for weight loss. A healthy diet should be satisfying.
Advertising has such powerful messages. We swallow slogans as though they’re based on science, as though they’re a prescription for a lean body. One helpful thing is to become savvier with media literacy, to understand what an ad is selling. Food and diet ads are selling an image. Studies show that the images really work, and bring in consumers. Unfortunately, these advertising agencies sell an image of deprivation, starvation or guilt for eating something that’s tasty and pleasurable. They’re selling an unhealthy relationship with food.
If people were able to eat more intuitively and to move because they enjoyed it and saw this as part of what they could do for a healthy, pleasurable life, perhaps there wouldn’t be some of the struggles that we see with maintaining a healthy weight. For example, we know that oftentimes binge eating comes after a period of deprivation. A person with an eating disorder may end up binge eating and eating far more calories than if they would have just allowed themselves to eat what they wanted. We tend to associate eating with decadence, being bad and feeling ashamed. We’re told to hide the food we eat (e.g., “don’t tell your husband”). We buy into this and then feel guilty.
Unfortunately, our media doesn’t necessarily support healthy practices, whether it’s the thin ideal, a negative relationship with food or equating exercise with discomfort. A lot of what we learn about our bodies from the media is inaccurate.
Q: When discussing unhealthy practices among kids, you include some startling statistics: In 1990, girls as young as 8 were dieting; 51 percent of 9- and 10-year-old girls reported feeling better about themselves when on a diet; one-third of boys used unhealthy weight control methods (e.g., fasting, vomiting or taking laxatives). How can parents help their kids develop a healthy body image?
A: Studies show that some of the ways in which boys and girls learn how to relate to their bodies are based on how their parents relate to their own bodies. The best thing a mom and dad can do is to have a healthy body image themselves. Refrain from making negative comments about yourself, such as comments about getting “older and fatter.” A child who repeatedly hears such comments may develop fear about gaining weight or may equate getting older with getting “fatter.” These days we see kids who say that they want to delay their own physical maturity. This is part of what we are witnessing as the dieting age is getting younger and younger. Kids may believe that if they delay their physical maturity, somehow they can stave off weight gain. They try to interfere with the normal process of development.
Also, model healthy eating by eating a variety of foods. Allow for a range of foods in moderation, including snacks and sweets. Avoid making comments that would induce shame, embarrassment or guilt. Don’t label foods as being good or bad. Encourage movement as something that is pleasurable. Again, the way parents relate to food, exercise and their own bodies is paramount.