Don’t feel bad for salivating over the pretty pink doughnut on the front cover of Laura Thomas’s new book. For its full title says it all: Just Eat It: How intuitive eating can help you get your shit together around food. If you want the doughnut, have the doughnut.
According to Thomas’s first chapter, the weight-loss industry is said to be worth $176bn worldwide and is projected to be worth $245bn by 2022. She also goes on to explain that ‘disordered eating’ is thought to affect between 50% and 75% of women. It’s a startling chapter that really forces you to consider your habits – from drinking Diet Coke to suppress your appetite to going to bed early to avoid hunger pangs – and face up to the fact that so much dietary advice we slavishly follow is, as she so wonderfully puts it, is “nutribollocks”.
This profanity-filled tome isn’t your typical diet book. And that’s because it isn’t one. Instead, it focuses on the practice of ‘intuitive eating’, which Thomas describes as “a systematic approach to deconstructing food rules, wiping out food worry and anxiety, and gently relearning how to eat using your own internal signs of physical hunger, fullness, pleasure, satisfaction, satiety and a sense of wellbeing.” Don’t believe the common misconception – intuitive eating isn’t about eating whatever the hell you want, whenever you want. But it is about eliminating no-go food groups – what Thomas refers to as the ‘shit food list’ – and allowing your body to tell you it’s craving carbs without mentally calculating what you’ll have to do in the gym later to compensate.
After the introduction, which details Thomas’ own history of disordered eating (she’s been the person who “hates their body with the power of a thousand suns”) and her qualifications (she has a PhD in nutritional sciences and runs the London Centre for Intuitive Eating), we’re guided through chapters which cover everything from unsubscribing from diet culture through to developing self-compassion, working on body image and learning what hunger actually is. There’s also a section on mindful eating and one on how to build your ‘emotional coping toolkit’ so that food isn’t the only thing in your arsenal when the going gets tough.
Along the way, you’ll be guided on how to create this toolkit by keeping a journal and completing activities. One task details coming up with your own mantra to combat the negative thoughts that impede your mind when you walk into the room and immediate weigh yourself up against everyone else. Another directs you to go out and buy underwear that actually fits (“How many of you would let your cat or dog wear a collar that was too tight and half-strangling the animal?”). Further tasks include cleaning up your social media feed by deleting anyone who makes you feel bad (hint: anyone using the hashtags #thinspo and #fitspo should go, pronto) and detailing your own food rules and ‘shit list’ foods so you can begin to dismantle them.
While these activities were helpful, perhaps the most eye-opening moment for me was this statement in chapter one: “Diet culture teaches us that we’ll be cooler/funnier/more successful if we force our bodies to look a certain way… The biggest lie of diet culture is that you will be happy when you reach this elusive body standard.” It’s fair to say that I’m guilty of this train of thought, to the point where I often feel like I’m putting elements of my life on hold until I’m the ‘right’ size to enjoy them. But since reading Just Eat It and trying to eat according to my hunger and fullness cues, I’ve found I haven’t craved pizza in my usual fashion. Now that’s certainly food for thought.
SL chats to Laura Thomas
Do you think that much of what we learn while we're growing up goes on to inform our feelings around food (and therefore guilt) as adults?
Clients can often pinpoint exact comments about food or criticisms about their weight that were made to them as a kid but which they've carried with them into adulthood, and we know these can increase risk for eating disorders. Often these comments come from well-meaning parents or family members, but I think it's unfair to point the finger at anyone individual as we're all living in a culture that reinforces disordered eating as the norm. It’s not surprising that these types of comments are so prevalent.
Are there any food restrictions (or items on what you refer to as people's 'shit list') you see time and time again with your clients?
There's definitely a strong fear of carbs – there's a lot of confusion and misinformation about carbohydrates that leads people to restrict them. This can often leave us feeling low on energy,
cranky, and inevitably, head first into the bread basket, giving us a sense of feeling out of control around food. We have a tendency to blame the food itself, labelling it as 'addictive' or calling ourselves emotional eaters, but ultimately that feeling of intensity can usually be traced back to restriction and avoidance which creates a forbidden fruit effect. Here are some carb myths, de-busted.
Sugar is ‘addictive’:
A lot of sensationalised headlines have likened sugar to other highly addictive substances, but the science doesn’t support this notion. What we do know however, is that when people are dieting, or heavily restricting palatable foods, or simply not eating enough to meet their needs throughout the day this can cause a rebound effect where they have a sense of feeling out of control around certain foods that can feel a lot like addiction. There is also a big overlap between the concepts of ‘food addiction’ and binge-eating disorder. If you’re only eating a small soup and salad for lunch and then find yourself face-planting into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s at night, it’s worthwhile thinking about adding an extra snack or two during the day so you’re not leaving yourself vulnerable to binging at night. If this doesn’t do the trick, then speak with a registered nutritionist or dietitian.
‘Unrefined’ sugar is better for you:
‘Unrefined’ sugar isn’t a thing – chemically speaking, sugar is sugar – it doesn’t matter if it comes from sugar cane, honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar. It all behaves the same way in the body. While things like coconut sugar may contain marginally more nutrients per 100g than table sugar, the amount you’d need to eat to get any significant benefit is entirely negated by how much sugar you’d have to eat, thus defeating the point entirely. Also, table sugar has a medium glycaemic index, not a high one as most people assume.
Baked potatoes contain 19 teaspoons of sugar:
Another overblown headline I saw last year compared the complex carbohydrates in baked potatoes to the sugar you use to bake in cakes when they are patently not the same thing. Sugar is sweet, baked potatoes are not. The starches in potatoes and other foods like wholegrain bread, pasta, oats and beans are broken down slowly, keeping your blood sugar levels steady. They also contain beneficial vitamins and minerals, fibre, and other plant nutrients. On top of that, you rarely eat them alone, and the protein and fat found in the rest of your meal will slow the release of glucose further. These types of headlines just fuel food fear and unnecessary food exclusions.
Why do you think there's been an increase in experts and writers calling out these diet myths we've been sold for years? Why now?
I think there is a backlash against restrictive 'clean eating' and Instagram nutrition gurus without any real qualifications. People are getting sick of having rigid food rules and nutrition myths flying around them. They also recognise that diets aren't helpful and often lead to eating problems – but that leaves the question, if not diets, then what? People want help and guidance resetting their relationship with food.
Have you got any advice on helping friends or family who appear to have disordered eating patterns (such as your former colleague, in the book, who took her own rice cakes to a restaurant)?
Often, when people have stuff going on with food or body image, it's a symptom that they're not feeling great about themselves. I'd suggest trying to ask them what's behind the behaviour, just check in with them to see if they're ok and ask how they're feeling. And if they're not feeling up to talking about it, you could ask them if they'd like to do something to take their minds off it and spend a bit of time with someone who cares. Even just going around to theirs to watch a movie or paint your nails and have a catch up could help them feel loved and valued. The eating disorder charity BEAT also has some great advice of signs and symptoms to watch out for, and ways to help if you're concerned it may be an eating disorder as opposed to disordered eating.
If people take one thing away from your book to put into practice, what should it be?
That they can learn to trust their bodies to call the shots in terms of what, when, and how much to eat. It's not easy, and it's a process, but consider what you have to gain in terms of headspace and the freedom to pursue things in your education or career, or just be more present for your kids or partner. Ditching diets can feel daunting, so it's worth considering all the other things you have to gain that aren't related to food and how you look. How much more time and energy would you have for other interests?
Just Eat It: How intuitive eating can help you get your shit together around food by Laura Thomas is out now. Visit Amazon.com