Nutrition Without Dogma: Why Your Feelings About Food May Matter More Than Food Itself

fruit

Stocksy

During my first years as a nutritionist, clients booked sessions with me for their health issues and I offered nutrition advice directly related to those issues. Good plan, right? There's just one problem with it: It often doesn't work. Though we have been taught that certain foods work for certain ailments, the reality is that all bodies are different, and no diet serves us and our health issues so well as the one we intuitively find. 

Additionally, our feelings about the foods we eat have a tangible, physical impact on our digestion of them; how you feel about what you eat might actually be as important as the food you put in your mouth. That's because we have adopted so much dogma and stress around food that for many of our meals, we are eating healthy foods that don't agree with our digestive systems, and for our treats we consume a boatload of guilt-induced stress hormone cortisol, which is the opposite of a digestive aid, along with chips or doughnuts. 

The way stress inhibits digestion is as follows: When you eat, blood rushes to your digestive system to facilitate assimilation. Your body needs that blood to power the organs that turn food into fuel. When you’re stressed, blood rushes to your muscles in case you need to fight or flee from an enemy. Because fight-or-flight is more important according to our nervous system than digestion—which makes perfect sense because you can’t eat if you’ve been killed—if you’re feeling stressed during or after the process of eating cortisol will send the blood to your muscles rather than your gut. If you’re feeling stressed about your meal, you simply can’t digest it properly. Beyond that, stress causes gut issues and can inhibit your immune system, culminating in a vicious cycle that even the mightiest eater cannot win in.  

The reality is that all bodies are different, and no diet serves us and our health issues so well as the one we intuitively find. 

Not telling people what to eat is an odd angle for a nutritionist, I admit. Most choose a specific approach to food-related wellness, such as that everyone should be vegan, or keto, or eat only unprocessed foods. I wasn’t initially immune from this mentality. Only six years ago, I was quoted on Chopped saying, "I do not use cans except to feed a cat." My upbringing in a home that was a prime model of orthorexia incarnate taught me that most foods were “bad,” and one could only have a healthy life if they consumed purely “good” foods. On the plus side of this, we ate amazingly well. My mother ran a co-op out of our basement and ground her own wheat berries into flour to make our daily bread. I credit my career-worthy chef skills to osmosis through a childhood spent in her kitchen. 

The negative result of a no-commercial-food upbringing was my intense fear of most food. I became a vegetarian shortly after my parents when young, stopped eating starches and grains too in my early 20s when they decided carbs were a problem, and spent many of those years without caffeine, alcohol, or any other food-based fun. This was fortuitous for my ability to overcome illness, as I used diet in part to heal holistically from two major multi-year sicknesses in my 30s, and I definitely still believe nutrition is a valuable tool for wellness. However, I gradually began wondering what I was missing in life, and how my body and mind would change if I occasionally ate something “bad.”

If you’re feeling stressed about your meal, you simply can’t digest it properly.

For two years now, I’ve been eating all foods. Meat, coffee, wine, sugar, wheat, dairy: all run through my system at varying times. How has this affected me? I feel better than ever. By getting rid of the stress around eating, my body thrived in ways it never could prior. And by consuming a variety of food groups at once—I’m looking at you, burger with the bun—I’ve discovered the feeling of being satiated for hours on end, which is something that had alluded me for decades prior. 

If I no longer believe there’s a “best” plan for eating, what all do I think we should even be consuming? I still advocate for the basics: lots of produce, grains that aren’t refined, meat that’s been freely raised, and limiting consumption of ultra-processed goods. I encourage people to try new foods, research to find more sustainable and local items, and eat as organic as their budget allows for. I also encourage people to at least occasionally take part in eating foods that offer joy over nutritive value.

It was my change in perspective around diet led that me to dig deeper into the physiology behind our attitudes around food, and which then resulted in me changing my methods with clients. Rather than tell people what to eat, I teach them to get in touch with what their bodies want, their emotions around foods, and how to separate the dogma they’ve learned from the actual impact foods have on their bodies. As a result, my clients don’t just get a nutrition plan; they get a path to a happier, and subsequently healthier, life. 

Rather than tell people what to eat, I teach them to get in touch with what their bodies want, their emotions around foods, and how to separate the dogma they’ve learned from the actual impact foods have on their bodies.

When I wrote my wellness guidebook, my publisher insisted I include a "meal plan" and recipes section because I had only previously published cookbooks. Instead, I walk readers through a journaling process of discovery and unraveling. Here’s how the discovery about digestion begins:

Step One: Food Feelings

If there’s one thing I don’t like to do, it’s take the fun out of food. For this reason, I’ve never been into food diaries. Just as weighing your food can suck the joy from it, keeping track of every nibble and bite seems equally tedious.

Conversely, the first step to my food plan only works without recorded notes if you have a fabulous memory. If you do, great! Please, don’t write anything down. For everyone else, start keeping track of what you eat—not to count calories, but to discern what’s working for you. You don’t need to track exact quantities, but do track main ingredients, or any additives (including spices) that you suspect you may be having an issue with.

Underneath each meal or snack, write a sentence or two about how you felt immediately after eating. When you go to record the next thing you ate, write more about the previous one, specifically about how you felt in the hours following that meal or snack. Don’t worry, this isn’t a longterm task! If your diet has any kind of regularity it will take at most a week to get the answers you need about what your food is, or isn’t, doing for your healing.

Undoing the dogma is a separate set of work, and one that’s equally valuable. By putting in the effort to find out what works best for your body, you can achieve a body that works better. Many people worry that by giving themselves permission to eat more intuitively and less restrictively, they’ll eat lower quality foods, but in my experience with clients (and my own life), the opposite is true. When guided by your body’s own desires and needs, you unearth an ease of moderation rarely found in our modern world. Relaxation around food: what better meal is there?!

*Book excerpt copyright 2019 Ariane Resnick, CNC

Related Stories