Our contributor Helen Long finds food for thought in Laura Thomas’ body positive guide to intuitive eating, Just Eat It.
It’s the start of a new year, marking the return of diet season. Our gyms are full, our TVs are an open-all-hours exhibition for yoghurt adverts, and our scales see more of us than our own families. It’s a ritual as old as Christmas itself. And as the doomed cycle begins in earnest, we just find ourselves becoming more and more miserable.
British women in particular are reported to have some of the lowest body confidence rates in the world. Further studies show that 30% of women would trade at least one year of their life if they could have a more idealised body shape. Let that sink in for a moment. In this country, women are so anxious to be slim they would happily die younger to achieve it. Certainly, it’s not for lack of want that we are still fat. So what is driving our inability to shift the pounds?
Ask the media and they’ll tell some bogus, fatphobic tale of a lazy nation of lard-noshers. Ask nutritionist Laura Thomas, however, and she’ll tell you something surprising: we’re fat because we’re supposed to be.
Thomas’s theory is not actually all that revolutionary. Ultimately, we are the sum of our genes. They determine our height, our foot size, the colour of our hair and yes, even our weight. You’ve doubtless heard of the term ‘set point weight’, the pre-determined weight at which your body will kick back and relax. For some, this is fairly low (think the size 8 friend who’s never so much as touched a spin class); for others it may be on the higher end. Either way, your body will fight any slanderous attempt to knock it from its happy place. Perhaps the problem, then, is that we still see obesity as a choice.
Let’s take a different example. Remember the gruesome practice of foot binding in China? From a young age, girls would have their feet strapped up in restrictive bandages to preserve the shape of their tiny feet, causing their bones to break and resulting in permanent deformities. The tradition is said to have originated from 10th-century Emperor Li Yu, who asked his concubine to wrap her feet into the shape of a crescent moon and dance upon a lotus. Somehow the dance, which can’t have been more graceful than a walk home from the pub, was so beautiful other women began to replicate the binding. And so madness ensued.
Thankfully, the practice has now died out and we rightly look back on it with disgust. A woman’s foot is not meant to be impossibly small, we all know that. How could such a cruel and unnatural thing be done to adolescent girls, all because a man deemed it beautiful? Well, says Thomas, the issue is far from an antiquated idea locked up in the past – it shapes our attitudes every day.
‘The male-gaze is the tendency for women to be viewed by society through the eyes of heterosexual men, as objects of male pleasure, primarily there to fulfil men’s sexual desires. When we self-objectify, we turn the male-gaze in on ourselves and view ourselves as sexually desirable objects.’
It’s a wretched world where we have become our own worst sexists. In addition, thanks to the media we know exactly what that sexually desirable image is: skinny, clear skin, big boobs, narrow thighs. When we look in the mirror and don’t see this (even if we know it is largely impossible without Photoshop), our self-esteem predictably plummets. The result is often heavy restricting of food (hello dieting), which can then lead to nutritional deficiencies and, in worst-case scenarios, life-threatening eating disorders.
To make matters worse, we turn on those who don’t match that ideal. Fat-shaming, fatphobia and weight stigma are all very real. Larger bodies are hounded by popular culture. In movies, the fat character is demoted to the role of romantically hopeless sidekick. Those considered overweight or obese are even known to receive poorer treatment from doctors.
In short, we have a nation of semi-starved women failing to achieve a size they were not designed for, nor will they ever be able to maintain, resulting in emotional distress, physical harm and a self-preserving stream of animosity from society. As long as the media insists on feeding them subtle, idealised messages, women also find themselves powerless to unlearn this prejudice. Thankfully, there are those willing to help.
A raucous guide to intuitive eating, Laura Thomas’s new book Just Eat It uses an accessible, passionate and admittedly swear-y style to spill the dirt on all manner of image-related issues; from fatphobia, to orthorexia, to why diets flat-out don’t work. The registered nutritionist also evaluates the reason size does not always equate to health, whereas lifestyle factors – such as sleep, relaxation, alcohol intake and exercise – most certainly do. In my mind, this is the part of the book that tells us, ‘Girls, it’s OK. You can stop now.’
The second part hones in on intuitive eating. First popularised by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, it is the practice of allowing your body to guide how much, when, and what you eat. The term is far more nuanced than ‘eat what you want’ and ‘learn to know when you’re full’, and Thomas dedicates the time to explaining this accordingly. Through examples and exercises, you will learn how to effortlessly regulate how you eat. It may surprise you, but we’ve always had this innate ability; it was simply highjacked by diet culture.
Before jumping in, know that intuitive eating is not a diet. No foods are off the table, there is a deep focus on food neutrality, and there is absolutely no restricting (unless for allergy or ethical reasons). Diet culture has taught us to view food in its individual parts, such as carbs, protein, or a dense pile of micronutrients. Often we use shaming adjectives like ‘naughty’, ‘calorific’, or ‘fatty’. In contrast, Just Eat It encourages us to see our plate as ‘filling’, ‘nourishing’, or ‘soul-feeding’. It reminds us that food is just that – food. It does not have to be hated, resisted, or restricted, and it never, ever has to be earned.
In this day and age, books like these go far beyond the realm of just ‘interesting’ – they are downright important. Half our population (and increasingly members of the other half) is expending masses of brain power agonising over the simplest part of life. They prod, torture, and hate their bodies because society has told them to. It’s time to question that authority.
Encouragingly, body positivity is rising in popularity, but so too are the counter arguments voicing slogans like ‘obesity crisis’. Society’s focus on health is definitely not misplaced; over half the population of our major cities believe they will die early as a result of their lifestyle. However, weight is touted too often as a major determining factor of our health. Nutrition is important, Thomas says, but it is just one tiny part of what makes us healthy or unhealthy.
The ‘health at any size’ debate is a hot topic, and a divisive one at that, but you don’t need to weigh in to embrace intuitive eating. Where food was once a simple tool to keep us going, for too many of us it has become an obsession. Unless you’re a chef, you deserve better than that. If you’re sick of seeing an enemy on your plate, give this book a go. You are so much more than your weight – it’s time to start believing it.