Diet Culture is a Life Thief
with Dr. Jennifer Salib-Huber
When diet and exercise don’t give you the results you had achieved in the past, you’re a health care professional AND you connect your own experience to that of your patients, you begin to see our society’s relationship with eating from a whole new perspective. That was the pivotal moment that led Dr. Jennifer Salib-Huber to a renewed passion for nutrition, body image, and our daily relationship with food. She began a Facebook group called Everyday Intuitive Eating, dedicated to the Intuitive Eating philosophy and unraveling the mindset of diet culture. She also began witnessing the personal growth that can happen when we unpack the baggage we have been carrying around body image, diet, and exercise.
Dr. Jennifer Salib-Huber is my guest today and she is a naturopathic doctor, registered dietitian, and founder of Pillars of Health – a multi-disciplinary integrative health care clinic located in Downtown Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. She is a member of the Nova Scotia Association of Naturopathic Doctors, the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors and the Nova Scotia Dietetic Association. Since beginning her practice in 2004 she has enjoyed working with people of all ages. Her most recent passion is helping individuals reclaim their relationship with food and help guide them toward one that is rooted in peace, joy, and stability. I began by asking her to define diet culture.
Dr. Jenn: “I do think this is a more recent naming event. Obviously, diet culture has existed for a long and certainly in the last 30-40 years I would say that it has grown from societal expectations into a multi-billion dollar industry that is both supported by and supports it. It’s definitely evolved, but I feel that it’s really been given a name and a voice in the last, we’ll say five-to-ten years where people are saying, ‘you know what? Not only does this not exist, but it’s not health promoting and it’s not benefitting anyone, it’s actually toxic.’ People’s health – mental, physical, emotional, social – all of those aspects of their health, are really being negatively affected by it. And so, I think once we started calling it something it became easier for people to see. I like to use the analogy of those posters from the 90s, where you would stare at them, they would have a pattern…
April: “The Magic Eye!”
Dr. Jenn: “Yeah, the Magic Eye posters! You couldn’t see it, you couldn’t see it, you couldn’t see it even though it’s right in front of you and then eventually something clicks in your brain and you see it, and the image appears and you can’t unsee it. So, every time you look at that picture, even if it’s just for a second, you see it. That was my experience of diet culture, coming from a health professional background in the field of nutrition, health and naturopathic medicine. Once I saw that so much of our health care and wellness industry was really this toxic diet culture, I couldn’t unsee it. That really became my pivotal turning point in my personal relationship with food and my body, but also my professional role as an educator and as somebody who works with people who are trying to achieve health or prevention of disease.
April: “Intuitive eating has really blossomed for you in the last couple of years where you’ve started this Facebook page and I wondered if there was a pivotal moment in your personal life that also brought you to this? I can see how you would see it daily in your patients.”
Dr. Jenn: “It’s really funny, I feel like it was somewhere around 2015 that, I was done having babies, my youngest two had just turned five, I had a seven-year-old, and I had just recently entered this space in my life where I had the time to actually start thinking of my myself again. I had started doing what I call the usual things of exercise and ‘watching what I was eating’ and that was really the first time that I had a lot of difficulty with what I’ll call ‘losing weight’. I’ve always had an unhealthy relationship with food that goes back to my teen years, but I would say that even though my efforts weren’t healthy, they had previously been successful. So, I would be able to make a change, I would see the change on the scale, so it felt like when it didn’t happen that way in my mid-30s that there was something wrong with me. That’s what I see so much of with the women that I’m working with. I say primarily women, but I do also work with men who say, ‘I just don’t understand, what’s wrong with me, what’s broken? Is it my thyroid? Is it my adrenal glands?’ Because diet culture has placed so much value on how we look, there is this urgency to it. I experienced that urgency myself, feeling like, ‘oh my goodness, if I don’t “get a handle on this” what’s going to happen?’ It was really an intensifying of my own efforts that made me realize there’s something wrong but it’s not with me.
As I reflected on my practice, which is coming up to 15 years as a naturopath and 20 years as a dietician, I realized that people weren’t ever coming to me for their first diet, or their second diet, or their third diet. In general, these were people that were coming in after years and years and years of repeated effort that may have had some shift or success in the early days, but like most other people, an unsustainable effort. We have really good data that 95% of diets fail at two and five years and so even if weight loss works, and even if there’s a way of eating that ‘works to allow you to lose weight’ is it really effective and ethical to prescribe that if people are just going to regain the weight and more? All of those things really made me question, pretty much everything I’ve learned because it was very different and really went against everything that I had been taught in both of my programs that weight loss was just a calorie-in and calorie-out equation and that you needed to fall within a certain range to be healthy. That was it! Those were really the two tenants of health based on weight. As I started to dive into the literature, as I started to read and talk and learn from people who have been doing this for much longer than I have, I realized we’ve been sold a bill of goods that was not at all based on evidence. That’s really where diet culture comes back in because diet culture is the expectation our society has that we need to be a certain size, certain weight, or certain shape over actual health. We make assumptions that people who live in a smaller body are healthy when in fact, many of them aren’t.”
Dr. Jenn: “We also make the reverse assumption that people living in a larger body aren’t healthy, when in fact, many of them are. This promotion of the idea that thinness equals health really started to crumble for me, probably about five years ago. As I dived into that, that was my Magic Eye moment. Once I saw that we had been sold this bill of goods, that was not evidence based, that actual harm was coming from it, I just couldn’t turn away from it. While I still love working with women who are trying to conceive and through their reproductive life and managing hot flashes, PMS and diaper rashes and all of those other things that are part of my day-to-day, it’s become my passion to help people, and especially women, reclaim their relationship with food and their life. The biggest thing I found was that diet culture was a life thief. It took away not only my own experience of life, but even if I think about my family: things that I wouldn’t do because I didn’t have a food choice that met my food rules.”
Dr. Jenn: “You know, I think about having a lettuce bun when the rest of my family were having regular buns, or having the salad instead of the potatoes and all of those things took away from my enjoyment of my family.”
April: “It really does suck the joy out of what should be a moment of togetherness.”
Dr. Jenn: “Yeah! So that really was what spurred me and then it’s been really easy to keep this ball rolling because almost everybody that I talk to resonates with it. I can’t count the number of women who come into my office, in tears because they feel like they’re at their wits end, they feel defeated, they feel they still need to try and meet this number on the scale in order to be healthy, worthy of love and success, liked, admired and respected and all of these things that have nothing to do with weight but we place so much pressure on ourselves. They come in, at their wits end and in tears, and then when I tell them that they’re okay, that they don’t have to do this in order to achieve health and they don’t have to give up cheese or bread or whatever for the rest of their life – they often weep! They’re not just crying; they’re weeping because I’m the first person who has ever told them that it’s okay to live in a larger body. I think women need the freedom, and like I say, men too, but overwhelmingly 99% of people that I work with are women, but they need the freedom to live in the body that they have.”
April: “What a powerful change! What a powerful change of mindset.”
Dr. Jenn: “It is! And it’s been wonderful. It’s been wonderful personally and it’s been exceptionally wonderful professionally and probably the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my 15 years of practice.”
April: “Wow! That’s amazing. I have to tell you; I had a similar experience. As you know, I’ve taken up running in the last number of years and if you had asked me in my 20s would I ever be a runner, I would have laughed in your face and told you were you were crazy! Athletics was not a category I could ever fit myself into because I’ve always been curvy. I’m not tall, I don’t fit the mold of a basketball player or a runner – a long-distance runner who is very tall and willowy. I started running to help with stress management because it was so hard to put one foot in front of the other that I literally could not think about anything else, and over time, actually really came to love it. I always thought that if I got physically fit that I would also have a ‘model’s body’. Now that I’ve run a number of half-marathons, I’m still shocked to find that I still have hips! And I still have the curves I’ve always had, but I’m physically fit and I’m okay with it. I have finally accepted that it is okay to have this body shape and being fit isn’t going to turn me into a supermodel body type, but that I can still feel good in my body, and be strong and be curvy.”
Dr. Jenn: “That’s the take home that I would love for so many women to be able to get.”
April: “It is life changing! It’s revelatory, really.”
Dr. Jenn: “It’s like literally living a different life, right? You living one life where you have thought about food and exercise and clothes in a constant battle to achieve what you think you need to achieve to be liked and to like yourself and then when you realize, ‘oh! I don’t have to do all those things? I don’t have to be on a diet? I don’t have to be doing this?’, it’s like this whole world opens up and I think that’s amazing.”
April: “It gives you so much time to think about other goals.”
Dr. Jenn: “Yes!”
April: “When you don’t have to think about planning your diet down to the last calorie, or the last point, every single day.”
Dr. Jenn: “So many women feel that – people will say, ‘well, Intuitive Eating, isn’t that really giving up? Aren’t you just saying ‘oh, I can’t ever lose weight so I’m going to eat whatever I want’ and it’s really, completely the opposite. Instead, I tell people: ‘when you’re focused on weight loss, you don’t see anything else. So if you make all of these beautiful meals and you’ve started growing food or you’ve found local farmers and you’re learning new foods, and trying new foods and making more things at home and enjoying food as a family – and the scale doesn’t change, when you’re diet culture focused, or diet culture centric, you give up because you feel that’s your measure of success and if I haven’t succeeded than all of those things don’t matter. When you no longer place the emphasis on the number on the scale, you see all of these positive benefits these changes can have on your health, independent of any effect they may have on your body, size or shape. It’s not about giving up, it’s about actually doing things that matter.”
April: “How do you make decisions around what is a good choice in Intuitive Eating?”
Dr. Jenn: “I like to use the language that I use when I’m working with kids, which is work food and play food. And so, we want to have enough work food, which broadly speaking, I like to say is real food. Anything that isn’t processed or heavily processed: fruits, vegetables, meats, and whole grains and those kinds of things, that should be your work food because they provide your body with what it needs to be healthy and strong and fit, have energy, and sleep well and be well. When I meet with people and I say: ‘what are your health values? What matters to you? What are your food values and what matters to you? If you want to be a vegetarian, great, we can incorporate that.’ Let’s have enough work food to have our bodies work well, but that means there’s enough room for play food because we don’t have to have perfect eating. It doesn’t exist. Food serves as more than just nourishment. Culturally, for as long as we’ve lived on this planet, we have celebrated with food, we have shared food, we have broken bread at tables with neighbours and friends and that needs to have a place. If you’re at a gathering and you can’t have what other people are having because of a food rule, not because of an allergy or anything else, that has an effect on you as well. Using that work food and play food analogy works for kids, but it also works for adults. It’s about how do we find satisfaction, most of the time, in ways that nourish you physically and emotionally.
Initially, we focus on the basics of hunger and fullness and being able to differentiate the types of hunger. Is it real physical hunger, meaning your body needs fuel? Or is it emotional hunger, where you body is looking for, what I call ‘a moment of pleasure’? Everyone can relate to that and everybody is an emotional eater at some point.”
April: “Oh yeah.”
Dr. Jenn: “Again, if they tell you they’re not, they’re lying because food makes us feel good, especially if we have memories of food that make us feel good or we have something we particularly associate with feeling relaxed and happy. Sometimes those signals get mixed up and helping people understand emotional versus physical hunger, learning to identify comfortable hunger. Depending on where you come from, some people have a believe that you should be starving until they start eating. Some people, because they’ve been told they need to eat every two hours, or they need to have snacks, can’t actually remember the last time they felt physical hunger. There’s a lot of work around that and there’s also a lot of work around comfortable fullness. Being able to stop eating when you’re comfortably full has to be based on the core believe that you have unconditional permission to eat whenever you want. It’s very difficult to stop eating whatever you’re having if you think ‘if I don’t eat this all now, I’m not going to have it again.’ This often happens with fun food because we think: ‘oh, well it’s the weekend, it’s the long weekend, we’re at a barbeque, I’ve already had X, Y, Z’ and we jump into that last meal mentality of ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ and we eat, far beyond our comfortable fullness because we’ve given ourselves permission to do that. If we have unconditional permission to enjoy those foods whenever we want, we really lose that desire to eat beyond that comfortable fullness on a regular basis because it actually takes away from our regular satisfaction, it doesn’t add to it.”
April: “Wow. I can think of so many Thanksgivings where people go overboard because there will never be pie ever again!”
Dr. Jenn: “It’s definitely part of normal eating to sometimes eat too much, right? That’s absolutely part of normal eating. My own personal story that I always tell people is that we were on a vacation a few years ago and my husband and I went to an adults-only restaurant and it was this absolutely amazing spread of food, it was like a brunch buffet. There was king crab and caviar, and cheeses and meats from around the world. Absolutely, I ate so far beyond my comfortable fullness, but it added to my satisfaction because I still look back fondly at that memory and it would have taken away from my satisfaction if I said: ‘no, I’m going to stop right here.’ If it’s pizza, for example, or cake, and it’s a regular ol’ Friday then ‘eh, I’ll have some or maybe I won’t, because I know I can have it another time.
It’s a fundamental shift in your belief about what you’re allowed to have, which is, you can have anything you want but your body will be best served and your health will be best supported by mainly eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.
One very predictable response that happens when people are first doing this is the pendulum has to swing the other way. If you’ve been holding a pendulum back in diet culture, living in restriction, not having foods that you enjoy because you think that you shouldn’t. And all of a sudden, you’re given permission to have them, yeah, you’re going to have them a lot. You’re probably going to eat more than you need to feel comfortably full on a regular basis. Like all pendulums, they’ll come back to centre, you just have to leave them alone. I try and really encourage people to think of that analogy and keep that analogy in mind when they call me in a panic because they’ve had three bags of chips and I say: ‘okay, but you haven’t allowed yourself to enjoy them. Enjoy them to the fullest and leave that alone and don’t try to control it because the more you try to control it, the less likely it is to settle at a comfortable place.’
April: “Do you see over time with people who move to this kind of Intuitive Eating lifestyle, that their mental health or general outlook changes and improves?”
Dr. Jenn: “Absolutely. I have patients who have picked up biking in their seventies because they love it; because I’ve told them just move your body in ways that feel good. Because they’ve always been so focused on calorie burning exercise. Or people who start swimming because they love it. People who pick up hobbies and start painting and can just generally enjoy life because they’re not micromanaging every aspect of their diet.”
April: “That is incredible. That is incredible how much time and energy we have put into trying to fit inside a box that doesn’t provide us with any real benefit!”
Dr. Jenn: “And you know, it’s interesting when you were talking about running and still having curves and those kinds of things. People don’t know, and aren’t told that a large percentage of our size and shape is genetically determined. So, once we give permission to say ‘hey, okay, you know what, these hips are here to stay’…or shoulders, or belly, or arms, or whatever it is, it gives you that first step of acceptance. And you know a bit more of my personal story but I recently have connected with some new family, and one of those people is a half-sister who lives half way around the world. We grew up in very different environments and it was STRIKING to me how physically similar we are. Down to clothing size, bra size, freckles…to the point where our kids actually got us mixed up when we were camping. We are so physically similar in how we walk, in how we stand, in how we look in a bathing suit that is was shocking. And that was a really great reminder to me that it doesn’t matter what I would have done in my past with anything I could have done differently or anything in the future that I could do, this is how my body is going to look. And I only get one of them, and I only get one life…”
April: “And it’s so incredible, look at what your body has done! Look at how strong your body is. Look at how strong ALL of our bodies are! When you really take a step back and think about what our bodies do on a daily basis to move us around in the world”
Dr. Jenn: “And why do we place so much value on how our bodies look instead of what they can do? And sometimes people will say ‘okay well this is all really nice, and it is pie in the sky, and it sounds lovely, but where’s the research?’ And that’s the question that I get from a lot of people. But nutrition research is especially flawed because it’s so difficult to control all of the variables that would need to be controlled in order to say that X causes Y, right? So even when we are looking at, does eating a particular food cause condition X, it’s really hard to say. It’s heavily criticized that you need to interpret nutrition research with a dose of caution. And especially if you’re reading it in some kind of media outlet and their interpretation of the research because it often gets really messed up. But there are up over 100 research studies that look at Intuitive Eating and outcomes that we might see from it. So, a lot of the studies have found higher self-esteem, which I can absolutely see as being one of the first and most important outcomes. Improved body image and just a general satisfaction with life. And so that’s what I was saying about they actually have space, and time, and energy to do OTHER things in their life that brings them joy. People are more optimistic. But there are also some more traditional outcomes, for example, that triglyceride levels are lower and good cholesterol goes up when people are eating intuitively. We don’t exactly know why, but maybe if we start to pay attention to foods that make us feel good, those are probably going to be whole foods. That’s not to say you don’t enjoy cake, because you might always enjoy cake and you SHOULD always enjoy cake, but maybe now you can actually see a salad as something you enjoy, not something you have to have because it’s part of this food rule. And that’s what I see a lot of – and I see it on the flipside – people will tell me, ‘oh, I had an egg every day of my life because I thought that was the best breakfast, but actually, I don’t like eggs.’ So, it gives you permission to really critically evaluate what you actually like and what makes your body feel good, so it makes complete sense to me that our bodies would adjust physically as well on the inside.
Two outcomes that I think are really important are the fact that Intuitive Eaters are less likely to be emotional eaters, as a diagnosis. Binge eating disorder, for example, is dramatically improved with an Intuitive Eating approach. And there are far fewer rates of disordered eating. So, if we can introduce Intuitive Eating to the younger generation so they can never start going on a diet, I think we will see the rates of eating disorders decline – and eating disorders are on the rise – they are the fastest rising mental illness! And, part of it is that we normalize it in our culture, right? There’s no other behaviour that has such an adverse outcome that we normalize. And that definitely needs to stop.
That’s the hill I’m going to die on! There are many that I won’t, but that’s the hill I’m going to die on!
April: “That’s amazing! Your patient base is primarily women, but I also see – because I have two boys – they talk about body image a lot too. And it’s a little terrifying, because my kids, my boys, are eight and 12 years old, and my eight-year-old talks about it quite frequently.”
Dr. Jenn: “I think that when we start to really normalize different shapes and sizes, and that really, I think, needs to come especially from media and social media. And really for adults especially, seeking out examples of bodies in all shapes and sizes doing things that are considered part of a normal, active life. So, there are lots of people who run who do not meet this runner’s body criteria. There are lots of people who do different things in different bodies and shapes and sizes, and that’s the kind of thing I think the next generation needs to see more of. But we need to seek out people who are putting their best foot forward but maybe aren’t doing it from the perspective of diet culture.
April: “Do you have examples of books or resources at hand that people might be interested in learning more or referring to in order to learn more about Intuitive Eating?”
Dr. Jenn: “Intuitive Eating is a great place to start because it can be a jumping off point for a lot of other things. The original Intuitive Eating book which was written by two dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who are also creators of the professional program that I did my training with. Their book is great and has been recently updated. There is also a work book for people who like to do those things at home.
Health at Every Size, which the original written by Linda Bacon would be one. There’s one that I really like to recommend for women and teens especially called Body Kindness by Rebecca Scrichtfield, who is a dietician in the States. What I love about that book is that it acknowledges that we may not like parts of our body for a long time. So, if I look at my stretch marks I can say, ‘okay, those came from growing because I had babies. And they’re just part of the landscape now.’ I don’t have to love them, but I can accept them and I can be kind to them. I don’t have to look in the mirror and hate them every time. So those would be some of my favourite books to start with.”
April: “Thank you Jenn, it’s such a pleasure.”
Dr. Jenn: “Thank you!”
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