Disrupting diet culture - nutritionist Laura Thomas reveals how to eat intuitively
Nutritionist and wellness advocate Laura Thomas is on a mission to recalibrate how we view food, writes Joyce Fegan
The health and wellness world is an exceedingly noisy one, at times inspiring and at other times filled with hypocrisies and littered with contradictions.
The messages are as many as they are ever-changing: avoid carbohydrates after 6pm, go gluten-free, be a vegan, eat clean all week and cheat at the weekends, stock up on protein, cut down on sugar - all while loving the skin you're in.
A woman cutting through that din, one scientifically-verified fact at a time, is Laura Thomas. She holds a PhD in nutritional sciences, runs the London Centre for Intuitive Eating and hosts a popular podcast called 'Don't Salt My Game'. Laura is also a registered nutritionist with Britain's Association for Nutrition and she has recently published her highly-acclaimed book Just Eat It.
Her goal? To free people from restrictive dieting, disordered eating and punishing exercise.
How? Through intuitive eating and a non-diet approach to nutrition.
"So many people, particularly women, have all this noise in their head about how much to eat, when to eat and constant negotiating with ourselves around food," says Laura. "'I can have carbs with my dinner because I ran for three miles, or I have to run for three miles to make up for the cookie I ate.'
"Intuitive eating is a toolbox for stripping away those rules, to connect with our bodies and to dial down that noise, that bargaining, so it doesn't constantly interfere with our life."
Laura believes that the line between health and obsession over our health has become very blurred in recent times. This blurring means people may not recognise that their pursuit of wellness is, in fact, interfering with their lives.
"Back in the 1980s and 1990s, diet culture was very blatant and in your face, with the grapefruit diet and the cabbage diet," says Laura. "Now diet culture has shape-shifted. It's dressed up as health and well-being - things we want. Health and wellness get represented in the media and social media by people claiming to be nutritionists, and it can often look like orthorexia and restrictive eating. Health is so much more than what we look like and what we eat."
Orthorexia, a term first coined in 1996 by American doctor Steven Bratman, refers to an obsession with only eating food that is deemed to be 100pc pure, wholesome and nutritious.
Laura, who trains professionals in intuitive eating and sees clients on a one-to-one basis, has a definition of what healthy eating is.
"My definition of healthy eating is a healthy balance and variety of foods as well as a healthy relationship with food. That relationship can vary from person to person. It's about flexibility, the ability to be spontaneous, trusting your body to guide you on when and what to eat. It's about food and exercise not interfering with a person's life.
"The litmus test would be: could you miss a gym session and would it cost you emotionally, causing anxiety? With orthorexia, the anxiety isn't about weight per se but about purity, control and obsession," she says.
In her work with intuitive eating, Laura has simple tools and thought experiments that people can use.
"We are all born with this innate ability to feed ourselves, knowing when to eat and how much to eat. Our connection, as babies, with our internal signals are really strong. Intuitive eating is the process of getting back in touch with that connection," explains Laura.
A key tenet of her work is the 'fuel gauge.' This allows people to restore that lost connection with their hunger cues; cues that have been disputed by diet culture.
"An exercise in my book is the fuel gauge. If you think of your body as a car, with a petrol tank. At one end the gauge is zero and at the other, 10, it's full, stuffed to the brim, Christmas Day full, after turkey and pudding, when you feel uncomfortable.
"In the middle, would be five, and that's neutral. We are used to extremes, we are not used to gentle hunger," says Laura, who suggests people "imagine" this gauge to check in with their own hunger levels.
"We can imagine a fuel gauge of zero, being ravenously hungry and 10 being uncomfortably full, as a way to recalibrate what hunger feels like for you," she explains.
However, people are initially reluctant to "trust" intuitive eating. "Something I hear a lot is: 'What if I trust my body, stop following my plan and I slip into this spiral of eating nothing but pizza and doughnuts?'
"There is a thought experiment I have for that. Close your eyes and think about what it would be like to eat pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner and for each snack. After a while you'd start to feel sick and you'd want to eat a vegetable. What that tells us is that you already know what to do. Diet culture has taught us not to trust our bodies," Laura says.
Another key element of her work is healing people's relationship with their body image. This is something that has gained worldwide traction through the Body Positive movement and with actress Jameela Jamil's @i_weigh campaign, which aims to help people "feel valuable" regardless of what they look like.
"When you ask what a healthy relationship with your body image would look like - it's not thinking that much about our bodies and not letting our bodies hold us back," says Laura.
She has another exercise for body image that she asks clients to try out.
"I ask them to draw an outline of a gingerbread man and then write down how they'd describe each part of their body. This exercise really highlights your self talk around your body. The first thing we can do is to bring awareness to how we talk about ourselves," explains Laura.
She also prefers the term "body neutrality" as a stepping stone towards body positivity, a place where you can care for your body and treat it with respect, no matter how you feel about it.
Other aspects of her work include deconstructing our hierarchy of foods - this means not labelling certain foods as "good" or "bad", because to do so creates "a forbidden fruit effect" which causes deprivation and leads to obsession. The goal being to give ourselves the "unconditional permission to eat all foods".
An Irish nutritionist who has trained with Laura is Carla Bredin of Wild Healthy. She experienced an "existential crisis" about her own work, after completing Laura's course.
"I enrolled in Laura's 'Intuitive Eating for Nutrition Professionals' course at the end of last summer and went through an existential crisis about the work I've been doing as a nutritionist - not the first time, but definitely the most all-encompassing one. Biases and blind spots excavated. Language and terminology examined. A full audit of my professional world and a steady departure from a weight-centric model," says Carla.
Carla works to reject strict rules and restrictions around food with clients in her Dublin practice. They also work towards eating according to their body's hunger and satisfaction cues.
"Enjoyment and pleasure from food are encouraged. If you're eating in a way that lacks joy and social engagement, it's unsustainable. It sucks, actually," says Carla.
Carla explains that when clients come to her for help, they expect a "cruel to be kind approach".
"I think it shows how deep diet culture runs that it's assumed health can only be achieved in this punitive way. That's why intuitive eating provides an antidote to that restrictive approach," she says.
While intuitive eating is about abandoning dieting, it's not about abandoning health.
"When we say, 'give up dieting', we're not saying 'give up on health'. We're talking about focusing on health-promoting interventions that include physical and mental health," says Laura.
Laura Thomas PHD will be talking about intuitive eating at Thrive Festival happening in the Convention Centre, Dublin this weekend (March 30 & 31). Her book 'Just Eat It' is available now
This is a set of tools and skills to help people move away from rigid rules, and learn to eat according to their body's natural appetite and physiological cues. It was developed by dietitians and has been shown to help improve body appreciation and satisfaction, attunement to internal cues like hunger and fullness, psychological flexibility, self-regard, exercising for enjoyment and dietary variety. It can also help improve physiological markers of health like blood glucose control, cholesterol and blood pressure. It has been shown to reduce the binge/restrict cycle and help people move away from diets. A key exercise to try is the 'fuel gauge' where you measure your hunger from zero, ravenous, to 10, which is uncomfortably full.
Intuitive eating in five easy steps
1 Get back in touch with your physical hunger: Identify your level of hunger from a scale of zero to 10 - zero being ravenous, five being neutral and 10 being uncomfortably full.
2 Reframe your thoughts about hunger: Hunger is your body asking for food so it can survive and perform its various jobs to keep you alive and well.
3 Dismantle the hierarchy of "good" and "bad" foods: This hierarchy leads to the "forbidden fruit" effect, which can cause obsessive food thoughts and deprivation, followed by bingeing.
4 Respect your fullness: Take a short 10-20 second, mid-meal pause to see how your stomach is feeling and see where you are on the hunger scale.
5 Changing the critical way you view your body: Write a list of 100 things your body can do that has nothing to do with what it looks like. Engage with your body through movement you enjoy like yoga or self-massage. Think of people you admire whose body shape has nothing to do with the work they do in the world.