Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self Interview
Heidi Schauster, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, author of Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self, joined us for an interview on her book. Below, you will find our questions in italics, and Heidi’s thoughtful responses.
Your book, Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self, has a mission of helping readers enjoy a “connected, embodied way of eating.” Can you please translate this into an individual’s experience in life?
So often we use our minds and not our bodies to make decisions about eating. We choose foods according to a prescription — or based on what a health guru or our beliefs about food tell us. This takes us away from the moment-to-moment experience in the body. What we are truly hungry for may not be what we think we “should” eat, yet there is great wisdom in listening closely to what the body wants when it comes to food choices. It takes practice and healing if we are out of touch with the body and its sensations, but I believe that food becomes more enjoyable, easeful, and ultimately better for our health when we eat in this more embodied way.
You mention that the role weight plays in an individual’s health is exaggerated. Please elaborate.
When we look closely at the research, we find that weight doesn’t determine health. Correlation does not make causation. Health has more to do with our habits and practices and less to do with what the number is on the scale. There are so many factors that determine weight. I believe – and see in my practice – that we can be healthy at any size. If this is a hard paradigm for you to accept (and it can be because we were all trained in a more weight-focused paradigm, myself included), then I encourage you to take a look at the research behind the Health-at-Every-Size movement, as well as the work and writings of Linda Bacon. Putting too much emphasis on weight in our culture stigmatizes people in larger bodies and contributes to eating disorders. Focus on weight is, therefore, NOT health-promoting.
What guided your approach to entitle your chapters as “Steps”?
I wanted to encourage readers to consider this healing work as an accessible process. However, I stress over and over that my “steps” are not linear. Body Acceptance (Step 2), for instance, is one that will likely be revisited again and again in the process of healing the relationship with food and body.
Can you please share your mindfulness exercise entitled “the Zen of Chopping Vegetables”?
One of my favorite mindfulness techniques is what I call “the Zen of chopping vegetables.” I use this particularly with clients who overeat compulsively, but anyone who occasionally eats mindlessly might benefit. You don’t have to do it with vegetables. The exercise is all about taking in the sensory environment of whatever foods you prepare. It’s just that veggies are so colorful and make such a satisfying sound when cut. I’m sure you have chopped vegetables. But have you actually chopped vegetables? I’m talking about clearing the clutter from your heads, examining that juicy carrot in its fullness of color and crispness, and then cutting away. Notice the sound, the texture, the rhythm of the knife on the cutting board. Now take a vegetable of a different color and texture. Hear the different sound the blade makes on the board, the change in juiciness, the feel of the experience. Notice the patterns on the inside of the vegetable. Preparing food can be relaxing, transporting, sensual.
When you get bored of being so in tune with what you are doing (and you will—it’s the nature of the mind), then imagine where the food comes from, who grew it, who tended it, and how it got to your kitchen—all the many steps. Acknowledge the miracle that is our nourishment. Now, chop some more. Tune in to the other parts of the meal with the same mindful attention, as if this was going to be your last meal and you want to savor the experience and life in it.
Now, I hear you say, “When in the world do I have time to chop vegetables like this? I only have a half-hour to get dinner on the table for a family of four!” I hear you. Most of the time, I can’t Zen-out in the kitchen, either. But, I guarantee that if you commit to mindful food-preparation practice at least once per week (and ideally more in small doses here and there), you will enjoy those less-mindful kitchen times more. You will have slowly but surely re-wired your brain to relax and nourish yourself more in the act of feeding yourself and others. Instead of a “should” or a “chore,” food preparation can feel like taking good care of your body and soul. Again, this won’t happen overnight. But by cultivating awareness, nonjudgmental attention, and gratitude for the foods that you are preparing, you will slowly appreciate the act of feeding yourself differently.
There is little room for obsession, judgment, and mindless binge-eating in the purest form of this sort of practice. If you notice judgment, emotions, or thoughts come up, do notice them. Then, return your focus to self-care, gratitude, and the sounds and smells that are before you. The act of taking food preparation slowly—the way we used to do it out of necessity—can be healing, relaxing, and sometimes meditative. Allow yourself space and know that it won’t be easy at first. The simple act of preparing a colorful vegetable or fruit salad—or any baked good or main dish, for that matter—actually can be nourishing on so many sensory levels. Allow yourself the time and attention and spaciousness to notice and feel cared for.
Your question, “What feeds you?” is certainly cause for a pause. How do you guide your clients to explore this area of their lives?
In my book, I talk about creating “sustaining self-care practices.” Often, we use those little food breaks during the day as a way to reward ourselves for five minutes. If we’re hungry, that’s good self-care. But if we aren’t hungry and what we really need deep down is some connection or some down time or some sensory stimulation, then we might “feed” ourselves differently and with more accuracy around meeting our needs. Those who use dieting or restricting behaviors to feel “in control” would meet their needs better by addressing the areas in their lives that feel chaotic or by working towards a sense of agency. Food behaviors (over- or under-eating) become a stand-in or way to avoid dealing with other unmet needs. I have exercises in the book that I use with clients to identify core needs and values that may want attention.
Please address the link between stress and weight gain.
First, I’m a Health-At-Every-Size dietitian/nutritionist, and I believe there is much more to us than our weight. That said, many of my clients struggle with feeling they have more weight on their body than what makes sense, given their lifestyle and history. Sometimes it feels important to talk about the link between stress and weight—but not so that they feel compelled to reduce their stress to lose weight. There’s no guarantee of that, and there are many more compelling health and wellness reasons to decrease your stress level. That said, I think it opens up the possibility for self-compassion to learn about the connection between stress and weight.
Aside from that general heavy feeling in the body, stress can actually affect our hormonal system in a way that encourages appetite and weight gain. Let’s say your day at work feels pressured or your children are pushing every limit all day (or both). Maybe your professor just assigned another paper and you have two others due already that same week. Maybe your partner just got laid off at the same time a major bill is due. Stress comes in many different forms. And it can also come to us via the internet and TV, as most of the stories in the news today are bleak. Acute stress can initially decrease one’s appetite, and this is an adaptive response that primes us for “fight or flight.” When cave people were running from a saber-toothed tiger, it wasn’t such a good idea for our ancestors to stop for a snack. However, stressors more chronic than hungry tigers can lead us to eat as a way to soothe ourselves, escape our minds for a moment, or make us feel better in the way that only chocolate can. On top of this emotionally driven increase in eating that some of us experience as a response to stress, there is a genuine hormonal shift that happens in the body that encourages us to keep eating. Here’s how it works.
The hormones that are released when we are feeling stressed include adrenaline, corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), and cortisol. High levels of adrenaline and CRH decrease appetite at first, as in the saber-toothed tiger example above, though the effects are not lasting. Cortisol, however, remains elevated in the body long after the initial stress response passes. Elevated cortisol over the long term leads to increased blood-sugar levels. Consistently high blood-sugar levels, along with insulin suppression when the pancreas struggles to keep up with these levels, result in cells starved of glucose. Those cells are crying out for energy and one way the body regulates this is to send hunger signals to the brain.
Cortisol is also a hormone designed to help you replenish your body after a stressful event has passed, increasing your appetite and driving you to eat more. Again, this works nicely in the case of a saber-toothed tiger. Once we run away and the coast is clear, it’s a good idea to nourish ourselves after all that fighting or flighting. But this doesn’t really make sense when the tiger is the daily work grind, our partner’s messy habits, or Fox News. Typically, we respond to today’s stressors not by fighting or flighting (and expending lots of physical energy doing so); we respond by slumping down on the couch, stewing in our anger or frustration, and getting lost in a sports game or Facebook with a large bag of potato chips.
We are much more likely to crave sugar and carbohydrates when we are stressed, as cortisol levels are elevated. If you are stressed, and your body feels soothed and comforted by eating these foods, then you learn something about how to feel better the next time you are stressed. The behavioral pattern becomes established. In this way, eating certain foods resembles an addictive pattern. I say “resembles” because your brain on potato chips in front of Netflix is very different from your brain on crack or alcohol. Some of the psychological connections and brain chemicals are quite similar, though.
Some studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol increase weight gain not only in general, but also specifically in the abdominal area. Cortisol has a role in fat-cell maturity. If you are in a high-stress, unstable environment, it might make sense to have more “survival fat” around. In this day and age, though, high-stress is less about survival and more about lives that are just too full or pressured. And never mind that your day was so stressful that there was no time for lunch. Add a day of spotty eating to the mix, and you have a recipe for emotional and compulsive eating in the evening. A perfect storm. Your metabolism is slowed down from that spotty amount of food all day; then, the overeating inevitably happens. Some people follow an evening binge with a morning of restricting (or simply not eating much because they are so full from the night before). The cycle continues.
Did I mention that chronic cortisol secretion in the body can constrict blood vessels, increase blood pressure, contribute to gastrointestinal problems, compromise the immune system, and contribute to fertility problems? Whether your urge to over- or under-eat to manage stress is all about hormones or habit (or a little of both), it’s worth disrupting the cycle of stress and cortisol. Building self-care practices that lower your stress level benefit your body in so many ways. We have really done people a disservice in our health care system by focusing on weight. We should instead be trying to help patients and communities reduce stress and oppression. Stress may be connected to weight gain, but it appears to have a larger negative impact on health on so many levels.
A “Support Tribe” conjures up an interesting visual. How do people apply this to day-to-day life?
First of all, I want to say that a colleague at a conference recently told me that some Native people do not appreciate the casual use of the word “tribe.” I welcomed this feedback, meant no disrespect, and will probably change the term to “Support Community” in a future edition of my book.
It is helpful on the path to healing your relationship with food, body, and self to bring people into your day-to-day, week-to-week life who feel nourishing and supportive of who you are and where you are in your journey. It’s human nature to find ourselves back in familiar, well-grooved patterns when we are tired or under stress. And there is nothing that helps to remind us of how human we are then to spend time with other people who are on the same path.I have seen exponential improvements in clients’ progress when they join a support group of others working on recovery.
Building a supportive community also means being discerning about the company that you keep around you on a daily basis. Sometimes we have to interact with co-workers or family members that don’t feel supportive or nourishing, but we can learn to set clearer boundaries and spend more time interacting with those who do.
We were all put on this planet together, and I believe that we benefit most from living when we find ways to do this messy “life” thing together. I believe that, deep down, we all want to see and appreciate the beauty in ourselves and in all of the unique beings around us. What an amazingly diverse bunch of humans we are with different feelings, thoughts, and needs! It’s empowering and good for our world when we gather together and both honor and appreciate ourselves as individuals, as well as honor and appreciate our interconnected souls. In doing so, we deeply nourish each other in this shared life journey.
About the author:
Heidi Schauster, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S is a certified eating disorders registered dietitian and consultant with over 20 years of experience. She is the founder of Nourishing Words Nutrition Therapy, based in the Greater Boston area, and an instructor in the Eating Disorders Institute graduate certificate program at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. Heidi is also the author of Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self, which she wrote from the perspective of her clinical practice and lived experience. She is a Health-at-Every-Size (HAES) practitioner who encourages embodied eating and living for all. In addition to individual nutrition therapy, teaching, and writing, she facilitates the No Diet Book Clubs and supervises other dietitians – locally and virtually – who treat clients with disordered eating. She is a lifelong dancer, stilt performer, bumbling gardener, and the proud mama of two teenagers.