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How to improve your relationship with food

Dietician Amy Giannotti, is here to tell us why dieting and deprivation aren't the answer to long-term health and happiness. She also chats about the side-effects that restricting certain foods and whole food groups can have on our health, as well as how we can improve or heal our relationship with food and the difference between intuitive eating and responding to cravings. 

Why aren’t dieting and deprivation the answer to reaching our health goals?

Firstly, by restricting yourself you add resistance that you continually have to fight. The fight will last until you reach a point where you’re exhausted and give in. Often this results in binging followed by feelings of guilt, shame and regret. This can lead to dangerous compensatory behaviours such as further restriction, self-punishing exercise and purging (self-induced vomiting, laxative and diuretic use).

Dieting is the number one risk factor for developing an eating disorder which is a serious mental illness with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.  Not only does dieting impact your physical health but also your social, emotional and mental health.

Secondly, restricting whole food groups limits your ability to attain all 35 essential nutrients. These nutrients are like our body’s key tools. When we have them all in the right amounts we are able to function at our best but when we have a deficiency we can’t function optimally.

Each of the five food groups is characterised by providing different nutrients (for example dairy is rich in calcium). It’s like having to go to five different shops to get all the tools you need! Protein is a nutrient where our requirements are often over estimated and prioritised. Many people feel that ‘more is better’ and this often results in displacing other key food groups and their corresponding nutrients. Just like building a house, you need many tools. Having 100 hammers and lacking other tools won’t give you a better result.

What do you recommend people do if they constantly restrict foods they love and then binge and feel guilty afterwards?

I’d say to stop with the food rules. It’s the only way to stop this cycle. Like Rick Kausman suggests, acknowledge to yourself, ‘I can have it if I want it, but do I really feel like it?’. This recognises that you have complete freedom and encourages intuitive eating by checking in with your appetite and your emotional state. Action is then taken based on the best choice for you in that moment.  

I never tell a client they cannot have a certain food or drink. I educate them on foods and eating behaviours that best support their goals, values, lifestyle, allergies/intolerances, food availability, finances, likes, dislikes and daily nutritional needs. After education I often help make things simpler by using food plate guides, providing tips and allowing them to come up with recipes that best suit them. This is discussed in my eBook 'Fit Fabulous Foodie' with recipe examples.

What are some of the most common symptoms or side effects that you see in clients who have been depriving themselves of certain foods or food groups?

Mainly the effect on their emotional state and social lives. When you restrict food, you start to obsess about food even more and it can become a huge distraction in your life. Your career, relationships and even your ability to have fun can become negatively impacted.

When trying to avoid certain foods people may avoid social situations where they might be offered foods that they’re avoiding or know that they won’t be able to resist food. With fear of giving in, they can start to socially isolate themselves to feel ‘safe’ following their food rules. In my opinion, food rules promote stress and anxiety. When you ‘fail’ you are left with the idea that you have a lack of self-control and can feel guilty.  

In terms of nutrition, what’s the best thing we can do for sustainable health?

Eat from all five food groups and aim to get your recommended serves most days in a way that suits you.

Additional energy and certain nutrients are needed for those that are more active, mainly carbohydrates and protein. Grains, fruits and vegetables are great sources of carbohydrates and dairy, meat and alternatives provide a rich source of protein.

A simple way to ‘tick the boxes’ throughout the day is to include grains, fruit and dairy at breakfast, grains, meat/alternatives and vegetables at lunch and dinner, and fruit and dairy as snacks. You don’t have to do this every day, but doing it more often than not will mean you’ll reach your average recommended serves which will allow you to attain all of your bodies key tools to function at its best. There are millions of ways you can do this!

What do you suggest for people who often crave certain foods?

Cravings can be for foods that you’ve labelled 'bad' or told yourself you can’t have. So, if it’s a food rule, I’d suggest to get rid of it! If it’s more of a ‘sometimes’ food (not a core food group) that you’re craving, for example, chocolate, then maybe enjoy a small serve after your main meal when you’re not really hungry anymore. This will help to avoid consuming large amounts trying to feel satisfied which is hard with processed foods as you usually feel sick first! Another idea is enjoying these foods in combination with core food groups. For example, fruit and chocolate as a snack, or adding chocolate drinking powder to your yoghurt. This will likely combat your cravings of chocolate without the feelings of regret or sickness!

How do we differentiate between intuitive eating and responding to cravings?

Cravings are often due to food restriction but in some instances it can also be our body's message that we need a certain nutrient. For example, if you’re thirsty, you’re probably dehydrated. If you’re craving something sweet, then it could be that your blood sugar levels are low so your body is trying to stabilise them. Foods that have a high Glycemic Index (GI), like processed and sweet foods, contain carbohydrates that take little time and digestion to be broken down to sugar and made available in the bloodstream. It’s a quick load and delivery of sugar to the body. So it’s often a protective bodily response to crave these types of foods which are nutrient poor and energy dense. Creating habits to prevent these cravings and reactions in the body is a good idea. Having low GI carbohydrates such as, wholegrains, beans, sweet potatoes and legumes evenly distributed over the day, will greatly support this.

Intuitive eating is responding to your body’s internal appetite signals rather than external food rules.  There is great research supporting that those who are more intuitive with their hunger and fullness cues, are more likely to stay at their most healthy and stable weight than those who diet and ignore these cues. Research shows that those that diet for weight loss are also more likely to regain the weight they lost and then gain even more within a 5-year period.

Intense and longstanding cravings can result from not practicing intuitive eating but can also have physiological reasoning.

In your opinion, what are the top 3 things that we can do in order to have a positive relationship with food?

  1. Don’t ban any foods unless you have an allergy, it’s unsafe for consumption, it goes against your health and ethical beliefs and/or medical advice. With any other food, acknowledge you can have it if you want it but check in and ask yourself ‘do I really feel like it?’

  2. Switch from focusing on the lowest calorie foods to finding foods that offer the greatest nutritional value and recognise what food groups offer what tools. For example, dairy is a great source of protein and calcium. Protein helps with muscle recovery after exercise (when combined with carbohydrate) and calcium helps support strong bones, nails and teeth.

  3. Enjoy food with others! Food is a great commodity and experience to share. Doing this may also increase your opportunities to try new foods and encourage more social activity in your life which is very powerful for overall health and happiness.

For more information on how you can work with Amy and to read her top three tips for staying healthy, head over to her previous interview here.


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