For years, I had the same routine every time spring rolled around. I’d frantically prepare for summer by signing up for intense fitness classes and nutrition programs in order to meet my body goals—achieve the perfect “summer body.”
It was always some kind of high-intensity interval crash course coupled with a healthy lifestyle nutrition program. My fellow dietitian friends were on the same page, too. We were more active on MyFitnessPal then we were on Facebook.
But the calorie counting always became exhausting—which is why I could never keep it up for more than a month at a time. To make matters worse, the fitness programs left me completely burned out. Wasn’t working out supposed to make you feel better and not worse? The kicker was that my body never really changed. Maybe I lost a couple of pounds. But the six-pack that all of these programs promised? It never came. I also never got Michelle Obama arms, nor was I able to “build a booty.”
But about five years ago, everything changed.
As a registered dietitian, I pay close attention to the conversations that others in my field are having about dieting, weight loss, and healthy eating. I started hearing more and more about intuitive eating, and seeing more concerning evidence that dieting for weight loss wasn’t an effective solution for many people. I learned about how, as SELF has reported, it’s common for people who embark on weight loss diets to gain weight back (and sometimes even more than they lost in the first place). I also noticed that my patients who wanted to lose weight were locked into ways of thinking about food that were punishing and exhausting—to be good was to rigidly follow a set of norms, and to be bad was to cheat or fail at following those impossibly high standards.
Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of dieting. There are no external rules to follow—no time of day after which you shouldn’t eat, no foods which are bad or off limits. The only guidelines that are required to eat intuitively are the ones that come from inside you—your own body, mind, and feelings. Eating intuitively means making peace with food and taking care of yourself in a complex and comprehensive way.
Around this time, I decided to take Evelyn Tribole’s Intuitive Eating Pro Skills Training for dietitians, which completely changed the way I practice nutrition. Tribole is the author of the groundbreaking book Intuitive Eating, which basically sparked this movement within the dietetics community. Through Tribole’s course, I learned about the concept of joyful movement, which is the idea that working out shouldn’t be a miserable chore, but rather something you look forward to because it makes you feel good. In her book, Body Kindness, registered dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield writes, “The most beneficial exercise is the one you do consistently.” And in my experience, and from what I have observed with my patients, you only do something consistently if you really enjoy it. There’s no one miracle workout we should all be doing. The key is to focus on what movement lifts you up rather than tears you down.
This all brings me back to the idea of summer body goals. My biggest issue with this summer body imperative is that it implies that our bodies are not good enough as they are. Think about it: The average dress size in America is a 16. A 16. Not a 2, not a 4, not even a 6. Yet so many women (and men) I work with are terrified to step foot on a beach in a bathing suit in their current body, convinced that the skin they’re in isn’t good enough as is. The truth is, the $ 70 billion diet industry makes a profit by selling you the idea that you are just one supplement, fitness program, or diet plan from your ideal self.
These days, when my patients come in looking for help achieving their body goals, I push them to dig a little deeper. Who benefits from your pursuit of the “perfect body?,” I ask. What would happen if you decided to shift your focus from changing your body to changing how you feel about your body? (Which, I’ll be the first to admit, is hard and doesn’t happen overnight). Perhaps the most liberating question that I ask patients is what would balanced eating look like if we put weight loss the back burner for now? This gives them space to decide what taking care of themselves means for them, by them—not according to any outside influence.
The bottom line is that if it’s summer and you have a body, you have a summer body. And so instead of working towards changing your body this summer, I now help my clients focus on taking care of themselves from the inside using these seven strategies:
1. Learn to listen to your body.
Most of my patients use external rules to dictate when/what/how much to eat because they don’t trust themselves. The hunger scale is a good guide to help you start eating when you’re hungry and stop when you feel comfortably full. For those not familiar with this concept, it’s a scale that rates your hunger/fullness on a scale from 1 to 10: 1 meaning famished, 5 meaning neither hungry nor full, and 10 meaning so full you feel sick. I always recommend that my patients try to begin eating when they’re at about a 3 or 4 and stop eating at a 6 or 7. Having said that, it’s important to not put yourself on a hunger fullness diet, which means you can only eat when you are hungry and must stop at the exact point of comfortable fullness. There will be times when you over- or undershoot and that’s OK!
2. Remember that eating food is a form of pleasure.
People often think that they should always and exclusively view food as fuel or nutrition, but that’s not the case. It’s important to remember that food is a source of pleasure too. The trick, however, is to find your unique balance between food as pleasure and food as energy. For example, if you only ate “fun foods” you would likely not feel your best physically. And if you only focused on “nutritious” foods, you will likely feel deprived emotionally. Spend time striking a balance that works for you, and for the love of God don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. Your wellness path doesn’t have to mirror that of your friends, family, social media community, etc.
3. If intuitive eating feels too overwhelming, consider the My Plate method as a transitional tool.
I know I said no more external rules, but this is a really helpful tool, especially for people who are just starting to make the move from dieting and food rules to intuitive eating. For people who need a little more guidance when it comes to constructing nourishing and satisfying meals, I recommend using the My Plate method. This means making half your plate non-starchy vegetables, one quarter protein, and one quarter carbohydrates. It’s important not to turn this into a diet or a be-all and end-all. There will be meals (or days) when vegetables don’t make it onto your plate, and that’s OK.
4. Know that sometimes you just need outside help.
And if you find yourself unable to let go of food rules or feel particularly anxious about food and eating, consider consulting with a registered dietitian who can help you or refer you to another professional who can.
5. Focus on joyful movement.
Instead of viewing fitness as a means to control the shape of your body, think about all of the other amazing benefits that you get from working out. I find that joyful movement boosts my mood; makes my bowel movements more regular; helps my back, neck, and shoulders ache less; and helps to keep me metabolically healthy. Joyful movement can include gardening, bike riding, walking, rock climbing—basically anything that you get excited about that also gets your heart rate up and/or works your muscles.
6. Get adequate sleep.
Wellness isn’t just about healthy eating and exercise. Sleep plays a critical role too. Many of my patients are busy professionals or students, and they often sacrifice sleep in order to get the job done. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults ages 26 to 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Are you meeting that goal? Some of the foundation’s tips for improving sleep include sticking to a schedule (weekends included), creating a bedtime ritual, turning off electronics before bed, and checking the bedroom temperature.
7. Don’t forget that healthy eating involves your mental and social health as well.
I recently wrote this article for SELF about how healthy eating involves mental and social health. For example, skipping a beach trip with friends because you are unhappy with your body (or can’t control the menu) can lead to social isolation. It sounds extreme but I see it all the time. For many folks, it can be really helpful to meet with a licensed therapist who can guide you on a path to peace, self-compassion, and acceptance.
Finally, while I consider myself to be a curvy gal, I still have to acknowledge that I do benefit from thin privilege. Fat discrimination is real, and living in a body that isn’t deemed socially acceptable by some makes a lot of these concepts easier said than done. At the end of the day, your body is your business, and you have the right to do whatever is best for you. My only ask is that for one summer—this summer—consider what it would be like if you viewed your body as being perfectly acceptable as is.
Jessica Jones, R.D.N., C.D.E., is a registered dietitian nutritionist who helps people improve their health while healing their relationship with food. She’s also the cofounder of Food Heaven, an online resource for delicious and nutritious living. To sign up for virtual nutrition coaching with Jessica, visit Jessica Jones Nutrition.