How often do you apologize for your food choices — the foods themselves or the amounts? Do you feel bad for eating bread? Guilty for being the only person at the table who wants to order dessert? Torn between complying with your daily allotment of calories or points and actually eating enough to satisfy hunger?
The fact is that a lot of people do a lot of apologizing for the seemingly simple acts of eating enough food or for eating food they like — basically apologizing for their very human needs and desires. As registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey, explains in her new book, “Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform Your Life,” dieting and food restriction is also restricting our lives.
“This idea of unapologetic eating is really about getting back into your body and making decisions based on yourself rather than other people. Eating what you want, when you want, how you want, without feeling that you need to justify that, explain that, or apologize for that,” she said. “It’s about getting back to how we used to eat when we were a kid, when we didn’t worry about what other people were eating … before we were taught all these things about how we should eat and how we should act.”
If you think this sounds like a food free-for-all, it’s not. Rumsey’s book is grounded in intuitive eating — which is based on listening to, and eating in tune with, our internal body cues — along with mindfulness, self-compassion, body respect and social justice. Drawing from research, client stories and her own experiences, Rumsey pairs ample food for thought about why we feel we need to “fix” ourselves with actionable steps for breaking free from dieting, redefining your relationship with your body, and ultimately becoming a more empowered human. Basically, moving away from “fixing” and toward allowing, feeling and growing. One reason this progression is so vitally important, Rumsey said, is that dieting and body shame make it hard to fully live our lives.
“We spend so much time and energy trying to fit into this mold that society has deemed acceptable,” Rumsey said. “It shrinks our personality and our relationships with other people. It holds people back from doing things. It causes this disconnection between ourselves and our bodies, from that inner way of knowing what’s right for us.” She said exploring how we relate to food helps us explore how we relate to life — that learning to eat unapologetically leads to living unapologetically. “You feel like you can trust your intuition. You have so much more time and brain space that used to be taken up with food.”
While many people diet in an attempt to become thinner, one of the points Rumsey makes in her book is that many people turn to dieting when life feels out of control. I asked her if she thinks this tendency has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think as humans, we like to feel like we are in control, and the reality is that most of the time we are not in control of most things that are going on. I think that COVID and the pandemic really put that on display,” Rumsey said. “Dieting and wanting to pursue weight loss can be a way of feeling in control. That’s not the conscious thought, but it’s what is happening subconsciously. Our brains are wired to keep us safe. If in the past you coped with feeling out of control by dieting or restricting food, your brain goes back to that old thought pattern. It distracts from more overwhelming emotions.”
Rumsey said dieting extends to many “wellness” plans, protocols and programs that falsely claim to not be diets and even co-opt non-diet and weight-inclusive messaging. “Any way of eating that is dictated by external forces is a diet, because something or someone else is determining what you eat or when you eat or how you eat,” she said. “It might be marketed as a lifestyle change or health promoting. But if the message is that you’ll still lose weight, then it’s a diet.”
One important concept Rumsey discusses in the book is “living in the gray.” In other words, pulling back from the all-or-nothing thinking that sets you up for “success” or “failure” rather than giving you the space to reflect and grow and change.
“If you end up on the ‘failure’ side, there’s a lot of shame that comes with that, and shame is another thing that doesn’t allow us to learn and grow,” she said. “Every experience that you have, every eating experience or life experience, is an opportunity to learn and experiment rather than just pass or fail. It allows more flexibility and allows more nuance to emerge.”
Of course, it’s not enough to just stop actively dieting — in any of its many guises — if we’re still mentally stuck in diet culture. Rumsey invites her readers to question the messages we receive.
“Everything that we think we know about food, about body, about weight, about health, that’s something that’s been taught to us at some point,” she said. “We tend to take that at face value, which is a very human trait. But when we live in societies where some people have all the power, what we’re taught is not necessarily the truth and not necessarily helpful.”
The book offers infinite questions you can use for unlearning and self-discovery, but Rumsey suggests a few to start with. When you were a child, what messages did you get about food? What were you taught about bodies? This can be explicit, such as with things your parents said, or implicit, with movies and TV — what’s represented, whose bodies do you see?
“It’s really about just starting to question these beliefs,” Rumsey said. “Who benefits from you holding these beliefs? Who benefits from you being disconnected from your body, from you not trusting your body?”