How My Herbalism Has Changed Around Food
Updated: May 22, 2020
If you haven't read Part 1 of this series, Health At Every Size: The Evidence, do so first, it provides important context for what follows.
When I was a wee flower bud of a student herbalist, elimination diets were all the rage (in case you haven't heard, they still are). One teacher loved to talk about all the foods that could help or hinder every health condition we discussed (and I'm so glad she did!). It helped give me a good foundational knowledge of nutrition, plant constituents, and constitutional energetics. Another teacher was a staunch believer in food sensitivities, which in theory are a milder form of a full blown allergy. The idea is that we can be sensitive to certain foods that are causing us chronic inflammation and leading to other symptoms. This teacher preached that once you identify a food sensitivity, you cut that food entirely out of your diet, in all trace amounts, no exceptions, forever and ever.
I must admit, healing one of my own ailments with the use of herbs and an elimination diet is what peaked my interest in herbalism in the first place. My path of study meandered through explorations of Traditional Chinese Medicine and little bit of Ayurveda, two of the most ancient continually practiced forms of medicine we humans have. Both traditions use elimination diets, and for good reason!
Some of us have Celiacs disease, or other autoimmune disorders that produce clear negative feedback when we eat certain foods. In some cases, the costs of eating a food that doesn't agree with you is so high that your desire to eat it diminishes. When we learn to go to our bodies for answers, we'll get clear information about whether or not they want to eat a given food.
Though I cut a few food groups out of my diet for a couple of years, I was never able to be as strict as that teacher suggested. I felt like I was often "falling off the bandwagon." I thought that if I just had more willpower, or worked harder, I could finally do it right. I began to notice that every time I renewed my resolve to stick to the plan, the amount of time I was able to "be good" got shorter and shorter. I later found out that this phenomenon is totally normal. Not only are diets generally unsustainable, but our tolerance for dieting decreases the longer we spend on diets.
I was observing similar behaviors in my clients as well. The clients I worked with on elimination diets weren't able to stay on them in the long term, and most of them never started in the first place. I was expecting people to do something that just isn't realistic.
In my own experience, I found myself separating foods into "good" and "bad" categories. I felt guilty every time I ate certain foods. Before going on a trip, I would spend days cooking all the food I needed to take with me. I spent a massive amount of energy meal-planning. Potlucks and social situations were stressful. I would schedule "cheat days," and spend weeks obsessing over what I would eat. Then, when I could finally have the food I wanted, I would eat so much I'd feel sick.
Basically, the effort it took to comply with an elimination diet caused a bunch of stress. And if one thing's important for improving your digestive function, it's reducing stress.
When we're stressed, our body diverts blood flow away from our gut. Our energy isn't focused on resting and digesting. Stress about what we eat or don't eat is compounded by the weight stigma that is so prevalent in our culture. Is it possible to separate dieting in the pursuit of health from the sea of body shame and weight loss culture that we're swimming in?
When I learned about the concept of Health At Every Size®, and began to study intuitive/attuned eating and Body Trust®, I realized that the way elimination diets were traditionally practiced in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine is hard to replicate in this country, in this time. Suggesting someone stop eating a certain food just wasn't as simple as that. I understood that it was no longer ethical for me to be introducing elimination diets to my clients.
So if not diets, then what? What does practicing Health At Every Size® actually look like on the ground?
There are lots of health-improving interventions that have nothing to do with diets. Working with homeless and food-insecure people at The Herb Hut Free Clinic taught me that doable changes can make a huge difference to a person who has little control over their diet.
My teachers Hilary Kinavey MS, LPC and Dana Sturtevant MS, RD asked me this question: "If weight weren't a factor, and you could have all the lovers, all the success, and all the respect you needed regardless of weight, what would you do to take care of yourself?"
Now I work with clients to heal their relationship with their bodies and with food. Instead of focusing on external, cerebrally generated rules, we work on listening to and hearing what our bodies are telling us. What if you ate when you were hungry and stopped when you were full? What if there were no "good" nor "bad" foods? We work to eliminate guilt, shame, and stress around food choices.
I'm offering a 6-week guided experience, from November 4th - December 13th 2019, to a small group of people who want to do this work with me. If you're curious about how to pursue health without dieting, check out: