If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold it would be a merrier world.
I am a recovering natural health fanatic.
I have followed a “coffee and gum” diet. I have restricted calories and implemented intermittent fasting.
I have forced my family to follow the Gaps, Paleo and SCD diets.
And I know when you see me or my family, you will wonder at this. Why? Because we are a family made up of diverse body types, some thicker and some thinner.
I followed all these diets because diets and diet culture told me that…
If I was skinny, I would be acceptable. I would be listened to and deemed worthy. I would be pretty.
If I ate food with too many pesticides on it, I would get cancer.
If I ate food that was “processed”, I would get cancer.
If I ate too many carbs I would gain weight and have heart problems.
If I fed my neurodiverse son a low-carb diet, his neurodiversity would be “cured”.
My family was only acceptable if we looked a certain way.
If my children were “healthy” (aka slender), they wouldn’t be bullied.
If my children were “healthy” (aka slender), they would never hate their bodies like I did.
If our family fit into the overweight/obese category, we were doomed to suffer health problems.
If I fed my children too much sugar, they would suffer emotionally.
If I only fed my children “healthy” foods, then they would never like junk food.
Junk food and sugary candies were the epitome of evil and the cause of just about every known health problem in children.
In short, my journey into “healthy eating” culture involved three things: neurodiversity, health concerns and physical appearance.
There is a special kind of sorrow many parents of neurodiverse children walk through.
You see, the inception of a pregnancy long-awaited kindles a sort of imaginative hope.
A new person is coming into this world. Who will they be? What will they do? What sort of friends will they have? In what ways will they leave an imprint? What sort of good will they bring to this world?
Then the babe is born, that future hope embodied. And we parents become the ultimate oxymorons: active spectators, on the sidelines, but also essential to the game.
The neurotypical child figures out that game of life. Sure, they encounter bumps and get bruised, but the game itself both makes sense to them and holds space for them.
The neurodiverse child, on the other hand, finds this life-game to be at the least, agonizingly confusing and at the most, excruciatingly painful.
A playdate at the park? Too hot! Too loud! Too many kids! Too confusing! We have to leave within five minutes of arriving.
Nursery at church? Too terrifying. Too overwhelming. Not gonna happen.
Friends? They don’t make sense. They frighten.
Those parental dreams, the ones about having an ordinary life, about playdates and parks and fun? Well, they have to be let go of.
Everything will require modifications and methods, extra doses of love and patience.
Enter the diet promise: If you take these foods out of your child’s diet, here’s what will happen. They will advance emotionally and intellectually. They will be able to lead a normal life. How do we know this? Because these parents followed this diet and here are the miracles that happened with their children.
I was especially susceptible to this promise because I did not have any friends with neurodiverse children. I was lonely and oh-so-tired of the sometimes curious, sometimes outright hostile looks I received everywhere I went with my child.
So began years and years of on-again, off-again “autism” diets. I spent most of my days in the kitchen, cooking broths and meats, fake breads and pseudo-treats.
Every time we stopped eating according to the “diet”, usually because we were travelling, I noticed my neurodiverse child’s “symptoms” worsened. I used this as confirmation that our special diet was good and important.
Often, if my children didn’t like the “special” foods I cooked, they just wouldn’t eat. They were often tired and lethargic.
I was a homeschooling mom, and my children needed to be out playing with friends and exploring the world, but I was so tied to the kitchen and this miraculous diet that we were often no more than hermits.
I have always been a “moderately healthy” person.
I haven’t been hospitalized or in grave danger of death, but I have had some serious health struggles.
Childbirth was difficult and complicated for me. Suffice it to say, my husband is terrified of me ever becoming pregnant again.
I was sick for several years with a stomach virus that caused me to lose massive amounts of weight.
Later in life, I suffered extreme fatigue and weight gain, only to find I was on the verge of an autoimmune disorder, and in need of medication.
I tried to use special diets to cure my sicknesses. There are so many diets for autoimmune disorders and hypothyroidism. There are special diets for pregnancy and curing stomach ailments.
If you do even a moderate amount of “googling” you can find answers to just about any health problem, and piles of recipes and how-to’s for different “diets”.
I figured I could cure my health problems if I could just find the right diet and put my finger on the exact food that was causing my ailments.
Cancer is something I have always feared. If you do any dives into the “healthy eating” community, you will find there is a lot of talk about cancer cures and cancer causes. It all has to do with diet.
My oldest son also always feared cancer.
What irony, then, when, a few years ago, he was diagnosed with it.
Shortly after my son’s diagnosis, I received a letter from a friend. This friend exhorted me to understand the cause of my son’s cancer was the food I had been feeding him. The letter left me with the understanding that if I corrected my son’s diet, he would recover.
Somehow, in spite of my grief and terror, I saw right through this letter. I saw the fear underwriting everything, the desire for control.
Maybe it was because for most of my son’s life he had been on those diets that were supposed to cure or prevent cancer. And the diets hadn’t done shit to prevent the inevitable. Maybe it was because I was finally returning to common sense, looking for research to back the claims made by these miracle diets.
Cancer was the beginning of the end of “healthy eating” for me. Not only had diets done nothing to help me, but it was impossible to keep up with cooking special in the face of survival.
I recently had the opportunity to learn from certified Intuitive Eating Counselor Maria Scrimenti, who calls clean eating, “a type of eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa”.
Up until recently, I would have vehemently argued with this nomenclature. I would have told you that I was practicing “clean eating” in order to stay healthy and help with neurodiversity.
I would have said I loved my body while simultaneously scoffing at my reflection in the mirror.
I wouldn’t have told you that the reason I had been wearing the same clothes for years was that I had told myself I couldn’t have anything new until I reverted to a smaller sized body.
I wouldn’t have admitted how worried I was that people would judge my larger-bodied children.
I might’ve admitted that in college I drank coffee, chewed gum and ran three miles a day to maintain a slim body.
I may have even told you that I was okay with being sick or stressed since those things always thinned me out. (When I’m stressed, I don’t eat.)
I would never have confessed to you my anguish over the weight gain that had accompanied my autoimmune diagnosis and the hellishness of calorie restrictions and endless hiit workouts that did nothing to tip the scale lower.
I wouldn’t have told you how much it hurt to sit beside “fit” moms and have them look at me with disbelief when I mentioned that I liked to work out or told them that I, too, was a “clean eater”.
I may have told you that I was very careful with food purchases. You likely encountered this when you were at my house and I showed you my latest finds, reading off the labels. You would have noticed that I only purchased coconut sugar, did not drink cream in my coffee, and only cooked with avocado, coconut or olive oil. I would have admitted all of this to you, because this only showed I was health-conscious, not that I had an eating disorder.
Scrimenti explained to me that, “‘Clean eaters’ are highly nutrition conscious and may anguish over each food choice. They feel guilty for eating any food they perceive to be unhealthy. They scrutinize food labels and when they go out to eat, they have special orders and want to know exactly what is in their food. They take great pride in their interest in nutrition, to the point that it often becomes a sole part of their identity.”
What Changed my Mind
A few months ago, I took my son to a follow-up appointment after cancer.
For a little background, my son had not been allowed to walk for a year during his treatments. He had then received a new bone in his knee and been told by the surgeon he was not allowed to run or jump. It took a long time for him to get his mobility and his energy back.
When the doctor came into the room to discuss lab results, he began admonishing my son to exercise more and to eat healthy. He commented on my son’s weight disapprovingly. He went so far as to joke and say to him, “I can see you don’t have any issues with your appetite!”
My son came home with a lot of shame. He became obsessed with what his body looked like and didn’t want anyone to see him. He exercised daily and put himself on a restrictive diet.
We returned to oncology for another follow-up a few months later. Again, the doctors commented on his weight, and told him he needed to exercise and eat healthier.
My son’s obsession with food and appearance continued.
Simultaneously, another of my children, who previously had been incredibly social, was resistant to leaving the house and anxious about seeing people. After many conversations, I found that this child had been mocked openly in front of other children because of her body.
I was angry and upset. Somehow, in the midst of my daughter’s confession, an image of Lizzo popped into my mind. I showed my daughter pictures of Lizzo and we discussed how confident she was and how much she loved her body, just the way it was.
I began looking online for answers, and came across intuitive eating coaches, books, podcasts and groups. I was shocked by what I learned.
I had always valued skinny; I had always considered skinny people to be more intelligent, more disciplined and less lazy.
I had, though, run up against a brick wall when it came to my own ability to “lose weight”. I fed my children “healthy” and kept junk food out of our house, we only ate out once a week, and yet my children and I had bodies that were outside the norm.
I faced the hard truth that restricting my children’s food in the past might have slowed their metabolisms. Scrimenti explains that food restriction “... increases fat storage and slows metabolism. Putting your child on a diet sets them up for a lifetime of disordered eating.”
I realized how cult-like, overwhelming and indeed “dark” it had been to feed my children special diets. We had to stay in more so I could cook; without realizing it, I was avoiding groups of children and moms.
Not only that, but because many moms have their families on diets due to their own fears, most diet groups and gurus would blame you if you said a diet wasn’t working for you, shaming you, telling you you probably weren’t doing something right and to just try harder.
Diet and health groups were honestly like black holes, sucking in all ability to think logically or for yourself.
I was shocked to read multiple scientific studies which showed that, contrary to popular opinion, weight does not equal health.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Slowly, slowly, I am working through my disordered relationship with food.
I am embracing intuitive eating, which is really all about listening to our bodies and refusing to allow a restrictive mentality around food to dominate our lives or thinking.
After all, there’s not that much we can really do about our body size or shape. According to Dr. Lindo Bacon in their book Radical Belonging, "public health research into what affects our health finds that eating and exercise combined represent only about 10% of the overall impact of 'modifiable determinants' (things we can change, as opposed to genetics)."
Check out Maria Scrimenti’s blog and classes here: https://mariascrimenti.com/blog/5jakw259w107dlrhyl7ib58ir6fc81 and her facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/peacewfood.
I am embracing my body at the size it is. I bought myself new clothes. Sure, they may not be in the size I originally wanted, but I feel good in them. I am thanking my body for carrying me through this life, and nurturing it accordingly.
I am making my way through this wonderful, research-filled book: https://www.amazon.com/Diet-Eating-Should-Be-Easy-ebook/dp/B07C685Q6L.
I am having conversations with my children about them being more than their bodies, about how wonderful their bodies are, about how toxic people cannot accept others for who they are, but healthy people have no problem doing so.
I am feeding them well.
We are exploring new foods, expanding our pallets.
I am gathering resources and scripts to use with doctors. Scrimenti gives this advice to parents of different-bodied children: “... advocate for them at the doctor's office. Ask the doctor what they would recommend for a child in a thin body. Request that same treatment for your child.”
I found this helpful script: https://sunnysideupnutrition.com/a-letter-to-your-childs-doctor/, and am reading up on the Health at Every Size movement and book (https://www.amazon.com/Health-At-Every-Size-Surprising-ebook/dp/B003UBAWZY/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=health+at+every+size&qid=1607896056&s=digital-text&sr=1-1).
I will leave you with Scrimenti’s advice about recovering from an unhealthy relationship with food:
Firstly, it's hard to repair your relationship with food by yourself. There's so much misinformation out there and most people are going to need guidance and support as they heal. I recommend seeking out a qualified practitioner, especially if you're undoing decades of dieting. Consider joining an Intuitive Eating facebook group (like mine!) where you can find reliable resources and community.
Secondly, unfollow or "mute" people on social media who post about weight loss, before/ after pictures, whole30, weight watchers, noom, myfitnesspal, optavia, macro counting, cleanses/ fasts, keto, beachbody, and anything else diet- culture related. This messaging is not supportive for a person recovering from disordered eating and will delay their recovery time. My advice to my clients is that they intentionally follow inclusive body positive, health at every size accounts.
Thirdly, especially for those recovering from diets that were touted to be about natural health and healing... as you arrive at a more adaptive relationship with food, know that your health is likely not at risk as much as you might think. Diet culture makes us believe that nutrition is super high stakes. Sure, there is value in considering nutrition.
However, nutrition is only one aspect of health. You are unlikely to suffer a nutrient deficiency by rejecting diets, even "natural, whole food diets". In fact, unrestricted eaters tend to have better nutrient intake than dieters.
If natural health and healing is something you value, you can still incorporate aspects of that belief system into your lifestyle without it being extreme or interfering with a healthy relationship with food. Don't buy into diet culture's fear-mongering.
As the holiday season approaches, here’s what I have to say: Happy eating, friends! Enjoy!