For as long as I can remember — at least since grade school — I’ve struggled with my weight. I deleted that sentence at least seven times and almost left it out completely, but I’m confident many of you can relate. It’s an embarrassing confession, and it’s filled with a lot of shame and bad memories. In 4th grade I was called a “cow” on the school bus driving through the country in Nebraska while the boys in my class moo’d at me. Just after turning 12 in 6th grade, I was well-versed on the cabbage soup diet. And by 8th grade, I was anorexic and eventually wound up in the hospital because I was severely dehydrated. As an adult, the story didn’t change much. Years of weight gain turned into shame, which lead to depression, followed by unhealthy weight-loss attempts of calorie-counting, restrictive diets, daily weigh-in’s, and workouts for the sole focus of losing weight. In 2013, I went from a size 22 to a size 8 and lost 135lbs. And while I could finally fit in an airline seat and my blood pressure was excellent, I still struggled with the number on the scale and had an unhealthy relationship with “good” and “bad” foods.
I developed a personal mantra, “Live Kindly” to help me not be so extreme or all-or-nothing, but I’d be lying if I said it was always successful. I’m just now putting in the work to get to the root of the problem, getting really real with the issue, and absorbing a lot of information around the psychology & science of food, so I was delighted to learn that Shira Lenchewski, M.S., R.D., had a book coming out called The Food Therapist. Shira is Goop’s resident nutritionist and someone I’ve long admired for her simple and real approach to food. In a space that’s often over saturated with brands and people slinging high dollar fad-like products down your throat, and over-promotional content on social media, Shira shoots it straight and makes me feel like I can accomplish anything.
I got an advance copy and a chance to ask Shira a few questions about her book. Read on for some great tips and a 101 to The Food Therapist, which hit the shelves on Feb. 13.
Kelly: What is a “Food Therapist” and who is this book for?
Shira: The Food Therapist is for anyone that has struggled with putting their get-healthy intentions into daily action. The impetus for writing it was that I found in my practice that most of my clients knew the basics needed to get healthy (eating less sugar, practicing more portion control, making more thoughtful food choices) — the issue was that they weren’t actually doing those things on a day-to-day basis. The interesting thing, though, is it wasn’t for the reasons they feared might be at play — lack of willpower, lack of ability, laziness — nope, not even close. The big issue I found is that for most of us, what we choose to eat and not eat is loaded — and most of us are busy and stressed and distracted — all which make it difficult to make thoughtful food choices on the fly. So I find that the typical nutrition advice — here’s a food plan and some healthy recipes — isn’t enough to close that intention-action gap. There needs to be some real introspection into what our hang-ups are, and that’s really the aim of The Food Therapist.
Kelly: In The Food Therapist, you say, “The first step in developing healthy behaviors is to identify your personal roadblocks and then to phase out your emotional hang-ups around food and your body. After that, you can start applying strategies to help you deal with these root causes in order to make truly thoughtful eating choices that service your ultimate goals, whatever they may be.” In your experience of working with clients, is there one common denominator or theme to emotional hang-ups with food?
Shira: Most of us are taught at a young age that food is both the best way to celebrate and cheer us up. Many of us got pizza and ice cream as a reward for a job well done, and a lot of us also got sweets and other comfort food as a means to cheer us up — for instance, after shots at the doctor’s office or a tough day at school. The issues is that most of us take these mentalities into adulthood, and for many of us, comfort foods are the primary way we reward ourselves and self-soothe. There are, of course, hosts of other food hang-ups too, but my viewpoint is: let’s do some real introspection to figure out what our food hang-ups are, so that we can move through them, rather than let them stop us in our tracks.
Kelly: One of my favorite paragraphs from your book is, “The fact is, the foods we choose and the way we eat are very much tied to the way we think about our bodies (for instance, My stomach is gross or I hate my thighs) and the way we speak to ourselves (I have no self-control or I’m such a sloth), especially when we stray from our good intentions. Same thing goes for the way we understand our food histories (including ghosts of diets past). Having a healthy relationship with food means being on our own team — for real, though, not just when we’re our fittest and most together.” I really like your approach to being compassionate with ourselves, which is very much inline with this column and my personal mantra of Living Kindly. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to the all-or-nothing types out there who are trying to break the pattern (ie: throwing in the towel after eating one donut).
Shira: My biggest piece of advice is to make a real effort to shift how you treat yourself when you stray from the plan. We are often our harshest critics when we deviate from the program, and I think a big part of that is because we fear that if we are too self-compassionate, we’ll go off the deep end. But it’s actually quite the opposite, because feelings of shame and inadequacy often drive us to overeat and self-soothe with food.
Kelly: I can so relate to this. In the past I firmly believed I had to give myself rules and parameters around food, otherwise I’d spiral out of control. That of course led to more restriction and obsession over certain foods.
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Kelly: I travel a lot and have client or team dinner meetings. I try not to be the over-modifier and often cater to other people’s dietary needs to make them feel comfortable. What’s your advice when we’re in group settings?
Shira: This is a tendency I see a lot. I call it The Pleaser Trap, where people tend to cave to other people’s food choices in order to keep the peace. The issue is, people with this obstacle are basically the third wheel in their own relationship with food. Meaning, you’re so tuned into how others are feeling that you’re not actually checking in with yourself. For people with this tendency, I think the most important thing is to ask yourself: is making other people comfortable more important to you than achieving your wellness goals? If so, carry on. If not, it’s time to make a shift — some of your meal companions might have a disappointing reaction (and that’s on them), but most likely they won’t even notice. And more importantly, you’ll be in the driver’s seat.
Kelly: Should we all be meal-prepping to set ourselves up for success? On a personal note, the thought of eating the same thing 7 days a week sounds so boring, yet I know if I’m not prepared, I’m more likely to stray from any goal.
Shira: I’m totally with you. I think that full-blown meal prep isn’t that realistic, or even appealing to most people. Instead, the thing I do recommend is doing your best to have key stuff on hand, so that you can prepare down-and-dirty, but delicious, assembly-style meals. This can mean different things for different people. I like having veggies chopped and ready to go, some protein like poached chicken or store-bought organic rotisserie chicken, and a couple options of no-sugar added sauces ready to go, so that I have the option to throw something tasty together in a quick pinch.
Kelly: This is so my speed. Lately, my grocery store runs have been 10-15 things that I can intermix for various meals. This includes: kale, avocados, broccoli (and broccoli rice), micro greens, sweet potatoes, garlic, sauerkraut, sriracha kimchi, chicken, eggs, walnuts/pecans, quinoa, ghee, almond-based cream cheese, and coconut tortillas. The amount of variety of meals, sauces, and dressings I get out of these ingredients is kind of amazing.
Kelly: I used to have specific days that I would eat certain foods — a cheat-day if you will. It was obsessive. It was to the point that I wouldn’t meet friends for dinner unless it was on a Sunday. It was binge-y and in hindsight, I was probably a tough person to be friends with at the time. In your book you say, “The next time you’re faced with a tricky food decision, stop asking yourself, “How good have I been? or “How much do I deserve this?” or “What day is it?” Instead, hit the pause button and consider, “How much do I want this particular food?” and let your answer guide your behavior. I love this thought process. To me, this is being kind to yourself and really giving yourself what you want and need. Real question, what if a client genuinely wants pizza every single day? What’s your advice?
Shira: It’s a great question and a fair question. I think it comes down to weighing our long-term goals against our right-now wants. We all have both, meaning we want to look and feel our best in 6 months, and at the same time we want pizza this minute. As far as I’m concerned, being healthy doesn’t mean always choosing our long-term goals over our right-now wants, but instead it’s about having the ability to make a conscious choice — as in — if you really want the pizza, get the best slice you can find, put it on a plate, and enjoy the absolute sh*it out of it. That said, you won’t be able to achieve those big-picture get-healthy goals if you have pizza every day, so you have to be willing to forgo some of those right-now wants some of the time, if achieving that long-term goal is of great importance to you.
What I loved most about The Food Therapist is that Shira lays it all out in a way that makes sense — she’s practical, logical, and encourages kindness to yourself. She poses the right questions — the kind that encourage positive introspection and self-reflection, and get to the root of your decisions. She left me feeling like I was my biggest advocate again, which put me back in the driver’s seat, and reminded me that prioritizing myself is truly how I will reach my goals. Plus, anyone that tells me to eat the pizza — and means it — is an immediate friend for life.