by Megan Nolde, member and owner of SAGE Nonprofit & Business Consulting
“The only journey is the one within.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
As sure as you open a social media app, you’ll find a nutrition coach or dietician ready to sell you a package that will supposedly make you healthier, happier, and closer to your overall weight goals. And that’s just those apps; not to mention the books, websites, Youtube content, and myriad other sources. Everyone seems to have a scientific or experiential answer to your eating habits and how they could improve.
What I’ve discovered recently through my own nutrition journey, is that the surface-level approach is not enough. What I’m talking about is that simply relying on the science behind macros, a specific diet or even fad diet is only part of the equation. Like finances, or exercise, or any habit that we’re told to cultivate better practices in, simply skimming the surface by instituting a specific routine won’t solve your issue with that habit. A good friend of mine reminded me recently that, “Willpower can get people results initially. Having enough of it for that first stretch is very possible, but like anything it isn’t the answer to sustainable, long-term results.”
In other words, you may have a scientifically-backed plan for your macros, and the willpower to hit them for the first week or two. This will also vary depending on each individual and the level in which their specific threshold may be. But what will sustain that habit for the long walk forward throughout life? A specific diet or approach to eating isn’t the answer if it doesn’t stick with you and become integrated into your overall life and narrative.
To be honest, this is what I’ve struggled with myself in the past set of years. In August of 2014 I clocked in at around 150 pounds, and at 5”9’ was pretty darn skinny. I couldn’t back squat 100 pounds, and I sure as heck didn’t know anything about proper nutrition. Flash forward to January of 2023, and the scale read 200 pounds. Same height. Still didn’t know anything about nutrition either. But I knew something needed to change – I didn’t feel good in my own skin, moving at the gym was challenging with the extra weight, and I just didn’t feel like myself.
So I reached out to my best friend, co-owner Mandi, and asked for help. The adage is true, friends – admitting we have a problem with something is the first step. I had a person I could be vulnerable with, and was lucky enough that she also had training in nutrition coaching as well. More than that, though, I was lucky that she knows that nutrition is not simply a logical recipe for most people. Nutrition is emotional, psychological, and tied to so many of our darkest inner worlds; a fact that many nutrition services don’t spend enough (or sometimes, any) time on.
I started logging what I eat on February 19th. In the first week or so, I lost 7.5 pounds. I was so excited! “Man, this will be easy!” I thought.
Wow. I was not correct. Like, really not correct, haha. Yes, the scientific approach to nutrition is easy-ish, but making a goal and beginning actions towards that goal can actually be a trigger for many.
If you look at my graph of my weigh-ins, it looks like a heart-rate monitor during an interval workout. It will hover within a few pounds for a week or so, then drop significantly. Then go back up a little, hover, then drop again. And once in a while, it shoots back up by about 4 pounds or so. Then it drops again. In other words, it is NOT LINEAR. And this, though it made sense when I really thought about it (adjusting your metabolism is bound to have bumps in the road), was very difficult to deal with mentally.
I had been doing what I thought was the equation – paying attention to what I ate, logging it so that I had to pause and consider what I was about to eat (and to keep track), and developing a strategy for the day as a whole that allowed me to be fueled and also healthy. I had become pretty decent at that already. So why, when I missed a few meals of logging and ate out, and then my nutrition became unbalanced and I put a few pounds back on – why did I feel like a failure suddenly?
This is the thing that doesn’t get addressed most times. This is the heart of many nutrition struggles (not all, but a lot). I was equating my progress downward on the number scale with my “success” or “failure” as a human. I became extremely frustrated to the point of tears, while simultaneously over-analyzing everything I ate to the point that I felt so overwhelmed about what TO eat that sometimes I just didn’t eat anything for a meal. I was afraid to make the “wrong” choice and blow my macros and progress.
Thankfully, my friend and nutrition coach is also a human who understands internal struggle and journeys. She helped me put things in a different perspective, where I could understand that my weight is not my self-worth, and doubting my ability to make the weight progress I want to make will never serve my goals of feeling happier, healthier, and more comfortable in my own skin. I realized the discomfort I felt by taking a magnifying glass to my physical health was necessary to take the wheel.
That’s not to say I haven’t had my doubts crop up since that weekend of emotional eating uproar. But with the help of Mandi, I’ve been able to remind myself of a variety of things that help me manage the mental health aspects of confronting nutrition habits. These practices have helped me overcome moments of doubt or negativity. These practices, which are really simple psychological health/stress management techniques, are something I’ve found key to being able to continue working on my weight without finding myself in despair and anxiety (two of my brain’s habitual living quarters).
A few of these practices that I would recommend are:
- Finding a licensed, professional counselor or therapist to help you work through any lingering triggers or past traumas that contribute to the difficulty you may face in working on this issue.
- Taking the initiative to talk to a professional in mental health is always a good idea.
- Finding an accountability buddy/ally for your journey – not a therapist, but someone who will ground you and support you because they care.
- Mine is Mandi. This person doesn’t have to be a nutrition coach, mind you, just someone who you can be honest and open with, and who can support you when you’re thinking negatively and celebrate with you when you’re feeling victorious.
- There are plenty of apps that help with this – “Calm” is the most popular it seems, but I really enjoy one called “Plum Village.” Meditation and the mindfulness that goes with it can help you learn to observe your thoughts as they pass by you, rather than inviting them into your home or worse, going on their ride with them.
- This is a great way to allow yourself to work through ideas, observe your thoughts, and sort out what you really want to think about something. Journaling is like a mirror that you can hold up to your thoughts – you just have to be honest with yourself and be ready to really see what your thoughts are saying about you. This can also help develop an understanding of those thoughts that you can then use as you turn to another source of support, like a therapist, accountability buddy or ally, etc.
- Breath Awareness.
- This kind of practice helps draw you out of your unhelpful thought patterns, and instead ground you in the moment, calming your parasympathetic nervous system and any stress responses that have been activated by it. You can find a good overview on the Duke Health blog: https://dhwblog.dukehealth.org/ten-steps-for-awareness-of-breathing-practice/
- Allowing yourself to experience the negative emotion (in a safe space).
- You can create the conditions necessary to allow yourself to feel the difficult emotions associated with your unhelpful thoughts about life struggles (which may affect nutrition work) – create a warm, welcoming, comforting physical environment to sit in, and have a loved one or alternate calming technique ready to employ if needed. Close your eyes and feel the emotion in your body – maybe it resides in your stomach, or your heart, or your neck. Wherever it resides, let it expand from there and slowly fill your physical body along with any physical movements or adjustments you need to make. Breathe deeply and slowly as needed. Feel free to take a break at any time. When you have sat with the emotion and its adjoining physical manifestations for a few beats, slowly imagine that emotion draining from your body into the floor or ground around you, and washing away. When it has drained completely, slowly open your eyes and sit back up in a position of comfort. You may feel lighter, tireder, or many other feelings. Hopefully, though, you feel a little more ready to keep going forward, now that you’ve processed some of the negative emotions associated with your nutrition journey.
- This is similar to journaling, but more visual. You can write words in a freestyle, associative way, and draw arrows and lines to connect them, helping you see how thoughts and feelings are connected and draw on each other, for a deeper understanding of your interior world.
- This is a great practice for learning how to deal with negative thoughts and feelings until you’re feeling more “ready” to tackle them in one of the other ways I’ve mentioned. A good overview is located here: https://www.talkingconcept.com/box-method-negative-thought-process/
- Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.
- We often talk to ourselves in our own heads in a manner that we would never allow someone to talk to our loved ones. Yet we do it to ourselves every day. Replacing these negative thought patterns with more positive ones is a technique from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and a good overview with several techniques is available here: https://psychcentral.com/depression/replacing-your-negative-thoughts
No matter how you tackle your nutrition journey, I highly recommend you incorporate methods to address the psychological components of nutrition habits and histories. Our traumas far too often hold us back from successfully working on our health, including our nutritional health. And remember that trauma is in part relative to an individual’s experience and genetic inheritance. What I mean by that is – nutritional trauma doesn’t have to be on the level of a diagnosed disorder. Nutritional trauma can be connected to some other life circumstance or life trauma which has thrown your relationship with food out of balance. In general, trauma is often the source of how we react to things we are in relationship with – nutrition, people, fitness, etc.
You see, ultimately, the macro numbers Mandi gave me weren’t what was hard to address. The heavy load I carried from my past, wrapped up in how I approached eating, was where the wound lay and what I needed to heal. For this reason, Mandi made it clear to me that she doesn’t usually encourage individuals to simply start counting macros for weight management. This is because doing so can actually trigger a personal journey that the individual needs to be prepared to work through and manage. We both knew I had the tools and resources for that journey, but only because of my history of therapy since 2014. We knew that because of our close friendship. Outside of a coach/client relationship like this, though, opening trauma wounds is neither helpful nor advisable if the person whose wounds they are isn’t aware it may happen, and/or doesn’t have the tools and resources to deal with the mental health consequences of that action. In other words – because trauma or lack of emotional regulation tools can affect an individual’s nutrition work, opening the door to those issues without a plan or support system for next steps can actually make an individual feel worse and more unmotivated than before they started.
The macros became easy when I understood the mental block that I was approaching them with in the first place. This is not to say that the interior journey was simple or quick. I’ve spent many years (since 2013) working on my interior journey, tending my mental health and the effects that my past trauma has had on the rest of my life. But even if I hadn’t – even if my first realization about the link between my past and my approach to something like nutrition was with this attempt at healthy eating – it’s better to have started here and now then never to have approached it at all out of fear.
“It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.” — Seneca
So please remember, friends – when you approach your eating habits, or anything else that’s troubled you or been a point of trial – you are far stronger, more capable, and have more support to conquer your fears than you realize. And some of that support lives inside you already, waiting for you to tap into it. Your mind is your most powerful tool for creating the life you want, nutrition or otherwise.
(Author’s note: I am not a licensed professional counselor or therapist, simply an individual who has spent regular time in therapy since 2014. I hold a degree in education including training in human development and cognition, bringing a layer of educational experience to work regarding trauma and emotional regulation issues. I am not, however, an expert in therapy or neuroscience. The views expressed in this blog are my own and should not be taken as a substitute for professional advice.)