We asked an expert why healthy eating behavior often fails
We asked an expert why healthy eating behavior often fails

Many strategies that we otherwise use for our well-being fall away in lockdown. We asked a nutrition therapist about changes in eating habits. An eye-opening interview that you should all read.

We asked an expert why healthy eating behavior often fails
We asked an expert why healthy eating behavior often fails

There should be a few introductory words here. Information about disturbed eating behavior, ideals of beauty, diet madness and psychological stress. The truth is: women face these issues every day. We do not need to point this out to you. You are surrounded by it. At work, at home, while eating with your friends. Conversations about diets keep coming up. Who is right? Is there one method "with which you can finally hold the weight"? Or shouldn't it be better to hold back talking when a person is present who is obviously suffering from it? One thing is certain: in the course of our lives we women have been through a lot in terms of weight and diet. As hard as we fight for more self-love and self-determination in all areas of life, we are subject to - often subconsciously - the ideals of beauty. Still.

Instead, I'm just saying: read this interview. All.

WOMAN: Does lockdown intensify emotional eating? What could triggers be?

Isabel Bersenkowitsch: Emotional eating is the archetype of our coping strategies. After the birth, we are placed on the mother's breast and fed. A child learns straight away that food gives comfort and security. For some, eating remains the primary coping skill, while others develop further strategies in the course of their lives in order to deal with very intense emotions - for example, a sport, a meeting with loved ones or forgetting everyday life for a moment while dancing at the weekend.

Since Corona we have been confronted with very intense feelings - we are all afraid, lonely, stressed and probably already a bit drained or annoyed. It is quite understandable that emotional eating increased so much during lockdown for many. Many of our actual strategies have been dropped. Reaching out to eat to deal with emotions is not a bad thing in times like these, but rather an act of self-care.

WOMAN: With the increased emotional eating, a fear of weight gain can also be observed on social media

Isabel Bersenkowitsch: Yes, that's right! It's not surprising to me, but it is very fascinating from a marketing point of view. While we are all doing our best to save lives and protect our health system in a global pandemic, the sexist, fat-phobic diet culture leaves nothing out to further position its message: if not a man, then at least the ideal woman. As a feminist dietician, I find it helpful when we question who is benefiting from our fears and insecurities. The diet industry gives a false hope that taking control of our body weight means taking control of our lives - and vice versa.

"95 percent of the time diet programs don't work long-term."

“Body weight is not behavior. We all have a genetic blueprint."

Is control over our body weight just an illusion then?

Isabel Bersenkowitsch: Many believe that the norm body can be achieved through diet, exercise, willpower, and discipline. But the fact is that we all have a genetic blueprint (= target weight), which is supplemented by countless other factors: for example weight discrimination and stigmatization, stress, sleep, ethnicity, trauma, socio-economic status, place of residence, certain diseases, a diet history and much more. All of these factors make body diversity a part of human existence. We can try with willpower and discipline to force our body into a weight that is unhealthy for it, but homeostasis will eventually be restored. Body weight is not a behavior. As a nutrition therapist, I find it more sensible to focus on health-promoting behavior - in my field, that's intuitive nutrition. Because weight is a symptom of behavior, the body will find its natural target weight by itself.

Some say they are addicted to food - especially sugar or chocolate. Can We Really Be Addicted to Food?

Isabel Bersenkowitsch:Physiological sugar addiction cannot be scientifically proven. That makes sense too, because it would be quite dramatic if we could get addicted to something that we need to survive. In our body there are certain cells, such as the nervous system or red blood cells, that can only use sugar as an energy source. In order to be healthy and productive, we absolutely need sugar - and carbohydrates in general.

"The magic around food disappears when we really allow ourselves to eat it at any time."

The subjective feeling of sugar addiction is of psychological origin. For example, many perceive emotional eating as an addiction. Emotional hunger is mostly directed towards a certain food, appears very suddenly and has to be resolved immediately. In the future, attempts will be made to avoid the feeling of losing control by formulating rules and prohibitions - but this will make the symptoms even worse. Everything that is forbidden, we want even more. And when we try not to think about the pink elephant, we are doing just that.

This can only be resolved by getting to the bottom of the feelings and the function that emotional eating fulfills: What am I feeling right now? How does food make me feel? What could make me feel the same If very intense feelings arise here, psychotherapy can help to resolve it.

If the stimulus of the forbidden triggers our inner rebel, the habituation effect, i.e. the habit effect, can help. The magic around food disappears when we really allow ourselves to eat it at any time. At first there will probably be a lot of catching up to do, but at some point it loses this magic: Permission brings the autonomy of freedom of choice.


How can I pay more attention to eating, be more aware of satiety or hunger?

Isabel Bersenkowitsch: Hunger, satiety and enjoyment are three very important internal perceptions that promote and strengthen a healthy relationship with food. We were all born intuitive eaters, but the outside world, such as unscientific, panic-inducing beliefs of the diet industry, cut or even buried the connection to these signals. Sometimes it makes us feel like nutrition has become terribly complicated.

In order to find more mindfulness and enjoyment while eating, it is important to scientifically question beliefs such as "carbohydrates are unhealthy" or "eating after 6:00 pm makes you fat". If no connection to hunger and satiety is felt at all, I definitely recommend dietological support to help restore these signals. General tips for those with at least some exposure to these instincts:

Hunger is a signal that arises when our body needs energy and nutrients. We notice hunger through a growling stomach, a reduced ability to concentrate or a worsening mood. Sometimes our heads want to deny hunger, for example with rational sentences like “I just ate” or “I can't be hungry at all”. For a healthy relationship with food it is important not to question the body, to honor its hunger and to eat whenever hunger is felt.

Perceiving saturation is a principle that is only discussed very late with clients in practice. The prerequisite is that factors that trigger overeating (e.g. rules / prohibitions, emotional eating, only eating when you are extremely hungry) have already been remedied. If someone has a tendency to eat very quickly, using the non-dominant hand to interrupt the autopilot may help. Otherwise, it can also be helpful to take small breaks again and again, where you briefly reflect on where the saturation level is currently. In general, eating slowly and chewing well helps.

Which routine can help? The one in lockdown is very different from that in everyday life. How do you find more normality to eat in exceptional situations?

Isabel Bersenkowitsch: I believe that any kind of temporary new routine can help and provide more security, for example regular meals starting with breakfast.

In concrete terms, it is always very individual. Some people are used to eating out all the time. Now in lockdown you are responsible for all meals yourself, which can be quite challenging. For example, I don't like going shopping. I find regional organic boxes very helpful here, because they deliver fresh food with little packaging, sometimes even with a prescription. You can only honor your hunger if the food you like is available.

"Don't get ready for this exceptional situation, but talk to yourself as a loved one would."

For others, it is particularly difficult that food is always available at home. Here I would like to say: A lot of people are struggling with this. If we are not physically hungry and reach for food, there is always a specific reason. It can be helpful to question the reason while treating yourself to be self-respecting. The important thing is that the food helps you cope with a particular situation. My tip: Don't get ready for this exceptional situation, but talk to yourself like a loved one would. The lockdown is temporary - what you are going through will pass again.

Is the increased eating in lockdown a sign that the eating behavior was too restrictive before?

Isabel Bersenkowitsch: Possibly on an individual level, but I don't think you can say that in general. The lockdown is an absolutely exceptional situation where it is completely normal for our eating behavior to change. As described above, many coping strategies are no longer applicable and food becomes more important for coping with emotions through availability.

We've been spending more time on social media since the corona began in March. Nutrition is a huge topic there. What do you think about influencers giving tips?

Isabel Bersenkowitsch: Individualized nutrition is a new megatrend that is developing into a substitute religion for many. It seems to me that many influencers are very susceptible to unusual trends that, from a scientific point of view, are often harmful to health. As a dietician, I always find it difficult when people without a degree in nutrition give tips - simply because I know how dangerous unscientific nutritional advice can be. Even if influencers often don't mean it badly, a personal conviction is not a scientific study that can be applied to everyone.

On my Instagram channel I keep getting very questionable posts - it is not uncommon for eating disorders to be normalized or even glorified. I then clarify because some of the statements are very dangerous. What I always emphasize is that I am not against people, but for compliance with areas of competence. In Austria, only dieticians and nutritionists are authorized to give nutritional advice - this also makes sense because no book or course can be equated with a three-year course. My tip is to make sure that nutritional information is only accepted on social media by specialists (profile identification with dietician / nutritionist).

Where is the line between disordered eating behavior and an eating disorder?

Isabel Bersenkowitsch: Eating disorders are mental illnesses that are diagnosed, for example, by psychiatrists using a certain system of criteria. It is always a disease of the psyche, whereby the compulsive eating behavior serves as an outlet. Disturbed eating behavior shows similar symptoms, for example long abstinence from food (= fasting), omitting food groups (= low carb / keto) or micromanagement in the diet (= calorie counting). This is often accompanied by a negative body image. Eating disordered behavior does not yet occupy all of life, as it is with eating disorder. I have the feeling that social media are increasingly blurring the boundaries - but as a dietician, I don't make any diagnoses, only qualified specialists are allowed to do that.

When should you start looking for help?

Isabel Bersenkowitsch: A good time to seek help is when diet has become incredibly engaging, stressful, and complicated. A negative attitude towards one's own body paired with constant thoughts of eating are very clear warning signals. Psychotherapists help to get to know the background and develop new strategies, while dieticians help restore normal eating habits. This means nutritional therapy for portion sizes, hunger, satiety and enjoyment, education for certain beliefs and exposure therapy with forbidden foods.

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