Is this a Diet? Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2

Nourishment vs Nutrition

To finish up this series, I want to think about what it means to be nourished. I think “nutrition” can sometimes feel a bit cold as a concept. Nutrition is important, but it is so wrapped up in diet culture that I find it hard to engage with. It doesn’t have to be, but it is. Nutrition was a transitional concept for me as I moved out of dieting and focused “nutrition” as opposed to calories.

But, as I’ve been going through my chronic illness process, I’ve found myself shifting in my thinking away from nutrition and toward nourishment. Here is an example of what I’m getting at: During flares, I am often so fatigued that I cannot prepare food. I mean, like even a little bit of food prep is more than I can manage. 9-10 months ago I went through a period when I just wasn’t eating at all during the day because I was too tired to make food. I’d wait for my partner to get home and then eat whatever she prepared for dinner. I just got weaker and more fatigued.

One day my partner came home with a whole bunch of “convenience” food that met my food requirements. It was easy stuff I could microwave or eat cold. And, it included breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was not how I prefer to eat. But, it was food and that’s what mattered. After a week of eating three squares a day, low and behold, I felt a bit better! And, because I was nourished, I had more energy to make the food I’d rather be eating. It was a light bulb moment for me about the vicious cycle of a flare. Without some nourishment, I couldn’t get out of it.

From a nutrition standpoint, that “flare food” wasn’t great. From a nourishment perspective, it was exactly what I needed. When I’m flaring, I just need to eat–yes, it needs to be food that is not going to make me worse, but it doesn’t need to be perfect nutrition, just something that nourishes. I have to admit that part of what was driving my not eating, in addition to fatigue and nausea, was the pursuit of perfection. IF I had had more energy, I would have eaten. But, I couldn’t think of low-prep foods that met my food plan and had complete/balanced nutrition. So, I just didn’t eat. Since that time, I’ve come to shift my focus from nutrition to nourishment. I make sure to have some low prep items on hand at home in case of a flare–regardless of if they are the most nutritionally complete foods. That way I can nourish myself until I feel better and can think about nutrition again. I also saw a non-diet nutritionist who helped me brainstorm some meals that fit my food plan but that don’t take much of energy to make.

This shift has also helped me think more expansively about nourishing my body. Nourishment gets me back to functionality and helps me do the things I want to do. In this sense, my physical therapy “nourishes” me–though it isn’t food. And, the Great British Baking Show “nourishes” me, though I don’t eat anything they make! 🙂 Moreover, thinking about nourishment instead of nutrition allows me to integrate how I think about my mental and physical health. It also encourages me to focus on meeting my basic needs first, rather than always striving for perfection.

As a result of this shift toward “nourishment,” I’m working on prioritizing the things that fill me up, give me energy, and help me feel and function better. I’m trying to avoid the impossible pursuit of perfection which seduces us with the idea that perfect adherence to the “rules” is the only guarantee of improved function and well-being. Being nourished requires letting go of perfection and getting in touch with my intuition and my body. It requires me to actually listen and observe how my body feels in response to the world around me and in me, rather than simply “follow a plan.” It requires me to give as much weight to my mental health as I do to my physical health. And, it turns out, that food is just a small part of being nourished.

I want to leave you with some final remarks about the question at the heart of this series: Is this a diet? It is so tricky for folks to navigate using food to manage chronic illness under a Health at Every Size paradigm. Watch yourself for the warning signs I outlined in part two. I would also suggest that if your food plan is not focused on weight, is tailored to your unique nutritional needs, does not revolve around forbidden foods, and prioritizes holistic nourishment over perfection, you are not on a diet. But, it takes constant work to keep your food plan from slipping into dieting and disordered eating territory in this cultural environment. As much I have tried, I admit I have flirted with danger in the 18 months since I made my food changes. I think it can be worthwhile for those of us with chronic illnesses to walk that tight rope. But it can only help to put together a support team you can check in with regularly. I suggest a non-diet nutritionist, a therapist, and supportive friend or family member. If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, that support network is an absolute must. Let me know how you navigate managing illness with food using a Health at Every Size paradigm in the comments!

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