Leftovers: Feeding the diet-culture beast

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Thinking back, there was rarely a restaurant shift when at least one guest didn’t verbally lament the calories, carbohydrates or fat content of an item they wanted to order. I too found myself seduced by the most no-no of foods when out to dinner.

After perusing a menu, I would make a jest-like, self-deprecating comment about my weight or lack of exercise, which is certainly the least sexy thing one can do on a date. But such is the norm of a society that has given diet-culture an almost religious status.

“That prime rib smells amazing, but it’ll make me fatter for sure, so I’ll have the chicken Caesar salad with no croutons,” I’ve said to BFF more than once. Then, after wrestling with guilt, I’d end up ordering what I really wanted and be upset for a week at not having enough will power or restraint to restrict myself.

Restricting ourselves is what “The Un-Diet Dietitian,” Amy Taylor Grimm, says is at the root of what keeps us heaping money on weight-loss programs, unenjoyable gyms and “wellness” plans, fueling the multi-million-dollar diet culture in America. Against the mainstream, Portland-based Grimm says she does not help people lose weight, “but normalize their relationships with food and their bodies.”

A “Health at Every Size” fat-positive registered dietitian nutritionist, Grimm coaches her clients in the deceivingly simple tenants of what’s called intuitive eating. While most diets come with strict rules and guidelines of what to eat and when, IE teaches that we are all born with the skill to eat, to stop when we are full, to eat when we are hungry and to eat satisfying foods. Add genetics, the pre-conceived notion of thin is beautiful, family-of-origin weight and body image beliefs, and the innate basics of IE become difficult to relearn, embrace and practice.

Grimm has been involved with IE personally and professionally for more than 25 years and shared a road map of her own overeating/binging and exercise pattern. Starting to diet at age 9, she was praised for her lean, muscular body, when in reality, she became so deprived of calories and fat that she stopped menstruating. Even her doctor applauded her appearance, and the compliments from family and friends were a false validation of well-being.

Amy Taylor Grimm is a registered dietitian in Portland. (Contributed)

After figuring out IE before it was a “thing,” Grimm turned her experience and early knowledge into a way to help others that continues to be a satisfying career path. She has treated people with eating disorders, disordered eating, yo-yo dieting, and compulsive exercise issues both at The New England Eating Disorders Program and in private practice.

“Food rules are pure diet culture,” Grimm said. “We put on emotional values like this food is good, and this food is bad, so if I eat the bad, I’m bad. Intuitive eating is the opposite of what we’ve been taught to think. And, everyone is different.”

IE was introduced in 1995 by California dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Their book, “Intuitive Eating,” addressed examining emotions without food, and honoring hunger and feeling fullness. Additionally, Grimm said IE focuses on satisfaction and joy from matching food choices to hunger, and ultimately, to accept our bodies. Most agree the latter is a tall order.

In addition to learning the difference between “mouth hunger and stomach hunger, and then fullness,” Grimm widely promotes joyful movement; she encourages people to do regular physical activities that are enjoyable and fun. Movement is key to health and well-being and one form of activity is not valued over another. Having to work out is not a punishment for food already consumed, or to earn something to eat later. But like food matched to stomach hunger, joyful movement is something that can be positively gauged.

Regardless of size, after dancing, yoga or movement of choice, a participant can see how their body feels and check their mood. Once again there’s no right way to do it, making it an individualized intuitive experience.

Along with one-on-one therapy in her Exchange Street office, Grimm hosts the Monday Night Joy Club (all sessions are currently being held remotely via Zoom), a two-hour group therapy and BS session for women of all sizes, races, ages and eating issues. Embedded childhood experiences around weight and food, relationship concerns, and societal perception and negative behaviors are topics of vulnerable discussion. The group is a place that honors beauty at all sizes and learning to navigate the diet-culture that has influenced their own thinking and ways of seeing the world. I’m told it’s a safe moment in time to feel good in your own body.

According to Grimm, feeling good in your own body isn’t an unattainable goal. But then again, neither is fully enjoying rare prime rib.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at natalie@portlandphoenix.me.