Living a non-diet, body-accepting lifestyle can be a hard task when it seems everywhere you look, you’re told to live in fear of food and spend your life trying to change yourself to meet an unrealistic ideal.
But meet Christy Harrison, RD, a rising voice in the media who sings a different song through her writing and podcasts. She’s also the creator of a new online intuitive eating course that can be just the thing for those of you struggling, to help you in your quest for a non-diet lifestyle.
Welcome to A Weight Lifted, Christy. Please tell our readers about your work and for whom you do it.
I work to help people make peace with food, whether that means overcoming disordered eating, getting off diets once and for all, or learning intuitive eating and a body-positive approach to nutrition.
That’s my overall mission, but I wear many hats to accomplish it! I have a nutrition therapy practice where I see clients individually; I recently launched an online course to help people put the principles of intuitive eating into practice; I write about food and nutrition for various publications; and I have a podcast called Food Psych, where I explore all of these issues with a range of awesome guests.
In terms of “typical” clients, my nutrition therapy clients and online course students are primarily women, but I’ve seen an increasing number of men in my practice over the years, too.
(I think the same is probably true of my podcast listeners, although I don’t have as many reliable statistics there.)
Most of my clients are working professionals who are very smart and successful in many areas of their lives, but feel out-of-control or defeated when it comes to food and body image issues.
Why were you drawn to do this work?
I was drawn to this work because (like so many of us in this field) I went through my own struggles with food and my body.
I developed an eating disorder in 2003, my last year of college, and it persisted for the majority of my 20s. For most of that time I wasn’t diagnosed—even though I did try to reach out for help on several occasions—because my doctors and therapists thought I didn’t “look like” I had an eating disorder.
I now know that kind of dismissal from medical providers is all too common, and of course you can’t actually tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them!
I got started on my winding path to recovery during my first career as a food journalist, which helped me overcome some of the most significant eating disorder behaviors. I soon carved out a niche reporting on nutrition, and that led me to go back to school to become a registered dietitian, which was another huge step forward.
I stopped believing the eating-disordered myths about food that I’d been holding onto for too long, and started understanding the science of nutrition.
I also discovered the book Intuitive Eating and finally found a great therapist to help me work through the underlying issues, and those were probably the biggest steps that finally helped me develop a healthy relationship with food.
When I first started working in this area, most of my clients were dieters — they’d been on everything from very low calorie liquid diets to cabbage soup to following programs like Weight Watchers. Is that still the story you hear, or has it changed? If so, how?
It’s interesting because I definitely hear that story from clients today, but it’s usually in the subtext of what they’re saying—they’re not as overt about it.
Instead of using the words “diet” and “low-calorie,” they tend to say things like “clean eating” and “whole foods” and “wellness,” but they’re relating to these supposedly “healthy” practices exactly like a diet. They’re using them as a means of controlling their body size and “fixing” their perceived flaws, not as a means of self-care.
Is there anything in your work that consistently “turns on the light” for the people you work with in regard to eating? Anything that they consistently say that reveals when you believe they are truly “getting it”?
I think it always depends on how ready a person is for change, because if someone is really deep in an eating disorder or the diet mentality, there aren’t always these clear “a-ha” moments.
But for the people who are ready, I find that the light bulb often goes off when I tell them that they need to eat regularly throughout the day—usually people’s bodies need fuel every 3-4 hours—and that the nighttime urges to binge or the “cravings” they’ve been experiencing are just their bodies expressing a normal need for fuel.
Once they start to shift their eating in this way, they consistently tell me that they feel so much better, have more energy, and no longer have the binges or the guilt. That’s usually the moment that tells me they’re “getting it.”
What would you say caused the struggle with eating that your clients experience? Is it one thing in particular or lots of things?
I think it’s lots of things, but they pretty much all fall under the umbrella of not feeling good enough. There’s diet culture and media images, which make people feel that they don’t match up to the cultural “ideal” and need to change their bodies in order to be good enough.
That’s a huge one. There are also certain life experiences and family dynamics that make people feel like they’re not good enough as they are. And there are internal, biological factors—like anxiety, depression, or even high sensitivity to emotions and other stimuli—that make people feel like there’s something wrong with them.
All of these things can make people struggle with their eating, whether it’s by dieting to fight against their natural size, using food to cope with difficult feelings, or just losing touch with their internal hunger and satiety cues because of emotional turmoil.
What do you wish everyone knew about food, exercise and self-care?
I wish everyone knew that they were born with the capacity to have a healthy relationship with food and exercise—they just need to get back in touch with that capacity, and not get caught up in following external rules.
Of course when people have been fighting their bodies for a long time, these internal cues get dampened or out of whack, but they’re never totally extinguished. In time they can re-learn to rely on their internal cues, and to approach food and movement as means of self-care, and then they won’t need me or anyone else telling them what to eat.
My goal is to make myself obsolete by helping people reconnect to their own inner experts!
I also wish everyone knew that for people in larger bodies, weight loss is NOT necessary for health, and being stigmatized for one’s weight actually leads to worse health.
Despite what we’ve been led to believe, scientific research shows that people can be very healthy at the high end of the BMI chart and very unhealthy in the “normal” range, because weight is not actually a measure of health at all.
For people of all sizes, intuitive eating and moderate physical activity are far more likely to lead to good health than dieting, “watching what you eat,” or weight loss. (For anyone who’s interested in learning more, Linda Bacon’s book Health at Every Size is a great place to start.)
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Tell us about your podcast Food Psych. What spurred you to create it? How long has it been going?
I started Food Psych in early 2013, and my original goal was to have guests explore their relationships with food in general, including their weird eating habits and any low-level disordered thinking around food.
At the time I was obsessed with podcasts like WTF with Marc Maron and You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, where the hosts and guests opened up about their deepest thoughts and connected over experiences that had caused them shame.
It had been really healing for me to listen to those podcasts and start to relate to my own shame with more openness and humor, so I thought I could provide the same healing and de-stigmatizing experience for my listeners, specifically around food issues. And at the time no one was doing a podcast like that.
In the beginning I didn’t have the tight focus on eating disorder recovery, body positivity, and intuitive eating that I do today, but those topics ended up finding me, because in the process of doing the podcast I started to talk publicly about my own eating disorder history for the first time.
The whole project has been incredibly rewarding and healing for me, and I’ve gotten such a tremendous positive response from listeners saying that it’s helped them in ways I never even expected. I’m so grateful for that, and I hope to keep doing it for years to come!
Tell us about your online intuitive eating course. What spurred you to create this? (You are a creative soul!)
Haha, yes! I’ve always loved to create things. I got the idea for the online course when I realized that my private practice was full, and I wouldn’t be able to add any more hours of individual counseling without over-working myself.
I knew I had to listen to my needs for self-care, but I wanted to help more people. I also had seen many clients in my practice who struggled with specific concepts in intuitive eating, and I’d developed effective ways to troubleshoot these issues that I wanted to share more widely.
So I decided to create a program that gave people access to the same tools and ideas they’d get from doing the one-on-one work with me, with some cool additions like audio meditations, visual infographics, and worksheets to help deepen their understanding of the principles. It was so fun to create these materials, and it’s been super rewarding to see people flourishing in the course!
I know you write for a lot of media outlets. Where else can our readers find you?
Right now my main outlet is Refinery29, which I love because they’ve managed to achieve mainstream success as a women’s lifestyle brand while never compromising their body-positive, anti-diet perspective.
I’ve been writing about food and nutrition for them for a couple years, and starting in mid-August I’ll be doing a regular column where I answer readers’ nutrition questions.
People can also find my work on Epicurious, AllRecipes, and BuzzFeed, to name a few recent ones, and I have links to many of my articles on my website, christyharrison.com.
What do you want our readers to know about you and the work you do?
I want everyone to know that total freedom around food is possible, and that body acceptance and positivity are attainable, whatever your size—you don’t have to live with constant shame about your eating habits or your body.
I want to help create a world that’s accepting of all bodies, just as we’ve become increasingly accepting of all the other natural forms of human diversity (although obviously there’s still a lot of work to do on that front).
I believe that body positivity is a social justice issue, and in my own way I’m definitely an activist.
But you don’t have to be strident about these issues or even care about social justice to reap the benefits of body positivity and intuitive eating—you just have to start offering more acceptance to yourself and commit to taking care of your body’s needs.