Learn how to break free from the on-and-off cycle of dieting and disordered eating. If you have ever found yourself in a mental battle of “whether or not to eat the piece of cake”, indulged, and then felt any form of regret later, it’s a safe bet that you probably have a bad relationship with food.
Food should never feel like the enemy and your hunger cues shouldn’t be a constant struggle. Life is meant to be lived, not spent worrying over how many calories are passing your lips. There IS a way to break free from these behaviors and to naturally allow your body to tell you exactly what and how much it needs.
We spoke with Kelly Neilson, a registered dietician who specifically helps people struggling with eating disorders heal and adopt a life of intuitive eating. Below, she shares her background, knowledge, and experience working with people just like you!
Tell me about your professional background
I am a Registered Dietitian. I graduated from Brigham Young University with my Bachelor’s degree in Dietetics. I completed my Dietetic Internship through Utah State University and my Masters of Dietetic Administration through Utah State University as well. I’ve been working to help people struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating for the last 6 years, and I love it.
What made you want to get into this field?
I initially thought I wanted to be a therapist when I read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl in high school. I was fascinated by the capacity and strength of our minds to overcome adversity. My plan was to be a therapist for individuals struggling with eating disorders but quickly realized in college that being a therapist wasn’t exactly the right fit for me.
After some searching, I found the field of dietetics to be the perfect combination of my talents and interests and it has become my lifelong passion. My first job as a dietitian happened to be at an eating disorder treatment facility, fulfilling my goal to help those struggling with eating disorders. I quickly fell in love with the work and I won’t be able to do anything else in my life that brings me the same joy.
What has been your favorite aspect of this work?
I love being able to watch my clients make major transformations in their lives to abandon the eating disorder that once stole their lives and watch their personalities emerge and become their true selves, allowing them to live their best lives.
Can you explain what intuitive eating is and what a typical coaching session is like from start to finish?
Intuitive Eating is a treatment philosophy, a liberating movement, and a way of life. It was established by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, and is best explained in their book, Intuitive Eating 4th Ed. Intuitive Eating is about getting away from the dieting mentality in order to learn how to listen to your body and trust that it will tell you when, how much, and what to eat.
It doesn’t focus on weight loss, but on respecting your physical and emotional needs and respecting your body to give it what it needs. The ten principles of Intuitive Eating are 1) Reject the Diet Mentality, 2) Honor Your Hunger, 3) Make Peace with Food, 4) Challenge the Food Police, 5) Discover the Satisfaction Factor, 6) Feel your Fullness, 7) Cope with Your Emotions With Kindness, 8) Respect Your Body, 9) Movement—Feel the Difference, and 10) Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition.
This sounds nice, but it can be difficult for someone who has had a past of disordered eating because they may be out of touch with their hunger and fullness cues. This is where it is essential to have an intuitive eating dietitian guide you through the process of being an intuitive eater and help you know what to do at each stage.
Typical sessions vary from client to client, as I really individualize sessions depending on the needs of the individual. The first session is an hour-long initial assessment so I can get to know them and their history, then each follow-up session is 30 minutes. We start the follow-up sessions by discussing the week and what went well and what didn’t go as well. The middle of the session is the discussion portion when we discuss assignments they may have had, a principle of Intuitive Eating they are working on, nutrition education, or whatever they may need. At the end of the session, we set goals together of what to work on in the coming week.
How can intuitive eating and disordered eating recovery be supportive in overall healing and well-being?
Intuitive Eating is such a great solution to anyone in any life situation, because whether you struggle with restriction and not eating enough, or if you struggle with overeating, binging, or even chronic dieting, Intuitive Eating can help you learn how to leave all disordered behaviors in the past and move forward with trusting food and trusting your body.
It can help you heal from stress and anxiety about food and help you to be able to enjoy eating, find pleasure in food again, and be able to have fun eating with friends. I’ve seen it have the power to turn people’s lives around with food and help them live the kind of life they want to live.
Is there a technique or modality in your practice that you have found to be the most beneficial to your clients that you work with?
Having compassion and empathy is the most useful technique I can use with my clients. People who are struggling with their relationships with food and their body need to know that they are heard, understood, and validated. If they don’t have that, it’s easy for them to put up walls of defense that are difficult to take down.
What is eating disorder recovery like from the patient’s point of view?
I can’t say entirely what the experience is like from their point of view, but from what I have seen, it is terrifying. I’ve heard eating disorders described as darkness, or a clouding of your thoughts. It takes you away from reality and can make you feel powerless. In a lot of ways, an eating disorder becomes a comfortable friend that allows a person to cope with their uncomfortable feelings.
That friend just happens to be super destructive.
So even if someone knows their eating disorder is harmful to them, it can be scary to get rid of it because it’s hard for them to know what they’ll have without it. Eating disorder recovery offers a glimmer of hope that a person doesn’t have to live with their eating disorder forever. The more time they spend in recovery, the more light they can see and the less darkness they feel. People who are recovering from an eating disorder are extremely courageous to let go of something that’s been such a big part of their life. They learn new coping skills to cope with difficult things in life.
What would you say to someone who is skeptical about intuitive eating and its effectiveness? How do you approach that?
There are a lot of people who are skeptical about Intuitive Eating, especially since it is different from mainstream ideas on health. Intuitive Eating is all-inclusive with food, opposed to diets cutting out food, and may seem like it’s “too good to be true”. To anyone who questions its validity, I like to discuss the scientific evidence that exists of Intuitive Eating and how it is substantiated by decades of research. Even that is sometimes not enough for people to really internalize it.
A lot of times Intuitive Eating doesn’t make sense unless you’ve experienced the consequences of dieting or had a disordered relationship with food. Intuitive Eating offers freedom from obsessing about food, calories, and weight and unless you’ve been in that place, you don’t understand how different it feels when you release yourself from feeling guilty about food. Some people aren’t ready for this message, but I always say once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Besides intuitive eating do you have any universal health and well-being tips that you’d like to share?
Health is so much more than the food you eat or how you move your body. Health is also more than to be defined as body size. Health is not just physical, but it’s also emotional, mental, social, and spiritual. If you are not in a healthy place, instead of trying to change how your body looks, focus on your behaviors and how you are living your life. If you can make adjustments to how you take care of yourself in ALL areas, you will feel so much better—regardless of your body size. Body respect, appreciation, and even love can come over time.
If there was one piece of advice you could give to someone who is struggling, what would it be?
I would say it doesn’t matter what degree you may be struggling, it’s okay to reach out for help. Don’t be afraid if you don’t feel like you fit the typical “mold” for someone who is struggling with food. Eating disorders and disordered eating don’t discriminate; they affect people of all sizes, all races, all genders, and all backgrounds. You still deserve help despite what you look like. Make sure to set up a good treatment team made up of at least a dietitian and therapist who are familiar with treating disordered eating.
What resources would you recommend? (books, podcasts, websites that you’ve found helpful)
A good place to start is to read the book Intuitive Eating, 4th Ed. by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. (note: sometimes reading the book is not enough and you may need to reach out to an Intuitive Eating dietitian to help you through the principles).
They also have a great Intuitive Eating Workbook that is more hands-on, and Elyse Resch published an Intuitive Eating Workbook for Teens that is excellent as well. Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon and Body Respect by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor are also great resources.
My favorite book after Intuitive Eating is called Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison. Christy Harrison has a fantastic podcast called “Food Psych” that I highly recommend.
You can end the cycle of fighting your hunger cues, giving in, then feeling guilt. Food should fuel you, not cause you stress and feelings of shame. Imagine being able to eat freely without any worry and finally enjoying life instead of obsessing over food.
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