Episode 109: Body Positivity And Food Freedom With Sarah Vance

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Thanks for joining us for episode 109 of The Ancestral RDs podcast. If you want to keep up with our podcasts, subscribe in iTunes and never miss an episode! Remember, please send us your question if you’d like us to answer it on the show.

Today we are thrilled to be interviewing Sarah Vance!SarahVance

Sarah Vance is a body image and self-worth coach, host of the Reclaiming You Podcast, and creator of the life changing Breaking Boundaries program. She specializes in helping women all over the world let go of diet dogma, body hate, perfection and all or nothing thinking so they can step into the badass woman within feeling worthy, confident, loved, free, and enough in whatever body they have. Grab your taste of freedom with “5 Mindshifts to Embrace Your Body and Have Food Freedom” at SarahVance.com.

The body positivity movement is gaining momentum in our society that assigns value to a person based on appearance and where thinness is the ideal. Sarah Vance has gone through the process of freeing herself from a life fighting against her body and now empowers others as well to live in the freedom of body acceptance.

This episode is full of information and inspiration sure to spark radical change in your mindset around body image and dietary dogma. Join our conversation today as Sarah tackles cultural narratives forming the belief that self-worth is dependent on body size and shape. Just some of what you’ll hear is the role of social media on body image, the biggest myth about the body positivity movement, and Sarah’s take on food addiction.

Here are some of the questions we discussed with Sarah:

  • Can you tell us a little bit about your story, where you got to where you are today, and why you got into the business of body image coaching?
  • Why do you think women believe that they’ll be happier or more satisfied if they’re leaner or if their bodies look more toned?
  • How do you think social media plays into the poor body image we’re seeing in so many women?
  • What do you feel like is the biggest myth about the body positivity movement?
  • What do you find to be the hardest part of body acceptance for your clients when they first come to you?
  • What are some practical ways that the women listening right now can feel more comfortable in their body without having to actually change their physical appearance?
  • How can a woman love herself the way she is and still make changes in her diet and lifestyle so that she feels healthier?
  • What does food freedom mean to you?
  • Where do you feel food addictions come from and do you think that sugar is something that can be addictive?

Note: We discuss the work of Gabor Mate and a book entitled The Body Keeps The Score during our conversation about addiction. Please note the correction that The Body Keeps The Score is written by Bessel van der Kolk.


Links Discussed:


Laura: Hi everyone! Welcome to episode 109 of The Ancestral RDs podcast. I’m Laura Schoenfeld and with me as always is my cohost Kelsey Kinney.

Kelsey: Hey everyone!

Laura: We’re Registered Dietitians with a passion for ancestral health, real food nutrition, and sharing evidence-based guidance that combines science with common sense. You can find me, Laura, atLauraSchoenfeldRD.com, and Kelsey over at KelseyKinney.com.

We have a great guest on our show today who is going to dive deep with us into body image, self-worth, and food freedom. We’re so glad she’s joining us and we hope that you’ll get some great insights from this episode.

Kelsey: If you’re enjoying the show, subscribe on iTunes so that you never miss an episode. While you’re there, leave us a positive review so that others can discover the show as well! And remember, we want to answer your question, so head over to TheAncestralRDs.com to submit a health-related question that we can answer or suggest a guest you’d love for us to interview on an upcoming show.

Laura: We’ve got a really great interview for you guys today. We’re super excited about it! But before we get started, here’s a quick word from our sponsor:

This episode is brought to you by Paleo Rehab, a five week online program designed to help you recover from HPA axis dysfunction, also known as adrenal fatigue. Is your perfect Paleo diet and lifestyle leaving you exhausted? Now is the time to start feeling the health and wellness you know you deserve. If you’re sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, and are ready to take back your health, then head over to MyPaleoRehab.com to get your free 28 page e-book on the 3 step plan for healing from adrenal fatigue. That’s www.MyPaleoRehab.com

Laura:Welcome back everyone! Our guest on the show today is Sarah Vance. Sarah is a body image and self-worth coach, host of the Reclaiming You Podcast, and creator of the life changing Breaking Boundaries program. She specializes in helping women all over the world let go of diet dogma, body hate, perfection and all or nothing thinking so they can step into the badass woman within feeling worthy, confident, loved, free, and enough in whatever body they have. Grab your taste of freedom with 5 Mindshifts to Embrace Your Body and Have Food Freedom at SarahVance.com.

Welcome to the show, Sarah!

Sarah: Thank you so much for having me!

Laura: We’re really glad you’re with us. We have lots of really cool questions to ask today. We’ll see how many we get to. But I know that you may be a little bit of a new face for a lot of our audience since you’re not super in the Paleo/ancestral health community.

I think, I’m trying to remember if I came across you through, I want to say it was Maddy Moon. That’s my guess. I feel like everyone kind of has a little connections to everybody in this health and nutrition world and everything.

What I would like to hear from you and so that way our audience can get to know you a little bit better is tell us a little bit about your story, where you got to where you are today, and why you got into the business of body image coaching.

Sarah: That’s such a loaded question, but I’m going to do the Cliff’s Notes of this to keep it a little bit short. But basically I had grown up in a family that was full of body builders, and then I graduated college and I became a nurse. The reason why I say that is because those two things I think had a major impact on my overall journey to where I got to in my journey and where I am today.

Basically when I became a nurse I was very aware that I wanted to do something to take care of my body. What I thought that I wanted to do was start being a bikini competitor. But before that, I had just had started going to the gym, I started being a little bit more aware of my nutrition and everything kind of seemed a little bit not as disordered. It was just thoughtful and I didn’t seem to have an “issue.”

I did that and I actually got into strength and really, really enjoyed it. And then I actually went to an event to support somebody that was in powerlifting. While I was there, I saw a bikini competitor and I was like, oh my God, I want to do that!

At that time in my life there was a lot of stuff going on. Like I said, I was a new nurse and on top of that I was a new ICU nurse so I was being exposed to a lot of things that I never dealt with in my entire life like death, trauma, things like that I hadn’t been exposed to in my life. I was also going through a really difficult relationship with my partner at the time. My family had moved states away, my best friend had moved states away, so I was just going through a lot with this stuff in my life.

I saw this bikini competitor and I was like, oh my God, that’s the answer! Like she looks so happy, she’s confident, she’s beautiful, she’s getting all this attention. I want to be just like her. I ended up hiring a bikini competitor coach and that’s when things really started to get more disordered. I initially started dieting and it was a very rigorous plan obviously that was very low on calories, I was exercising a ton in the gym. I thought all of this would make me be confident, and feel good in my skin, and make me happy.

Fast forward through I think a year and a half of competing all the way to be National Bikini competitor, I was severely disordered with my eating and how I felt with my body. I had a lot of anxiety around food, I was bouncing from restriction to bingeing, I had symptoms which are created because of restriction and over exercising so I had no period, my hair was falling out, my sex drive was nonexistent, my sleep cycle was a complete disaster, I had GI upset if I would eat foods that I “wouldn’t have let myself have.” Overall I was just miserable. My energy was low. I just wasn’t feeling great.

I remember working with one of the top photographers in the fitness industry on the day after my competition at the National Level Bikini competitor and I was just like, is this it? This is it? But when you’re so disordered in that mindset, it’s difficult to shed light on it and it’s difficult to get out of it.

What I had to do, and I find this to be very common, is that I became a personal trainer. This was because A. – I was so disordered that it was one way that I could continue my disordered relationship was to work in the industry. And 2 – I thought what I was doing was the way to help people.

I ended up going to California for a fitness entrepreneurship expo something or other, it was a business thing. I was working with another top photographer and during this time I had been doing rigorous training with eating severe, very low calorie, was very obsessed with my body still, completely unhappy, but I was like this is it! I was going to be there, and I was going to be this top fitness model, and everything is just going to be great, and I’m going to make all this money, and get all this praise. And I just thought this is going to be great! I was exercising two a days in the gym, six days a week feeling a ton of guilt, shame, just the whole stuff that comes along with disordered eating, and body hatred, and body obsession.

I walked into this photographer and I’m like thinking I’m on cloud nine. I’m like I look great! This is awesome! I felt like shit, but I was like I look great! He said to me, don’t worry, we’ll Photoshop your stomach. That is such a prominent moment in my life because it made me realize the illusion that I had been buying into and the illusion that I was now selling to other individuals because I had been buying into an idea, a façade of what is considered to be health, happy, confident, successful, all this other stuff and now I was actually going to be selling that to other people. It just didn’t feel right.

I thought other people are actually looking up to me, they’re coming to me for advice, they’re coming to me, they’re giving me praise. People are looking at me and this is one big lie. I am not happy, I am not confident, I am not healthy by no means mentally, physically, emotionally. I am completely obsessed with my body and it’s just not me. I don’t feel like me and this is a lie.

You would think that would be enough with the physical symptoms as a nurse knowing, hey, not having a period is probably that’s a sign of something’s going on. But it took me a long time like I said to get out of this disordered mindset because there’s a lot that goes into it with upholding your identity and letting go and there’s a lot of fear that’s involved.

Nonetheless, I continued training people, more specifically just women. I specialized in just training women and I really started taking the route of not taking clients that had goals of intentional weight loss where they would just come to me for wanting to feel good in their bodies. Which was all great, but when I would do the initial consultation I started hearing all these amazing women, these really brilliant human beings that had beautiful souls just be so down on themselves and beat themselves up.

It was the first time that I had heard everything that I was vocalizing to myself behind closed doors or in my own mind. It’s the first time that I had heard it outwardly being vocalized from other women and I thought this is not okay. Why are we collectively beating ourselves up, and we don’t see how amazing we are, and we’re not living our lives on the basis of what we look like, or a jean size, or all this fear?

That’s really what prompted my own journey was my own suffering as well as seeing how this was affecting so many other people. That was a process of overcoming that. This is where you kind of lose that whole thing of and then I was fine. That’s not how it goes. It’s a long process to undo some of this stuff. It’s messy, it’s uncomfortable, and you have to work through a lot of stuff. But eventually I decided that I didn’t want to continue this. I mean I really had to sit with myself and ask myself is this how I see myself five, ten years from now? What if I have kids? What do I want to teach them? What example do I want to give other women? That was really prominent for me to help me along my own journey.

With enough work, introspection work, and just moving through fear, and letting go of a lot of ideals, and just teaching myself everything that we’ve been taught by society is not the truth, I am doing what I do today. Basically I help women get off the diet cycle, learn to embrace their bodies as is, and know that they’re worth is in who they are. Ultimately help them live their lives because that’s really what I think many of us want to do. We think that’s going to be found in looking a certain way, which isn’t the case. I help them just become more free within their body and ultimately going out to live their lives because we all have better things to do than worry about our size, weight, shape, or even level of healthiness.  That’s kind of in a nutshell.

Laura: Awesome! That’s so cool. It’s funny when you mentioned in the beginning that it started because you wanted to be healthy, and I feel like that’s so often the case for people have this idea that I just want to be healthy, and I just want to make good choices, and I just want to feel good. I don’t think that everybody gets into that disordered mindset when they start to make healthy changes in their diet and exercise routine, but it is interesting how addictive it can be when people start to see visible progress in their physique and then they start to get attention for it, and then it’s like well if this is what people like to see, then maybe that means I need to get thinner, I need to look better.

It can be a very slippery slope, like you said. Even just working in the industry that you were in with the training, I feel like people expect you to either look a certain a way or you expect for yourself to look a certain way and have a certain approach to fitness that requires some level of self-hatred.

Thanks for sharing that. I feel like it’s really important for our listeners to know where you’re coming from since you’ve been through it. I know a lot of people that are listening are either in that kind of down phase right now or they’re trying to get out of it and they want to know what to do.

Why do you think that these really amazing women who have a lot going on for them, are great people, they’re intelligent, they have jobs that they like, they have families, things that are going on for them that are really great, why do you think that they believe that they’ll be happier or more satisfied if they’re leaner or if their bodies look more toned?

Sarah: I think that there’s a few reasons why this happens. I mean first and foremost we really have to look at the cultural narrative that we have around bodies, and especially with women. As women historically we’ve been conditioned to believe that our appearance is our most important thing about us.

When you look at that, and really take that in, and really open up your eyes to see how image driven our society and our culture is, and then on top of that look at what image are we actually seeing more frequently, I think it’s only like 5 percent actual bodies are being represented in the media, it’s not that we’re blaming completely the media, but the cultural narrative as a whole is conditioned to uphold that ideal which is the idea that thinness or a thin body is the epitome or the goal, and fatness or a fat body is something to look down upon.

On top of that, we have these narratives attached to both sides of these where a thin body represents success, health, beauty, worthiness, love, all this cultural stuff that we’ve been conditioned to believe, not being lazy. Whereas a fat body has all these narratives that we’ve been conditioned to believe, that they’re lazy, that they don’t take care of themselves, that they’re not worthy, that they’re not beautiful, that they are not successful, that they are passive, all this stuff.

We have to really look at the bigger picture here and think of how our culture and society has really made us believe that one body is more worthy than another body and that comes to representation. Representation is huge and we are not seeing that much representation in our general society and culture. You can see that with just going through the checkout store, what types of bodies are you seeing? Especially when we’re talking about health, or fitness, or beauty, what are you typically seeing? You’re seeing one type of ideal.

We are actively racing and actively running physically and figuratively from this other side which is a larger body or weight gain and we’re erasing anything that is commonly associated with that such as stretch marks, such as cellulite, such as belly rolls, or back rolls, or anything of that sort because we have been conditioned to believe that these bodies have associated narratives which simply is not the case.

Laura: Do you think this has been a problem more recently with all the social media apps and that kind of thing that have been really becoming popular in the last five, ten years. I’m trying to think of how long these apps have even been available. How do you think these social media, like Instagram or Facebook, that kind of stuff, how does that play into the poor body image we’re seeing in so many women?

Sarah: I think that we have always lived in an image obsessed culture and now that we have things like social media at our fingertips where we’re always having media be at our hands, because before it would be like we’re watching TV, we’re on a magazine, or we see a billboard when we’re driving, now it’s literally at our hands. How much time are we spending on our phones? Let’s be honest here. I spend probably a decent amount of time on my phone. I think that’s very common for our society.

I think that it does and is playing into having a higher impact on this. Studies have shown that there is a correlation. We can’t really say this is a causation, but there is a correlation that due to social media, that we are having a higher prevalence of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. I think that is because on social media we are being portrayed as perfection. We see one picture and we can manipulate that picture accordingly. We have Facetune, we have apps that can manipulate your body, we can pick a certain picture based on what we want to look like, and we can really create this perfect illusion of people, and lives, and bodies, and that we have it all together, and everything is just perfect because of the media driven that we have on social media. I think it really does play into that.

When you look at social media, I want to say it could be damaging, but it can also be uplifting because there are obviously Thinspo, Fitspo, there’s even pro-anorexia and things like that on social media which is extremely damaging. It holds all these ideals which is really, really problematic, really problematic and damaging to people. It does not help people. It furthers their disorder, it furthers the body hatred, it furthers these ideals related to health, size, weight, and shape, and beauty. But on top of that, we do have the power to create our social media to be one that is uplifting to us and that would be through following individuals, following things that really uplift your soul.

One of the things I always tell people is to shift your social media because yes, it can really play into body dissatisfaction through comparison, but it also can help you on your journey towards accepting your body and having food freedom. That is through following a wide range of bodies. Like I said, we only see 5 percent represented in the media. We have the power to expand what’s called our visual diet and that is what we actually see in the media through the power of social media. That would mean following people that have bodies like yours and larger. Follow fat people, people of color, trans people, different abilities, all these things that encompass the wide range of true bodies that you could see.

It has been proven to show that when we expand our visual diet, it does affect how we not only view ourselves, but how we view other people, and then how we’re going to treat ourselves and other people to be from a place of compassion, respect, and kindness. So yes, social media has I think played a correlated role and increased body dissatisfaction, but we also have the power to create social media on our own phones and Facebook or whatever to actually help us versus damage our self-worth.

Laura: I think people need to remember that you don’t have to be following someone who is posting eating disorder promotion type posts. If it’s somebody that makes you feel badly about your body because of what they look like, that in itself could be a problem. I work with a lot of women who, I don’t think that they’re specifically seeking out Fitspo and pro-anorexia that kind of website, but if you’re following people that are only posting these really beautiful, perfectly posed, probably the 80th out of the 100 photos that they had taken that day, that’s going to definitely make you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to look like or that’s what this person looks like all the time. I agree with you that getting a figure diversity of people that you follow in your social media if you are active on it is definitely helpful to create something more normal.

It’s interesting with the body positivity movement, I think that’s related to what you were saying about following different people, different size bodies, different races, just in general a larger variety of people. What do you feel like is the biggest myth about the body positivity movement?

Sarah: There is just so many myths. I feel like we could probably do an entire show dedicated to just that. I had to think about this one which way I was going to go with this conversation. But I think the biggest one, and the most damaging one, and the pervasive of upholding the ideals in which we’re actually trying to undo within the body positive movement is the idea that body positivity glorifies obesity. I think that is one of the most prominent backlashes that I hear when I am speaking on body positivity or that you just see in general.

The thing that I want to say about this is first and foremost, obesity is a word that the healthcare system, which is extremely fat phobic, has made up on the standard of BMI. I don’t know if any of you have really undone any of the narrative around BMI, but it really is a load of bullshit. It’s not supposed to be used as a measurement of one single person. It really was historically supposed to be used to look at a greater population. On top of that, it has no indication on the basis of health.

When people are saying well you’re glorifying obesity, it really is basically saying a certain size, shape, or weight is bad because it automatically is an assumption that that body is unhealthy. With the body positive movement, first of all it’s not about health, so that’s another myth. It’s not about health. It’s about the liberation of bodies in general regardless of your health status to be in a place of respect, compassion, and kindness and you are deserving of that and worthy of that regardless of how close to this idea of health, which is also problematic in our society, you are.

With idea of glorifying obesity…okay, so we undid the idea of obesity, I think we can dive into that a little bit more, but just know that that is not a phrase that is appropriate. When we look at that, separate that out, then we can really look at the health component and understand that fat bodies can and are healthy. That isn’t saying that all fat bodies are healthy, but it is saying that we need really look at the narrative that we have been conditioned to believe around fat bodies. Fat bodies can and are healthy. That doesn’t mean that all fat bodies are, just like skinny or think bodies can be unhealthy.

The other thing is that body positivity absolutely does glorify fat bodies without a doubt. It glorifies all bodies. It glorifies and normalizes bodies that we are not traditionally seeing in our culture and our society. Non-abled bodies, trans bodies, fat bodies, different abilities, all that stuff. It really is a process of normalizing these bodies because we’re not seeing them. It really is glorifying them.

When we talk about glorifying this body, it really is about liberating people from body hate, diet culture, and fat phobia which is an oppressive component. When you think of the myth that body positivity glorifies obesity, that in of itself, that statement in and of itself is an oppressive statement because that’s upholding all of these fat phobic ideals. That in and of itself is just a complete myth.

On top of that, if someone is concerned about health, because that’s usually the story attached to that particular statement that well it’s just that I’m concerned about health, the way to be concerned about someone’s health is not to tell them that their body should not exist. It has been proven time and time again that if you’re really concerned about somebody’s health, doing it from a weight neutral perspective will get you much further in helping that individual actually have sustainable health measures that are not associated with weight. They will be able to participate in those behaviors more when it’s from a place of compassion, respect, and kindness.

On top of that, like I said before, fat bodies are not necessarily unhealthy. If we really want to talk about health, which I think is a conversation that isn’t being talked about enough, if we are really, truly concerned about health and the health of people in general, we need to make health be more accessible to people. We need to be talking about mental health and prioritizing mental health because it isn’t prioritized right now and it isn’t being talked bout. We need to talk about how we can make health be more accessible to other people that don’t have the resources or education to have it available? We need to talk about how can we help these individuals with their given situation because everybody’s situation is different based on class, based on education, based on just so many different factors. If we were really concerned about health, we really need to take it from a political and social component versus just on this basis that is out of fat phobia and oppression.

Laura: I feel like the whole “obesity epidemic” has really just changed the conversation around health to focus on weight so much. Like you said, two parts are really the biggest issue. One is that I would say the body acceptance and body positivity is not, like you said, it’s not specifically about whether somebody is healthy or not. It’s about them being able to not hate their bodies basically.

And then the other side of the coin is that like you said, the weight equaling health issues is something that a lot of people on social media are going to argue. If you’re showing people who are overweight, obese and yet they’re healthy, that doesn’t necessarily jive with a lot of people especially anyone who’s trying to sell a certain image as their product for health and fitness.

I definitely agree with you. I feel like body positivity doesn’t tell somebody that just don’t care about your body, or don’t take care of it because it doesn’t matter. It’s more don’t hate your body, don’t try to beat your body into submission to achieve a certain look that our society says is acceptable.

Sarah: On top of that, nobody is out there saying you should be fat. That is not what is happening. That’s really not what is happening. Fat people are just saying I have the right to exist in this world without oppressive constructs that upholding these ideals that are actually harming me, and preventing me from living my life fully, and prohibiting me from getting healthcare that I deserve. Because that’s a real issue when it comes to fat bodies and people of size is that they are, because of culture and our society, they really are not getting the healthcare that they deserve and it’s really problematic.

We have bigger issues to look at if we really want to care and uphold this concern card in our face. We have bigger things to talk about than just weight itself.

Laura: Definitely. When you’re working with clients who are struggling wtih body positivity or even I like to call it body neutrality where it’s almost that your thoughts are not just circling around your body all the time. It’s that you’re thinking about other things and your body is just kind of just this neutral experience. What do you find to be the hardest part of body acceptance for your clients when they first come to you?

Sarah: I work with so many people from so many different backgrounds and so many different histories with eating and body so everybody really is super different. But I think that one of the biggest things is just letting go of the thin ideal and working through their own internalized fat phobia which is very challenging because the thin ideal is upheld by our culture and our society and it’s literally going against the grain of everything that you hear, just like you said. Especially because it gets to the point where people can say okay, all bodies are good bodies, all bodies are worthy of respect, compassion, and kindness, but then we have wall that kind of gets thrown up where we have this health thing that gets in the way.

I think that’s another component that is really challenging to kind of undo, that narrative that health is completely within our control and that our weight, size, and shape is completely within our control, because it isn’t. Actually 95 percent of the individuals who go down the route of intentional weight loss end up gaining that weight back and then some of those and then some within five years.

I think it really is when we have to take a step back and look at the reality of the situation. You don’t even need statistics, or research, or data to help you through that. You can look at your own journey through dieting and intentional weight loss and see, has it been sustainable for you? If it has, great! Maybe you’re part of that 5 percent or maybe you’re finally at your set point which is something that is not within our control. But historically speaking, many people are bouncing from binge/restrict, binge/restrict and they’re outside of their set point or forcing themselves outside of their set point.

I think it is a matter of undoing so much stuff. But I think the biggest thing is letting go of the thin ideal, the idea that a smaller body equates to happiness, love, respect, worthiness, confidence, and all that stuff, that in order to live your life to the fullest and be fulfilled in your life, you have to be a certain way. That’s probably the number one thing. And the second thing would be undoing the health narrative that we have been conditioned to believe as well.

Laura: I always hear a lot of my clients who are struggling with this whenever they use the term fat, it’s almost like it’s an insult or it’s the worst thing that could ever happen to them is if their body gets fat or if they gain fat. It’s just really interesting to me because if you think about all the things that you could want to avoid in being a person in general, so you maybe want to avoid being mean, you want to avoid being greedy, or harmful to other people, things like that that are more of a moral issue potentially, I feel like fatness has kind of fallen into this morality problem where people say I can’t be fat because that’s bad and that makes me a bad person.

It sounds like that’s kind of one of the bigger issues that a lot of your clients are dealing with where they see fatness or having bodyfat as either indicating that they’re not a good person or it just changes their identity of themselves even though it’s actually not really related to their self-identity whatsoever.

Sarah: It comes back to the very first thing that we talked about which is the cultural narrative that we’ve conditioned to believe. I mean historically speaking, if you looked at the history of how bodies have been presented, it actually was the opposite where fat bodies were seen as more worthy. It’s all intertwined with class, and race, and sexism. It really is one of those things that we’ve all been taught

It’s problematic because just like you said, we have 54 percent of females that would rather be hit by a truck than be deemed fat. We have 54 percent of individuals that would much rather die, be seriously injured, or paralyzed than been seen or identified as fat. We have 81 percent of 10 years old that are afraid of being fat and some of those are actively dieting. I mean come on now! This is why we have to really look at this and how prevalent our beliefs are around fat and how damaging it is to people. It is very, very damaging. It’s a real, real fear and a real belief that needs to be undone and that’s what I help individuals do and that’s what I’m out doing now.

Laura: For those listeners who are identifying with some of these things that we’re talking about as far as having that negative thought about their body, feeling like they’re fat, feeling like they need to lose weight to be happy or even be comfortable…I hear that a lot with my clients that they say they just want to be comfortable in their body and that’s why they want to lose weight. To be fair, I understand if you are not eating foods that nourish you or if you’re not exercising at all, then yes, you can start to feel uncomfortable in your body and it can start to not feel good. But for most people, their weight is not going to directly impact how comfortable they feel in their body and it is really more about their mindset.

What are some practical ways that the women listening right now can feel more comfortable in their body without having to actually change their physical appearance?

Sarah: I think one of the first things, I kind of want to back up here, is that the statement I feel fat is just not real. I mean like I said, fat is not a synonym for I don’t feel loved, I don’t feel heard, I don’t feel like I belong, I don’t feel like I’m accepted, I feel overwhelmed, I feel stressed, I feel physical discomfort. If we really want to be talking about how to feel comfortable, we really to get behind what does that actually mean when you are trying to say that you feel fat?

I think that’s one thing is to be really honest with yourself because fat is by no means a feeling. I have a whole blog on that dedicated to how you can use that to kind of almost be a red flag to help guide you to what’s really going on because attacking your body oftentimes, actually I’m going to say all the time is not going to help you reduce those emotionally discomforts which is really happening. The underneath part is what’s really going on and we have been conditioned to just say, well I feel fat, which is just inappropriate. That’s not what we’re actually feeling. When we can be curious about what’s behind that, then we can address it. We can say okay, how can I start to feel like I’m accepted, or loved, or worthy? Maybe I need to go here.

The other topic of comfortable in your body, I completely understand. I think one of the biggest things is to distinguish between physical discomfort and emotional discomfort because physical discomfort is very easy to take care of. If you‘re in clothes that don’t fit your body, you’re going to feel physically uncomfortable. And then what’s going to happen? It’s going to just have all that inner critic within your mind just be amplified and you’re going to have all these emotions that pop up that are from everything that we have been taught. If you’re feeling physically uncomfortable, especially when it’s something that’s easily changeable like your clothes, or pain, or that you need rest, or whatever, those things are often times a little bit easier to navigate through.

But oftentimes what I see with the individuals that I work with is that it’s not that the physical discomfort that is more pressing. It actually is the emotional discomfort that is more problematic. Emotional discomfort is actually more powerful than physical discomfort. It’s important to understand what is the emotion that’s actually there and I think that still gets behind what does this mean then? What does it actually mean if you feel your rolls on your body, or you get out of breath, or you have difficulty with mobility, or you get winded going up the stairs, or your jeans aren’t fitting you, what does it actually mean?

It’s the story that we’ve attached to it that is the actual problem. If you have jeans that don’t fit, get better jeans. If you have difficulty going up the stairs, okay, maybe work on endurance. That doesn’t require you to change your body. You can work on those things from a very weight neutral, compassionate, loving manner and work through that physical discomfort. But it’s the connection, the story that we’ve attached to it. When you can get behind the story and be curious and work through that, then you can get to a more place of being comfortable. I actually just did a blog on that as well about distinguishing between the two. I think first and foremost is just having awareness. Is this physical discomfort, or is there emotional discomfort?

Laura: Definitely. With the physical discomfort, I think that’s an area that is so difficult to blend the idea of body positivity and then making changes to improve your health or how you feel. I think that can be a really tough area for people to kind of combine because most of the fitness and health related stuff on the internet or the kind of things that you’re going to be exposed to are going at it from a sense that you’re not good enough or you are not worthy enough until you accomplish this level of health or fitness. Whereas we’re trying to approach it from an area where it’s treating your body well and taking care of your body actually can be an act of self-love and it doesn’t require you to hate your body or to have negative thoughts to drive those behaviors.

When you’re working with people, I’m sure that you’re not telling them to just not care about what they eat, and to not care about moving their body, and to like you said glorify obesity or glorify unhealthy behaviors, but it is difficult to come at it from a self-love approach for a lot of people.

How can a woman love herself the way she is and still make changes in her diet and lifestyle so that she feels healthier? Like you were saying maybe it’s that she’s feeling winded walking up stairs and that’s uncomfortable for her. So how can you eat healthfully, exercise appropriately, live in the way that’s treating your body well and still experience that food freedom that you were talking about?

Sarah: When I first start talking with my clients, health is kind of on the back burner. When it comes to undoing all this stuff, you do have to put health on the back burner. We have to unlearn things before we can introduce health as an idea because we have to really detach weight and health. If you’re listening, one thing that I would suggest would be getting on board with Linda Bacon, Body Respect. That book is life changing and will help you kind of navigate through that.

But the one thing that I do is I tell them don’t worry about it, just eat whatever you feel like eating. You do go through a phase if you’re coming through restriction where you’re going to have to put health on the back burner and start to undo that narrative until you get to a place of actually having food be very neutral where it’s no longer looked in a dogmatic approach where it’s black and white, healthy vs. unhealthy because nobody can actually definitively define that. What I consider to be “physically healthy” for me maybe physically unhealthy to another person. We have to be able to respect ourselves and not be concerned with society’s idea of health, but what is actually good for us in this given situation.

We do have to kind of put health on the back burner for a moment and prioritize mental health. That really is if we’re talking about health, we’re prioritizing our mental wellbeing first and then we can consider physical wellbeing. Later on down the road, yes, you can absolutely start to participate in “healthful behaviors” from a place of compassion, respect, and kindness. That’s going to be when you start to take a neutral component where you’re not using shame, guilt, disrespect, and punishment, where you’re just doing it and saying okay this is how I want to treat my body. This is what feels good for me, this is a way of honoring my body.

We also need to know you don’t owe anybody this idea of health. It’s not a moral thing which I think is also prominent in our culture where health is kind of a moral issue. But it isn’t. Undoing the narrative first and putting health on the back burner, prioritizing mental health, and then later on down the road you can incorporate those things that make you feel good and you can consider your health. It oftentimes is easier and more sustainable in a more long lasting, compassionate way of doing it.

If you take a weight neutral component and you say how do I want to feel first of all, how is this helping me in my life? Because if you really think of it, health is supposed to add to our lives, it’s not supposed to take away. It’s supposed to help us add to our life and help us continue living the most radiant, amazing, badasss life that we want to. It’s what helps us keeping showing up. Expanding it to be a measure of self-care kind of an umbrella, like greying out just this dogmatic approach where we’re prioritizing not only physical health if that’s what we value, but also our mental, emotional, spiritual, psychological, and social health. Those all encompass who we are as a person.

It’s a process that kind of takes some time to go and approach it from health. But if the one thing I guess that I would say is to detach from the idea that weight equates to health and do it from a place of compassion, respect, and kindness. I think it really comes down to your intention behind it. How do you want to feel? What’s your intention and what’s the purpose in your life for this?

Laura: Awesome! We were talking a little bit about this concept of food freedom which you mention a lot in your website. I know that’s something that has been a little bit more prominent in my personal brand as well as this idea of being able to eat in a way that you feel good about regardless of whether that’s healthy versus unhealthy or health minded versus just enjoying food. There’s a lot of different reasons that people will choose what they’re eating. What does food freedom mean to you?

Sarah: The basis of it for me is that you don’t spend too much time thinking about food. You have other things to do in your life than worry about food. You’re eating in attunement with your body so you’re listening to your body’s cues versus a meal plan, or what you think you should eat, or specific calories. You’re eating what your body tells you that you want to eat and you’re stopping and honoring those cues of your body.

You are also not having guilt, shame, and rules associated with it because there are going to be moments where you eat when you’re not hungry. There are going to be moments where you’ll emotionally eat because it’s a very normal thing and it’s a matter of not having those things beat yourself up and go into that shame cycle which perpetuates the diet cycle.

Food freedom really just is an easy way to eat in the absence of shame, guilt, rules, and it’s a place of compassion, respect, and kindness. In all honesty, you don’t spend all that much time on it. It just becomes a thing in your life, but not like so prominent in your life. It just is food. Food becomes food, that’s it.

Laura: I always love when I’m working with someone and by the end of the time we’re done together they’re like the best thing that happened was that I’m not spending my evenings just reading nutrition blogs or listening to nutrition podcasts, which is kind of ironic because I’m like I’m putting myself out of business basically.

But that would really be the goal is that we get people to a point where they’re not really thinking about it anymore. Obviously you have to think about it in the sense that eating does require some level of thought, but it’s not something that’s on their mind all the time. They’re not researching health conditions, and diets, and exercise plans, and following people on social media that they are trying to copy their diet or get a perfect food plan, like you were saying. I think being able to get to a point where it’s just a very small component of your day to day mental space and to the point where you have to think about what to eat just to get some food into you, but you’re not just ruminating on it all day, all the time and that’s what you’re spending your free time doing as well too.

I think that’s really cool because again, Kelsey and I work with a lot of people that struggle with this and our goal is always to get them to the point where they kind of almost get on autopilot and they don’t have to think about it so much. It’s just they know what makes them feel good, they know what foods they like to eat, and it’s just easy for them to make these decisions.

I did want to talk a little bit about a topic that comes up all the time in the health world in the clients that I work with where people have sugar addiction, or I’m sorry, I should put that in quotes because I’m not sure when say the term sugar addiction, it’s kind of an interesting term. But what do you think about people having really bad sugar cravings, feeling like they’re addicted to sugar, or feeling that they’re addicted to food in general? I have people that will come to me and say I can’t eat sugar because I’m addicted to it and if I start eating it I just won’t stop. Where do you feel these addictions come from and do you think that sugar is something that can be addictive?

Sarah: I actually did an entire podcast, it’s an hour long conversation on this specifically. Its episode 17 of the Reclaiming You Podcast. It’s a big conversation nonetheless. I will preface this with saying I am by no means an expert. I’m not a researcher. I’m a medical professional, but I’m not a doctor and this is not my specialty, addition.

I was very curious about this myself because we do see it quite a bit. I come from a background where I felt the same thing. I was like something is seriously wrong with me. I have a food problem, specifically sugar because I can’t keep it around the house and then I binge on it. I thought what’s up? What’s up with all this? Because when people work with me they will often times see, no, I didn’t have a sugar addiction, it was just all this other stuff. I’m like, yeah.

This is my opinion, but I do not think sugar addiction is real. But there isn’t research to solidify it and there isn’t enough research to dismiss it. If you’re looking at it from a research basis, it still is kind of we threw it up in the air and we’re still trying to figure it out. But for me personally, I just can’t get behind it and there’s a few reasons why.

First of all when we’re talking about “food problems” and specially this issue when it comes to sugar, when people are saying I just can’t keep it around the house, there’s so many complex things that tie into this. Some of the questions that I am very curious about and even come to research too with the research data that is kind of looking at this topic is can we actually be addicted to the substance food which is something that we need to sustain and survive in this world? Or is there something else going on? That was one of the biggest things that I kind of wanted to look at.

What I do know though is that if you’re not eating enough, and specifically carbohydrates, your body is going to actively want, what? Probably sugar and carbohydrates. The reason why many of us crave sugar is because our bodies are freakin intelligent and they know that these hyper-palatable things are easily digestible. If you’re not eating enough carbohydrates in your diet in general, your body is probably going to want those foods.

If you’re restricting, you’re probably going to go to the other side where you end up eating or “binge eating.” This is very common with restriction. When we pull the pendulum back on one side which is restriction, and then we let up, so we let the pendulum go, we’re going to swing all the way over to the other side. This is a very, very normal component to letting go of the diet mentality is this swing that comes from restriction when we let go initially where we’re now eating and consuming things. But what happens is that we often feel guilt, shame about that stuff, right? The only thing that we know how to do to kind of help us feel “back in control” is to pull the pendulum back and start restricting again.

The one thing that we have to look at is the history of dieting and the history of restriction. If you’re actively restricting, and you’re actively dieting, and you’re not getting enough food in your diet in general, then the chances are you’re probably doing to be “bingeing” around these items. But when you look at restriction, it’s two parts. It’s not only the physical restriction, so not allowing yourself to physically have the food, but it also is emotional and mental restriction. A lot of people don’t know about that component of it. What that is, is that fear, it’s the guilt. It’s the oh my gosh, I messed up! Oh my God, I did something wrong because I did eat the whole box of cookies. If you would allow yourself some grace, compassion, and realize you didn’t do anything wrong, then chances are if you work through all that fear and that narrative, then you’re actually going to have a more, the pendulum is kind of going to find it’s center around “normal.”

When we talk about food addiction, some of the other things that I’m concerned about is we’re not looking at the difference between dependency and true addiction. Those are two very different components. Dependency, I’m dependent on caffeine. I am not addicted to it. There is a difference. Dependency is when your body physically does change and you’ll have symptoms. Can you have some dependency around sugar? Maybe. But the addiction component, I’m just a little iffy about that research.

When we look at the research around addiction in and of itself, Gabor Mate is a really prominent person when it comes to this and I have his TED Talk when he talks about addiction. When he specifically talks about addition, he’s talking about addiction as a whole. He really says that addiction, true addiction stems from trauma. It’s trauma, it’s not the substance, it’s behavior. We have to look at what is “addiction” doing? It is alleviating discomfort.

One of the things that I think is important to look at is not only the history of dieting, and restriction, and what we’re actually eating, and the mental restriction, but also how are we dealing and coping with emotional discomfort? Do we have trauma in or lives? Are we having shame around our body, and our food, and everything else?

The research really is looking at, when it looks at “food addiction” it’s looking at, who do you think? Larger size bodies, right. Of course it’s looking at people that are “obese.” There’s no doubt about it that people of larger size are dealing with stigma and shame in our culture which is a traumatic event. On top of that, we also know that 50 percent of women are dieting at any given moment. If we are going to look at food addiction and sugar addiction, we have to really be critical of the research and ask I think these questions.

But from my personal experience of people that I’ve worked with and my colleagues that are in this industry, what we have noticed is that when we undo the diet mentality and we allow ourselves full unconditional permission to eat food including sugar, that the idea of sugar addiction actually is not existent. It really was on the basis of restriction and emotional discomfort

Kelsey: I have to say that Laura and I,  as Laura mentioned, we work with a lot of people that are dealing with this “addiction” whether it’s to sugar or if they kind of feel like they are kind of addicted to food in any sense. I totally agree with that sentiment that it can be related to restriction because at least for me, that’s what I have seen time and time again with these clients that feel like they’re addicted to sugar, or food, or any one thing from their diet. It’s often because they are so focused on restricting some component of their diet whether that’s calories overall or like you said carbohydrates.

I love your example of it really swings them to the other side of the pendulum where they then end up kind of overdoing it and “binge eating” whether that’s sugar, or other types of carbohydrates, or whatever. But that is really, really common for me to see and I assume, Laura, you see the same thing.

Laura: Yeah. It’s funny because I feel like it can be the mental restriction side of things definitely, but then even just the physical restriction. I’ve mentioned a few times I did this fasting experiment with my church a couple of months ago and it was really funny because there was no morality associated with food that I was eating. It was more just an experiment to see how I can unhook myself emotionally or spiritually from food and just eating very plain plant based foods. But I think there was a level of physical, I was going to say malnourishment that kind of came up during that period of time that then started triggering sugar cravings in me. I was like what the heck? I haven’t had sugar cravings in so long and now all of a sudden a week into this vegan religious fast I’m starting to be like where’s the chocolate!

It’s just kind of funny because I think that concept of malnutrition in general and also just like if you’re not eating carbs that you’re going to crave sugar because like you said, your body is not stupid. When you’re malnourished, you’re going to start looking for the easiest source of nourishment.

Sarah: Right.

Laura: A lot of times that comes across to us as sugar cravings, but really it’s just your body wanting food.

I’m really glad that you mentioned the whole concept of trauma and addiction. Is it Gabor Mate? Is that how you pronounce his name?

Sarah: I think it’s Gabor Mate, one of those.

Laura: It’s funny because we actually used his work in our Paleo Rehab program for people with HPA axis dysregulation becuase we have a whole module on trauma. It’s a very basic overview like here’s some things that could be a problem, go work with someone if you think that’s you. I have his book which is called The Body Keeps The Score. Note: The Body Keeps The Score is written by Bessel van der Kolk.

We kind of used that as a little bit of a way to inform that module because at the end of the day I do think that there is a lot of emotional trauma that develops over people’s lives and then they start using food, and fitness, and control over those things as a way to try to deal with those emotions even though it’s obviously not very effective. I’m really glad that you brought that up.

Sarah: It’s a really complex topic. I literally did an entire hour long thing. I’m not saying that everything I’m saying is right because I think there’s still research out there looking at it. But I think as people, we need to be critical of the research and ask these questions if we really want to be making such a proclaim that food and sugar is addictive.

But what I’ve found too is that just a simple just eating enough food in general can do wonders with how individuals feel when it comes to this whole sugar addiction. And then like for me now, I mean as a self-proclaimed past “sugar addict” I have all sort of shit in my house and it’s fine and I forget about it. And that’s what oftentimes my clients end up having and experiencing as well. It’s pretty magical to see.

But I think that we throw it out especially in health industry and the fitness industry a little bit too much where it’s super problematic to say that somebody’s addicted to something when there isn’t enough research to even say that. It’s really, really problematic none the less.

Laura: I liked what you were saying about it being a physiological dependency potentially because if somebody is eating a very high sugar, refined carbs, low protein, low fat kind of diet, which a lot of people that are doing a normal western diet are eating that way, that can cause blood sugar dysregulation that will make you feel like want sugar when your blood sugar drops. But if you’re eating a pretty balanced, I say whole foods, but like kind of protein, carbs, and fat balanced diet and you’re getting all the different components that our bodies generally need to function, a lot of times the whole concept of sugar addiction is not even there anymore because your body’s not having these wild blood sugar swings because you’re trying survive on caffeine and sugar throughout the day as opposed to just eating a solid meal that contains all the different things that you need.

I do see that under eating or eating a not very well balanced diet either restricting certain things or generally just not eating the foods that the body needs to function is going to potentially lead to those symptoms of sugar dependency. But then once the diet if fairly balanced, it’s really not something that I see in a lot of my clients. At the end, I shouldn’t even say the end, usually the first thing that happens when people start eating enough, and eating all of the different components of the diet, and not restricting carbs, or restricting fat, the first thing that they say is I don’t feel like I’m obsessed with food anymore.

Sarah: Right.

Laura: It’s not just emotional. Certainly the emotional side of things is huge, but at the end of the day, if you’re body isn’t getting what it needs, it’s going to start making you obsessed with food.

Sarah: Yeah. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with the Minnesota Starvation Study at all or if you looked at that or have done any episodes on it. But this was a study done, I don’t remember, it was done way back many years ago because it would be completely unethical now.

Laura: Yeah, I think it was in the 40s.

Sarah: Yeah, it was completely unethical. But I mean they literally took people and put them into severe caloric restriction and it showed all these symptoms that we often associate things like agitation, preoccupation, physical manifestations, it’s all they could think about. They were kind of just acting weird. It truly does show the power of what happens when you’re not feeding yourself adequately like the grownass human that you are. It’s an interesting study to look at if you haven’t looked at it yet, just to your listeners if they haven’t looked at it.

Laura: I know Kelsey, I’m sure you’re familiar with it right?

Kelsey: Yeah.

Laura: I mean it’s one of things that I think when you’re deep into it with your career being a nutritionist, you’re aware of it, but there may be some people out there that aren’t. Like you said, it was not something that would probably be replicated in terms of the actual experiment.

Sarah: No.

Laura: But to be fair, there’s probably a lot of people doing some n=1 starvation studies right nowand experiencing the same kind of response that those, I think it was soldiers. I think they actually took soldiers…and it was funny because the starvation diet was 1,500 calories or something, so it was like still a lot more food than what some people out there are eating. I think that’s a really great study to look at. Like you said, it probably won’t ever be done again, but you certainly don’t want to be doing it in your own life.

Sarah: Yeah. The only thing that they’re looking at now are mice and unfortunately we’re not mice so we’re a little bit more complex. The biggest claim that comes up is well what about the study about the mice that decided to go towards the sugar water versus the cocaine? Then it was like it’s more addictive than cocaine! What they didn’t talk about is that when these mice were already predisposed to sugar and then they took it away. It’s almost you had them at a higher caloric intake and then you took it away, so of course they’re going to want it. On top of that your body physically needs sugar for energy and survival. It doesn’t need cocaine.

And then it also found that when these mice and these rodents were continuously allowed to eat sugar, that in the beginning they did have this high influx of wanting it all the time. But then when they were allotted sugar constantly, so like that unconditional permission that I talk about, it actually went back down and it normalized to where they didn’t want it. It’s just really interesting to kind of like I said just be critical of the data out there and not latch on to everything that everybody says.

Laura: Yeah, I love that. I feel like, like you said, this is a huge topic that we definitely want to send our listeners to your podcast on it because I think the sugar addiction and sugar cravings thing is so common in the Paleo community as being this horrible thing and that sugar is like you said worse than drugs basically.  I think that perspective on sugar being this evil thing that’s going to kill people is not only scientifically inaccurate but really damaging from just a mindset and food approach perspective.

Sarah: Yeah.

Laura: Even if it was something that wasn’t ideal to be eating a ton of, it doesn’t mean having some of it is going to kill you. It’s not an actual poison. It’s not arsenic or something, which to be fair is even, we do get a little bit of arsenic in our food all the time.

It’s one of those things that these narratives which I feel like sell really well for books and programs that help people break the sugar addiction and that kind of thing, it’s not necessarily something that’s actually helpful for a lot of people.

Sarah: I mean look at how they’re using it. What is it? It’s out of fear, right? It’s out of fear and insecurity. Nobody wants to die, nobody wants to be “unhealthy.” It’s a fear tactic. And it is, it’s a great selling point, but it only gets you so far.

Laura: Right.

Sarah: It really does. And it doesn’t feel good. We all know that. It doesn’t feel good to start a process or a journey out of disrespect and hate. If you think that’s what’s going to help you have any type of freedom or acceptance, then no, that’s not how it works.

Laura: Yeah. Cool. Well, is there anything that you feel like you want to share with our listeners or are there any particular places that you want us to send them so that they can learn more about these really important topic?

Sarah: I would just say that come on my website, check out many of the blogs that I have. I have a free community on Facebook that is dedicated to anti-dieting, and body positivity, and health at every size. You can get that link in my e-book that I have. Check out my podcast because I have a lot of guests on there and like I said, this conversation around sugar addiction, and we talk about perfection. There’s just a lot of stuff. I am very prominent on Instagram obviously. You can follow me there where I just have little tidbits that I throw out here and there about all this stuff that I am talking about.

At the end of the day, if I could say one thing it’s just to have your listeners know that their worth is not on the basis of their appearance. It really is inherent from who they are and knowing that who they are is enough. You can get to a place of peace around food, body, and even movement if that’s what you really want. You don’t have to buy into everything that our society has taught you.

Laura: Awesome! We’ve really appreciate your time and your expertise on this topic, Sarah. It’s awesome that you’ve been through it yourself so you have the compassion and empathy for this experience. But you also clearly know a lot about not only the science but just the practicalities of getting out of this situation.

Were so glad that you were on the show with us today! Everyone, if you want to check Sarah’s work out, it’s SarahVance.com. Sarah is spelled with an “h,” SarahVance.com. We’ll also link to her website, her social media pages, and some of those podcast topics that she mentioned in the show notes for this podcast episode over at TheAncestraRDs.com, episode 109. Well thanks for joining us everybody and we will see you here next week! Thanks again, Sarah!

Sarah: Thank you.

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I'm a women's health expert and a registered dietitian (RD) with a passion for helping goal-oriented people fuel their purpose.

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