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May 4, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Bodysense: The Science and Art of Eating

Tania Coombs, BSc (Nutrition) Otago; Dip Hom, has spent 25 years helping women deal with clinical eating disorders and dysfunctional eating behaviour. She runs a free six-week course through the Counselling Service for women who “wish to develop a new relationship with food and eating.” Salient feature writer Nina Fowler talked to Coombes about common food myths, the diet trap, and how to manage comfort eating.

Hi, Tania. Just to start off, what’s the most important message you’d like to get out to women?

That we absolutely must change how we view eating and our bodies. Eating is something that is becoming more and more distressing for women. I see women who restrict and deprive themselves, who feel like they’re wrong in their bodies and that they’ll never be able to look right, feel right or eat right.

You can heal your relationship with food and your body if you’re prepared to embrace a different way of looking at it. I teach women to listen to their bodies. Dieting damages the little skills we had as children, our instinctive way of behaving around food. We unlearn them, but you can get back to where you once were and are meant to be.

Why do you think eating has become messed up?

Body image is part of the problem. The narrowly defined image we’ve been exposed to for the last 50 years is not a natural shape for most women. This is causing problems at a younger and younger age. Around the age of six or seven, little girls start picking up on media imagery, they notice Mummy dieting, they’re playing with Barbie dolls; they’re looking to the outside world to try to understand who they are and what they’ll be as women. We now get these children dieting because they feel fat and ugly.

And those patterns continue.

Right. We’ve also developed a cultural obsession with eating behavior. The media has made people fearful of certain food groups. People are wiping out whole food groups because they’ve decided “this’ll make me fat”, and that’s extremely dangerous. Those food groups have physiological and biological functions within the body and there are really nasty consequences if you decide to cut them out.

The most simplistic and obvious is fat: “if I eat fat, I will become fat”. That message is incredibly simplistic and incredibly distorted. Fat is an integral part of being satisfied. If you don’t have enough fat in your diet, you’ll be perpetually hungry, perpetually unsatisfied and much more prone to binging. The punitive self-talk that sets in as a result can really spin someone out.

It’s unsustainable behavior.

It’s unsustainable and has unrecognised consequences on health. Women get real health issues, especially around sleep, yet they don’t realise it’s actually because they’ve eliminated fat or carbohydrates. If you don’t eat enough carbohydrates, you don’t sleep or relax well and you can fall into quite a deep depression.

I see people making decisions with the intent to be healthier or slimmer and not realising the wider implications for their health and psyche. Dieting not only creates erratic weight gain and enormous distress, but actually knocks your eating behaviour out of whack.

Once women realise they’ve become distressed because of their eating behaviour, how do you try to help them?

I start by giving women basic nutritional information so they can start the process of nourishing themselves better. I never do quantities. I just say “this is what protein does in your body; I want you to eat some decent protein for breakfast and notice what it does to your day.” Once people understand why they need to eat something, they’re happy to do it. We usually work on one or two things a week.

So you get the women in your classes to understand nutrition. What next?

The first aspect is nutrition, the science of eating. The second is the dynamics of eating, the art of eating. That’s the simple idea of giving yourself permission to eat something. If you take away permission, you’ll become fixated and end up binging. Once you have permission to eat or try anything, you are much more able to listen to your body.

I teach women to be aware of the feedback your body gives you when you eat something. Women are so frightened of their bodies they can’t do that anymore. They’re stuck in their minds, going round and round with “what should I be eating, how many calories”… real eating should be so simple but it has become so complicated.

Because we’ve developed an adversarial relationship with our bodies.

Absolutely.

What about comfort eating?

Most people don’t recognise that there are biochemical reasons why we eat to comfort ourselves or alleviate stress. Some foods will calm you down if you’re over-adrenalised and some foods will stimulate you.. People label it “binge” when all they’re doing is calming themselves down.

Students do it all the time. You’ll be in the middle of an essay, get stressed and think “I need a chocolate bar!”

A lot of people medicate with food but they label it in a much more punitive way, and they don’t realise that some foods calm you down in a much more stable and direct way than chocolate. Once you teach people what those foods are, they’re away. Food is actually a very powerful medicine. When you know a little about food, you can make your life a whole lot better.

So how can students enroll in BodySense?

It’s a six-week course and each weekly session lasts two hours. Essentially, I cram as much as I can into those six weeks. There are four BodySense courses a year and students can book in with the Counselling Service. At the moment, classes are held on Mondays and Wednesdays.

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About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

Comments (3)

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  1. todd says:

    I’m sick of people telling me its just a phase when I know people out there dying from eating disorders! Lend a hand; don’t avoid the problem people.

    http://www.eatingdisorder.com/anorexia-nervosa.html?utm_source=blog&utm_medium=pv&utm_content=zs&utm_campaign=anorexia

  2. Jane says:

    What an excellent service being offered here! Such useful and sustaining information. Really important and valuable help which is much needed these days. Great to read this.

  3. Nina says:

    Tania is one hella lady. Totally recommend heading down to the Counselling Service and booking in for a chat. One thing I should have mentioned in the interview – the Bobdysense classes are consistently underbooked i.e. if you wanted to tag along for a single session just to check it out then that’d be fine.

    She runs private classes too I think through Ocean Health, which is down on Panama St.

    Eating distress does not equal eating disorder Todd, you’re right. Once you get past a certain point it obviously becomes something far more difficult to deal with. Tania estimated she’d need a couple of years of therapy and education to help someone with a clinical eating disorder – good news is that there is help out there, and her success rate is high.

    Hope this helps.

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