I think of him as the “Bird Man”. I was only 18 years old and little did I know at the time it was probably because of him that I became a dietitian. I was a freshman at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and he was the graduate student who taught my biology lab. I was a biology major because I just loved the subject and everything to do with how every living thing worked (except the paramecium or amoeba). I had no idea about what I “wanted to be” when I grew up. But I realized I never wanted to be the Bird Man. He studied birds and bird calls (apparently, his thesis was about this topic), and he had us listening to hours of bird tweets, marking down different marks according to how long or short the tweet was. This was not my idea of fun. Anyway, I had no idea at the time that I could have chosen any topic in the field to study, and maybe, it would have been more interesting. Instead, when I consulted with my adviser about changing majors, he asked what interested me. At the time, my best friend at school was a vegetarian, and the food she ate was very different from what I ate. I answered “vegetarianism”. “Well, you should be a dietitian” was his recommendations, and so I changed my focus and transferred to UConn where they had a nutrition program. If I mentioned this story before, I apologize. Age has taught me I am becoming my mother (pictured here, eating ice cream even though she is lactose intolerant).
Anyway, yogurt with sunflower seeds and honey no longer interests me, and if I am honest, I have no interest in vegetarianism either. That was short-lived, but I have no regrets because over the years, I have discovered what truly does fascinate me, and that is behavior. My passion is promoting health and happiness and peace, and being a dietitian , that means peace and happiness with food and eating. Food being such a basic part (and necessity) of life, you wouldn’t think it would be so hard, right? But for many, it is.
When I worked exclusively with patients with eating disorders, I grew to appreciate even more how hard it is for people to change. When I encountered older women or men (in their 40’s, 50’s and one woman I clearly remember in her 60’s), it struck me that age did not necessarily bring wisdom when it came to making healthier choices in life. It was way more complicated. Now, between working more with families who have children with eating issues and even with encounters with your average “dieter”, I am discovering there are many barriers to change and everyone is different.
These are some common scenarios I often see:
- Your average middle aged person who has gained a few pounds and wants to lose it. They try a certain diet (be it paleo, juice cleanse, Weight Watchers, it really doesn’t matter), they lose weight, and as time passes they gain most of their weight back. But then, despite the fact that they regained the weight, they repeat the process.
- The person with an eating disorder who is in denial, and despite family and friends expressing concern and worry, they refuse treatment.
- The person with an eating disorder who does get treatment but still struggles (and often beats themselves up because they are still struggling).
- The parent with a child who has health issues because of a poor diet yet can’t change their own eating habits.
With all of these situations (there are many more), one thing rings true among them all: despite a good reason to change and despite repeated experiences with failure, change does not happen. Why?
My thought (and experience) is that our expectations are not always realistic. No matter what the situation, we can’t change it overnight. Knowledge, and even age and experience does not translate into change. And guess what……that is ok. The problem is that most people trying to change have little tolerance for making mistakes or for failing. Instead of being accepting of themselves that it is perfectly normal to fail, the self-deprecating dialogue takes over. That leads to a very negative feeling that has the risk of overtaking everything. Feeling negative and berating oneself is not a good recipe for change.
Instead, can you entertain the thought of a different approach to eating? No matter where you are on the eating spectrum (it taken over your life because of an eating disorder, or are you just slightly concerned that what you eat may matter) YOU are the one in control of your thoughts. You may not feel in control of your eating, but there truly is hope.
My suggested steps to change? First, ask yourself these questions:
- Reflect. Take time to neutrally (non-judgmentally) think about where you have been when it comes to eating and dieting. Has your road been long, or are you just starting to think about what you are eating?
- What does your “self-talk” sound like? In other words, what are you saying to yourself that nobody else can hear? Are you being nice to yourself, treating yourself kindly as you would others, or are you being mean?
- How do you feel? Do you have energy galore, or is getting up and moving a battle? If you don’t have energy or you are dragging, do you know why? Have you addressed it with your doctor?
- Are there changes in the back of your mind that you really know you need to make for your health’s sake? More sleep, less wine, more exercise, quit smoking, more vegetables? Be honest and make a list. This does not have to do with weight. This has to do with health and feeling good and living longer (hopefully).
THEN, make an action plan:
- If your self-talk is negative, write down some “counter-statements”. These are positive things you could say to help put you in a better place. Instead of “I can’t believe I ate that (or did that, or whatever), try saying “nobody’s perfect! at least I am aware of what I am doing! I am working on it!”
- If you don’t feel good or have no energy CALL YOUR DOCTOR and get help figuring out why. I know many people who have thyroid conditions, especially later in life that after treatment changed their lives. Depression can also zap energy and will rarely get better without help.
- If you are trying to improve your lifestyle to be healthier, but struggling on your own, ask your doctor for a referral (you may need a therapist, physical therapist, sleep study or dietitian…check out Find An Expert to find a registered dietitian in your area.
Remember, any “mistake” you make is really a gift in disguise. It gives you insight into where your barriers and challenges are. You just need to take the time to reflect on what leads you down that path and be kind to yourself as you keep trying to find a better way. It may be that you need to seek help to get you to where you want to go, and remember, it will never be perfect. The path there is never smooth, but that’s ok. As long as you keep going. And learning. And accepting.
So what would I have been had it not been for the Bird Man? I have thought about this. I maybe would have been a Master Chef, or Master Gardener, or maybe a sommelier on a Caribbean Cruise Ship…..Maybe it’s not too late.