On Geneen Roth, Sugar, “Do No Harm”, Unicorns and Healing

Written by: Center for Body Trust

Cultivating Body Trust® includes acknowledging fear-based behaviors and beliefs about food that make it harder to trust yourself. Examples of these might be feeling powerless to some foods (like sugar), or feeling like one must restrain or restrict food in order to feel “in control”.

Geneen Roth recently posted a statement on Facebook (in the wake of her Super Soul Sunday appearance) to clarify her thoughts on addiction and sugar. She stated that though she doesn’t endorse food addiction, she is suspect about sugar. She said “sugar begets more sugar” and she believes it intrinsically contributes to binge behavior and/or overeating. She warns about the dangers of consuming sugar and suggests that some people may want to give it up altogether, although she allows herself “one small piece of chocolate daily.”

This is not what we believe promotes healing. Healing would involve addressing the inconsistencies and messages we have internalized that overvalue under-eating and food restraint and pathologize eating episodes that we deem to be “too much”. We see that our lives and relationship with food are replete with so much complexity that our attachment to one food over another is always worth examining and understanding.

If you find yourself in a challenging relationship with your food and/or your body, restriction in any form will not aid you. Restriction has never healed disordered eating, healed the dieting mind, or filled a lonely void. NEVER. It doesn’t matter if you are restricting sugar or broccoli, food restriction and dietary restraint will not help you get free. We are off target when we aim here.

It is possible to cultivate a safer relationship with any food. If fatphobia, thinness and/or control remain your internal guide, it is likely that the foods you have deemed “dangerous” will always feel scary. Healing your relationship with food is a process that will lead you to make embodied choices about how different foods impact you. When you have a history of dieting or disordered eating, initially letting go of food rules allows you to move towards clearly witnessing your own embodied experience with food. Body sovereignty is most often possible when you are trusted to witness your own hungers, desires, narratives and patterns with freedom and compassion.

It is easy to get distracted from your own healing path when influencers rush forward to solve “the problem of a body”. The suggestion that the numbing trance of unworthiness can be lifted with a plan to avoid sugar will naturally compel us. Those of you who have been following us for a while know that we don’t believe your body is a problem to be solved. We also don’t believe your suffering is because you have failed. We believe your use of food and body control to cope has been a rationale way to try to live a culture that believes perfecting your body is a path to more worthiness. Right? You make a lot of sense.

A few weeks ago, an article titled “Long-Term Weight Loss Maintenance in Obesity: Possible Insights From Anorexia Nervosa?” was published by the International Journal of Eating Disorders under the heading “An Idea Worth Researching.” The researchers are Loren M. Gianini PhD, B. Timothy Walsh MD, Joanna Steinglass MD, and Laurel Mayer MD. These researchers clearly felt that the “need” for this research query was more valuable than acknowledging how prescribing behaviors for one set of the population that we deem eating disordered in another is not an appropriate intervention for high body weight, nor is it ethically sound for those who have taken a Hippocratic oath.

In our corner of the world, these discussions about powerlessness to sugar and “fixing obesity with insights from anorexia” are inextricably linked. When people with influence promote weight stigma under the guise of weight loss, health or healing they harm folks. This happens regardless of what their intentions are. They do remind us how painfully far we have to go before body respect is a priority. Primarily, THEY ALL POTENTIALLY TRIGGER THE HELL OUT OF A VULNERABLE POPULATION of people who would rather not be ruled by a dieting mind anymore. This needs to stop. If we are concerned about people with eating disorders, let’s not trigger them. If we are so concerned about fat people, let’s not continue to marginalize them by pathologizing body size like it’s no big deal.

It really does not matter how much nutrition and neuroscience we throw at the food fear/food addiction model if we are not willing to include the confounding variable of how living in a dieting culture (filled with weight stigma) impacts people’s relationship with food. Bypassing this again and again is, at this point, is complicit with harm. Nevertheless, there are many researchers and gurus who are seeking answers to cleverly solve the problem of our bodies. They want an answer! They want to package and sell it to us. They want to tell you what is hard about your lives without listening to your lived experience. Their hope is that it will make sense, similar to an algebra equation. This is also what diet culture is after – a set of instructions that will lead to a fix. This paradigm of fixing does nothing to address trauma, stigma, health disparities or oppression. It just pushes for assimilation.

Don’t buy it. Dig deeper.

Instinctively we know there is more to say about this.

Let us not forget that it is our puritanical roots and body size based bigotry that gave rise to dieting and body obsession. The fuel for this obsession is in the continual marketing of the thin, white, cis-het feminine ideal who has it all, controls it all, and must compete with others to rise to the top of the heap. We seem to forget that the diet industry, and the subsequent rise of healthism, has likely contributed to weight gain for many. It has become hard to separate nutrition science from nutritionism and healthism. Healthism asserts that people should behave in a certain responsible way (don’t be fat, don’t eat sugar, etc) to be valuable to the culture (and not take up too much space). In our obsession with getting health “right” we are bypassing the stark reality that our ideals include only the privileged few. In fact, we are missing so many stories and perspectives in our data that we’d suggest it would be more accurate to assume many common theories are incomplete and not applicable to the population at large.

When we continue to make the conversation more about telling people what to do than unraveling the disparities in our world views and health care, we do nothing but increase the food obsession of the most privileged members of our culture and let the shame trickle down to those who don’t have the resources to pull it off. This looping, numbing rhetoric of food blame and worry is causing more problems than it is solving. It helps no one.

A couple of weeks ago, the Starbucks Unicorn drink filled our feeds with sugar warning, food shame, unsolicited advice, inappropriate diabetes quips and arguments. Many of us found it exhausting.

On Facebook, we responded to the Unicorn drink debacle with this:

We believe nutritionism renders nourishment soulless and dumbs down the inherent wisdom of bodies, of culture, and of healing process. This unicorn drink seems to invite a tremendous amount of “health-splaining” (like mansplaining but health focused) that no one benefits from. When you see a health care provider, how much they know about food is secondary to whether they are skilled at showing up to respectfully receive and witness your story and lived experience. Say this to them: “Show me you trust me before you attempt to “educate” me. If not, you only speak to—and amplify—my smallness and have killed any opportunity for connection.” There is no one food that kills or saves. People can be angry about the food industry but need to leave the assumptive projections about others health behaviors in their own psyches. Bottom line: the unicorn isn’t DEADLY. It’s a short-term, apparently effective, publicity effort. We do wonder when the culture will have as much reactivity to the normalization of moralistic over-control of bodies and health behaviors as we will about a limited run drink.

If you find that a beloved teacher’s posts about an eating plan are triggering you, consider responding with a simple post that says so. On the days that weight stigma has you reaching for another diet plan, please reach out—to us, to someone in your life. It isn’t yours to internalize. It is all of ours to fight.

If you want to hear more about this, you can watch a recent video Dana made here.


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