We’re so glad that the amazing and talented Judith Matz agreed to chat with More of Me to Love so that we could all learn more about her life, work and wonderful advice for changing our own lives for the better. As a proponent of the Health at Every Size and Size Acceptance movements, Judith believes that we must learn to love our bodies as they are, end the abusive cycles of dieting that our culture insists are right and treat ourselves with proper care and respect. Here’s what else she had to share!
More of Me to Love: Other than your personal experiences with weight control, are there experiences that inspired you to turn towards a career as a social worker who focuses on eating disorders?
Judith Matz: Early in my career, I had a client who struggled with binge eating. Based on my training as a therapist, we focused on understanding the emotional issues that triggered her overeating: low self-esteem, relationship difficulties, and work concerns. As a result, she ended up in a great relationship and pursued a profession that really excited her, but her overeating remained unchanged.
During my post-graduate training, I found my experience on the Eating Disorder Team to be the most interesting part of my work. I was able to take my understanding of the failure of diets and knowledge of how to help people build a healthy relationship with food and their bodies back to my clinical work. I was now able to help my client intervene directly with her diet-binge cycle, and she was able to reach the point at which she ate mostly in response to physical hunger. She felt such great relief! I realized how many people struggle with overeating, and that I now had a powerful way to help them. It’s painful to realize the amount of shame and discomfort people feel around eating and body image, and I am grateful that I am able to help people reach a more peaceful place through my work with attuned/intuitive eating and Health At Every Size.
MOMTL: How have your experiences been an asset to you in your career?
JM: In my late teens and early twenties, I dieted to lose weight. As a result, I gained weight! I truly experienced the deprivation that comes from telling yourself that certain foods are off limits. I would let myself get too hungry (but I would feel virtuous as I thought this meant I was “in control”), and then I would find myself bingeing on my “forbidden foods.” Fortunately, as the result of a summer I spent away from dieting and weighing myself, I realized that the deprivation of dieting actually triggered my overeating (I wasn’t someone who used food for emotional comfort), and I made myself a promise never to diet again: if there was something that I thought I “shouldn’t” eat, I would make sure to have it just to prove to myself that I could! Since I had been raised as an attuned/intuitive eater, it was fairly easy for me to go back to this style of feeding myself.
I didn’t realize the importance of my decision for many more years. In fact, I ran psychological support groups for a medically supervised fasting program. I saw people lose tremendous amounts of weight – and most gained it back. But a few didn’t, and they were considered successful by society’s standards. At the same time, I was aware that in order to keep off the weight they had to write down every morsel they ate, exercise for hours every day, and felt panic if there were certain types of foods around that they hadn’t planned for. I realized that this type of preoccupation with food and weight was very unhealthy. So, when I first became aware of the non-diet approach, the philosophy made great sense to me both personally and professionally. I’ve never looked back!
MOMTL: With dieting being such a popular trend these days, do you receive any negative feedback regarding your non-diet approach? How do you deal with it?
JM: It’s frustrating to see all of the attention to dieting – new books, magazine articles, and segments on the nightly news. It’s especially frustrating to see the advice to diet come from health care professionals, including doctors, therapists, dietitians, etc. We are so obsessed with weight in this culture that very intelligent and well-meaning people often ignore the scientific data that shows diets don’t work for the majority of people.
Having said that, when people really listen to the tenets of the non-diet approach, they will usually say it makes sense. Eating when you’re hungry, eating what you’re hungry for as you choose from a wide range of food, and stopping when you’re full are acceptable and sensible ideas to most people. What’s more difficult is to get people off the weight-loss focus.
I remain energized by the responses I get from my clients and readers of our books. When I hear a client express her gratitude for ending overeating and feeling calm around food - something she never believed was possible - or when I receive an e-mail from someone who has read The Diet Survivor’s Handbook and says it changed her/his life, I am better able to manage my frustration with the focus on dieting.
MOMTL: What is the most common misconception about a non-diet behavior-based approach to health? How do you combat this misconception?
JM: So many people believe that if you stop focusing on weight loss and practice self-acceptance, you are “giving up” or “letting yourself go.” Nothing could be further from the truth – if you stop using a number as the indicator of your health and well-being, and instead, focus on improving your health and well-being, you will be healthier!
Fortunately, there are many resources available – scientific studies, books, DVD’s and blogs like this one – that offer an alternative to the weight loss message. I do my best to help people focus on sustainable behaviors such as exercise/movement, good sleep habits, meditation/relaxation techniques, regular doctor’s visits (which can be a bit tricky if you have a doctor insisting you lose weight) positive connections with other people and, of course, developing a healthy relationship with food. All of these behaviors will improve your health and well-being regardless of whether you lose weight. In fact, if people do lose weight as they integrate these behaviors, I view it as a side effect of the changes they are making in their lives, rather than the main event.
I also point out that there are people who are fat and healthy and there are people who are fat and unhealthy, just as there are people who are thin and healthy and people who are thin and unhealthy. Weight is not a good indicator of someone’s health status. I hope that there will continue to be more research to validate the health-centered approach.
MOMTL: What would you say are some of the top contributors to peoples’ addiction to dieting?
JM: In the most general sense, you are addicted to something when it interferes with your life. If you think back on your diet history, you may remember that there were times you didn’t go somewhere because you wouldn’t be able to control the food that was available. Or perhaps you spent so much time preoccupied with dieting that you missed out on other opportunities to explore your interests or connect with friends. Here is a brief list of the reasons why it is so hard to quit dieting:
~ Diets are extremely seductive – they promise that if you follow them perfectly, you can have a perfect body and a perfect life.
~ Diets give you a high – there is a virtuous feeling…you are in control and on top of the world.
~ Diets do work in the short-term – for a while you truly feel better, but like any addiction, it’s short-lived. As overeating resumes and the weight returns, you feel worse.
We have a culture of enabling – unlike addictions such as alcohol and drugs, about which everyone agrees it’s a good idea to stop the behavior, there is pressure from almost everyone to diet. In fact, when you decide to quit dieting, you are likely to run into people who think you are doing something destructive.
I wrote a blog on this topic a while ago, so I’d encourage anyone interested to check it out here.
MOMTL: What are some of the indicators that a person may show if they have an eating disorder and need to seek support/help?
JM: I work with people on the overeating end of the continuum. And, I don’t consider everyone who overeats to have an eating disorder – after all, disordered eating is normative in our culture! Think of someone at a restaurant who says, “I really shouldn’t have dessert tonight because I’ve been so good lately,” or “I feel so guilty eating this but I can’t stop,” or “I’m going to skip lunch today.” The list goes on and on! These types of statements indicate a disconnection from physical cues of hunger and fullness. Instead, I think of these patterns as disordered eating.
If you feel out of control with your eating, then consider focusing on this issue and getting some support. Binge Eating Disorder and compulsive eating are different terms that mean you often feel out of control with food. (Binge Eating Disorder will soon be listed as a discrete diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by mental health practitioners. The benefit of this is that people can get insurance reimbursement for treatment.) The difference is the degree of intensity (how often, how much you eat, how quickly you eat, etc.). In either case, it is worth learning to become an attuned/intuitive eater so that you feel in charge of your eating (as opposed to the “control” needed to stay on a diet).
With anorexia nervosa, people restrict their eating to a point that takes a dangerous, physical toll on their bodies. This can mean extremely low body weights and a lack of nutrition that can have long-term physiological effects. People with bulimia binge and then purge to get rid of the food. People with both of these types of eating disorders will benefit from seeking professional help.
MOMTL: It seems as though you and your sister work with people on opposite ends of the eating disorder spectrum. How do the two of you find balance while writing? Do you find that some advice you give is the same no matter the details of the eating disorder?
JM: It has been absolutely wonderful to have my sister, Ellen Frankel, as my writing partner. We both have backgrounds with all types of eating issues, and are equally committed to a non-diet approach. Ellen has worked extensively with eating disorders as well as compulsive eating, so our work to help people break the diet/binge cycle and make peace with food is essentially the same. After all, people who embark on diets are much more likely to develop an eating disorder. From a writing standpoint, it’s uncanny how similar our styles are – so much so that when we look back, we’re not always sure who wrote which parts of our books!
Attuned eating is a natural and satisfying way to approach feeding ourselves. However, when someone has an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, s/he is unable to make use of internal physical cues for hunger and satiation. Intuitive eating will hopefully be a way someone can eat in the future, but only after normal functions are restored.
MOMTL: Do you have plans for another book?
JM: A definite maybe! I was recently approached by an editor about doing just that. I’m in the process of thinking through the time commitment – although I am clear that what I want to write about would be very helpful to people who are normalizing their relationship with food and building a stronger body image. Stay tuned!
As long as you are asking, I’d like to give a plug to my sister Ellen’s new book, Syd Arthur, that will be released this April. It’s fiction – her first novel – and it captures many of the ideas I’m talking about here. It’s a humorous and moving adventure of a woman who starts a journey that involves quitting diets and finding her true self. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you’re interested in learning more about Syd Arthur and getting a sneak peak of the book cover, check out her website here.
MOMTL: What is the first piece of advice you would offer to someone who is considering jumping off the diet bandwagon?
JM: Trust your decision to quit dieting, and remind yourself constantly that you haven’t failed diets; diets have failed you. After all, if you went to a doctor who offered you a medicine that failed about 95% of the time, would you be surprised if it didn’t work? And then if you went back for a different solution and you were offered another medicine that failed 95% of the time, would you accept that – or would you look for another doctor and/or solution? That is the dismal assessment of diets; despite short-term loss, not only does almost everyone gain back the weight, but two-thirds end up higher than pre-diet weights.
Many people know that diets don’t work, but don’t know what to do instead.
Once you’ve made the decision to kick the diet habit, there are many wonderful guidelines you can use to develop a nourishing relationship with food, your body, and yourself. These include principles such as honoring your physical hunger, ending negative self-talk and replacing it with self-compassion, learning to comfort yourself without food and practicing positive self-care. Although the idea of eating when hungry and stopping when full sounds simple, because of cultural pressures and patterns developed over years, it can take time to truly break out of diet thinking. We wrote The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care to help people transition from a diet mentality to living fully and freely without the preoccupation with food and weight. I hope our book will provide that support!
MOMTL: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us and for sharing your thoughts with our community.
The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care is available in the More of Me to Love store and Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Therapist’s Guide to Treating Compulsive Eating can be found through Amazon.
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