Mind

Dr Libby Weaver on how and why we need to learn to accept ourselves

“If we believe that we’re not worth taking very good care of, that is going to show up in how we treat ourselves.”

No one can really 'do it all', feel happy every day or be 100 percent healthy. Unfortunately an abundance of self-help books, health articles and green gurus on Instagram can lead us to believe that perpetual wellness and happiness is achievable.

The reality is far more complicated. A balanced life includes happy and sad times, periods of wellness interspersed with illness, and days when you just can't be bothered. Unrealistic expectations around health and happiness can lead to feelings of inferiority, depression and, in extreme cases, orthorexia, a disordered form of eating centred around an obsession with healthy foods.

Nadia magazine talked to Dr Libby Weaver, nutritional biochemist, author and speaker, about how to take a more balanced approach to life.

You've written about the importance of accepting and loving yourself. What issues do we face if we don't do this?

There isn't an ounce of sustainable change that I have witnessed that hasn't begun from a place of kindness, self-love and self-acceptance. If we come from a place of criticism and blame, always judging ourselves harshly, we might make some progress but the minute we step outside 'the plan', the minute we 'fall off the wagon', we'll begin speaking to ourselves unkindly again.

Negative self-talk only leads to us feeling lousy about ourselves. And what do we do when we feel lousy about ourselves? Many of us have habits around food and alcohol that are designed to numb us from challenging emotional states, or try to make us feel better. So we're more likely to bounce between health-supporting and lousy habits.

If we believe deep down that we're not worth taking very good care of, that is going to show up in how we treat ourselves and consequently in the way we eat, drink, move, breathe and perceive.

How can we learn to accept ourselves?

It's something that requires time and patience. For some it will take quite a lot and others will transition quickly. One way we can begin to do this is to bring curiosity rather than judgment
to our situation.

Let's say we have a tendency to polish off a whole block of chocolate at the end of the day, even if we tell ourselves we are just going to have a couple of squares. Nobody does that thinking they are going to feel fantastic afterwards!

So why do we do what we do when we know what we know? If we gently enquire as to what might have been the stimulus for us to eat in an unresourceful way, we may be able to uncover what we were really looking for in that moment.

We might have had a stressful day at work and the sugar in chocolate gives us a blissful rush that helps to turn down the intensity, or we may have had a fight with our partner and we're looking for comfort. If we can identify what we were feeling before we reached for the chocolate, we can look for other ways to satisfy that need.

Being curious and exploring what might be happening in our inner world, rather than judging it or shutting off from it, is an act of self-love. We're taking the time to take better care of ourselves rather than distracting ourselves from what we're really feeling.

Do you see many people with symptoms of orthorexia, and do you think the 'clean eating' movement is partly to blame?

Disordered eating is on the rise and orthorexia appears to be no exception. Orthorexia typically begins innocuously with a commitment to improve health. Where it goes wrong is when this becomes an obsession where strict food rules and plans begin to take over and any deviation from 'clean' eating is met with guilt and self-loathing.

It's difficult to say where the blame lies. However, I do believe, for all of our sakes, that we need to be mindful about the language we use around food and eating. Food isn't 'clean' or 'unclean', 'good' or 'bad', 'healthy' or 'unhealthy' – it's nutritious or it isn't and it is far more accurate and helpful to talk about the food that we consume in this way.

How can people approach healthy eating in a more balanced way?

A gentler approach can embrace a degree of flexibility, or what some like to call 'zig and zag'. A 'zig' meal is made up of nutrient-dense foods, real (not processed) foods and no alcohol, whereas for a 'zag' meal the focus is more about the company you are in, being playful and relaxing. Zags are part of a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

If this approach is going to serve someone's health, I might guide them to zag once a week, or for three out of their 35 eating occasions (if you eat three meals and two snacks each day, this is 35 eating occasions a week).

Some will eat more frequently than that, some less frequently – but let's take 35 as an average. For others, five zag occasions better suits them. That's still 30 meals that are of a nutritionally high quality. You enjoy those zag times, but, when you live mostly as a zig, the zag takes very little toll on your overall level of well-being.