Diet & Nutrition

Nutritionist Jessica Sepel on the joys of un-dieting

''The point is to practise indulgence with moderation, mindfulness and joy.''
Jessica SepelJeremy Simons

The silly season can undoubtedly be a challenging time of year.

Not only can the holidays be a time of added financial pressure and tying up of loose ends at work, but it can also be a period of see-sawing between enjoyment and guilt with each party, feast and celebration.

Is it possible to indulge and enjoy without the guilt?

Nutritionist Jessica Sepel says yes, and in fact, she encourages everyone to not only allow room for indulgence, but to commit to it.

Given her line of work, she laughs that it’s common for people to keep their treats and wine out of sight whenever she is around, thinking that as a health professional, she will be quick to wag her finger in disapproval.

But after years of seeing clients struggling with their relationship to food, indulgence has become a crucial part of her philosophy.

Indulgence, she believes, is essential for a healthy lifestyle to be both sustainable and joyful, and is one of the steps in her new book, The 12 Step Mind-Body-Food Reset.

The book is a guide to speaking to yourself with kindness, forgetting about the scales and calories, managing stress, combating sugar cravings and developing a healthy, flexible relationship with food, with recipes, activities and helpful tips.

With long blonde locks and glowing skin, Jess is a vibrant picture of health, but getting to this point was a long and difficult journey that started in her early childhood, looking down at her stomach and feeling unhappy with what she saw.

Combined with a comment from a family member, the experience marked the beginning of many years of fad-dieting, negative body image and an obsession with being thin that continued into her twenties.

It wasn’t until she finally ditched the scales and saw a therapist that she was able to rewire her belief system, and learned to look after her body with a greater sense of care.

“It’s challenging to talk about it and I definitely wrote this book with a lot of tears, but good tears,” she reflects.

“I’ve come such a long way with my own body image and my relationship with myself.

“I also think the more vulnerable and honest I am, and the more willing I am to share my own struggles, the more opportunity for connection there is.”

For Jess, good health always comes back to one thing now – kindness and a positive relationship with your own body.

It sounds clichéd and cheesy, but the more she explains the ripple effect it has, the more it makes sense.

“The health industry has so much hype, there are so many conflicting trends. I feel like at the end of the day, if you wake up and you truly care about yourself and speak to yourself with kindness, you’re going to want to treat your body better and eat healthier foods.

“It is such an important foundation and a lot of us don’t have that. That’s why it becomes so difficult to have a healthy relationship with food and why it becomes so tempting to be on fad diets – they promise you the body of your dreams and that you will feel the best you have ever felt.

“I understand how tempting and exciting that is, I’ve been there, but most diets only last a couple of weeks. It’s a toxic cycle.”

Many of the people she sees spend their days lost in negative self-talk patterns, beating themselves up for their weight, not exercising, or making poor food choices – a damaging mind-set that can cause a build-up of stress hormones such as cortisol and a feeling of fatigue. And who can be bothered to cook and exercise when you’re exhausted or feeling low?

(Image: Jeremy Simons)

Simply working on fostering a more compassionate attitude towards your own body has the power to foster a greater sense of relaxation, less stress and higher levels of energy.

How you speak to yourself matters and your body really does take on the burden of your thoughts,” Jess says.

“I have seen over and over, that when women develop a better relationship with food and their body, everything just seems to fall into place. Often, when women merely shift their mind-set from focusing on weight to health, they actually end up losing weight.”

Instead of living each day striving to be a certain weight or stick to a food plan, Jess would love to see a world where women rise in the morning and assess their health in terms of how comfortable, confident and energised they feel.

This winning trifecta sounds like the tagline for a gruelling workout program or strict diet, but with ‘un-diet’ as her motto, she says that deprivation or punishment should never be part of your holiday, or life in general.

Giving yourself permission to indulge

“Christmas and summer is such a time of happiness, so enjoy it! Your body is strong and can handle it. The point is to practise indulgence with moderation, mindfulness and joy. Often, we don’t know how to indulge moderately. We go all out, overdo it and mistreat our bodies,” she explains.

“Give yourself permission to indulge during the holiday season and practise it mindfully. Take your time and really enjoy each mouthful, and you’ll find that you actually feel like you need less of those foods. Do not avoid foods, just try and practise moderation with it and then make healthy choices when you can.”

If you know you have a Christmas dinner in the evening, she suggests starting the day with some exercise, and to eat a nourishing breakfast and lunch.

It’s common for people to skip meals around Christmas in preparation for a big feast, but Jess recommends eating as normal to avoid bingeing.

While one might think from scrolling through all the foodie pictures on her Instagram that her idea of Christmas indulgence is probably something along the lines of protein-packed, nutritious black bean brownies and antioxidant-rich dark chocolate, Jess says it’s a time of the year she too likes to let go, with a getaway, wine every night and gelato after every meal.

“Of course I’m not going to feel my absolute best, but you just forgive yourself. Indulgence is something you should commit to, rather than avoid, because otherwise you are going to feel deprived and that leads to overdoing it in some way.”

Another simple change that can have a big impact on how you eat and how you feel is the choice to dine without any digital distractions like TV, emails and social media.

“I noticed that when I am scrolling on social media while eating, my brain doesn’t even seem to register that I’ve eaten and I don’t feel full. I find myself mindlessly going back for more food because I’m unsatisfied,” tells Jess.

Being fully present with your meals, you’ll find that you’re much more satisfied and in tune with your hunger and fullness signals, which reduces overeating, emotional eating and that need for something more all the time.

If you are eating well, moving your body in ways you enjoy and feeling good, your body will naturally find the shape and weight at which it is happiest, and this will look different on everyone.

“Of course you can want to lose weight or improve your health, but you need to start by accepting the uniqueness of your body and not trying to change your body shape and size,” she adds.

“The best thing is to block out the noise of the diet culture and tune into your own body.”

“Celebrating the uniqueness of your body is something I talk about a lot,” she smiles.

“Having a positive relationship with your body truly is the foundation of a healthy life, so nourish that connection and make it a really strong, healthy one.”

Related stories