by Lilia Graue

The past few days my Facebook wall and conversations in different forums have been invaded by debates and critiques around Starbucks’s Unicorn Frapuccino.

Among the topics debated:

  • how can the sale of something so «terrible» be allowed?
  • who would put this in their body?
  • what right does anyone have to give an opinion about what somebody else decides to eat/drink?
  • so, is drinking one not compatible with ‘healthy’ eating?

Scaremongering comments have not been scarce: «it’s like drinking diabetes/cancer in a glass», «you need to add an extra dose of insulin», «watch out for that colorful poison».

Discussions have been deeply polarized. Apparently innocent comments about carefully considering whether one wants to drink X calories and X sugar content lead to implications regarding ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ foods, health as a moral imperative, fatphobia, and our tendency to shame people because of their food choices.

This is the perfect example of our social anxiety around food, that is not benefitting our health or wellbeing. We remain trapped by fear and aversion. So then, how do we heal the diet mentality and reclaim a sense of freedom and agency to choose what is wisest for our body in this moment? 

For most people, ‘healthy eating’ means eating in a way that controls weight – or at least compatible with what the diet industry tells us we need to do to manage our weight. The reality of this approach, and of any approach that demonizes or idealizes certain foods, is that it doesn’t contribute to your health, your liberation, your joy or your wellbeing.

The practice of mindful eating allows us to nourish ourselves differently, paying attention to how we eat, instead of what we eat. And it makes all the difference. I would like to share with you some ideas inspired by a blog written by my friend and colleage Marsha Hudnall.

When you eat mindfully, you can tune in with what you want and need. Your appetite varies according to your needs – sometimes important nutrients, sometimes foods that make your body feel energized or relaxed; other times the pleasure of enjoying certain flavors or textures, or of trying something new you’re curious about.

The true gift of mindful eating is that it helps you gain clarity about what is really aligned with your desires, your needs, your values and your priorities moment to moment. You are no longer trapped by feelings of deprivation that keep you chasing something you beleve you can’t or shouldn’t have.

The result is a balance that enhances your life and allows you to discover what healthy eating is for you.

So then, what’s the deal with the Unicorn Frapuccino? As you probably suspect, my answer does not include rigid rules, nor a definitive verdict about whether it is good for you or not. My wish for you is that your body’s wisdom guides you.  

Note to dietitians and health providers*:

As you read this post, you might discover yourself thinking…

«Yes, but…

  • …we need to open people’s eyes”
  • …if we want to make good choices, we need to know the contents of what we’re eating»
  • …there are foods that promote our health and others that don’t”
  • …it is too energetically dense”

You probably already know that we humans don’t make the majority of our choices based on our knowledge, but on emotions and embodied wisdom. The evidence proves that greater nutritional knowledge does not directly correlate with a varied, balanced and complete – let alone joyful – nutrition. As health professionals, how much we know about nutrition is less important than our ability and willingness to be present, witnessing and respectfully receiving the lived experience of the person who comes to us for help. Only from that place can we co-create with the person consulting us, if they so wish, a plan to implement changes consistent with their values, possibilities, access to services and concepts around health and wellbeing.

One of the consequences of the ever-present diet culture, weight bias and stigma, is that nutritional information rarely feels neutral. 

These days I’ve seen very well-intentioned posts that aim to be neutral and compassionate, but upon reaching the reader are received and interpreted as messages inadvertently promoting the ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ foods dichotomy, as well as weight bias and healthism.

How then can those of us devoted to the field of nutritional health share information or educate, exploring food policies and contributing to media and nutrition literacy so that each person can make more informed choices, and access a greater sense of agency and freedom to choose what they eat or don’t eat without demonizing foods, without fear mongering, without promoting weight bias and stigma, without creating categories of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ foods, without promoting an attitude that sees health as a moral imperative? How do we offer those who are interested in science information backed by current robust evidence? How do we make visible food policies, strategies and implications of the food industry’s influence without projecting guilt and shame on people’s food or health related choices?

We need to assume that in vulnerable audiences, any nutritional information is received within a broader cultural and social context in which the diet mentality, weight stigma, body shaming, and morality undertones regarding body size and food are pervasive. Thus, even science based information presented neutrally as facts will not be interpreted neutrally. And if we add to this food insecurity, lack of access to certain foods, to safety, to joyful movement, inequality in access to health services and even in the freedom to choose, the issue becomes all the more complex. In this context, nutritional information becomes a weapon to judge the food or health choices of others, and those who suffer the most are the ones affected by greater stigma and discrimination in the first place.

It is naive to believe that just because we don’t intend to add to the weight of trauma, guilt and shame we won’t. Ethically, we need to own not only our intention, but our impact.

The only path I’ve found to negotiate these complexities is to focus on the lived experience of each person regarding food. I believe we can validate the person’s experience («I ate x and then I felt hyper and then tired»; «when I eat x and y together I feel more satisfaction») with the physiologic explanation of why they could have had that experience. It makes a real difference to trust that the person can observe their own experience from a connection with their body. The social role that we inadvertently play in a culture that promotes health as a moral imperative is that of the food police, and when we cease to play this role, from a conviction that each person will find their own path, and devote our practice to creating resilience, we counterweight the violence and oppression of notions of ‘good’/’bad’ foods, bodies and lives.

We need to realize that health and wellbeing go far beyond metabolic or cardiovascular health. Our energy and knowledge are best invested in making the diet culture visible, in promoting food choices grounded in each body’s wisdom and in contributing to a world in which all bodies have access to respect, acceptance and dignity, and in which diversity is honored and embraced, cultivating a full presence and defying our own biases as health professionals. 

* Acknowledgements: Some of the contents of this note to dietitians and health professionals have been paraphrased from and/or inspired by statements by Deb Burgard, Hilary Kinavey, Dana Sturtevant, Jamie Lee and Rachel Millner regarding this topic.