1, What made you become a nutritionist?
I decided to go into nutrition after a diet that ended badly, after which I decided to undertake health at every size and fat acceptance personally. Later, I knew I wanted to do something to help people of all sizes accept themselves, and I knew that the biggest impact could be made by either going into fashion or nutrition. So for a little while it was a toss-up! Eventually I decided to do nutrition because I thought studying science would be a good stretch for my brain (I previously did mostly arts), and because I felt like I could have a more "serious" impact this way on public policy, if I ever wanted to go that route. Though I still think fatshion is important and inspiring!
2. During your education, did you meet a lot of opposition towards HAES? Do you remember how you got introduced to HAES and the realization that fat didn't equal unhealthy?
I did get some raised eyebrows and hairy eyeballs during some presentations I did at school (I did a lot of HAES -oriented presentations, and people were probably sick of me by the end of it), but really I was shocked at how supportive people were - especially my professors and the chair of the nutrition department. They explicitly encouraged me in the direction I was going, and were very open to the idea. At least one professor in the department at my school was explicitly HAES-supporting as well. I've since bumped into lots of my fellow students in the Critical Dietetics movement, which is supportive of HAES.
My very first exposure to the idea of size acceptance happened in 1999 when I worked in a bookstore. I saw Camryn Manheim's book "Wake Up, I'm Fat!" and generally thought it was a cool idea that someone would talk openly about being fat and accepting yourself. I also read a book called "Eat, Drink, and be Merry" by Dean Edell, and he broke down some of the ways that statistics are used to scare people and blow certain health issues out of proportion, and he did an interview with a fat-accepting women's swim group, The Maxi Mermaids. I passed for thin at the time, and didn't apply the concept directly to myself right away, but I knew I liked it. It was radical, it was feminist, and I'd been troubled by dieting and women's obsession with weight for a long time. This provided an insight into what I saw as a problem from the time I was a kid. I presented the book to some of my coworkers at a staff meeting where we shared book finds, and the response from one of the Herbalife-pushing employees was downright vitriolic and over-the-top, and I knew I'd stumbled on something important. If someone I disliked that much hated the idea, I knew it had to be good. I didn't start practising fat acceptance right then, but the seed was planted.
A couple years later, in 2001, I went on my first and only diet, which was rather disastrous, and left me physically ill and feeling worse about my body than ever before. Around the time I was starting to suspect that it was untenable, because it was making me revise my weight goals further and further down into unrealistic territory, I happened to read a book called Losing It: America's Obsession with Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It by Laura Fraser, which was specifically about the diet industry and the idea of HAES, and also featured Ellyn Satter, and that blew the whole thing wide open for me. I sat down and pledged to myself that I was going to accept myself no matter what I weighed, and that if I wanted to pursue health I would do it directly, and not through trying to lose weight. Two years later, I started on my nutrition degree.
3. Have you always had a healthy relationship with food?
As you can see, I've definitely NOT had a healthy relationship with food at plenty of points during my life. As a kid, my parents were pretty chill about food, but maybe a bit too chill - during my adolescence we hardly ever ate family dinners together, no one really cooked on a regular basis at home, and I kind of learned to scrounge and to eat at random times of the day, alternating over- and undereating. I didn't really feel guilty about it, but my eating was chaotic and sporadic and often left me with low blood sugar which would then make me sick. I also didn't have a very broad repertoire of foods I liked, because I was hardly ever exposed to challenging things. So it wasn't the greatest. Later on, when I got into dieting, I turned into a hyper-focused calorie-counter, the best little dieter you ever did see, and was far too strict with myself. I ate more fruits and vegetables, but I also did a lot of bizarre disordered things with food and exercise, and was constantly hungry and preoccupied with when I would get to eat next, what it would be, how I would use my remaining calories for the day, etc.
When I stopped dieting, for several years I swung between over- and undereating again, trying to figure out the happy middle ground I'd never occupied before in my life. I finally decided I'd had enough and went to see a dietitian who practised the same program I do now, called "How to Eat," and that's what did it. I am far from a perfect eater in any sense, but I feel solid and confident that I can feed myself well, and that when things fall apart, I can put them back together again. I can give some thought to nutrition so that I can feel good, without it taking over my life, and I can eat food that tastes good without becoming completely obsessed with it. I consider that a success. I'm a competent eater, but I'm still learning, too.
4. When I visited some lovely friends in Portland, I ate a peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich. (As you can imagine, it was manna from heaven.) I received a comment saying, “What kind of nutritionist would be okay with you eating that?” I know what my reply would be but what would you say in response to someone who claims that a “real” nutritionist should tell people that certain foods are “bad” and shouldn't be eaten?
Regarding peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, whoever said that to you was being a judgmental asshole, and probably doesn't understand nutrition as well as they think they do. I am totally fine with people eating stuff like that (and would probably eat it myself if I could get my hands on one!) because I know that the overall pattern of what a person eats is far more important than any single food or meal. Even the American Dietetic Association will back me up on that one, and we don't see eye-to-eye very often. Good nutrition is not a plate-by-plate, meal-by-meal proposition - it's a long-term balance between energy-dense and micronutrient-dense foods, and much of the time we strike that balance intuitively, through internal regulation, not through calorie counting or checkboxes or lists of good and bad foods.
In my opinion, there are no universally bad foods because nutrition doesn't work that way. It's very individual and depends on someone's physical and financial resources, geographical location, culture and traditions, specific health conditions, and personal preferences. Some foods are bad for some people because they make them sick or because they are culturally unacceptable to them. But that does not make them Bad Food, or even un-food. You know what's bad? Our collective neurosis about food, and some of our industrial food practices - not food itself.
The first time you realize that the cancer patients you're taking care do best eating milkshakes and cheeseburgers, and that too many fruits and vegetables can kill someone on dialysis, your ideas of universally good food and bad food start to break down. But most people don't learn this lesson unless they work in clinical nutrition.
5. What's one thing you wish everyone could know about food?
The one thing I wish everyone knew about food - and I think people don't recognize that they deny this - is that you need it to survive. Food is non-negotiable. As such, taking food out of your life in various ways, which is really what all diets (weight loss and otherwise) do, has side-effects. Sometimes those side-effects are liveable and the benefits outweigh them, but sometimes they are severe and even deadly. Messing around with your eating by trying to replace internal regulation with external rules and guidelines is not a totally benign recreational activity.
I wish people understood that even eating the most reprehensible food is better than not eating at all.
I think in recent years, we've gone from a culture-wide assumption that food is essentially good and necessary, to an implicit assumption that food is unnecessary and probably toxic. And instead of getting what food we can, and then seeking to improve it if possible, we tip-toe around it and constantly try to find new ways of denying ourselves food, and denying the reality that we need it to survive. That is fucked up.
Going to the grocery store is like walking through a mine-field to many people. Any of it could kill you! No food group has been left unscathed by some theory, somewhere - dairy is bad, meat is bad, soy is bad, grains are bad, solid fats are bad, but oils are also bad, salmon is bad, fruit juice is bad, the sugar in whole fruit is bad. Starchy vegetables are bad. Cooked food is bad. What are we left with, kale? No one can survive on kale alone.
So, are you as in love with Michelle as I am? Hell yes you are! Now go obsess over her website and her twitter!