Chris Sandel is a nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. He specialises in helping clients ending dieting, reproductive issues and disordered eating and he’s here at Frame to talk women and portion size.

There are lots of assumptions that we have about men and women and what is “correct” or “appropriate”. As we progress as a society many of these are thankfully being broken down but unfortunately lots of them still persist.

One that I see that is particularly damaging is the idea that women are only meant to eat small amounts of food. That it is not womanly or it’s unladylike to eat decent sized portions.

This is perpetuated by the fact that woman (and men) are constantly dieting. While some diets suggest you can eat as much as you like as long as you cut out some specific foods or macronutrient (like carbs), the majority are recommending a reduction in the total amount of calories you eat.

The recommendations for what is an appropriate amount can vary but all too often they are incredibly low. Somehow 1,200 calories has become the normal figure that most women know and think they should eat to be “healthy” and lose weight.

(To put things in perspective the WHO puts starvation calorie intake at 1,800 or below for women).

This constant dieting messes with women’s gauge about what a portion size should look like. It gets smaller and smaller and when they eat more than this they feel guilt or shame or like they are “over eating”.

The same also happens when they look around at what others are doing as their indicator for how much they should eat. I’ve lost count at how many times I’ve been told “I eat the same amount as my friends and co-workers”. But if everyone is dieting and trying to lose weight, then it is likely the people whose plate you are comparing yours to are also under eating.

The driver behind all this is that how a woman looks and how much she weighs is a huge part of self identity. I see incredibly intelligent women who are doing amazing things in this world who forget all about this and feel like a failure because they weigh a certain amount.

The great irony is that the more someone restricts calories, the more difficult they make it in the long haul to maintain their weight. So they have to eat less and less just to keep their weight where it’s at. So fear around food becomes a self fulfilling prophecy; you create a situation that wasn’t there before, where you now can’t eat as much as previous, without gaining weight

Calories and food aren’t things to be feared. They are what nourish you to be able to cope with everything life throws at you. It’s hard to be strong when you eat like a bird. And when I say strong, I don’t just mean physically, but also mentally and emotionally. When someone is underfed they are more likely to be emotionally unstable and have trouble focusing and concentrating.

One of the most damaging side effects of all this is the erosion of trust in ones body. We are built with a fine-tuned innate systems that tells us when to eat and when to stop. By going on a diet and restricting the amount you eat, it is working against this biological system. You are blocking out natural instincts and using your head and willpower instead.

With time, the body’s feedback becomes the enemy. You get hungry but tell yourself it’s not time to eat yet. You finish a meal, still aren’t full but convince yourself you’ve had enough. And with weight loss and aesthetic changes becoming the ultimate goal, the body instincts become the adversary that stands in the way between you and your dreams.

As a society we typically pursue the appearance of health, not health itself. This means that people want to look a certain way that “appears” healthy. Namely being slim.

But this appearance of health doesn’t just apply to someone’s body, but also to the methods someone uses to be healthy. People want to eat salads and green juices and quinoa because they are “health” foods. People don’t want to be seen eating “unhealthy” foods, even if these foods actually are improving their health.

So even when women know that they do better eating more food, there is resistance because of “what other people might think”. It leads to huge pressure to not eat (or at least not be seen to be eating).

When I work with clients, I do so for a period of five months. What always happens over this time is that women discover how much more they can eat. While there may be an initial bump in weight, this normally irons itself out pretty quickly, leading to someone who is eating 100 to 150% more than when they started, but having their weight remain steady.

And what happens to this extra energy? It is used to run the various systems of the body, helping to reduce or eliminate symptoms. It gives them energy to focus at work, to train harder in the gym, to actually sleep properly (because you need energy to sleep as this is when your body is repairing). This energy allows them to do all the important things in life that they want to be doing.

The false idea that women need to eat small amounts needs to be squashed. The shame and guilt associated with eating more needs to be eradicated. Because when this happens and you can happily eat sufficient food to support your body, you’ll be amazed at what you are able to achieve.

You can find out more information at his website, listen to his weekly podcast and follow him on Facebook.

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