"Having a good relationship with food is not about weigh, and I would argue that the way we talked about weight is often what drives a poor relationship with food." - Sarah Crulcich, MPH, RD, LD
Shireen: Registered Dietitian Sarah Crulcich is Dietician and Health Promotion coordinator at the Houston Food Bank, where she addresses policy systems and environmental change strategies. She's a Houston Ambassador of Diversified Dietetics and was the 2019-2020 Texas Academy Southeast Region Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year. Hi, Sarah. Welcome.
Sarah: Hi, Shireen, thank you for having me.
Shireen: An absolute pleasure. Sarah, so jumping right in, what brought you to a career as a registered dietician? And within that, what specifically led you to your beliefs on positive food language and health disparities that we'll be discussing on this episode?
Sarah: I bounced around different areas of study in college. And ultimately, I graduated with a degree in behavioral neuroscience, because I wanted to help people who had eating disorders or disordered eating. And so nutrition was always important to me. But I couldn't quite understand why as well as many others seem to have bad relationships with food. And why were their thoughts that you know, one body was a bad body just because it didn't look like the way someone else's did. I remember knowing what was on my plate, or it was my pyramid back then I just didn't know I just didn't follow it. And so I knew there has to be more to it than just having the knowledge of what the recommendations were. My passion for wanting to make the environment and policies more fair for different communities to make their own food choices is what led me to public health. And so next thing you know, I'm at the Houston Food Bank, where I address food insecurity every day. And I really can't imagine what my life would be like if I hadn't found an organization that is so strongly mission and vision driven. So let's understand what positive food language is, and what outcomes are typically associated with positive self talk around food? So I want everyone to have a good relationship with food. It's something that is very intrinsically tied to our culture, our social norms, and our emotions. And it's one of those very basic things that we need to sustain life. And so to me, that means that we're removing fear of eating foods, we're giving ourselves permission to have food and enjoy it, including those that are unique to our own culture, and having the mindset that all food is nourishing in different ways. The part of having that relationship is showing self compassion to ourselves by reframing negative self talk and using more positive language when it comes to food and our body. That's great.
Shireen: So talking of health promotion initiatives. In fact, we did a recent Facebook Live event. And over there, we mentioned that the positive food language really encourages a healthy relationship with food. How does that play into weight management?
Sarah: That's a really good question. And first, let me say that weight management is something that's outside the scope of what we do at the Houston Food Bank. So this is just me talking. Having a good relationship with food is not about weight and I would argue that the way we talked about weight is often what drives a poor relationship with food. People have a similar background can eat the same amount of calories, you know, from the same kinds of foods exercise, the same way and end up at two different weights and have completely different bodies. And this whole this could be a whole separate podcast episode on itself. But I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the root of how we talk about weight and how that may play into fat phobia, which can be traced back to the roots in the transatlantic slave trade. And so I'll put a short plug in for a book called hearing the black body that is something that I've been able to read and have found a wealth of knowledge in that.
Shireen: Interesting. Earlier when you mentioned food insecurity Food insecurity can really be considered as a form of trauma. Can you speak a little bit more about that?
Sarah: Yeah, let's first consider that trauma relates to toxic stress. And toxic stress has an impact on our immune system, our metabolic regulations, cardiovascular system, for children, it can really impact their development, including brain development. There's growing evidence that food insecurity is associated with trauma and adverse childhood experiences, sometimes called aces. So those experiencing food insecurity may also be experiencing these other traumas, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, there's even a correlation between food insecurity and exposure to violence among children. So kind of picture, someone barely making ends meet, and one life alteration happens. And then suddenly, you have to choose between paying utility bills or going grocery shopping, and then consider that food is a basic human right. And in our country, as great as it is, we cannot guarantee that every person will receive enough food to be food secure, which is something that I still struggle to wrap my head around every day. So it's critically important that our policies and our programs, and that we as individuals are trauma informed when addressing food insecurity.
Shireen: Now, part of being trauma informed is using more compassionate language. So really bridging to that positive food language here, what impact does negative dialogue then have on health outcomes?
Sarah: So throughout my life, both personal and professional, I see and hear people being picked on because they don't have what society and even our healthcare system sometimes says is a healthy body, whether it's direct or implicit, we're told that some foods are good, and some are bad. If you choose the bad foods, the wrong ones, then you yourself are a bad person, and your body is bad. So we're giving food, a lot of power, and a lot of morality. And some other common things I hear are that I ate Mexican or Chinese food, I need to be good this week. And so in many cases, again, we're giving food moral power, but we're also stigmatizing a lot of non Western cultures. But ultimately, I think we all want to be healthy. We want to feel good about ourselves. We want to have energy. And we want to be able to do that in a way that we think is right. And we want there to be one clear answer to doing that. But restriction and negative dialogue are things that can create more dissatisfaction, and take us even further away from that goal of wanting to be healthy.
Shireen: How do you feel individuals can shift self talk, and not only individuals, but also healthcare practitioners talking to their patients? So how can this shift happen to focus more on health promotion behaviors, rather than what you just mentioned, the negative sort of what they should not be doing and what they should stop doing? How can that shift? And can you provide examples of some common negative language that can be turned into more positive ones?
Sarah: So I'll start with healthcare professionals. I think as healthcare professionals, we can use more compassionate language, we can be more mindful not to use scare tactics or language that might stigmatize certain types of foods or the way someone's body is. So one example I use is that we know and the food banking world that parents may purchase more affordable low cost foods for their children, and that those types of foods provide some kind of coping mechanism for that trauma that child is experiencing. Sometimes we are quick to say that those are cheap foods. And when you hear the word cheap, we know that there's a negative connotation to that. So when we hear patients say, Well, I was bad, or no, I'm feeding my child junk food or cheap food because it's what I can afford. I think one thing we can do is give the parents a pat on the back, because they're helping their child deal with a very difficult situation. And they're recognizing that somehow, they found a way to provide their child some kind of comfort in the short term. And we can talk about healthier ways or different ways to cope with what that child's going through. But in the short term, they did something that is a step in the right direction, right. So I think we can give more acknowledgement to difficult situations like that. I also think it depends on why we have negative self-talk, how long it's been going on, is it from something like verbal abuse, so for those who have access, talking to a therapist or counselor can be a really positive experience. But no matter where we are, I think that practicing affirmations in the mirror simply practicing rephrasing is a really strong start. So for example, sometimes I will hear people say I'm eating emotionally, I feel like I've lost control. And so a way to rephrase that is to think to yourself, you know, I need to eat, whether I'm happy, I'm sad, I'm excited, or I'm nervous, my body needs food today. So eating because you're feeling a certain way does not mean that you've lost control. If you wanting to make it another step, you could ask yourself, are there some foods I enjoy more than others? And does it depend on what my mood is like, right? If you want to dig a little deeper, you can also just simply say, this food really brings me joy. I was just in a lunch meeting. And I told everyone, like, I'm really enjoying my lunch today, I'm really into the meal that I have. And I think that it's good to practice that and to let everyone know that it's okay to be excited about food other ways, you know, it doesn't have to be just about food. I think as a general example of, let's say, just wanting to promote someone being more active and have joyful movement, I think sometimes we get caught up and can go from zero miles per hour to 100 miles per hour, right. And then we get burnt out kind of quickly, when we're picking up, you know, when we're trying to run or work in some other activities. And so sometimes someone might hear themselves say, you know, I'm just too tired to keep up right? Now, you can reframe that and say, Hey, I'm doing a really good job at learning when I need rest and pacing myself. And when you're doing well, you can also just say, Hey, I really appreciate what I was able to do what my body was able to do today, on my hike, or on my walk or whatever type of joyful movement you're having.
Shireen: Interesting. What small simple steps do you feel like our listeners, you know, listening to us today can use to start implementing positive food talk?
Sarah: I think of it as an act of self care and giving yourself compassion which we all deserve. Do it often, just like washing your hands? No, for example, next time you catch yourself saying I can't have this food, I approach it with curiosity, why am I telling myself I can't have this food, what would happen if I did have this food and kind of go through those in your head, and that might start to change the way that you think about food. Also, one of my favorite dieticians on social media is your Latina nutritionist. And I found that she really empowers other to release that guilt around food, especially when it comes to foods that are outside of Western or European culture.
Shireen: What would you say to someone who is working on their relationship with food and has a family or friend repeatedly making negative food comments that is deterring their progress? What would you say to them?
Sarah: There's no one approach to that and it is a very real problem, if you can show vulnerability, have a private conversation about how those words may be triggering, and being able to provide specific examples. And you can approach with curiosity, like hmm, why did you say that? or Why do you feel that way about that specific food that they're talking about? And ask yourself and you can have this conversation and say this, if you are talking to an individual, you know, who's going to have a better relationship with food, because of you and the type of language that we use.
Shireen: So with us, Sarah, we're toward the end of this episode, I would love for our listeners to learn more about how they can connect with you and learn about your work.
Sarah: Absolutely. So they can find me on LinkedIn. And they can also follow the Houston Food Bank on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Shireen: Awesome. All right. So with that, Sarah, thank you so very much for your time on this podcast episode today. I think I, there was lots of tidbits of information here. And the previous point that you made that you know, you deserve compassion, I think that is so strong.Thank you so much for teaching us about positive food language. We thought I would like to ask listeners, what type of language do you usually find yourselves surrounded by when it comes to food? Is it positive? Is it negative? Is it neutral? Let us know. So follow us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram, answer a poll. Sarah, tell us what you think. And are there individuals in your life who you notice often use sort of that negative food language? So tell us again, don't have to tag that person. But definitely tell us if, if there are people like that in your life. So with that, Sarah, thank you so very much again, really appreciate your time. Thank you.
Sarah: Great. Thanks for having me.