For many women, issues include nutrition and self-image
Women tend to ignore the fact that the type – and quantity – of food they eat can have a profound negative physical, mental and emotional effect, says Chelsea Fyrberg, a nutritionist with Women’s Wellness Comprehensive Care in Portland.
And, she says, becoming a healthy eater is about more than establishing a strict diet regimen – it’s about learning how certain foods affect the human body on a much deeper level.
Fyrberg is also the founder of Nutrition Simplified, a private nutrition counseling practice in Windham that aims to help people, mainly women, find practical strategies for healthy eating.
“It’s helping them understand that they’re more than a number,” said Fyrberg.
Instead of women identifying themselves by the number on the scale, Fyrberg “aims to empower” women and help them rethink what defines them.
“My mission is not about making (women) beautiful. They already are beautiful,” Fyrberg said. “It’s about making them feel fantastic in their bodies, physically, mentally, spiritually.”
Maine women who once struggled with weight issues and healthy eating say that dropping pounds and gaining more energy begins with realizing there is a problem. A healthy transformation often starts with the desire to leave unhealthy habits behind and also with thinking about how certain foods affect your body.
Fyrberg finds that most women she counsels are looking to shed some weight. At Nutrition Simplified, Fyrberg offers one-on-one counseling to help women explore their health concerns and develop a sustainable nutrition plan. Part of her mission is increase women’s self-esteem, particularly when it comes to their body image.
“Women tend to have this extreme negative self-talk, and it’s one of the most toxic and self-sabotaging things they could do,” said Fyrberg, who specializes in disease prevention and weight management.
In addition to nutrition counseling, Fyrberg, who holds a master’s degree in holistic nutrition and an associate’s degree in dietetic technology, also offers a 21-day detox and revitalize program, a non-diet approach to helping women achieve a healthy lifestyle.
But gaining control of your health, she said, is not about eating less; it’s about eating better.
“It’s a 21-day program of eating really clean, healthy foods and eliminating a lot of those junk foods and toxic foods that we oftentimes connect with emotionally, like sugars, caffeine, and alcohol – those foods we tend to abuse,” Fyrberg said.
Through the years, Fyrberg has realized that women are more “out of touch” with food than they should be. When women start to pull themselves away from unhealthy eating habits, “mentally, it’s freeing, because they aren’t going through the guilt and the shame process anymore,” she said.
According to Shannyn Vicente, a licensed clinical social worker in Portland, “the very beginning steps are to recognize when they are being hard on themselves. Feelings like shame, humiliation, embarrassment, those sorts of feelings get associated with a sensation and then it perpetuates itself.”
Many of Vicente’s female clients live with some form of addiction, from drugs and alcohol, to gambling, to food. To help her clients, she uses what she calls “a relational, somatic trauma-informed” approach. Instead of working at merely the cognitive level, she works with her clients at the nervous system or “sensation-based” level, which helps them learn how to identify and observe the nature of craving in order to strengthen their ability to make more informed choices.
Vicente illustrates the feeling of addiction as a swinging pendulum, with self-deprecation and deprivation on one side and binging and overeating on the other side.
Though it’s different for everybody, “eating is very much controlled by this pendulum swing,” said Vicente. “We live in a capitalist culture and society that depends on us to be in this relationship to food.”
Vicente, 40, who stopped dieting two years ago, advises women to pay attention to how their bodies respond to what they’re eating.
“Learning how to cultivate love and compassion for self is the No. 1 tool to transform,” she said. “There is quite an intense lineage, always, in women’s relationship to their bodies and to their food,” said Vicente, who was put on her first diet at age 5.
“Culturally speaking, I think it’s important to note that individuals have different relationships to food and to their bodies,” said Vicente. “I had no idea what it was like to eat with freedom.”
Until this past winter, Kim Burnham, 49, of Windham, struggled to lose weight. Her diet included coffee and a wheat breakfast roll-up containing beans and tofu in the mornings; a sandwich or soup for lunch; a yogurt with granola for an afternoon snack; and two glasses of wine with cheese and crackers before dinner.
“I wasn’t sleeping all that well. It seemed to me like I was falling into the same pattern year after year (especially) around the holidays – feeling heavy, tired and not knowing what I needed to do to feel better,” Burnham said. “I am an active person, so it was troubling.”
After participating in Fyrberg’s 21-day detox program in January, however, she was able to lose 11 pounds. And she has not gained a pound back since.
“It was a culmination of a lot of bad eating and not feeling great about myself,” said Burnham, of why she joined the program. “I needed some direction and education so I could understand what my food was doing to me.”
She has since remained diligent about eating clean, and now has a better understanding of how to shop for healthy, organic foods. During the program she had smoothies containing radishes, red peppers, cauliflower, broccoli and spinach and coconut water.
“It was filling and I was getting the nutrients I needed,” Burnham said.
“Quinoa became my new friend – it’s my new rice,” she added. “It feels like I’m having a starch, but it’s not.”
She also learned that there are certain foods or beverages, like coffee, that can contribute to a person’s anxieties.
“To remove those (foods), I found I was a little less on edge,” said Burnham, who has eliminated sugar, gluten, caffeine, dairy and alcohol from her diet. “I am completely off caffeine, and I feel great. My anxiety and my sleep has benefited hugely by ridding my diet of that.”
A mug of hot water, with a slice of lemon, has been her substitute for early morning coffee and other sources of caffeine over the past few months.
“It boosts your system first thing in the morning, with a nice jolt of Vitamin C,” said Burnham. “It aids in digestion and helps clear your skin. It promotes better healing.”
She recommends women drink more almond or coconut milk instead of dairy milk, in order to avoid getting too much calcium, which can make a person feel “lethargic and low-energy,” said Burnham, who is lactose intolerant.
“But I still eat a piece of cheese every now and then,” she admits.
After the program ended in late January, the first thing Burnham ate was a dairy- and gluten-free pizza.
The 21-day detox included incorporating critical nutrients into her diet in order to remove toxins, a process that typically causes temporary side effects.
“For me, it was a dull headache, I think mostly because of the sugar and caffeine I was putting into my body,” Burnham said.
Since this winter, during the week Burnham will have protein shakes and organic oatmeal and chia seeds soaked in almond milk, topped with fresh blueberries or pomegranate seeds for breakfast. On the weekends, it’s eggs and bacon or sausage and gluten-free toast.
Burnham said she has completely excluded gluten – a protein composite found in wheat and related grains known to trigger celiac disease – from her diet. She recommends that women re-educate themselves about how food affects their bodies.
“We have all these people, my (20-year-old) niece included, that can’t tolerate it, and have horrible stomach issues and health problems,” Burnham said.
Erika Daigle, a 30-year-old mom from Scarborough, has obsessed about her weight her entire life – from dealing with anorexia, to binge eating to over-exercising compulsively. She, too, has participated in the detox program with Fyrberg, and continues to seek help through nutrition counseling, which has “totally changed my relationship with food,” she said.
Before nutrition counseling, Daigle would focus on counting her calories. Now, she is more mindful of the foods she eats and how it makes her feel.
She never used to eat much protein and wouldn’t consider herself a “breakfast-food person.” But she’s recently found alternative ways to incorporate the proper amount of nutrients into her diet.
“I have never looked better, or felt better, in my whole life,” said Daigle. “What I thought was healthy food before, such as granola bars and other processed foods that are advertised as ‘good for you,’ I now know really are not. Perhaps the biggest thing I have learned so far is how much sugar is added to processed and pre-packaged foods, and how hard all that sugar is for your body to digest.”
Daigle lost about 6 pounds – 2 percent – of her body fat as a result of the detox program. She feels more energized, and her skin is much healthier, as well. She said becoming healthy is not so much about losing weight as it is changing your lifestyle.
Daigle, who had struggled, like most women, with emotional eating, said, it’s not that she necessarily ate unhealthy.
“I was so stuck on being on a diet. I would deprive myself then overindulge at other times,” she said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
But she now eats more “clean,” natural foods, like fruits, vegetables and meats, and less processed foods. She’s no longer craving the high of sugar or caffeine.
“It’s getting back to the more simple way of eating and not counting calories and not obsessing about fat,” said Daigle. “It’s totally changed my life. I look more trim, and feel better in every way.”