Q&A With Emotional Eating Expert Heidi Schauster

Heidi Schauster, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S is a nutrition therapist with over 20 years of experience in the field of eating disorders and emotional eating issues. She is currently the founder of Nourishing Words Nutrition Therapy, where she works as a writer, consultant and certified eating disorders registered dietitian based in the Greater Boston area. Schauster is on the faculty at Plymouth State University in their graduate level Eating Disorders Institute.  

Gluten-Free Living spoke with Schauster about her new book, Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self. She answered questions on maintaining a healthy mindset with the gluten-free lifestyle, cultivating self-compassion, eating and exercising mindfully, predictions for 2019 and more!

Gluten-Free Living: In your new book, you discuss the differences between gluten allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. Why is this important for people to understand?

Heidi Schauster: Allergies and intolerances are different. For example, a dairy allergy is typically related to casein (milk protein) and involves the throat, lungs and skin. A dairy intolerance is typically related to lactose (milk carbohydrate) and involves the gastrointestinal tract.

When it comes to gluten, celiac disease is very different than a wheat allergy or gluten intolerance. If you suspect that you have an intolerance to gluten or wheat, it’s very important to rule out celiac disease first. If you are diagnosed with celiac disease, then you have to avoid contamination with gluten in restaurants and on cutting boards. The consequences to your gut are significant if you expose your system to gluten and you have celiac disease, which is not the case with a wheat/gluten intolerance. There may be symptoms, but they are not life threatening. 

GFL: What is your opinion on cutting out gluten to just have a healthier lifestyle or to lose weight?

HS: There is no evidence that cutting out gluten alone will lead to weight loss. Any weight loss in a certain individual may be a side effect of changing eating patterns overall. In fact, research shows that 96 percent of people who aim to lose weight through dietary changes will gain the weight back eventually (often plus more).

Eliminating gluten when you don’t have to may create imbalances in the diet. It may also make gluten-containing foods more “charged” so that they are actually craved more — perhaps even binged on because you feel deprived. It’s easier to eliminate a food if there are true physical consequences — or, in the case of celiac disease, you know that eating gluten will be harmful to your health.

When you try to eliminate foods that you like when there aren’t adverse consequences, you may feel deprived. When some people feel deprived, they rebound overeat later. So, ironically, eliminating gluten can backfire and, for some, create disordered eating or intermittent binging on gluten-containing foods when there was nothing like this there before. 

GFL: How can people who live a gluten-free life cultivate self-compassion, even while they spend so much time thinking about what they can and can’t eat?

HS: Thinking about food so much can be time-consuming and frustrating. It can even take the fun out of eating sometimes. Know that it’s harder to adopt healthful habits with food and other areas of life when you are feeling deprived — especially if you have some physical or emotional deprivation in your history.

Be kind to yourself about the challenges of living with a food restriction. Find substitutes that you enjoy and that nourish you. Give meals and snacks some planning time. Don’t obsess about them, but give them some time and attention so that you can eat foods you enjoy. This will help you feel cared by the one person who is best equipped to do so: YOU! 

GFL: What is your advice for eating and exercising mindfully, rather than making it a chore?

HS: Mindfulness is the practice of being present and aware of what’s around us in the moment. When we eat or exercise mindfully, we are in our bodies and not in our heads. We are paying attention to how the food or movement feels in our bodies and connecting to the experience fully.

It’s helpful to apply mindful awareness to any new health habit that we adopt. Does this “superfood” feel good in my body? Does this new type of yoga resonate with my mind, body and spirit? This exploration with curiosity is very different than doing what the latest health guru tells you to do. After all, you know your body more than the guru does.

Blindly trying the latest fad without listening to how it feels in your body is a recipe for discomfort, confusion and sometimes harm. Take any advice with a grain of sea salt and only adopt what works well for you. 

GFL: When someone has celiac disease, they often must constantly think about what they can and can’t eat. How can they stay mentally balanced despite this?

HS: Building what I call “sustaining self-care practices” helps all of us, but particularly those of us who have chronic illnesses or food allergies and intolerances. If you find that you are thinking about food more than you’d like or struggling with some disordered eating — obsessing or binging or feeling stressed about food — a registered dietitian/nutritionist who specifically specializes in disordered eating or a certified intuitive eating counselor might be helpful support. 

GFL: Why is it important to surround ourselves with people who value and support us in our journey to becoming healthier, and how do you suggest people do this?

HS: Life is too short to spend time with people who deplete our vital energy. If you want to have a relationship with someone who does (say, it’s a family member or someone you must work with), then set healthy boundaries on your time and energy. Notice when you are getting signals from your body and mind that you’ve had enough. And, when you have the choice, spending time with those who love and value you for who you are helps reinforce your intrinsic worth.

We are all unique people on this planet slogging through life; we might as well do it together.  Pay attention — with mindfulness — to how you feel when you interact with people and you will get a sense of the kind of person that you want to surround yourself with. 

GFL: What are a few key things people can do to have an overall healthier relationship with food?

HS: I have outlined ten nonlinear steps in my book Nourish. A few of them include ditching diets, working on body acceptance, cultivating awareness of your eating habits and working on mindful eating. If these are hard for you, get help and support. 

GFL: What are your predictions for healthy trends for 2019? 

HS: 1) We’ll be dieting less. Even Weight Watchers is trying to jump on the non-diet bandwagon and call themselves “WW” instead. (Unfortunately, the program is still a diet, but the fact that they are trying not to look like one is meaningful.) Research shows that dieting does not lead to sustained weight loss in 96% of people, yet the $60 billion diet industry profits from our belief that they work. Instead of dieting, set realistic goals about the things you’d like to change about your relationship with food and body.

2) We’ll be meditating more. Everyone’s doing it. But meditation is not just sitting like a pretzel on a cushion in an ashram. It can be done walking, on the subway with an app, or while you mindfully wash the dishes. Meditation is grounding so that you can respond to the challenges of life instead of reacting. If you don’t find the type of meditation that works for you, don’t worry. There are about a million ways to meditate. Keep looking. 

3) We’ll be embracing body positivity and Heath-at-Every-Size (HAES) more. These movements are growing on Instagram and other social media. Studies show that beating ourselves up doesn’t create change or health or personal growth. Make choices aligned with taking good care of yourself at any size and shape. Attractiveness, vitality, and health really do come from within.

4) We’ll be feeling our feelings more. This may sound strange, but we often use food (either over- or under-eating), drink, work, shopping, social media and other activities as a way to deal with (or not deal with) challenging feelings or thoughts. Eventually, it can just become habit. Gone is the shame of reaching out for greater mental health. In 2019, it’s going to be trendy to say, “I’m going to see my therapist.”  

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