Our food choices don’t exist in a vacuum apart from our daily habits, emotions, health and even our education and finances.
According to Dr. Barry Sears, former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine, emotions and stress can shift the hormonal balance within our bodies, directly affecting our appetite. In fact, biochemists are now certain that a mind-body-diet connection exists.
So why does our society continue to fixate on diet programs and calorie-counting as a first approach to health?
Way to Go is an innovative nine-week program at Bastyr Center for Natural Health that combines whole-food nutrition education with the principles of healthy behavior change. The format consists of group sessions and one-on-one counseling to create a holistic approach to healthy lifestyles.
"The goal is to help participants set long-term lifestyle goals that will support their overall health and well-being," says Debra Boutin, MS, RDN, chair of Bastyr University's Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science, which co-sponsors this unique program. "This is absolutely not a diet program, which science has shown does not provide long-term benefit. This is a lifestyle management program.”
Recent participant Sue Shannon says this approach is what really drew her to the program. “The ‘healthy at every size’ concept was incredibly valuable because the focus remained on health, not weight,” she says. “There was no pressure at the end of nine weeks to be at a certain benchmark. Instead, we targeted making healthy choices, which for some people can include weight loss.”
As another participant, Tavona Givens says, “It was a great reminder that everyone is not designed to be a size 0 and that I can be healthy and make healthy choices no matter what size I am.”
Faculty in Bastyr University’s Master of Science in Nutrition and Clinical Health Psychology program designed Way to Go to help participants recognize and change their food-related behaviors. The program is led by graduate students who are supervised by clinical nutrition and counseling faculty.
Past participant Julie Zander says she appreciated the dual nutrition/counseling approach. "Eating connects to the rest of our lives, so it makes sense. It was great because I felt like I had someone on my side who was coaching me through the whole thing."
The Way to Go approach recognizes that education, motivation and mindfulness all have roles to play.
Participants learn to identify triggers — like anxiety, loneliness or boredom — that often lead to "emotional eating," “stress eating” or unhealthy behaviors. They also learn strategies for eating healthfully in restaurants and for communicating with family members and friends who may pressure them to eat certain things.
"This program teaches skills so that people walk away with an awareness of how mindfulness and awareness can impact the most basic behaviors, such as slowing down eating patterns or realizing relationships between feelings and eating events,” Boutin says. “Each time we’ve done this program, participants inspire us and our students as they reach a place of feeling better about their health.”
Way to Go counselors are trained in motivational interviewing, a technique that focuses on helping patients discover their own motivation for making life changes. Shannon says she loved that the counseling sessions helped her figure out what was really going on — what she was really trying to feed rather than analyzing her weight from a purely medical perspective.
“The group sessions were helpful because they allowed me to process with people who were in a similar situation as me,” she says.
She said Way to Go helped lay a foundation that equipped her to make other healthy changes in her life; ones she hopes to sustain long-term.