Mindful Eating and Orthorexia with Abbey Sharp
Abbey Sharp is a registered dietician, author and so much more.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Abbey and discuss orthorexia and mindful eating. The following is a transcript of our conversation.
Graydon: Hi Abbey! I'd love to get to know you and your work! I'm so happy you could join me today.
Abbey: Yeah thanks for having me!
Graydon: I want to talk about your beautiful book, but first why don't you tell me everything that you do? Because it's pretty amazing, by the way.
Abbey: Thank you! I am a registered dietitian, and I'm a food blogger and YouTuber (@AbbeysKitchen). So I work largely in media unlike a lot of dieticians that work more in clinics, or in hospitals or with patients. I work in social and traditional media. So I do a lot of TV, I write recipes, I wrote a cookbook and of course all the social media platforms that I work on.
Graydon: You're ahead of your time!
Abbey: You have to be, you need to constantly be reinventing yourself to stay relevant. Social media is so important, and I've sort of made it my full-time career. I’ve come to really enjoy making this my niche.
Graydon: Can you talk about what your designation is as a registered dietitian, and how that is different than a holistic nutritionist?
Abbey: Absolutely, we are a regulated body under the Ontario College of Dieticians. We need to go through a minimum of four years at a credited undergrad plus an internship or a Masters. There are specific competencies we need to get to get our license. Nutritionist is not a regulated term, so while there are specific programs for holistic nutrition, because it's not a regulated term anyone can use the term nutritionist. While there are a lot of fantastic nutritionists out there, a lot of them may have just read stuff online and call themselves a nutritionist. When you are working with a registered dietitian, you know they have very high standards they need to uphold and report to their college. It's incredibly hard and very competitive.
Graydon: Would most of your classmates have gone to more of a clinical setting?
Abbey: Yes. The amazing thing about being a registered dietitian is the sky is the limit; there are so many areas of practice that we work in. A dietitian can also work in the food industry to help develop products. They can work in advocacy, in teaching, in media—which is what I do. Of course there are also more clinical positions like in hospitals for patient settings, where they meet one-on-one and learn how to eat well.
Graydon: So, how did you get into this?
Abbey: Great question! I took a very winding road as I find a lot of Millennials do. Originally I was looking to become a theatre teacher.
Graydon: I see the media connection.
Abbey: Yes, that’s how it grew. I brought that skill set. I was a really art-focused person. Once I really got into it, I took a random elective of an anatomy course, and thought “Oh gosh, I really actually like this.” So I switched gears and went into kinesiology which took me down that route into my dietetics degree. I'm glad I found my way but it was a process.
Graydon: Even though we make skincare products, the people in my circle tend to be more in the holistic world, and a lot of people get into that because they have their own challenges. Have you also been through some challenges?
Abbey: Absolutely. I think a lot of people come into help driven professions based on their own experience. What I talk about a lot in my cookbook is that when I was a teenager, I struggled with an eating disorder called orthorexia. We're seeing such a rise in cases of orthorexia, especially now with social media and the pressures young people put on "clean eating” and wellness in general. I had the pleasure of working with an amazing dietitian when I was recovering, and that's what introduced me to the idea of what a dietitian was. I don't think I would've known if I didn't have the opportunity to interact with one, and see what they could actually do. That was a big inspiration to me and my particular brand, which is that I don't necessarily subscribe to push any particular diets.
My belief is that we should focus on trying to listen to our body, and the concept of mindful or intuitive eating. It's something we need to hone in today's diet obsessed and wellness obsessed world. Every day there's a new fad diet, but ultimately there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to eating well. The best thing we can do is learn to listen to our bodies intuition. And it's a process, it was something that was very hard for me to learn when “control” felt so much safer and comforting to me. I open myself up to so much more health and happiness, which was really the message behind The Mindful Glow cookbook.
Graydon: Those are my two favourite words! Mindful and glow!
Abbey: I really believe that when you choose food that you really enjoy it makes you feel good, you glow from the inside out.
Graydon: So cool. I didn't know that about you and orthorexia is something that I'm really fascinated with. I think that's something that people are really unaware of, even as a diagnosis.
Abbey: For sure, it’s a big problem. I think part of the problem is that we don't have a clear diagnostic criteria for it, unlike the way we do with anorexia or bulimia. Another problem with it is that a lot of the behaviours associated with it are praised in the media. Our dedication to clean eating or sticking to specific sets of rules, and being very strict with that, is celebrated in a lot of circles. These types of behaviours not only affect our psychological well being, but physical as well. In my own experience, I lost about 50 pounds and I was dangerously thin, all because I was obsessed with wanting to be healthy. It's a slippery slope and I'm seeing how common the mentality is becoming. It's starting to really affect people's quality-of-life.
Graydon: And how they interact with others!
Abbey: Of course. It is so social. That was also a big problem for me, I felt that I couldn't go enjoy a meal with friends or family anymore because I was so worried about what was going on my plate.
Graydon: Let’s actually back-track a little. Can you actually define what orthorexia is?
Abbey: Orthorexia is defined as righteous eating. I like to think about it as clean eating going to an extreme. Where there is no flexibility in a set of rules that you have set for yourself, with a desire to eat well or healthy, however you define that. Unlike traditional eating disorders where the goal is to lose weight, or control one's body size or shape, the goal is to eat as healthy as one possibly can. People's definitions of healthy are really quite different. Even when I was struggling, which was about 15 years ago, I was terrified of sugars. Depending on your relationship with food, I've seen people who are on specific diet and who are also still struggling with orthorexic tendencies. There is a place for all the specific diets if they actually benefit us. But when it starts to interfere with daily activities and our enjoyment of life, that’s when we really see we have an issue on our hands.
Graydon: It doesn't officially fall under the mental health umbrella, but it should.
Abbey: Absolutely. It is a mental health issue and deserves to be treated as such. We need more people understanding the signs and symptoms so we can intervene on an earlier stage, before it’s damaging.
Graydon: This is so fascinating to me. My products are really a manifestation of my relationship with wellness and food. Do you think because there's so much processed food out there, that people are becoming more rigid?
Abbey: There is a morality part to it. In orthorexia, you start dichotomizing food in either good or bad, and we create an irrational fear of the foods that we have deemed bad. We assign ourselves a moral value based on the food we decide to eat. I don't believe that there are good and bad foods, all food can fit in your diet. The thing about mindful eating, is that when you choose foods that you enjoy and love, you start to notice the inherent deliciousness of nourishing food.
Abbey: Like the butteriness of an avocado becomes really exciting. And all the food that we have restricted or considered bad for us lose their allure. When we stop labeling food good or bad, and take the moral value away, they are all on a neutral playing field. It's then much easier for us to make healthier choices, because those healthy choices are the ones that just make us feel better.
Graydon: I think your point on feeling, like “how am I feeling today,” I don’t think that's something most parents teach their children, or you learn in school. It's such a rat race for children and adults, that we don't connect. In the morning I wake up pretty early and take my time to eat, and don't go into the office until a little later so I have time to really ground myself so I can be outwardly available. This also translates to how I eat affecting how I feel. Even getting connected to the idea that I am satiated, and being aware of that feeling, and not feeling obliged to eat when I'm not hungry.
Abbey: A skill we need to hone is listening to our bodies and how they feel. Feeling hungry doesn't feel good, and feeling too full doesn't feel good, but hanging out in the middle does. You can also remind yourself that there will be yummy food again tomorrow, and you don’t have to eat everything, which is difficult during the holidays. There is no reason why tomorrow can't be a delicious day as well. That's sort of where I was going with the recipes in my cookbook, I didn't want any of them to come off as restrictive or “diet food”. All the recipes are delicious, nourishing and beautiful, so you're excited to eat them.
Graydon: You did touch on this but, you have all food groups in the cookbook.
Abbey: I tried to focus on choosing the best quality ingredients. And there really is something for everyone in the book. I didn't want to create a book that was only for one kind of diet. We all like changing up what makes us feel good, so why shouldn't a cookbook do the same to accommodate that? I actually did a brave move not to include nutritional information…
Graydon: Oh, that’s so interesting!
Abbey: …Like calories. I don’t want people to count calories. I want people to trust their body to let them know how much they should be eating. Also to take the good food / bad food mentality away, and focus on things that are rich-in, such as rich in fibre rather and things that are low-in such as low in carbs.
Graydon: That's a good segue to ask you if there are certain foods or nutrients that you think really help to serve the body, in terms of the skin? I am personally really interested in certain minerals like magnesium, silver, copper, which we use in our products because of their bioavailability. Are there any tips you can share?
Abbey: For sure! I was blessed with good skin my whole life, which I believe is mostly genetics, but I also eat a really well balanced diet. I eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables which we know are high in antioxidants, which are so important for skin health.
Graydon: I'm going to pause you because I think it's important to define things. Antioxidants is such a buzzword. What is an antioxidant?
Abbey: A nutrient that helps prevent or reverse oxidation. It fights free radicals, which are toxins in the atmosphere. It’s a molecule without an electron and It's very unstable. An antioxidant comes and stabilizes it, so it is not running rampant stealing other molecule’s electrons. Those unruly, bumping around molecules overtime contribute to disease. So we want more antioxidants in our body to neutralize and satisfy some of those free radicals so that they don't wreak havoc in our bodies.
Graydon: And it’s not just a disease, right? How does that also contribute to the appearance of your skin?
Abbey: Free radicals can cause premature aging. Antioxidants come from a lot of foods that are rich in vitamins A or C, zinc, selenium and so much more. All you need to know is to eat as many colourful fruits and vegetables as you can. Colour, and a wide range of colour, is a good indicator of antioxidants, because different foods have different types of antioxidants. Healthy fats are also important, like mono-saturated fats from avocados, and Omega-3s from things like salmon or flax. And water, water is really important, drink as much water as you can!
Graydon: Do you have any tips for people who aren't great water drinkers? I am not a great water drinker, I have some shortcuts around that. But do you want to share any?
Abbey: I don't love flat water myself either, but you can get yourself carbonator because bubbly water can sometimes be your fix. I'm also a big fan of tea, which is also a great way to get more fluid into your body. And of course fruits and vegetables, don't discount the fact that there is a lot of water in fruits and vegetables.
Graydon: And soups!
Abbey: Soups contribute a ton, just watch the sodium. If you’re making it yourself you can control that.
Graydon: Let’s get back to some specific foods. Do you have any favourites?
Abbey: Yeah, I love salmon because it’s rich in Omega-3s, and it’s versatile. There are lots of great, beautiful ways to cook salmon. I’m also a big fan of blueberries, which are one of my go-tos. Wild blueberries are even high in antioxidants.
Graydon: So you think there’s a difference between wild versus factory growing?
Abbey: Yes I do. And they’re just more flavourful ,more importantly. I’m a big fan of frozen fruit. I’m also a real citrus fan, because it’s rich in vitamin C, and we are in citrus season right now! Squeezing some lemon juice in your tea or on your salad is fantastic.
Graydon: It’s not like you have to have a big glass of orange juice, a little bit here and there.
Abbey: Exactly! It’s a great way to get a burst of nutrients in.
Graydon: Any carbs?
Abbey: I don’t think that people need to be fearful of carbs. I love sweet potatoes. They are a great source of fibre and vitamin A, which we mentioned is important for skin health. Nuts are also great, they are rich in zinc. I’m a big nut butter fan as well! It’s a great way to add body and those healthy fats.
Graydon: Keeping in mind that not everybody can do dairy, is there a more digestible dairy you recommend?
Abbey: I’m a big fan of yogurt, especially ones that have probiotics in them. I find them easier to digest, because those probiotics help with the digestion process.
Graydon: Can you make a distinction that maybe not all yogurts are created equal?
Abbey: Absolutely, I look at the ingredient list for ones that don't have added sugar in it. Greek yogurt is fantastic because it’s also high in protein. When it comes to yogurt, the key is not getting a sweetened variety. If you need a little sweetness, add some fruit so you can control the sugar you’re getting.
Graydon: I’m such a fan of full fat. I feel so much more satisfied. I don’t feel as well with low-fat products. Besides the fact that they are more satiating, why might they also serve your body?
Abbey: There are some benefits to dairy fats, they are rich in short chain fatty acids and other great nutrients, that I think are worth keeping in. There’s also, like you mentioned, the satiating quality to it, both emotional and mental. When you eat more diet products, you just don't feel as emotionally satisfied. Full fat yogurt tastes amazing! We should enjoy it.
Graydon: If you can't do cow, there’s goat’s milk, sheep’s milk. And thankfully a lot of producers that really care about their animals. That’s the biggest motivator for me, if I’m going to have an animal-based product, the welfare of those creatures are really paramount. Eventually this factory farm thing will hopefully not be as big and strong, and independent producers can flourish without such a big price gap.
Abbey: There is definitely a shift in making the cost of healthy food more affordable. I think we are definitely on the way!
Graydon: Just looking at your beautiful cookbook, is there something that is truly uniquely yours that no one else is doing?
Abbey: I had a few aha! moments, one of which is my recipe for Proats, which is effectively protein oats. I discovered a way to bulk up my oatmeal in the morning with fibre, protein and healthy fats. I whisk egg whites like you would for a meringue and whip them into the oatmeal, and end up with a luscious fluffy bowl that has great sources of protein in them. Another thing I came up with is my two-ingredient protein ice cream. Basically it’s cottage cheese and frozen fruit, and whatever flavours you want. When you blitz them in the food processor, they turn into an old-school fro-yo consistency. Super satisfying snack! Lots of great recipes.
To learn more about Abbey and get discover some of her delicious recipes, visit www.abbeyskitchen.com.
Kyla Fox is the founder of The Kyla Fox Centre, an eating disorder treatment centre. Click here to read our conversation about eating disorders, recovery and self-care.