Early in my career as a health and nutrition coach, I came to realize that diet and nutrition alone were not enough to help people lose weight or feel better.
So many of my clients understood exactly what and how much they needed to eat – but they just couldn’t make themselves follow their own well-intentioned rules.
This led me to the “aha moment” that there was a crucial missing ingredient in the health coaching universe:
We absolutely must understand our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs to help create true change when it comes to our unwanted eating habits. WHAT we eat is surely important, but WHO we are as eaters is equally as vital to our health and happiness.
This inspired me to write two classic books on the topic, to form The Institute for the Psychology of Eating, and to create our popular professional program, The Mind Body Eating Coach Certification Training. My work in this area ignited a powerful collective conversation that continues decades later.
But my job wasn’t done.
At some point, I noticed there was still something missing when it came to helping people with their food and body challenges. As it turns out, eating psychology, as powerful and transformational as it is, could only take many of us so far.
Here is the next frontier in nutritional health, and helping others with their unwanted eating concerns:
Whether the concern is weight, body image challenges, emotional eating, binge eating, overeating, and more – our task as helping professionals is to be willing to help people explore all possible dimensions when it comes to finding healing and wholeness.
For so many of us, the spiritual realm is where healing wants to happen – and where we need to turn our attention when it comes to our eating challenges.
Exploring our spiritual self has been one of the most well-loved aspects of our professional training and one of the ways that our graduates have helped their clients find greater peace and freedom with food. In my over 40 years of experience as a coach trainer, I’ve found that spiritual health and wellness coaching is vital to creating breakthroughs for our health coaching clients.
I still remember the client who catalyzed my passion for bringing spirituality into health coaching:
Amber, 47, had come to see me for weight loss. She felt heavy and burdened by an extra 50+ pounds and had been dieting and exercising since she was 13 years old. Amber knew more about nutrition and weight loss than many of my fellow professionals.
She was proud that she’d read every book and tried every diet, but was frustrated that all this knowledge never delivered her to the promised land. She’d simply lose weight and gain it right back. She couldn’t stop herself from turning to food whenever she was anxious, lonely, or bored.
Amber was divorced for over two decades, hadn’t been in another relationship, hadn’t dated in many years, didn’t like her job, was not inspired about her social life, and didn’t have anything she was truly passionate about.
She was tired of dieting, tired of struggling, and desperately wanted peace with food.
After hearing Amber’s story, I realized that my client didn’t have a real reason to live.
Amber’s life had gotten to a place where there was little meaning or purpose left. Losing weight seemed to have more meaning for her than anything else.
She wanted to talk about whatever dieting tricks I had up my sleeve.
While all I wanted to talk about was meaning, purpose, and her spiritual outlook.
And so I did.
In what felt like a flash of insight, I told Amber that it made perfect sense why she kept turning to food and gaining back whatever weight she could force herself to lose.
Food was her only true pleasure.
It was all she had to live for. With no love in her life, her most intimate relationship was with eating. No wonder she couldn’t stop herself from eating.
I suggested to her that she didn’t have a “food problem.”
Quite the opposite, food was actually her “solution.” It was the solution to a life that had little happiness, and no true hope or direction. It was medication for feeling alone in the universe.
Her “problem” was a spiritual one.
She could keep going from diet to diet, like she’s done unsuccessfully for the majority of her life, or she could deepen.
I suggested to Amber that she needed to have a reckoning with herself. To ask questions of herself that truly mattered:
- What is my deeper purpose here on planet Earth?
- What would give my life real meaning?
- What do I truly want most in the world, even more than weight loss?
- Can I make peace with my life, my journey, and my body?
- And do I truly even wish to be alive?
To me, these are deeply spiritual questions.
And without attending to these kinds of questions and explorations, it’s very likely that Amber would continue to stay stuck in a worldview where she felt helpless, hopeless, and in an endless cycle of weight loss and gain.
Amber was stunned by the conversation she suddenly found herself in.
She’d been to numerous nutritionists, dietitians, and personal trainers, and no one had ever taken the time to be in a more meaningful conversation with her.
Even though my training was in nutrition and psychology, I was inspired to venture into new territory for myself as a professional.
My fear of sounding a little too “woo-woo” was far outweighed by my hunch that a spiritual exploration was being called for.
Intuition is an important tool for any coach or helping professional.
The results for both my client and myself were immensely gratifying.
I worked with Amber for over 6 months. We put weight loss temporarily to the side, and focused on these key areas:
- Having things in her life that were more important than weight loss.
- Exploring exactly what would make her life worth living.
- Finding faith in her life, and finding hope for the world.
You see, Amber had been living life as if weight loss was her religion.
She’d thought about it all the time for most of her life, and put all her faith in the false belief that hitting her magic weight loss number would make all her pains and insecurities vanish instantly.
Of course, even when she’d hit her magic weight loss number in the past, she acknowledged that she still felt like the same exact person with the same problems and the same self-doubts.
I was helping Amber see that weight loss was the kind of religion for her that simply didn’t deliver.
She soon realized that life was precious, her life was precious, and she needed to start truly living it, perhaps for the first time in her adult life.
Amber also came to see how a part of her just didn’t want to be here.
She wasn’t suicidal, she just wasn’t a big fan of her own life. Too many disappointments, too many hardships, and a body that she believed had betrayed her and wasn’t her “real” body anyway.
Amber also didn’t like what was going on in the world – war, politics, injustice, violence, poverty – and the net result of all these understandable complaints was this:
She was checked out of her own life and didn’t fully want to be here.
No wonder she couldn’t eat healthy, take care of her body, or nourish herself in good ways. She didn’t have a higher reason to.
What’s the point of practicing good nutrition if we don’t even want our own life?
After 6 months time together, Amber was a new person. That’s because she was now focused on what truly mattered most to her: finding love, connecting with people she cared about, mentoring her nieces, being in nature, and making every day count.
Interestingly enough, without any dietary or exercise changes, she dropped over 15 pounds. It wasn’t the 50 pounds loss she was looking to lose, but it was an effortless shapeshifting and a new beginning.
More importantly, Amber felt as if she was finally living her life and no longer waiting for permission from the scale to be her real self.
Mind Body Spirit Coaching
There’s no doubt in my mind that bringing the spiritual dimension into the coaching and counseling universe is as vital as ever. So many people are hungry for something more.
If you take stock of the world, it’s easy to notice that we live in a time of increased separation. People of all ages feel alienated, despondent about the world, confused about how to live a meaningful life, and in doubt of why they’re here.
When we find ourselves in global and personal uncertainty, there’s a powerful benefit in finding a connection to a higher source.
We can find more peace and hope when we tap into our own unique relationship with a grander intelligence. We can feel more courage to move forward in our life when we embrace a worldview that’s more compassionate and uplifting.
As helping professionals, our job is to help.
It’s our responsibility to have as many tools in our toolkit that can make a real and lasting difference.
One of the great achievements of the coaching profession is that it has lots of room for different approaches. Coaches, at their best, are empowered to use whatever tools they can to help people become the best version of themselves.
Health coaching classically focuses on food, lifestyle, supplements, exercise, and various health practices.
The same can be said for the fields of natural medicine, holistic health, dietetics, fitness, and many other helping professions.
But good nutrition and hurling more dietary information at our clients is not always what’s needed.
In a world where we face environmental, political, financial, and health crises, it’s useful to consider that perhaps we are facing a spiritual crisis as well.
This is the approach I take as a teacher to coaches and helping professionals:
- With any food or body challenge such as weight, emotional eating, binge eating, food obsession, body image concerns, and more – the first and easiest realm to look at is diet and nutrition.
- From there, we explore if there might be underlying metabolic conditions.
- Then, we look to eating psychology – our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and our overall “food story.”
- And if we can’t find success in these realms, then it might be time to explore our relationship with spirituality and a higher power…
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Let’s take a few moments and look at some of the very specific and potent ways that a lack of connection to a higher power can impact our health and our relationship with food…
5 Reasons Why We Need Spirituality in Health Coaching
So many people know exactly how and what they should eat, and what they need to do for their health. They just can’t seem to do it though, and they’ll complain that they don’t know why.
Why do I sabotage myself?
What do I go against my own good intentions?
What’s wrong with me?
This is the place where most health coaches, nutritionists, or dietitians go blank.
That’s because the answers to these questions can’t be found in the realm of vitamins and minerals.
Through no fault of their own, most helping professionals simply haven’t been trained in eating psychology, nor have they been trained to be in explorative conversations around meaning, purpose, and spirituality.
So let’s detail what can happen in our relationship with food and body when we lack a spiritual outlook, a sense of purpose, and a connection to a higher power.
Reason #1: Without a purpose for being here, we often turn to food
As human beings, a fundamental requirement for our emotional and soul health is to have a reason for being alive. A purpose. Something that gets us out of bed in the morning.
At the same time, it’s easy to get caught up in the expectations of the world: our job, our parents, our religion, and whatever the television says we should be doing.
And in our busyness with all the responsibilities of life, it’s easy to lose sight of our deeper reason for being here:
- What really makes me want to be alive?
- What pursuits would make my life worth living?
- What is my unique purpose in this world?
Without the kind of meaning that inspires us, without a purpose, it’s easy to turn to food.
And why would we turn to food?
Because food gives us pleasure. It relieves pain. It temporarily takes us out of just about any unwanted emotion or discomfort and gives us some moments of peace and contentment.
In this way, food is acting for us as a “symbolic substitute.”
It acts as the closest approximation to the thing we really want.
In this case, the thing we really want is the satisfaction and at-one-ness that comes from having meaning in our lives.
Some examples of deeper meaning might be:
- A career that fulfills us
- Daily pursuits that enliven us
- A connection to nature or animals
- Deep relationships
- A spiritual or religious connection
- And more…
Without these, we can feel empty, and food is a great way to temporarily fill up. We might find ourselves overeating, binge eating, or emotionally eating, and not know why these unwanted behaviors have so much power.
Well, they have power because they are filling in for a more powerful need.
From here, it would be easy to think that we have a food problem.
But what we really have is some spiritual work to do…
Reason #2: Without connection to our Source, we find connection in eating
One of the main activities of human beings, and most creatures in nature is connection.
So many of us are designed to seek out a mate. We are driven to procreate. We are compelled to create family and raise children. We desire friendships. We wish to be seen and understood by others. We are enlivened by intimacy. We want to feel special in the eyes of others. We want to feel like we’re in the flow of life, weaving in and out of our interactions with the people in our world in a positive and satisfying way.
But there’s an even deeper connection that we seek.
For eons of time, humans have sought connection to a higher power. To God. To religion. To a supreme intelligence.
Even the most devout atheists I know still look to live by meaningful guidelines, their own higher moral and ethical code.
We are programmed, at the most fundamental level of our being, to connect with something higher than ourselves.
Stated in a more direct way:
Connection is a required soul nutrient. Connection feeds and nourishes us. Without it, we are left hungry and unfulfilled.
Well, in a world where everything is moving fast, where we don’t even have time for ourselves, and where we are more and more removed from what matters most, it’s easy to be deficient in Vitamin C – Connection.
And without the soul nutrient of connection, we feel lonely, lost, unseen, and unloved.
Without a connection to a greater reality, it’s easy to seek connection in food. Or with drugs. Or with anything we become addicted to.
Without a connection to a higher power, it’s easy to medicate with sugar and to seek sweetness through our taste buds, rather than find it through faith.
This all makes perfect sense. We are designed to find balance and wholeness as best we can. If we feel that the universe is a harsh, meaningless, and lonely place, of course we’d want some ice cream.
For many of us, when we turn to food, we’re actually looking for god in all the wrong places.
And if we end up gaining weight, we think our problem is with food, and we convince ourselves that getting rid of body fat is where we need to focus so we can finally be happy.
But the weight is really just a side effect of looking for a spiritual connection where it simply can’t be found.
Once again, our task is to ask more meaningful questions:
- Do I need a deeper spiritual connection in my life?
- How do I go about cultivating a relationship with a higher power?
- What exactly are my spiritual beliefs at this time?
- And am I practicing the spiritual or religious principles that I say I believe in?
Reason #3: Absent a spiritual perspective, it’s easy to abuse our body
Whether we realize it or not, many people are in a kind of abusive relationship with their own body. We attack it with our thoughts, words, and deeds. We look in the mirror and curse it.
We hold our body in contempt because it doesn’t look and weigh how we say it should. In this way, we are in a fundamental protest of our own body.
We believe our body is our enemy.
Or it’s an imposter.
Or it’s not “the real me.”
And our response to these assessments is often extreme dieting and exercise.
We push the body, force it, shove it, and bully it into weight loss as best as we can.
This is how we’ve been taught by the world to respond to a body that doesn’t fit into artificial and often impossible ideals.
When I encounter a client who is living from this place, who is in a constant fight with their own body, I find it very helpful to hold this one particular new and fresh belief about the body:
Meaning, it’s a miracle. It’s brilliantly designed. It has its own wisdom. It’s here to help us learn and grow. It teaches us many lessons, some of them quite beautiful and pleasurable, and others that are rather difficult.
When we begin to see the body as spiritual, we stop fighting it with such vigor and self-righteousness.
The problem that so many people have with their weight is a spiritual challenge.
It’s about seeing the body as sacred, not something you lash out at. It’s about making peace with the body rather than being at war with it.
We can still go about the business of weight loss without attacking the body and hating on it.
On a deeper level, when we are rejecting our own body, we are rejecting our very existence. Even though we are saying “My body is no good,” what we are really saying is “I’m no good.”
So many people are living in ongoing turmoil because they have a body that they fundamentally disapprove of.
They might force themselves to lose weight, but around 98% of all humans who lose weight on a weight-loss diet gain it back within a year, and then some. So losing weight doesn’t solve this challenge. That’s because the weight is not the real problem.
The real problem is that we are in a crisis of existence. We have a spiritual issue that is best solved by exploring our spiritual self…
Reason #4: If we haven’t made peace with our journey, we disembody
It’s easy to go through life and feel like our journey has been “wrong.” It’s easy to believe that I am the victim of bad parenting, a lousy environment, mean people, undeserved disappointments, and unwanted traumas.
The reality is, unfortunate things do happen to good people and life doesn’t always seem to be fair.
But what happens is, when we are in protest of our own life, when we look back on our life and believe we’ve been wronged, or when it’s clear that our life has truly been painful and hard, it’s easy for us to disembody.
And when we disembody, things tend to go south.
So what does it mean to “disembody” and why is it so problematic?
Disembodiment is another way to say:
- We’ve “checked out” of our body.
- We’re unaware of the body and its needs.
If you know someone who goes through life as if they are living in their head, that’s what I mean by disembodiment.
Disembodiment is an experience where we aren’t fully occupying our senses, our sensuality, our movement, our muscles, our nourishment needs, and where we tend to miss important signals that the body offers us on a moment-to-moment basis.
When it comes to food, disembodiment shows up as a disconnection from our natural appetite.
- We don’t pay attention to hunger or fullness cues.
- We might be eating foods that are detracting from our health and never realize it.
- Or we might be gaining unwanted weight but we just feel powerless around food.
What happens is, many people believe that “when I lose the weight, then I will occupy my body. Then I will pay attention to it. Then I will nourish it and love it and feed it well. Then I will feel real pleasure.”
So we put off being in our body right now until some future date when we finally have our ideal body.
Can you see how this approach stops us from living our life?
Can you see how it keeps us feeling unworthy?
Checking out of the body is a way to say to life “I don’t really want to be here.”
It’s a way to say that we disapprove of the life we have been given.
This is not a weight problem.
It’s a spiritual one.
Our task in life is to ultimately bless our own journey.
Meaning, make your journey the right one for you. Accept your life as it’s been, and as it is. From there, we can have the possibility to heal and transform.
Reason #5: Without faith in a greater reality, we often turn to perfectionism
Many people these days are gripped by perfectionism. It’s a silent epidemic. We have adopted the toxic belief that “I must be perfect in order to be loved by others, and to be acceptable to myself.”
You might know someone who’s been bitten by the perfectionist bug:
- They have exacting and often impossible standards when it comes to looks.
- They’re deeply concerned about how others see them.
- They can be extremely self-critical.
- They’re often quite intense around what they do and do not eat.
Here’s the problem with perfectionism:
It eventually leads to self-abuse.
We inevitably fail to eat a perfect diet, and we find it difficult to sustain an ideal body. When this happens, we fall into an unkind conversation with ourself. We can lapse into self-attack and criticism. We might even find ourselves going in the opposite direction of eating perfectly, and decide that since we’re not looking and eating perfectly, we might as well just eat whatever we want.
On a deeper level, perfectionism is often a substitute for our connection to a higher power.
An unconscious part of us thinks that:
“If I can’t connect with god, then I might as well be god.”
And the easiest way we can be godlike is to be “perfect” – which means perfect weight, perfect body, perfect health, and following the perfect diet.
So perfectionism around the body is a “stand-in” for a spiritual connection.
It’s an imposter trying to substitute for the real thing.
These are just some of the concepts I teach in our professional program, The Mind Body Eating Coach Certification Training.
And the dimension of spirituality is just one of many we focus on so health coaches and practitioners can take a truly holistic approach, and help clients and patients take a significant leap forward with their food and body challenges.
Let’s take a few more moments to wrap up with some of the practical distinctions around including a spiritual approach with coaching clients…
Spirituality in a Health Coaching Practice: What Can It Practically Look Like?
Every coaching session is a conversation.
In fact, the entirety of your relationship with a client is essentially one long and hopefully transformative conversation.
The idea is to have a conversation that matters. One that honestly and sustainably helps your client with the original complaint that they came to see you for.
When it comes to spirituality in health coaching, here are some of the concerns that practitioners might have:
- Clients might get angry at me for bringing up this topic.
- I’ll somehow offend or hurt people.
- People just want facts and information.
Well, after 40 years of coaching and working with clients in this way, I’m happy to say that you won’t hurt or offend anyone. It doesn’t even matter what religion your client follows. The majority of people who I’ve worked with in this way have been surprised in a good way.
They weren’t expecting a more meaningful dialogue. They weren’t making the kind of connections that I’ve been talking about in this article.
People welcome insight.
We welcome depth.
And we embrace anything that helps us when it comes to weight, body image, emotional eating, binge eating, overeating, constant food worry, and more.
When you learn the conversational skills, the distinctions to listen for, and the tools and tricks of the trade, you’ll be working with each client as a unique individual, and you’ll learn how to open up the “spiritual conversation,” and how to explore it with your client.
If a client isn’t interested in the spiritual domain, they’ll let you know, and you’ll simply pivot and use other tools and distinctions from eating psychology and nutrition that can help them on their journey.
Finally, consider the following as the foundational assumptions around a more universal and conversational approach to spirituality:
- We are all on our own unique spiritual journey.
- Our life is guided by a higher power.
- Our life therefore has meaning and purpose.
- We are here for a reason.
- We are here, at the very least, to learn and grow.
These distinctions can be digested and assimilated by a vast number of people. They can be uplifting and inspiring. And they can help us transform our food and body challenges in a very positive and lasting way.
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