I want to put a name to something I see emerging in the world of health and healing when people turn again and again to diets, lifestyles and plans to help ease their suffering. Even when these efforts fail to ever really help them in any lasting way…

This idea  weaves together the concepts of spiritual bypassing and nutritionism.

In defining spiritual bypassing, John Welwood, a psychotherapist and visionary who bridges the relationship between psychotherapy and spiritual practice, explains this bypassing as the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” Spiritual bypassing is a way people stay stuck.

People also get stuck in nutritionism. I first learned about nutritionism from my mentors and colleagues Dana Sturtevant, MS, RD and Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC, trailblazers and founders of Be Nourished. They explain that nutritionism “causes people to make food decisions solely from the knowledge in their head (put there from so-called “experts,” the media, etc.), while completely ignoring the body’s innate wisdom and the meaning of food.”

While taking into account the concept of spiritual bypassing and layering it with the ideas of nutritionism, I carefully considered what I had seen in myself, in practice with others, as well as in the research and case studies I read. From my analysis a very potent picture began to take shape in the form of what I am calling nutritional bypassing.

Nutritional bypassing is an attempt to use food and ways of eating to ease the deep suffering that ultimately does not have roots in the foods a person eats or how they eat. Nutritional bypassing is also an attachment to the idea that by eating certain foods, we can reach our highest potential on all levels without doing any of the messy work of tending to our psychological wounds or bodily experiences. It is true, in some cases, that eating a certain way, or certain foods, may alleviate symptoms or support personal health goals. Those things are not in the same league as psychological growth and healing. No amount of eating whole foods or the “right” foods will sort-out unresolved emotions, process trauma, sooth relational wounds, address dysfunctional thinking or repair developmental deficits.

For some people engaging in forms of disordered eating includes an on-going, over-focus on nutritional answers to their pain. There may be a seemingly never-ending search for elusive relief in various ways of eating, or spending great amounts of energy and time experimenting with what foods to eat in an effort to address the dis-ease which is in actuality rooted in psychological suffering. This is nutritional bypassing in action, which if not addressed could possibly deepen into life-threatening eating disorders or serious mental disorders. For example, one such emerging issue being named in the mental health field is a fixation on righteous eating called orthorexia.

How to interrupt nutrition bypassing?

  • Name it, we practice naming and eventually letting go of nutritional bypassing when it is occurring. Mindful awareness is our friend in this. We name what is happening without judgment and explore it with curiosity.
  • Embrace uncertainty, we stop the quest for certainty in eating, let our bodies guide us and let eating patterns of variety and experimentation take the place of perfection. Exploring the principles of intuitive eating can help.
  • Release the belief, we can stop believing food will be our gateway or savior from psychological pain. This is big work and an invitation to starting feeling hard things, this is sometimes easier said than done and often support is in order.

It is by setting down the focus on food, at least for a while, that we can begin to truly heal our relationship to food and eating.

It can feel counter intuitive in a culture that is full of nutritional fear mongering and fat phobia to take the main focus off food. But, unless someone is in the small minority of people who are in the middle of managing a life threatening food allergy or serious medical condition, setting down the over focus on food, while they heal on a deeper level, will not do great harm. For some, this may take the help of a team of competent treatment professionals and if a complex eating disorder is in place, in addition to a psychotherapist working with a registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders may also be in order. Ultimately, when healing begins to unfold, there will emerge a greater ability to listen to the wisdom of the body. As our trust in our body, and our whole self, deepens, we can start to notice an increased ability to know what foods give pleasure, nourish and fuel our unique bodies from the inside out. There is less struggle and more trust.

This profound, revolutionary work can take time.

The paradox is when we finally acknowledge and let go of nutritional bypassing, we can pave the road to becoming truly empowered around the ways we chose to nourish ourselves with food based on our own experiences, preferences, knowledge and authority.

If you are ready to go deeper than the next fad diet, lifestyle plan or program or believe you may have been engaging in nutritional bypassing, help is available.  

Jennifer DiGennaro MA, LLPC, is a psychotherapist and couples counselor in private practice in Grand Rapids, MI. She is a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional, Certified Body Trust® Provider and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, as well as the founder of Nourished Energy. She specializes in treating chronic dieting, binge eating disorder, body image concerns, trauma, PTSD, mood disorders and relationship issues. She brings a deep passion for social justice to her trauma-informed, evidence-based and heart-centered clinical work. She is committed to ending the war that is waged against bodies in our culture. Learn more at: www.nourishedenergy.com/meet-jen/