The Role of Nutrition in Positive Body Image

A Nutrition Professional Shares Her Inspiring Story of Change and Body Acceptance.

There are a lot of very strong opinions and messages out there when it comes to body image these days. So much so that it’s enough to make our heads spin. Is it okay to want to change if we’re physically not feeling healthy or is it not? If we really don’t want that piece of chocolate cake, is it okay to say no or is that giving in to diet culture? What does the term “positive body image” really even mean? The questions, the doubts and the polarizing messaging can be deafening. So, who are we women supposed to listen to? It turns out that our body has many of the answers; we just have to know how to hear them. 

That’s what Certified Holistic Nutritional Consultant and Precision Nutrition Level One Coach Jenna Lessner from over at Simply Nurtured teaches from a place of first-hand experience. Through a journey to what she calls self-love and food freedom, she was able to lose 132 pounds after nearly hitting 295 pounds on the scale. Now, she’s helping other women learn about the role of nutrition in positive body image as they come to their own place of body acceptance. She was kind enough to share her thoughts and expertise on this in a Q&A with me. 

Photo of a woman's hand holding up a sticky note saying "You are beautiful" as an example of positive body image

Peppermint Tea & Me: What is your story and how did you decide that this was the profession for you?

Jenna Lessner: For as long as I can remember, I’d used food for comfort. When I graduated university with a Bachelor of Science degree in 2010, my weight had climbed to 295 pounds. The day that I stepped on the scale and saw that number staring back at me, I think that was a big turning point in my life. I vowed that I wouldn’t reach 300 pounds. 

Photo of Jenna Lessner
Jenna Lessner,
Certified Holistic Nutritional Consultant
and Precision Nutrition Level One Coach 

That vow came at the price of a vicious cycle of deprivation and binge eating. Three years later, I was still in that same perpetuating cycle. I was extremely unhealthy physically and mentally. I was full of self-loathing, and I hated myself. In 2013, something shifted in me, and I knew that I could no longer live like that.

I began to heal the relationship that I had with food by allowing myself to actually feel the emotions instead of numbing them with food, and I began moving my body and connecting with my body like I never had before. I also realized how the foods that I was choosing to eat on a regular basis were impacting my energy levels, my sleep, my mental health and my emotional health. That was really the aha! moment that lead me to a 132-pound weight loss and to study nutrition at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition in Calgary.

PTM: What do you consider to be a positive body image?

JL: I think body image refers to how an individual sees their body. It’s your own perception of your body and what you believe about your appearance. It’s also how you feel and move in your body. So, I think a positive body image is more than tolerating what you look like. It means to truly accept yourself and appreciate your body. It means that you aren’t trying to fit your body into this box of what you think it should look like. 

PTM: What is meant by “diet culture?”

JL: I think that it’s this belief that thinness or being skinny equates to our worth or is tied to our health. It prioritizes weight, shape and size over wellness. I think that there is a distinct difference between those things. I feel that there is this very large misconception in the diet industry that if you just lose that 20 pounds, you’ll be happy, and you’ll love yourself. That’s not even close to being true. Happiness is a feeling or showing of pleasure, and it’s a sense of confidence or satisfaction. The definition of happiness does not mention one’s weight or body size, no matter where you look that up. 

PTM: What role does diet culture play in body image?

JL: I think that diet culture promotes this idea that restricting food or punishing ourselves with maybe exercise will result in weight loss and in turn will provide you with those feelings of worthiness, acceptance and being enough. It distracts people from really connecting to their bodies and tuning into how specific foods will make their body feel. Diet culture replaces that with a regimented prescription for a smaller body. It also invites in food shaming and body shaming with questions and statements such as, “Are you really going to eat that?” or “I thought you were on a diet.” That type of culture is damaging to our mental and emotional health. 

PTM: What is the difference between healthy eating habits and diet culture?

JL: I believe that it comes down to intention. When we look at the purpose and objective behind our actions, it changes how we view the situation or how we even view food. If you choose to eat a salad, the intention could be, “Oh, I need to lose weight in order to accept my body. This salad is really low calorie, and it’s going to help me get there.” Or, “I’m choosing to eat this nutritious salad because I love my body and I want to provide it nourishing foods so that it feels really good.” The intention behind any action, I think is the key. 

PTM: How do healthy eating habits, a positive body image and a healthy lifestyle all fit together?

JL: I think that when you intend to take care of your body, live a healthy lifestyle, and choose healthy eating habits, it comes from a place of love and appreciation. You choose to eat foods that energize you and make you feel good and that support your wellbeing physically and mentally. You choose to exercise frequently and rest when you need it. I also think that when you provide your body with nourishing foods that it needs for optimal function and vitality, your body feels really freakin’ good. When you love yourself, you provide your body with nourishing foods that it needs for optimal health and vitality. 

PTM: In this day and time, when there is so much emphasis on calling out fat shaming and recognizing the role that negative body image plays in eating disorders, women are being told to accept themselves just the way they are. While that’s a good thing, in many cases, women of all sizes are being made to feel like they shouldn’t want to change their weight or body size and if they do, they’re giving in to diet culture. What are your thoughts on a woman recognizing that she doesn’t feel good or healthy in her body and that she wants to make changes, including losing weight and how she eats? 

JL: I think Rachel Hollis said that “Someone else’s opinion of you is none of your business.” It’s a beautiful statement but can be hard in reality when you are dealing with that. I also believe that people project their own insecurities onto others. If someone is shaming you for your weight or desire to get healthier so you feel more comfortable in your body, is it possible that they’re struggling with their own body issues and struggle with food? I don’t think people should be shamed for the size of their body, and I don’t think people should be shamed for choosing to eat a healthier way so that they feel good in their body. 

As someone who has formerly been almost 300 pounds, I know what it’s like to receive those judgmental stares or comments or be the brunt of someone’s cruel joke. I also know how physically hard it is to carry that much weight. Walking up a single flight of stairs to me felt like I was out of breath, and I needed to take a little break before I could proceed. There were times when tying my shoe was a chore, my knees always hurt and dropping something on the floor left me wondering if I really need that anyway. It was uncomfortable. So, I understand that desire to shed weight so you do feel healthier and can actually move in your body and do the things that you want to do. 

Where I struggle with some of the positive body image messages is that we’ve taken this 180-degree turn in the opposite direction because some of them are promoting being overweight and living an unhealthy lifestyle and then shaming weight loss. You can’t call that body positivity if you’re shaming someone for something else. 

PTM: If you do have that desire to lose weight, does that mean that you no longer have a positive body image?

JL: I don’t think so. I think that you can love yourself and still want to change because that’s called growth. I work with people every day that desire to live in a smaller body, and I really ask them to define their why. Often people tell me that they want to be able to move better, that they want to be able to feel good in their bodies, to have a healthy lifestyle and to be around when their children start having grandchildren or doing things with their children right now instead of watching them from the sidelines. I think that why you want to change is really a key indicator and motivator in any change.

PTM: What are the first questions that you ask a woman who comes to you and says that she’s not happy with the way that she feels and/or she’s not happy with her body and she wants to make changes in how she eats?

JL: One of the first questions I ask any client is why. Why do they want to make this change now?  I think that intrinsic motivation is huge. When you can make an emotional connection to why you want to make any change, it empowers you in your choices. 

That’s basically what I did in 2013. I got super clear on why I wanted to lose weight. It wasn’t just an arbitrary number or a goal to be healthier. I realized the life that I wanted to live and with that, something needed to change. I had this vision of being 70 and climbing mountains, running marathons well into my 60s and then chasing my grandchildren around a playground instead of watching them from a park bench. None of that would be possible if I didn’t make some changes. So, I also ask clients, “How do you want to feel in your body? What is that feeling that you’re really seeking through weight loss, and can you tap into that right now?”

PTM: What are the first steps that you would advise a woman in that situation to take in changing how she eats?

JL: To bring awareness of how the food that she’s currently eating is making her feel in her body. Getting curious as to which foods make her feel alive and energized and which foods are leaving her feeling lethargic or bloated. A symptom from a food could be pretty much anything. Fatigue is a number one symptom that I see but even digestive issues, bloating or elimination issues. Also, just getting curious and asking your body, ‘What am I feeling after I eat this? What am I noticing?’ and creating that awareness. If you can become aware of how different foods affect your body and become aware of the thoughts that you’re having about your body that are on repeat, you are well on your way without even changing anything. 

My Thoughts on Positive Body Image

I love Jenna’s message so much because it’s all about nurturing, caring for and appreciating our bodies whatever our shape or size. Positive body image is about loving ourselves. It’s our foundation as we work toward and achieve our own version of real health. I have learned and am still learning with each new phase of life what that feels like for me, and I strongly believe that each of us deserves the space to do the same. I hope you find at least some of that space and support here at Peppermint Tea & Me. All are welcome!