The Sliver People

Image result for thin slice of cakeEating behavior has fascinated me for years. Maybe because of my Italian heritage and the tendency to “cook enough for the army, the navy and the marines” as my mom would say…..coupled with my discovery of the research on “restrained eating” and learning about the link between dieting and binge eating. Added to my years of working with people with eating disorders and weight concerns, I have a great appreciation for the complexity of eating, food, and why people do what they do. So I love when people tell me stories about food and eating. Last week at work one of my co-workers told me a story about a family dinner and how something a relative (great aunt) said that kind of bothered her.

It was a celebration and cake was being served. My friend, her son and her daughter were enjoying a piece of cake at the dining room table while this aunt sat on the couch watching. “Look at you all, stuffing your faces!”she said in a way that was kind of negative, as if she were witnessing bad behavior, or behavior to be ashamed of. My friend went on to tell me about this aunt who appeared to be criticizing them for eating cake. Apparently this person is someone who always resists the dessert…..she “does not eat sweets”. She has “willpower”. And she seems to look down on those who give in.

But then, here is the weird part, the question my friend had: she refuses to take dessert EVER…..but then eventually, every single time, after shaming everyone else, sneaks back for “just a sliver”.

OH! I knew exactly who my friend was talking about. She sounds like “The Sliver People”, I said. We both burst out laughing, describing what we see when people try not to eat something they really want but for some reason don’t allow themselves to have. After a good amount of giggling at the term we just coined, I went on to share my theories of The Sliver People. Now remember, these are just my theories (which are influenced by research on cognitive restraint and dieting behavior as well as what lots of my patients have described to me about the way they think and feel about food).

So what is it with the Sliver People? My theories:

  1. They have a “good food-bad food” mind set. Sweets are bad, dessert is bad, cake is bad, so nobody should be eating it. If you eat “bad” food, then you, by association are being “bad”. You have no “willpower”. You are weak.

My Response: if you like it, it is GOOD. If you have cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you won’t feel too good. It’s all about balance and “listening to your body”. If you want something sweet and don’t eat something sweet, you will likely be thinking about food all day. I would recommend eating that darn piece of cake and going about your day.

2. They think cake (substitute sweets, desserts, “bad” food) makes you fat. Magically, one piece of cake can add gobs of weight.

My Response: the scientific fact is that one average piece of cake may have a few hundred calories (except my sister-in-law Michelle’s Mocha Marsh mellow 90 million layer cake she enters into baking contests which she manages to cram in a bit more melted butter and cream I am guessing that makes her a champion baker)….anyway, it takes much more than a piece of cake or one dessert to have any effect on weight, even Michelle’s. When you eat more calories than your body needs, it knows what to do. You don’t have to count. Think about it. When you eat a bigger meal than normal, something very strange happens: you no longer feel hungry, imagine that. You can go longer than an hour without thinking about food. So if you eat the cake and it is more than you normally eat, your appetite on its own will keep you in balance (if you learn to listen and trust it). Not easy for some people.

3. They have been dieting most of their lives. They are on a diet still. Cake is not on the diet.

My Response: when people “go on a diet” and eat only certain foods while eliminating others, we know they eventually have to “go off” the diet. Dieting and food restriction lead to food obsession and disordered eating, often binge eating. When dieters give in and have even “just a slice” feelings of guilt often follow. That is why restrained eating and dieting often lead to depression (in addition to the negative effect of starvation and inadequate energy intake on our brains and mood). I know I will never convince people to stop “dieting” or looking for that magical eating plan that will transform their bodies and their lives….but I won’t stop trying. Instead, if you focus on “healthy eating” and living, then having a piece of cake for dessert at a family celebration does not disrupt anything. It just adds to life’s enjoyment and moments we should be cherishing, creating memories together, savoring every single thing that is good…and I call that “healthy”.

4. They really aren’t hungry,but want to taste it. Their belly is full, but they know they won’t get this chance again (how often do you get a chance to try an award winning 9 million layer cake?).

My Response: I think it is “normal” eating to listen to your body, and if you know you can’t fit an entire piece of cake comfortably into your belly but want a “sliver”, it’s not a big deal. Chances are the person who takes just a bite because they want to taste it are probably not even noticing what everyone else is eating. They certainly are not being judgmental about anyone who decides to eat an entire piece. They are just eating what they want and not what they don’t want. Maybe they may take a piece “to go”. There is nothing wrong with that, honoring your body and staying in tune with it is something we all should be working on, that is if feeling good is your goal.

Are you one of the “Sliver People”? If so, do you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions? Remember, this is not meant to be a judgement of people who don’t take an entire piece of cake. It is meant to make us all aware of how we have been influenced by a culture that values thinness and weight loss and dieting at the expense of the true meaning of life. To cherish family, friends and celebrate all that we have, all of our blessings as much as we can while we can (if you ask me). To be thankful for all of it, every single day. To miss out because of fears of gaining weight, well, that is just sad.

Oh, and please don’t judge me because I only eat the frosting.

Were You “Bad” Today? And Why is it so Hard to be “Good”?

Chef’s Salad: Good or Bad?

My daughter was visiting yesterday and was telling me about a weird conversation she had with a woman in line at Subway. After going to the gym she had decided to run in to get a grinder (she is like me, we hate spending money on food we can make ourselves) but sometimes saving time is more important. So she ordered her grinder and the woman behind her says “oh you are being so good!” Huh? “you got vegetables on yours!”……”but I like vegetables on mine….”my daughter said.

The woman goes on to say something about the fact that my daughter had on work out clothes from coming from the gym. That made her “really being good” in this woman’s eyes. The discussion led to this stranger sharing that she had been “bad” for almost 3 years, had not exercised but was just starting again. She was going to make herself eat vegetables, too. But not today. Today she would be bad.

I know I have talked about the language of dieters, of the moral judgement (of oneself) depending on if certain foods are consumed, or if food is “burned off ” with self-induced and not-too-fun “exercise”. But this lingo means so much more if you ask me. It is another one of my triggers to shake my head and feel sad, angry, not sure what. This language goes back decades, and is so ingrained in our culture that when you don’t buy into it, YOU are the weird one. YOU don’t get it, don’t fit in, aren’t normal. Of COURSE there are bad foods and good foods, people tell me.

I can debate why any food you can name is “good” if you happen to like it. “Good” is just a word and can mean different things to different people. To the dieting woman at Subway, “good” meant eating vegetables and exercising. To me, good means something very different. If a food tastes good to me, well then it IS “good”! If you want to talk about how different foods contribute to your health, that is a different story. I happen to believe that since all foods have energy (calories) they are good in at least that respect. If you were hiking in the woods with no food or water, and stumbled upon a picnic basket with Twinkies and Koolaid, I’d call that pretty good.

No, the problem is not just in your interpretation of the words, it is how they make you feel. It is the emotional response you get (and often the behaviors that follow) when you have this judgmental belief system. It ruins people’s entire days. Entire weekends. Entire vacations. The word “good” and the word “bad”. It reinforces the belief that we need to restrict ourselves of certain foods if we are to be healthy (meaning thin in many people’s minds). Most people believe that if you eat certain foods then you are likely to gain weight, and if you eat other foods, you will be thin. I can’t tell you the number of comments I have gotten depending on what someone sees me eat. A friend of mine once commented “You must have a good metabolism! You eat so much candy!” when in reality, I happened to buy a bunch of penny candy while on vacation (it brings me back to my childhood, when we had a corner store that really truly sold penny candy….that cost a penny). So when I happen to go to a store that has Mary Janes and squirrel nuts and caramels, I always buy a few. It just struck me funny how a small little candy is supposed to make you “fat”. I don’t have a high metabolism. I just really enjoy that candy and the reality is a piece of that candy has less calories than an apple. But I am sure if I ate 3 apples, nobody would comment.

The other thing that often baffles me is what different people consider “bad”. To some of my patients, rice was bad. To others, rice was “safe”. Potatoes can go either way I have found. Some people think they are “fattening” however some don’t. So depending on who you listen to, potatoes can be good or they can be bad. Same with rice, and bread, and olive oil, and nuts. It is pretty confusing.

I have wondered where this all started, and from the decades of research on binge eating and “disinhibition” I know that it most likely has come from our dieting mind-set. It may have started with the labeling of foods by Weight Watchers of “legal” and “illegal” way back in the day (they don’t do that now, now you have points….still, crazy if you ask me. TOO MUCH THINKING). But probably before that, depending on the fad diet of the year. No wonder everyone is so confused. One year fat is the “bad” food and the next year “carbs” are bad. Why don’t people ever stop and wonder: how is it that bad food keeps changing?

My suggestion is this: have you entertained the thought of thinking about health? If you have, then is the obstacle that you just don’t like “healthy” food? Consider this: you may be so obsessed with unhealthy food mainly because you have been trying to avoid it. If you let yourself have it in moderation when you really truly wanted it, do you think you would want it so much? Or, maybe you truly have never developed a taste for healthy foods. There are so many people who grew up on canned vegetables and Mc Donald’s burgers. I have worked with many families who really have not tried fruits and vegetables because they did not grow up with them. I also have worked with people who just don’t know how to cook, and so spaghettios and Ellio’s Pizza are mainstays. We know that exposure to healthy foods (such as fresh fruits and vegetables) over time really makes you eventually love them. We call it the “Rule of 20” which means that if you keep trying something (say broccoli) that it takes 20 exposures to really know if you like it or not. Research actually has mostly focused on children, and it could take as little as 10-15 tries. The bottom line is, that you just can’t know unless you keep trying. I am on my 7th try of beets, and I still don’t like them. I won’t give up though. Thirteen more tries…over time.

The other problem is, we do get used to certain types of foods, and our bodies actually learn to crave them. For example, eating really high fat, fast foods on a regular basis can actually affect your body in a way that makes you tolerate them more and crave them more. But when you eat lower fat foods, or if you never eat fast foods, you may find you get a stomach ache when you do eat them. I am not saying we should never ever eat fast foods or high fat foods. But I do think it is important to take a look at your overall habits. If you never ever eat fruits and vegetables because you think you don’t like them, then you might want to just consider starting to try them. NOT because they are “good” but because we know eating more of them makes us healthier. You can still have those burger and fries, but learning to also like a salad on the side is a huge step toward being healthier. Experiment with cooking vegetables different ways. Read cookbooks or check out cooking websites for new and interesting ways to make vegetables. Just because a dish is “healthy” or “good” does not mean it does not taste fantastic! My favorite thing to do is experiment with cooking healthy foods and coming up with something amazing. For example, last night I made “ratatouille” which is sauteed garlic, onions, peppers, eggplant, squash and zucchini in diced tomatoes. But added some spicy turkey sausage, shredded carrots, several herbs from my garden, some leftover red wine and grated Italian cheese. I melted some mozzarella on top, we had rice and adobo seasoned grilled chicken. It was heavenly. Good? I’d say! and not because it was healthy, but because it tasted wonderful!

Here is my challenge to you: for one week, can you catch yourself when it comes to talking about food? When you go to eat something “bad” can you re-frame your words? Instead, say “this is yummy”. Try to tune in to your body and hunger and eat an amount that makes your tummy feel content. No need to stuff yourself, because you are not being “bad”. You are enjoying something that tastes good to you. Also, instead of avoiding something that you never eat unless you are “dieting” and being “good”, can you try it anyway? have a yummy salad. Try a new fruit. Don’t miss out on exposing your taste buds to good food just because you are “off” your diet. Who knows…..you may discover a new favorite. Stop labeling food. All foods are equal.

Well, except beets maybe. But I won’t give up.

Oh, and that chef’s salad in the picture? It was good!

The WHO Report on Processed Meat: So now what do you eat for lunch?

hot-dog-1320133It is all over the news today, so of course I need to add my two cents. I just hate when these studies come out and people get scared and start to eliminate a food from their diets just because of one report. The reality is, to be healthy, it is never one simple thing.

If you check it out, according to the World Health Organization, about 34,000 deaths per year worldwide are attributed to diets high in processed meats, but that is still just a small fraction of the 8.2 million deaths caused by cancer in 2012. It is specifically colon cancer they are referring to. The review is actually going to be published in The Lancet so if you are interested, check out the link (you may have to pay for the article when it is published). You can also check out  WHO Report.

But I like a realistic look at it, so please take a look at the NYTimes article that explains a bit more about how other factors play a role. Before you cut out anything from your diet, think about all of the other things that contribute to health. Ask yourself:

  1. Do you smoke? then please consider quitting because cutting out hot dogs should not be your first priority.
  2. Are you a couch potato? then consider adding in some movement in your life because a body that has no physical activity will not be any healthier just from cutting out salami.
  3. Do you eat all brown foods? In other words, do you dislike fruits and vegetables and so never eat them? Then omitting the bacon from your burger may not help much in your efforts to be healthy and avoid cancer. You need those antioxidants from foods with color.
  4. Do you hate your job? Are you stressed out everyday? Unhappy in your relationship or life in general? Then never having another ham sandwich in your life is not going to help.

My point is that you need to look at your entire lifestyle, your life in general before you think that making one dramatic change is going to matter. Think about your health, both mental and physical. No, you should not have hot dogs or bacon every day. But having bacon on a Sunday morning is not going to matter if you are otherwise doing all the other healthy things you need to be doing to feel good. Having a great bacon cheeseburger when you go out to eat at your favorite sports bar once in awhile will probably not cause colon cancer. Having salami for a week straight when you go to Italy for your dream vacation also will never affect your health long-term. IMG_5676But if you are someone who eats processed meats (think bologna, salami) every day, never eat fruits or vegetables, is stressed out, a couch potato, and smokes, then maybe just trying to change some of those unhealthy habits would be a good idea. Never eating another hot dog is not the answer.

The Power of a Cookie

chocolate-chip-cookies-20-1328002This weekend I was reminded of the power of a cookie. I was at a social gathering which was a very joyful celebration filled with laughter, games, children, and great food. As with most summer time picnics that are pot luck, people bring their favorite dishes or desserts to share. Being someone who loves to cook and get new recipes, it is a fun experience for me. I tend to skip the dishes I can make myself (simple potato salad, coleslaw, plain old chocolate chip cookies, etc) and always enjoy trying things where I don’t even know what is in it! For example, there was an interesting quinoa salad with avocado and kale that was amazing (it looked a bit sketchy but tasted great!). Someone made buffalo chicken appetizer balls with a blue cheese dip that I am definitely getting the recipe for. You get the picture, great food, great day, great fun.

But near the end of the night a woman came out to the dessert table looking for a cookie. There had been a few platters of cookies but most of the guests had left and apparently the platters were gone too. She seemed really desperate for a cookie, so I looked around and found a small plate which I showed her. She quickly grabbed one and gobbled it up. I was glad she was happy until a few seconds later when her mood drastically changed. I was thrown when she started to say “why did I eat that cookie? I feel so guilty! I have to fit into my dress next week! What was I thinking!?” I suddenly felt bad for being a part of this, as she was truly upset. But then my dietitian mode kicked in as I tried to convince her one cookie truly would have no effect on her body. It took some time but eventually she seemed to let it go.

It struck me later that reactions like this to a cookie are not uncommon. Have you ever witnessed someone reacting to what they have eaten is such a dramatic way? The reaction is one you might expect from someone who truly did something really bad. The primary feeling is one of guilt. The word “guilty” came up several times. To me, that word is a strong one. It means you did something really wrong, something you regret and don’t want to do again because you feel so bad. How does one cookie make someone feel like that?

Part of it could be the “black and white” thinking many people have about food and eating. Food is “good” or food is “bad”. Who decides what foods fit into what category is the individual and how they define the word as well as how they judge the particular food. To me “good” means it tastes good. To someone else, good means it is good for you, a “healthy” food. So for me, those buffalo chicken balls with the blue cheese dip were definitely good! But to someone else, they may be considered “bad”. Peanut butter cookies may be “bad” to someone who thinks sweets are bad because they don’t consider cookies “healthy”, but to me they are bad because I just plain don’t like peanut butter cookies (sugar cookies however are definitely good).

Another way to explain some people’s guilty overreaction to eating just one cookie might be the “diet jail” I referred to in a previous post Are You in Diet Jail? When people are dieting to lose weight (which often happens when they are getting ready for a specific event, such as a reunion, holiday or wedding, big party, etc and want to fit into specific clothing) they put themselves in diet jail where most normal foods are forbidden. Even one bite of a food that is not in their diet world of foods in diet jail can set someone off.

It also seems like a “perfectionism” kind of approach to food and eating. The word “perfection” is interesting because I think we all have areas in our lives where we strive for it. To my grandfather back in the day, it was his lawn. It was perfect. He would have a fit if a neighborhood dog would set foot on it, and heaven forbid, pee. I remember being very careful as a child when we went to my grandparents home, being sure to stay within the manicured border of the small sidewalk leading to the door. Don’t step on the grass!!

My husband is a bit of a perfectionist when he entertains friends. He spends a lot of time on cutting foods perfectly so the presentation is the way he wants it to be. I, however do not have that kind of patience, and tend to throw it all together. Other people need to have a perfectly organized closet. One woman I worked with had all of her clothes hung up by color, and her shoes all labeled. I, on the other hand, still have sweaters stuffed in my closet mixed in with the sun dresses…never did get around to switching those clothes around. My perfectionism tends to involve being a bit overly concerned that I make everyone happy if they are coming to my house for a get together. It is important to me that everyone has a great experience and I truly do enjoy the cooking and entertaining. It is stressful though to be thinking so hard about pleasing everyone, and I am working on having it be “good enough”.

So maybe that is the take home message. Why can’t everything be “good enough?” Why isn’t your body good enough? Why isn’t your diet good enough?  Not that I promote looking at calories, but the truth is your body certainly does not care if you eat 100 calories from an apple or a cookie, it is probably just happy to have the energy. Yes, you should care about nutrition and getting the nutrients you need, and yes, your health does matter. Assuming you are not allergic to it and don’t have some other health condition such as diabetes, one cookie truly does not have the power to affect your body in any significant way.

So the next time you catch yourself reacting dramatically from eating something, try to stop and do a reality check. Do you really need to waste so much time feeling guilty about something that has no affect on your body or your health? For some, this is much harder than for others. Some have spent months and years with this mindset and it does not change overnight. But even just being aware of your own experience is a step in the right direction. Try not to accept this and instead start questioning yourself. Look at the big picture and all the positive things you do to be the best you can be. To me, being perfect means being imperfect.

And the truth is a cookie has no power at all.