Don’t Let Crappy Covid DeRail Your Move Toward Health

healthy lifeI woke up at 4:37 am today. After tossing and turning most of the night, I could not figure out if it was anxiety over the fact that I have to have a tooth extracted today at 10 am….or if it is excitement that I am actually getting to go out and do something different.  I can’t believe those words are coming out of my mouth, someone who going to the dentist is right up there with getting a flat tire, or jury duty, or sliding off the road in a snow storm. I am afraid of those things and I dislike them immensely. But here I am, so excited about getting out that even getting a tooth pulled sounds good. What is this crazy quarantining doing to me? What is it doing to everyone?

I am sure you have noticed, as I have, how people around you are reacting. I have read some interesting and enlightening posts on social media expressing our struggles perfectly. Two of my favorites included one from someone I know and one from a stranger. The first one, from someone I know expressed the true struggle this has been for her. She expressed the dissonance lots of us are feeling: we want to do what is right and be safe, yet we so desperately want to get back to normal life. We are torn. We are scared, but we also can’t stand it anymore. The second post was long but worth the read. It was a great reminder that no, we are not in the same boat. We are in very very different boats fighting the same enemy. Some boats are pretty easy and fun. No small kids at home, sudden extra time to hang out at a beautiful home with plenty of funds for good food and Amazon purchases. Much different than the young single parent at home with two special needs children, living paycheck to paycheck (that they aren’t even getting right now) just to pay the rent, living in a busy city with no back yard and no transportation, no family support, no money for enough food or Amazon purchases. Yes, both posts were great reminders that we all have different circumstances, and we all are taking this differently (even differently day to day, or minute to minute). So, as I write this post, please keep in mind that I can only share my own personal trip on my own unique boat which is probably very different than yours.

However different our “boats” are, I am guessing you also may be noticing a few “themes” coming to light as to how some people are dealing with this. I have been paying attention to the comments of others when it comes to how this is affecting their daily habits, their thinking and ultimately, their health. So I have a few thoughts that might be worth sharing.  I have noticed lots and lots of joking around food, eating and drinking. Oh and also some funny ones about being stuck at home with a significant other who may be driving you crazy, but since I am no expert on relationships, I am not commenting on that one! However, when it comes to using food and eating, or drinking/addictions, that I do know more about. And I know not everyone is laughing.

There are lots of people who “use” food to feel better in a very “normal” way. “Emotional eating” can fall on a spectrum in a certain way. It really isn’t a big deal to treat yourself with chocolate because it makes you happy. Or, if you had a rough day and your partner wants to take you out for a drink and luxurious meal (again, this may be chicken wings for some of us, lobster and escargot for others). The point is, the food and the eating are part of the treatment for feeling better. Think homemade chicken soup when you are sick. Lots of us can relate to that. When I stayed home from school if I was ill back in the day, my mom would crank open a can of that good ole Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, the kind with the big fat overcooked noodles and maybe three bites of chicken in every can. It didn’t matter, it made me feel better. Today, I make real chicken soup, because I know how to cook (not that mom didn’t but with four kids, Campbells came in handy). Anyway, it still works. Food makes us feel better sometimes. And that is ok. Comfort food, I love it.

Binge eating is not ok. By binge eating, I do not mean the kind of eating people are joking about right now. The jokes tend to be about being “good” all day, following a diet and then turning to cookies, chips, ice cream, pizza all night long. Some people think that is funny. To the “typical dieter” who may diet during the day and lose it at night, this may just be a pattern of eating they have gotten used to. Maybe it doesn’t bother them, maybe they do want to lose weight but they have fallen into this pattern and it hasn’t started to interfere with their life yet emotionally (getting depressed, poor self-esteem, etc). Yes, people think turning to food during a crises is funny. I don’t. Maybe because I know way too many people who actually do get affected in a very big way when they turn to food to feel better. I worry about those people now because this is one of those times where we all need some coping skills. If you have not worked on it in the past or gotten professional help to develop some healthy skills, using food in this way may occur and only add to the stress, not relieve it. That is the problem. When I read one of the posts that was supposed to be funny (and I am sure some people without any disordered eating DID think it was funny), well, it struck me that after all that eating in just a few hours, all you end up with is a tummy ache. The difference is one person can happily go to bed with that tummy ache while another is devastated.

I have noticed there arn’t any jokes about the opposite end of the spectrum: not eating as a means to cope. I don’t think people have concerns about people who diet or starve themselves.  Maybe because our (messed up) culture sees restricting food as a “virtue”. I am worried about the people I have known with eating disorders who are going through this. If you are a typical eater, when you feel hungry you don’t like the feeling so you eat lunch, feel better and move on. For others, not eating and feeling empty numbs them. It is a very dangerous way to deal with things, and it is much more complicated than I can even explain or even understand. But it is very important that we don’t ignore children, spouses, relatives or friends who are now suddenly losing weight, skipping meals or not eating. It is extremely important for those who have already been diagnosed with an eating disorder to pay attention and stay connected to support systems.

I have also noticed lots of joking about drinking. Again, some of these are funny to those of us who have some control over how much we drink. I totally relate to the use of wine to connect with people during this time over virtual happy hours and outdoor “social distancing” happy hours, etc. But I also know people who have worked so hard to figure out how to stop drinking because they needed to. This is not an easy time for them. Epecially since lots of the coping skills involve social support systems where people connect in person, whether it be a meeting or church or whatever. Now what? I am guessing we are all learning much more than we ever knew about social meeting apps, Zoom, Facetime, etc to enable us to keep these good things going. At least we all need to be aware of those around us, and try to be supportive as much as possible to enable loved ones to continue on their positive path.

Finally, I have noticed some funny comments about being lazy. Here again, we are all different. One person may be climbing the walls, cleaning every cabinet, rearranging every room, walking miles a day, biking, painting walls, cleaning garages, knitting sweaters, building lego towers, painting portraits, and on and on. Another person my not get out of their pajamas all day. They may walk from the coffee pot to the couch. They may be using this time to catch up on all of their Netflix series. And then go to bed to do it all over again the next day. And sometimes, we can alternate between these two. And I think that is ok.

I wish I had some brilliant advice to help everyone get through this when it comes to eating healthy, being active in a balanced way and coming out of this better than before. The only thing I can think of is to remind yourself that you have never gone through anything like this before, so therefore however you are dealing with it, whatever is getting you through is ok……as long as it is not seriously interfering with your mental or physical health. If you are someone who has had issues with depression, eating disorders, or addictions and you find yourself slipping or struggling to cope, don’t ignore it. Go back to your resources, your support system, your therapist or doctor or whoever it is that helped you before.

If, on the other hand, you are one of the lucky ones who’s boat is pretty simple, then use this time to learn about yourself. If you really don’t have any serious issues with eating or drinking or maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but find yourself ignoring what you are eating, getting out of your routine, drinking a bit more than feels good, then maybe it will be helpful to take back some control. This whole thing has taken a lot from us. It has robbed us of our freedom and fun, family and for some it has taken lives we loved. Now that we have been doing this awhile, maybe it is time to look back at what used to work for us. Did we eat three good meals a day before? Maybe instead of snacking out of stress it is time to do some meal planning to help feel more in control. Maybe you used to go to the gym at lunch time at work, or maybe after work, but you can’t do that right now. Instead, why not take that same time and go for a walk, or do some stretches or dance to some music to let out your energy? Was bedtime 10 pm before because you had to get up for work, and now it is 1 am? And you don’t feel so great the next day? Try getting back to your regular sleep schedule. Maybe controlling the things you actually can control will help.

Or maybe not.

If you just feel like taking this time to do whatever you want, and you are feeling just as happy and just as energetic and just as healthy, that’s ok too. The point is, whatever floats YOUR boat is what is best.

Oh, and wish me luck on my exciting adventure today! I hope you get to do something different today, too. Something more fun than going to the dentist.

 

 

 

They Are What (and How) You Eat: How to Have a Positive Influence on Your Child’s Eating Habits

Image may contain: one or more people and babyI have never met a parent who does not want the best for their children. From day one, most parents have researched how to feed their new precious babies, and even if they feel prepared, it isn’t always easy. I have witnessed new moms who have persevered through initial breastfeeding struggles (having nursed three babies myself, I can tell you from experience it sure as heck is not fun in the beginning!). Some moms who choose to bottle feed instead also struggle. It’s not easy washing all those bottles right after having a baby, with little sleep, exhaustion, and all that goes with giving birth…yet, we get through it. Not to mention kids with digestive issues who struggle with reflux, constipation, you name it. Yes, feeding a newborn takes a lot of work, energy, and sometimes trial and error. But we never give up.

And then we start with foods. Baby cereal, pureed fruits and vegetables, Stage 1, Stage 2 and then finally on to table foods! We feel relieved when our child meets their goals for growth and weight gain, and happy when we see them joyfully eating a good variety of foods. Yes, getting through this stage is really important, and a giant first step towards a healthy child. Most of us tend to reflect on the types of foods we are preparing for our children. We read every label, we try to avoid foods with chemicals and sugar and food dyes because we just want our children to be healthy, right? The big mistake many parents make, though, is focusing way too much on the actual food itself and not enough on the crucial behaviors they are slowly instilling as habits around feeding. You can be feeding your children the healthiest foods you can find, but if you are neglecting to reflect on the big picture, it may not be enough. In fact, I dare say, feeding your child the perfect diet while neglecting the creation of lifelong healthy habits may be meaningless when it comes to supporting a healthy relationship with food.

I am not saying that what you feed your child does not matter, of course it does. That actually is one of the “habits” we might pass on to our children if we are not aware of what is happening. Babies and children, teenagers and we adults need a certain flow of specific nutrients on a regular basis to grow, function and feel our best. But I know you can get all the information on what your child needs hopefully from your pediatrician or a registered dietitian. Check out The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website or KidsHealth for evidenced-based information on feeding, nutrition and more.

So, instead of giving you the specifics of nutrition, I am going to give you some important tips that I not only learned from talking to and observing thousands of families, but also from the experts and research. It’s the stuff you typically don’t think of or pay attention to, but is so much more important than you think.  It is more about the “big picture”, the gigantic, complicated, intertwined factors that all influence your eating habits…..and ultimately your health (and your child’s health) in the end. The hard part is that it may involve some changes for YOU. Most parents are pretty stuck in their ways, and have fallen into their own eating habits and practices, some promoting health and some not so much. I never ever try to tell someone what to do (except “listen to your body”, the standing joke in our family). However, if there are some eating habits you have fallen into over your lifetime that you didn’t realize may be harmful to your child’s health in the future, now may be the time to reflect on those and make some changes. Also, some very typical beliefs and attitudes around feeding that have been around for decades and that we don’t tend to question but, rather repeat from generation to generation need to change (the old adage “clean you plate” for example goes totally against instilling intuitive eating). We just didn’t know then what we know now.

Ready for the challenge? Here are some scenarios that have the capacity to affect eating and health in a negative way. See if you recognize any of these in your own life:

  1. Eating in Front of a Screen. We all have done it.  You just can’t get away from them. Think smartphone, IPad, laptop, computer, TV, DVD, video games. Add in the likelihood that most of us just have way too much on our plate. We have deadlines to meet, laundry to do, grocery shopping, cleaning, sports to play, people to visit, church, you get the picture. There is no time. I just retired 5 months ago, yet it is taking me weeks to finish this one blog! Where does the time go? Of course we need to eat while we are watching TV. Of course we need to eat at our desk. We need to multitask. I am sipping my coffee while eating a muffin as we speak.                               I am thankful that when my kids were little I didn’t have a computer. Truth be told, I didn’t even own a cell phone. The only screen in the house was the TV for quite awhile…..something to be said as I think about it for the good ole days. But things are different now, and young parents have an added challenge I did not have growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, and my own children did not have in the 80’s. These days I see babies just loving their parent’s cell phones. They turn into great portable devices to distract an unhappy baby, but when you pair it with food, it becomes a complicated mess. Then of course we have the TV with its on-demand features, binge-watching (which wasn’t even a word back in my days….if you missed a show, you missed it. Imagine that). Parents are eating in front of TVs all the time, and so are their kids. We all know people who own a dining or kitchen table but never use it (instead it becomes a landing place for mail, backpacks, projects, etc). No, people aren’t sitting at the table, they are sitting on the couch to eat. So what is the big deal?                                                                                                                                                   Lots. First of all, when you don’t look at your food while you eat (and enjoy it), it kind of disappears. Well at least it feels like it does. And, when you don’t actually LOOK at your food while you are consuming it you miss out on the sensory satisfaction eating is supposed to provide. The joy of eating, the appreciation of how good it tastes (depending on who cooked it I suppose), all of these factors contribute to truly feeling satisfied after eating. What happens when you simply watch the screen, and fail to look at the food you are putting into your mouth? You need more…..because it sometimes feels like you never even ate it (have you ever experienced this? I have!).                                                                                                          Secondly, when you eat in front of a screen, chances are you are not eating the healthiest of foods. Who grabs an orange they have to peel (and actually look at) when they grab a snack to have while working or watching a show? You are more likely to grab a handful of something or bowl of something dry (think of anything?) Research (see Watching TV While Eating and Diet Quality) actually shows that eating while watching TV “is associated with poorer diet quality among children, including more frequent consumption of sugar‐sweetened beverages and high‐fat, high‐sugar foods and fewer fruits and vegetables…….the cumulative effect may contribute to the positive association between eating while watching TV and childhood obesity”(the research tends to focus on “childhood obesity” because everyone is obsessed with it, I personally rather focus on health, but the information is still useful).  Even if you actually are eating as a family and eating together, it doesn’t help if the TV is on.    Consequently, research shows that intake of fruits and veggies (healthy foods) actually will be less if children eat in front of a screen (see article Screen Time and Eating Behaviors )Finally, eating if front of a screen contradicts “intuitive eating” goals. If you want to help your child achieve their own natural body, the one they are genetically born with and meant to have, then teaching them to follow their own cues of hunger and fullness is critical. We want children to stop eating when they are full, and to eat more when they feel hungrier to help them trust their little bodies and develop good intuitive eating skills. Watching a screen while eating disconnects them from what their bodies are saying just as it disconnects us. Who hasn’t finished a giant bowl of popcorn in front of a Netflix movie when they weren’t even hungry? Not that this is a big problem, it is a fun family thing to do, however repeated on a daily basis with all meals and snacks is certainly contributing to the development of an eating behavior that is not supportive of future health.
  2. Picky Eating Parents. It was always a bit hard for me to hide my chuckle when a parent would complain that their teenager did not eat vegetables…..then when asked what vegetables they ate and wanted their child to eat, they would respond “well, I don’t eat them, I don’t like them, but she needs them”.  Doesn’t that strike you as unfair? After all, parents serve as role models and eating is no exception. Children WILL eat what you eat, eventually. They just won’t buy it when you try to convince them green beans are delicious but they won’t pass YOUR lips! It is hypocritical.                                                                                                                                    So here is some advice. Let me introduce you to what we dietitians call “The Rule of 20”. This means that it actually takes AT LEAST 20 tries to truly know if you like a food. It could take more or less, depending on the person (for example, children with sensory issues may have to try 60 times). But let’s assume you are a typical parent who just does not like vegetables. You truly believe you would gag if you had to take a bite of a green bean. You don’t have to down an entire serving to expose your taste buds and your brain to the green bean experience. Just one bite. We sometimes suggest parents put out a “taste test” plate with a small amount of a vegetable or fruit that we would like our children (or ourselves) to eat. Then, have fun with it. Have dips (preferred tastes) such as ketchup, sour cream, maybe flavored yogurt if you are taste testing a fruit, melted cheese, honey, etc. Then have fun. Avoid pushing a child to try something and instead, just work on having a fun and positive experience with the food.  Even getting a child to touch and smell a food is a huge step. Increased exposure is what we are looking for, as well as creating a positive interaction with the foods (so the old “you are not leaving this table until you eat your green beans) is never appropriate as it creates a very negative (and somewhat horrifying) eating experience. It does not work.                              Another trick is to use “food chaining” to help make foods more acceptable. You can add some diced green beans to soup or pasta, or melt cheese on top (if cheese is a preferred food). This is not about “disguising” a food or “hiding” a food, since doing that will only create distrust. Instead, be open and honest with your child and say something like “let’s see how green beans taste when we melt cheese on top! Yum!” Of course you can also try vegetables prepared different ways. Some people just love raw veggies but dislike the same vegetable when it is cooked. I am not a fan of beets, however I have found that when they are roasted with olive oil in the oven I just absolutely love them. Get creative. And be a role model. This means being brave and taking a bite yourself. Remember, there are some foods that you may not like the first time, but if you continue to expose your child (and yourself) to healthy foods, eventually you develop a taste for them. It literally took me over 30 years to get to the point I am at now with beets, and that’s no lie. Also, just as we adults don’t feel like eating a food sometimes (have you ever been in the mood for eggs one morning, but the next morning the thought of eggs makes you gag?), well, kids are the same way. I have had parents offer a food once or twice and a child accepts it. Then, they offer it again, and that day the child refuses it. “They don’t like eggs any more”, and so the parent stops offering them. Remember, a young child is not able to verbalize “sorry mom, just not it the mood for eggs this morning”, but their refusal is telling you they don’t want it. Don’t force it, and don’t give up on eggs. Just offer them a few days later, or at another time, over and over and you will see, just like us adults, their preferences change day to day, meal to meal. Try to honor that.
  3. Unreasonable Expectations: Daddy’s Food. I often wanted to shake my head in disbelief when parents would come in and expect me to scold their child for sneaking “daddy’s soda” or “mommy’s chips”. The conversations would go like this:   Me: “What brings you here?”                                                                                                     Parent: “Johnny needs someone else to tell him, he needs to stop sneaking food. He needs to stop taking his father’s soda, and his sister’s cookies. She is skinny, she needs them, he doesn’t”.                                                                                                               Me (looking straight at Johnny): “So you are sneaking your sister’s cookies? (shameful head nod from Johnny). Me: ” Well, I don’t blame you, I would too! Cookies are good!”  At which point the parents would look at me as if I were crazy. Johnny would smile (he knew I was on his side). I would then ask the parents if they could tell me their very favorite food in the entire world. They would think for a minute then answer “lobster!” or “chocolate!” I would then ask how they would feel if that specific food were in the house and everyone else could eat it but them. Does that feel fair? Not when it is you. It is way too much to expect a child to resist helping themselves to a yummy food that everyone else gets. This creates a “sneak eater” and also instills lots of shame in a child. They of course don’t want to do anything wrong, they want to please their parents, yet, food is a necessary part of life, and it is unfair to expect children to resist what is in the home. So my advice was focused more on creating a healthy home for everyone, not just the child who is sneaking the cookies. If you don’t want your children drinking soda, don’t bring it home (have it at work, keep it in your car, anything but drinking it in front of your child unless you are going to share). Nothing wrong with having some soda here and there, but drinking soda on a daily basis in large quantities isn’t a great idea for anyone (if you are full on soda, not much room for other things that you need to eat to be healthy). Same goes with cookies or chips or ice cream or anything else most people typically consider “bad” foods. I don’t use that term, I just don’t believe any food is bad, especially if you like it. But we need to be smart about it. If you have cookies in the house, make them be a part of a meal (not nibbled on throughout the day where they are likely then to interfere with appetite for meals, when more nutrient-dense food is typically served. And remember, if you nibble, your child will nibble). Whatever you do, don’t discriminate on who gets what depending on their body size. This is a sure way to create a closet eater and a child who is more likely to develop a very unhealthy relationship with food.                                                                 The bottom line is that what you eat as a parent is probably one of the most important influences on what your child will eat. For a recent review, see The Influences of Parental Practices
  4. Double Dinners. Experts recommend sitting at a table for “family dinners” to promote healthy eating and a good relationship with food. Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done. I have encountered many families where parents work different shifts, mom or dad may get home at 8 pm, a few hours after the kids have had dinner. An issue I have seen is when a parent gets home and needs to eat dinner at some unseemly hour, children who have waited up to see them may end up eating another dinner. This was quite common in the outpatient nutrition office where I worked, mostly dealing with children who gained weight above their growth curves (triggering a referral to outpatient clinical nutrition).  Parents and children being on different feeding schedules can indeed cause some issues.  Parents tend to focus on their children, often neglecting themselves. They may do a wonderful job scheduling regular meals with a structured snack time in between meals (just what we recommend, 3 meals with a planned snack in between). We don’t want children nibbling all day and then being too full to eat regular meals. You may know some individuals who “graze” and it works for them as they nibble throughout the day, somehow getting what they need. But this is more risky for children, as we have learned that nibbling throughout the day often interferes with appropriate weight gain (they may not gain enough, or sometimes gain too much).  But what happens to mom or dad when they just plan for their children’s meals but don’t sit down and eat themselves? This typically leads to a need to snack, just to keep up energy. Just as when a parent gets home late and needs dinner, a child seeing you nibble is going to want some. Eating becomes chaotic and sporadic and children’s little bodies get confused. Natural hunger and fullness is difficult to detect with constant nibbling (vs 3 meals, a morning and an afternoon snack, and a bedtime snack).                                                                                                                              What is the answer? Each family is unique, but in general, I suggest parents plan ahead. They should try to plan for foods they also enjoy so they can eat at the same time as their children. Granted, feeding kids is often chaotic in itself, never mind feeding yourself. Having more than one child myself, feeding three made it more confusing than ever. But, breakfast and lunch can be simple, and even if you aren’t a fan of cheerios, you can sit down and have whatever it is you enjoy. The same with lunch, keep it simple and sit with your child. You don’t have to eat exactly what your child is eating (who really likes applesauce?), but taking a few spoonfuls of whatever counts. Sitting down and eating, even if it is towards the end of the meal (due to having to get everyone settled truly prevents parents from sitting down the entire time, unless you have a live-in helper which most of us don’t). And when it comes to dinner, perhaps save some fruit for eating with mommy or daddy when they get home to have their dinner. It is important to sit together and have that time together. If your child wants a few bites of whatever it is, that is no big deal. I have seen it become a problem only when a child is truly not hungry, but wanting to connect with the parent, they end up eating another entire meal, leading to unnatural weight gain. Another solution I have seen work for some parents is to have a snack together and then eat their dinner when their child goes to sleep. Whatever works for your family. Just be aware that eating with your child is the most important thing of all. Check out Give Peas a Chance by Kate Samela, MS, RD, CSP for some excellent information on dealing with a picky eater, ideas for menus, important nutrition information and the importance of avoiding “short order cooking”.
  5. Bad-Talking Food. Jen, our psychologist on the Feeding Team where I used to work, dealing with children with all types of feeding problems had a saying: “Don’t Yuck My Yum”. That means that no matter how horrifyingly disgusting a food appears to you, you need to keep your mouth shut. The person eating the food loves it. This is easier said than done. Trust me, down here in Florida, people eat some weird things. Gator bites. Conch fritters. Oysters. These all make me cringe, but people love them. When I have been out to eat at a restaurant and someone orders gushy oysters, I think of Jen and try not to make a face. I don’t say “eeeewwww!” because that violates the rule. So, when it comes to your dinner table, when you offer broccoli alfredo for the first time and someone makes a face and a comment, this would be a great time to introduce the rule: “Don’t Yuck My Yum!”
  6. Body Shaming  It blows me away how so many people apparently think it is A-ok to talk about someone’s body right out loud, with zero concern (or awareness) of how words can hurt. Not only hurt, but affect someone for years to come. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have heard from the eating disorder patients I have worked with in the past stories about their experiences with body shaming. I am not saying that telling your child he can’t have a second cookie because he is too fat will definitely trigger an eating disorder, but it might. Even if it doesn’t, talking about a child’s body certainly isn’t good for self-esteem. You would think we would get it by now, but lots of us don’t. I see adults joke about other adult’s bodies, about beer bellies, and weight gain, even jokes about being thin, it seems to be socially acceptable (which makes me sad).  Anyone’s body is open game it seems. The problem is we just don’t know how fragile a person may be. Besides being plain rude, it can be dangerous (this will sound ridiculously silly to some, but to others it will make sense because they have experienced it). I have seen children literally stop eating after a visit to the pediatrician’s where BMI was discussed openly in front of the child. I have seen adults binge eat in secret because of spouses commenting on their food intake. Making a big deal out of body size, or allowing any family member to talk about bodies like this is just plain wrong. And, it goes both ways. Insulting a person by calling them a name (chubby, fat, etc) is wrong, but so is calling a child skinny or whatever other name someone thin is called. Yes, I know, most people think being “skinny” is desirable, but to the child who is self-conscious, it is just as mean and hurtful (and believe it or not, thin adults don’t take it as a compliment when you praise them for being thin….it makes them uncomfortable). I have seen people praise others because of their thin body types. This is also harmful as it instills in children that being thin matters. It sends a message that body size matters, and it shouldn’t. Make a rule in your house (discuss with your spouse or partner, or any other adults in the home) that you don’t allow talking about bodies. Stress it to other family members and nip it in the bud if anyone who visits your home talks about your child’s body. I may sound a bit dramatic here, but remember, this post is about promoting a healthy relationship with food, and instilling a healthy lifestyle for your child. Focusing on body size, weight and/or shape is damaging.
  7. Toxic Food Environment.  This concept incorporates a bit of the previous points. It simply means that your family will eat what is there. Period. Therefore, if you want to promote healthy eating, there needs to be some healthy foods within reach. This does NOT mean you should not have other kinds of foods in the home (such as cookies, ice cream, chips, etc.). In fact, it is important to send the message to children that foods are not “bad” just because they might be sweet or salty, and/or may not have much to offer nutritionally (other than energy, which, by the way, is really important for all of us). The key is your attitude, and balance. Common sense. Serving only french fries and cookies for dinner every day wouldn’t be a great idea. Having fries with your fish sticks and salad sounds like a decent dinner for a kid. Only having cookies in the house and never having fruit is not a good example of balance and variety. Kids need to be offered a variety of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis since exposure contributes to acceptance. But, restricting sweets, for example, only makes them more desirable. Labeling foods as “bad” only instills guilt when kids actually do eat them (and they will, at school, at friends, at family gatherings, etc.). Making kids feel bad or guilty for eating these foods does not promote a healthy eating relationship. Research actually suggests that parents who restrict their children so they won’t gain too much weight actually make kids more focused on food, contribute to overeating and sneak eating, and may result in excessive weight gain (see review article: Food Parenting and Child SnackingI personally have seen countless examples of children gaining excessive weight once their parents started to focus on weight and limiting foods. Intentions, of course, are good. These parents love their children and want them to be healthy, so when their pediatrician informs them of a BMI that is not in a certain ranges, most parents do what they think is right, but instead it backfires. Due to the health community’s focus on “the obesity epidemic” researchers have been looking into what influences eating habits in order to know how to foster better habits that promote “healthier” weights (Note: you CANNOT look at a BMI chart to decide if a child’s weight is a healthy weight, you have to look at individual growth charts). If your child appears to be tracking somewhat normally for THEM then it is good. If, however they fall off or jump up way above what is typical for THEM it should be looked into. DON’T go by one simple number such as BMI no matter what anyone tells you. I advise parents to ask the doctor to see the growth chart and to explain it. If your child is following a certain percentile, chances are that it normal for them.        

The take-home messages is this: you have a huge impact on your child’s eating habits. You can structure meals (3 per day) and snacks (2-3 per day) and you can try to eat meals with your children as much as possible. You can insist on turning off any screens while eating (easier to start this when your kids are young, it may be a hard habit to break when they are older, but don’t give up). You can promote positive body image and a healthy relationship to foods by avoiding talking about weight and body size and by supporting your child’s natural growth. You can provide the nutrients your child needs with healthy foods (offering fruits, veggies, dairy foods, protein foods and grains) on a regular basis. But you can also “normalize” all foods by refusing to treat foods such as cookies, ice cream, chips, etc as anything special. Just don’t have them as the only option. Oh, and don’t use sweets (or any food ) as a reward…read them a book, play a game, anything but food. And yes, you might have to learn to cook, but you can still keep it simple. Most of all, remember, you know your child best. You may feel differently, and you need to do what is best for you and your family. You should never feel bad or guilty just because you may go weeks without a family meal or vegetables. We all have days (and weeks) like that. It is only important to keep trying. Check out the references and the book Give Peas A Chance. Reflect on your own eating habits and food preferences, but remember, judging yourself doesn’t help either. Simply reflect, be honest, and work on it.

Don’t forget, it took me decades to make my peace with beets. I wish I tried earlier. Just think of all those years I could have been enjoying them…….you can, too.

 

 

 

If Diets Don’t Work, What Does?

The Ultimate Diet PlanI made the HAES Pledge. That means I consider myself a “health at ever size” dietitian, someone who refuses to focus on weight and body size, honors diversity and promotes a healthy, sane lifestyle that includes fun movement and intuitive eating. I would love to pretend that everyone cares about their health and not just their weight, however I know this is not true. It does not mean I will ever promote weight loss for the sake of weight loss alone, but I often feel uncomfortable when those around me are doing everything they can to lose weight. Although I know through my experience with patients as well as reading the research on weight loss (there’s lots there) that strict dieting is not the way to go in the long run, I am not one who discounts another’s feelings and goals. That just means that if you tell me you want to lose weight and you are starting a diet, I am not going to lecture you, or tell you to stop wasting your time and to focus on your health instead (and that you are beautiful no matter what your weight or body size). If you are a loving, kind, good, nice person, of course I feel you are perfect the way you are. But you may not feel that way (just because you don’t like your body since you have gained that weight). And although I wish I could make you see the light (that focusing on being healthy is the way to go), I know I can’t.

So although you won’t find me trying to convince people they should not feel the way they do, you won’t catch me advising people on how to lose weight. It goes against my principles. You WILL find me trying to educate dieters though, because I have seen it all, I have been affected by what I have seen and I will do whatever it takes to prevent the bad things that can happen from dieting.  And that is what this post is about. If you insist on dieting to lose weight then I want you to be safe, stay healthy and aware of what you are doing. I want you to avoid the typical traps that dieting often sets. I want you to recognize dieting for what it is: a temporary answer. But mostly, I want you to never give up trying to learn what the permanent answer is to your weight and body concerns. And that is different for everyone.

The fact is that some people gain weight and although they may not like it, it is completely natural and does not affect their health. There are others, however, who do gain weight resulting from some unhealthy lifestyle changes or other issues and the weight gain is not normal for them.  Even for these individuals, focusing on dieting and losing weight typically is not the answer. Actually, lots of people gain weight just as a result of their dieting. Either way, I like to believe there is a “normal, healthy weight range” that a BMI or weight chart can’t predict. It is the weight your body is happiest at, the weight you tend to fall at when you are living a relatively healthy lifestyle, sleeping well, enjoying regular enjoyable physical activity, eating regular meals, eating healthy foods as well as other foods when you want them (not starving, not binge eating, not feeling excessively full all the time, or walking around hungry half the time). My goal for you, and the true answer as to how to be the weight you are supposed to be is to do some reflecting and learning.  Here is my advice to keep you healthy, safe and alive and hopefully, in touch with reality when it comes to your weight and health.

  1. Find the REAL answer. What is the actual story about your weight? I find people fall into 2 categories: those who gain weight because they are supposed to and it is normal, and those who gain weight in a sneaky way because they have fallen into a lifestyle that is not supportive of their health or feeling good. An example of the first group is the high school/college athlete who used to run 70 miles a week in order to compete at a high level on the cross country team. After college, they get their dream job and now barely have time to exercise (or maybe they now take a walk every day, you know, normal life exercise) and gain several pounds over time. Their new weight settles in a stable range, yet they can’t fit into their old clothes. Not wanting to buy new clothes in a larger size, they start to diet. This has all kinds of negative repercussions (such as making them preoccupied with food, binge eating, etc). In this case, the weight gain is completely normal with no affect on health, and actually trying to lose weight is the last thing they should be doing as far as health OR weight is concerned. Even though they gained weight, they needed to. After all, running 70 miles a week is not the norm. Who wants to do that forever? Unless you are someone who truly loves running, well, that is different. I believe we all need to do what we love and if competing in road races, running long distance, biking 100 miles is something that makes you happy, then go knock yourself out. But if you are doing it only to prevent weight gain, hating every minute, well, that is no way to live.                                                                                      Or maybe you can’t relate to this at all, and when you look back and truly reflect on your life, you realize some things have changed. This is the second type of person who has gained weight over time.  I can share some stories I have heard from others. Maybe they started a new job after college and now that they are making money they start going out to eat more often. Dinner used to be whatever mom made, but now it is the favorite pizza joint (and they throw in a free 2 liter bottle of Coke, can’t beat that). Or maybe they got married and their entire lifestyle changed. Lots of baking for the new husband who loves his cookies, watching movies together with drinks and popcorn. He is a couch potato kind of guy, so you join him (you miss the gym, but this is fun, too). Over time, you notice your clothes getting tighter, you don’t sleep as well, you get a bit more indigestion than you used to. In this case, the weight gain resulted from some changes in lifestyle that were not conducive to health, and actually contributed to feeling less than great. Figuring out why your weight changed and if it is normal for you, or not, is important. Because then, it gives you a focus. A diet is not the answer. Getting back into your healthier habits is. And it has nothing to do with the weight, but everything to do with how you are living (and feeling).
  2. If you insist on dieting, be aware of the “all-or-nothing” trap. Just because you “fall off” your diet by eating a cookie you then go on to finish the box. If you were needing a cookie, it just means your diet plan likely does not provide enough of what the cookie has. Is your diet low fat, low carb? Then guess what? THAT is what you will crave! a cookie. Or chips, pizza, ice cream….carbs and fat. Who craves grilled fish when they are dieting? Instead, try to take it as a lesson. Learn to listen to these cravings and enjoy what you want in moderation. Instead of binge eating or saying “what the heck” (actually referred to as the “what the hell” effect) and eating everything in sight because “tomorrow you will be back on track”-meaning back on “the diet”, eating some of what you want actually makes the craving go away. You feel better. In fact, when you hopefully go off the dumb diet (sorry, I mean the diet) this will have taught you that you can enjoy both those foods defined as healthy as well as those other foods, and nothing bad will happen. You won’t gain weight. You will just be a normal eater.
  3. Don’t skip meals. You have heard this before. Just today I had a patient come back for a follow up visit. I saw her a week ago because she could not stop herself from excessive snacking at night. Come to find out, she had been skipping lunch and breakfast. By evening, she was out of control. She simply started eating a typical breakfast and lunch (plate of meat, potato, veggie, water, cookie) and then dinner, and lo and behold….no more excessive snacking. Plus, she said, she felt “so much better”. Yes, getting some nutrition during the day does have an impact on your energy level. If you find yourself dragging and exhausted by early afternoon, maybe you aren’t eating enough. And, skipping meals lowers your metabolism and encourages weight gain (but you knew that). Finally, skipping meals really does affect your brain and your thinking. For some, skipping meals a can trigger even more disordered eating. There is no way to know who is at risk, but I don’t want it to be you.
  4. Get enough sleep. You have heard me say it before, I believe in listening to your body and food cravings, but when you don’t get to bed before midnight, and don’t get enough sleep (7-9 hours for adults, it varies) your levels of ghrelin will be elevated and this messenger makes you excessively hungry, and also causes you to crave fat and sugar. It is really hard to eat healthy when this is going on. Not to mention all of the other benefits of a good night’s sleep (feeling better, having energy, fighting illness). Napping doesn’t count, and actually can make sleeping at night even more difficult. Yeah, don’t nap if you can help it..
  5. Stay hydrated. I worry about people who diet because they are at more risk of dehydration as well as hurting their kidneys. When you diet too strictly, you actually break down muscle,which is protein which has nitrogen that needs to be excreted through your kidneys. So water is essential so as not to damage your kidneys. Your pee should be light yellow and you should need to use the bathroom every 3 hours or so. The minimum for most adults is 8 cups of water a day, usually 9 or 10. If you feel dizzy sometimes, this can be a sign of dehydration. The other (less scary) issue with dehydration is that your metabolism will not be working at its best if you are dehydrated. Hopefully, that motivates you to drink that water!
  6. PLEASE don’t connect dieting with exercise. We all need to move, be active because moving in ways we really enjoy is so important to our health. We can prevent heart disease, keep our bones strong, help us sleep, improve our mood, make our muscles strong, help prevent us from falling (especially as we age) and all kinds of other good things, both mentally and physically. Often, when the diet ends, so does the exercise. This does not make sense! Although, if you have the mindset that exercise is only to help you lose weight, then I guess it does make sense. But, in the long run, the real answer? Keeping fun and consistent movement in your life has nothing to do with dieting and everything to do with your mission to have the healthiest body you can have. So when this diet ends, keep on moving.

The reality is that any single diet that tricks you somehow into taking in a lot less calories than you were eating is going to result in weight loss. The problem is that nobody can sustain any particular diet because it is too hard, too boring and just simply not a normal way to live. Instead, the answer is to reflect on the reality of your weight. Have you been at a stable weight and have a healthy lifestyle, but just want to be thinner? Then, I am guessing your body will fight you every inch of the way, and focusing on being as healthy as you can is the sane way to go. If, on the other hand, you have fallen into some really unhealthy habits, have given up some of your past healthier habits (that also made you happy and feel good), then figuring out how to move back into a more balanced lifestyle would be more helpful than another diet (which basically just puts off the inevitable). It is never about some magical number on the scale. There will never be one diet that works better than they all work. But it is about feeling good. There is just something about sleeping well, having energy, feeling good that really helps you feel better about the body you were born with.

In the meantime, if you are on a diet to lose weight, I hope you stay safe, listen to your body signals (they are smarter than we are!), maybe learn to cook some healthy meals while you are doing this, discover some new vegetables or fruits you like. But mostly, I hope you take the time to learn about YOU. When the diet ends, that is when your story really begins.

The Military Diet: 5 Reasons Why You Should March in a Different Direction

marchingWith spring here and all the fun yard work and garden planning going on in my life right now, I was struggling to come up with a good idea to write about. Starting my zinnias, cosmos, bachelor buttons and nasturtium and scaring away chipmunks has overtaken my life. But then I saw a client whose goal was to lose some weight she had gained (just about 10 pounds over a few years) and I knew I had to do some investigating after she told me what she was doing. I was aware of the Military Diet after reading about it briefly in a review article on the latest fads, but I had never really encountered anyone who had tried it. Apparently, she had started this diet about 6 months ago and “it worked”….but….she has since gained the weight back and was starting it again. After making it clear that I was not going to help her “lose weight” but would help her try to figure out how to ease into a happier and healthier way to eat, she shared what she was doing. Apparently, she was restricting her calories pretty severely for a few days of the week only. She explained the diet called for following this restricted plan for part of the week and the rest of the week you could “eat whatever you wanted”.

When I pried a bit further into her diet eventually she admitted to an increased obsession with eating. She had started to binge eat on her “off” days and these were not “subjective” binges . A subjective binge is when a person may feel as if they had a binge when in reality, it was a normal amount of food, such as a large piece of cake for dessert, or 3 slices of pizza and dessert. They feel guilty and out of control after eating which is still very disturbing and upsetting for that person. But this young lady assured me it was a real binge (which can be referred to as an “objective” binge). She actually consumed an amount of food that anyone would consider much more than normal eating. On the days she was not following her diet she was consuming boxes of cookies and half gallons of ice cream. And she was not happy about this, yet, it was hard for her to make the connection to the trigger for this behavior, the diet itself. I explained in detail how our body responds to being deprived of carbohydrates and fat and how our brain then reacts to drive us to make up for the lack. Thank goodness it all made sense to her, and she did realize her entire life this binge behavior never occurred…..until she started the Military Diet.

We came up with some ideas she agreed to regarding what she needed to add to her meals to prevent these extreme cravings, and also how to fit in the foods she loved in amounts that she would feel ok with her, both physically and emotionally. But, I realized I needed more facts about this new craze of starving your body part of the week.

I found  a recent scientific review that helped explain this approach and its repercussions, January 2017 Review Article on Intermittent Fasting. This type of dieting is referred to as Intermittent Energy Restriction (IER) as opposed to a typical diet referred to as Continuous Energy Restriction (CER). Much of the research on this type if energy restriction is done with mice, and there are very limited studies of the effect on humans. The bottom line from the review is that as far as weight loss, there is no difference between IER approaches and CER diets. The same failure over time happens. The review makes it pretty clear that we need many more studies that are longer term with larger sample sizes to be able to determine the negative physical, metabolic, and psychological effects of these types of diets on humans.

So, the Military Diet is no miracle diet (no diet is). And you should march in a different direction because:

  1. We don’t know the effects of intermittent fasting and starvation on our metabolism (which is what restricting calories this low is considered: starvation). In other words, it is possible that doing intermittent type of restricting may shift your body to burn less calories, lower your metabolism, and it might be permanent. So, if research over time discovers this to be true, a person who used to burn 2000 calories a day may only be able to consume 1500 calories after doing this diet over time. But, weight would stay the same despite eating less. We know that extreme dieting burns muscle mass and lowers metabolism, and weight regain is usually body fat, resulting in a lower overall metabolism. I have seen patients totally mess up their metabolisms for life with repetitive diets. This diet is different and we still just don’t know. The repercussions could be even worse.
  2. Dieting usually increases obsession with food and eating. Although everyone is different, my client who was never a binge eater, became one. According to the review article, this may not happen to everyone however we need more research with larger samples over a longer period of time. I can tell you from experience (decades of working with dieters) that nothing good comes of this type of starvation in the end. Inevitably, weight is regained and even worse, disordered eating behaviors result.
  3.  There is no way to meet nutritional needs or to feel good on this type of diet. Even a few days of starvation wreaks havoc on our body systems. Bone loss, decrease in muscle mass, dehydration, strain on our kidneys from fluid loss and breakdown of muscle mass may affect those at risk. With such a low energy intake, performance at a job or in school certainly suffers as hunger interferes with thinking. Feeling crappy affects your daily life.
  4. This type of dieting promotes a truly unhealthy view of food and eating. To me, meal preparation, cooking, socializing with meals and entertaining is a part of the joy of life. Just yesterday, which happened to be a beautiful warm sunny spring day when we had a chance to do some yard work, our friends stopped in to drop off some kindling wood for our large fire pit. We ended up having our first cook-out of the season. I picked up some bratwurst (which I never had before and by the way, was really good), Swiss cheese burgers and an arugula spinach blue cheese and balsamic salad thrown together, chips on the side and a good red wine served in a glass pitcher, Italy style. I threw a colorful tablecloth on the picnic table and we had a roaring fire as the sun was setting. It was lovely. Imagine not being able to participate in the joy of a simple evening like this because you were on a restricted diet. Or, just as bad, imagine feeling like you better eat as much as you could because this was an “off” day and tomorrow (or the next day) you would not be allowed to have this food. This is just not a normal way of looking at food and it certainly can’t be enjoyable. It is a total tuning out of your natural body signals that are trying to communicate to you: “you need more”, or “you are full”.
  5. Every day that you try to follow a diet such as this translates into one less day of working on the solution to your eating habits. In the end, what we have learned through research is that most people fall back into old habits once they go off of their “diet” or meal plan. That is because eating is a very complex behavior for those who are struggling with weight issues. The reasons we gain weight or lose weight, or are not at our natural body weights are varied. Lifestyle changes, stress, age, genetics all affect our bodies in different ways. Some people eat more, some less with stress. Our metabolisms change with age and lifestyle changes. Our weights fluctuate. But following a diet is a temporary and not permanent solution. Instead, identifying non-hunger eating triggers (such as stress) and working on strategies to deal with stress evolves into a permanent solution. Figuring out how to incorporate healthy and fun movement promotes strength, endurance and joy into life. Learning about nutrition and healthy cooking and eating carries over into a healthier lifestyle. All of these are a movement into long-term health and a stable body weight that you don’t have to stress about on a daily basis.

The bottom line is the Military Diet is just that, another diet. It could work in the short term if the goal is temporary weight loss. Although I am adamantly against diets because of the repercussions I have seen throughout my professional life, I always like to share that I respect the decision of people who say they need the structure of a diet to help them at first. There are some individuals who actually can safely learn to eat healthier by first starting a “diet”. The problem is that you never know if you are at risk for becoming more obsessed with food and eating or more prone to binge eating or disordered eating when you start a diet. So if you are one of those people who feels immune to these disordered eating behaviors, then I suggest you just reflect on your past experiences so you can learn about yourself. Maybe you never dieted before, and you just need to be aware of the dangers. Or maybe you have, and you regained your weight, but you learned some good healthy recipes your family loves and you can keep making. Maybe your “diet” helped you learn a bit about nutrition or label reading. Just remember, anything you go “on” means eventually going “off”……and back to real life. Do you know how to deal with that? real life, real eating, reality.

The funny thing is that my client who told me about this diet said”it lets you have ice cream every day!” as if that made it better. Yes, the diet called for a half cup of ice cream with the low calorie dinner. But if that made it better for some reason, then why, I wondered, did she still feel compelled to eat a half gallon on her “off” day? In time, after much research, we may learn the answers, but in the meantime, I am going to bet we find out the same thing with IER that we know about CER…..it is not the long term answer.

The Crazy Confusing World of Food

 

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It dawned on me recently that the simple act of eating is anything but that. Something as basic as obtaining and preparing food shouldn’t be that complicated. But it is. It struck me when I witnessed my Italian mother frying burgers this weekend. I had just finished making a few pounds worth of turkey burgers for her which I freeze so she can have them for a few weeks. I add in diced peppers, onions, garlic, grated carrots, cheese and seasonings then fry them in a bit of oil in a non-stick pan. They are yummy and healthy. My mom, however, had a few burgers that she had bought and also needed to cook those. So she proceeds to pull out a heavy fry pan and pour in about an inch of olive oil. She is known for her yummy sauce and eggplant Parmesan, however she rarely cooks much for herself.  Except apparently burgers on occasion.Anyway, I was a bit surprised and asked her if she was aware that those beef burgers probably had enough fat and wouldn’t stick so she really didn’t need all that oil (I was thinking about the cost and waste as she would surely have to dump most of it when she was done). Well, she just rolled her eyes. You can check out her reaction for a good smile, Mom frying burgers  Needless to say, hot oil splatted everywhere, but she does what she does, cooks the way she likes to, and it’s all good.

This happened after a fun day out. I often take my mom on little adventures on Saturdays since my dad passed to get her out of the house. This burger frying day was one of those days…anyway, the day involved lots of choices about food, meal planning, grocery shopping, restaurants etc. and as much as I do enjoy it all, it hit me that making all these choices and decisions can’t be easy for everyone, especially dieters, people with health issues, or those with disordered eating and body image concerns.

For example, have you ever gone to a restaurant with a 99 page menu, or how about 3 different menus? Do you struggle, like me, to make a decision on what you want to eat? Or, think about planning dinner, or lunches for work, or even a meal for a dinner party with friends. A birthday celebration, holiday, or even a camping trip. Being someone who loves to cook, and on top of that a dietitian who understands food and nutrition a bit more than most people, you would think decisions like this must be easy. Yet, I often find myself struggling and confused. And then I feel like a bit of a hypocrite.

You see, one of the things I also talk about when trying to help people be healthier is the importance of creating a healthier environment. Part of this involves purchasing better foods when you grocery shop, planning meals, and packing healthier lunches so you aren’t forced to buy something from the vending machine or fast food joint just because you are not prepared. I have educated people about choosing the healthier options in restaurants and also how to prepare foods to modify them to be healthier. And yet, there I was, sitting yesterday at the Cheesecake Factory with my mom, staring at this gigantic menu filled with choices (actually, there were a few menus), and all I initially wanted was something hot and soupy and tomatoey. On top of that, the calorie content of most of the items was listed and I wondered how their sales were affected after they started sharing that info. My mom was pretty funny in the way she reacted to it. “That can’t be right!” and I assured her it probably wasn’t. She is not a big eater (unless it’s sweet) and we both settled on chicken chili which came with bread and a salad and was perfect. I was glad there was something hot and tomatoey on the menu, which made it easier since I already had it in mind, however I think we both felt overwhelmed with all the choices. What do other people do? How do they figure out what to order?

And then we went to the grocery store. I wanted to be sure to cook something for my mom to have for the week (we decided on the turkey burgers) but also needed to get something for my “Sunday Cookin'” which I do most Sunday’s. I turn this into a relaxing but productive event as it is a way to relax before work starts again Monday, but I also prepare enough food for lunches for a few days, or even dinners. The problem lies in making a decision on what to make. I usually do some research into different cultural meals (Italian of course, Mexican, Asian, finally tried Indian which was challenging). This time I had no idea and couldn’t decide what to make, so was somewhat dazed and confused in the grocery store. I remembered my mom had an eggplant to give me so impulsively decided to go Italian. I bought Italian turkey sausage, beef for meatballs, tomato paste, I had the rest I was sure. Oh, and I also needed to make something for my nutrition class for our “tasting”. Maybe homemade potato chips using the mandolin I just purchased on my outing with my mom. Potato is a vegetable, so that counts. Plus I was guessing they would love it over my usual green things I push on them.

So we finished our shopping, finished our cooking, cleaned up and it was time for me to head home. On the way home, I remembered I needed to remember to find some ripe avocados to make some guacamole for “green food” tasting as March is National Nutrition Month (FYI) and I was planning another tasting for our school. I would need to go to Costco’s to get what I figured would be enough, about 20 hopefully ripe avocados at a cheaper price. I was definitely not in the mood to go and decided to wait until the middle of the week (I still had time). I was tired of thinking about food and cooking. When I got home and walked into the kitchen, I could tell my husband had been cooking. He was so excited to inform me that he had made his famous “chicken a la king” from the leftover roasted chicken we had. He puts pimentos and mushrooms in it and serves it over rice which he loves and I don’t love. He showed me what looked like 3 quarts of the stuff with additional large tupperware containers full of cooked rice. He ALSO made taco filling, so much so that he already had frozen a container. Apparently, he DID go to Costco’s and bought a gigantic package of beef.  Talk about food for the week. I put away my groceries, and did not want to think about meal planning, grocery shopping or cooking anymore.

Even though cooking is one of my passions, the rest of it isn’t. But what if cooking isn’t a passion of yours, then I imagine the rest of it is even less fun. How much easier to spend your time doing all the things you do enjoy doing rather than thinking about food, shopping, cooking, planning. Add on top of this the need to know a bit about nutrition if you care about your health. How do you choose what to buy considering both nutrition and what you enjoy eating? Add onto this the challenge of our abundant food and restaurant environment and you have triggers galore that make most of us want to throw our budgets (and nutrition) to the wind just for some sanity. And relief from thinking about it all. Trying to eat healthier just feels like too much work sometimes. Even for a dietitian who loves cooking.

Do we give up? Or instead, do we pick our battles? Does it really have to be perfect? I think of my mom and her olive oil. At 85 years of age, she walks 4 miles a day, goes to church every day, has a great sense of humor and an active and social life despite all she has gone through. Clearly, frying burgers in an inch of olive oil, or living off of ice cream for a few days hasn’t hurt her. The bigger picture is more important. Nurturing herself in ways that don’t involve food or nutrition clearly helps. Laughing, being active, having faith, reading, crossword puzzles, enjoying  her simple life. But most people, especially those with health issues or eating or weight issues can’t ignore the need to deal with food, and it is not simple at all. I think we underestimate how hard it really is to deal with all these decisions and do all the work to create a healthier lifestyle. I see people go gung-ho and then I see them totally give up. I wish instead that everyone just is gentler with themselves, and knows that it is ok not to be perfect at this. It is ok to “just not feel like it” sometimes and to treat yourself because you deserve it (and sanity comes first). I believe in taking advantage of the times you DO feel like cooking or reading about healthy recipes. That is why on Sundays I do my cooking because I find that is the one day I actually do have time and nothing on the agenda and I can take my time and enjoy the process. And that is why I may make a few things, too much food for sure but that is what freezers are for and tupperware and freezer bags. So then, when Thursday rolls around and there is “nothing to cook” for dinner, lo and behold, it’s like a restaurant right in my own freezer! Chicken a La King anyone?

So, don’t give up. Meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, freezing food, etc, is not the easy way. But you don’t have to be perfect. Just start somewhere. And, who knows, this Sunday I may try some deep fried burgers……

 

Self-Sabotage or YOLO:Intrepreting That Voice in Your Head

Spending too No automatic alt text available.much time in Italy can really ruin you. After a wonderful 3 week trip over a year or so ago, to celebrate our friend’s 25th anniversary it was not easy to transition home to New England. There were no platters of beautiful homemade pastries and espresso to wake up to every morning. No liter jugs of amazing red wine sitting on the table at lunch time. No longer did we have 2 hours to linger over dinner. Back to rush rush rush. With the exception of one little habit I seemed to have fallen into. Wine.

As most people know we Italians love our wine, especially red wine. As a dietitian I have rationalized how good it is for me (and probably the reason my HDL level, the “good” cholesterol, is out of sight). The problem was, during that vacation we drank wine pretty much daily. We did not drink excessively, just often. When a liter pitcher of wine is 4 dollars, why not have it with your pizza while sitting outside under an umbrella in the sunshine on a cliffside in Cinque Terre, or while watching the children chase the pigeons at an outdoor cafe on the island of Murano? After all, You Only Live Once.

When I got home, a meal no longer felt complete without a glass of good wine. Oh, and of course I needed to find one of those glass pitchers that were all over Italy (and no where to be found in stores in CT). I finally found one on-line and was all set. Unfortunately, the reality that I was no longer in Italy and had to go to work took a while to sink in. I found myself sleeping poorly. People think alcohol makes you relaxed and sleep better, but it actually interferes with sleep. And for me, someone who needs to remember to drink water, I found myself getting somewhat dehydrated on a daily basis. Not good.

Since then, I have obviously had to readjust to real life. As I was working on easing back into a healthier lifestyle, I noticed some very interesting things going on in my head. You know, that voice we all have in our minds, often referred to as “self-talk”. I have written about self-talk before, and how important it is to be aware of what you are saying to yourself, as thoughts affect mood and moods then affect behavior. When there is a constant negative dialogue going on, eventually negative, or non-supportive, and often unhealthy behavior results. So, as I have been reflecting on this wine “habit” I have come to the conclusion that it is very difficult to distinguish between when this voice is giving appropriate advice, or when it is basically trying to undo all efforts and progress to a healthier lifestyle. I am passionate about savoring life and all it has to offer. I absolutely LOVE the expression You Only Live Once (YOLO). I don’t believe in rigid anything. Rigid diets, rigid exercise plans, rigid house cleaning, rigid schedules. When life gives you the opportunity to experience something awesome, I say go with it. For example, I was planning on getting some work done last Saturday, but then found out there was a Women’s March in my state that I had the opportunity to join. The work could wait. Sometimes, if I come home from work after a long day and tell myself I need to rest, and my husband had a hard day at work and wants to go our for dinner, I quickly change my mind about that rest. I love rolling with it all. You know, YOLO.

But sometimes, I may come home from an especially chaotic day at work, feel emotionally drained, and cracking open a bottle of wine makes lots of sense. The dialogue in my brain may go something like this: “You deserve it. You only live once!” When this same dialogue happens more than once in awhile, well, an unhealthy habit is formed. That YOLO language sounds more like sabotage.  One definition of sabotage: “any undermining of a cause”. I came to the conclusion it is not always obvious or easy to keep a healthy balance in life when it comes to living that happy-but-healthy-ish lifestyle we all want. How do we find that balance, and know for sure that we need to go for it (YOLO), or that we need to make a different choice because in reality we are sabotaging our efforts, or “undermining our cause”of wanting to be somewhat healthy?

After much reflection, here is my advice to those who can relate to this, and also struggle with the balance between enjoying all life has to offer, yet maintaining healthy balance in life. Remember, this is my experience only. Yours may be different.

  1. Ask yourself: do I have a “cause”? By this I mean a health goal. Is there something your doctor may have identified (high blood pressure, a need to decrease salt), or maybe a health goal you have for yourself (increase physical activity, decrease alcohol, etc). If something jumps to mind right away, then you know what it is. You must also ask yourself it this cause or goal is healthy and realistic. For example, if it is an extreme weight loss goal or anything to do with perfectionism, then it may not be a healthy cause. A true cause typically is more about clear-cut and damaging behaviors you may have fallen into and really do want to change (plopping on the couch, grabbing a drink, etc).
  2. If you have identified a specific behavior you want to change, and it is a realistic goal (litmus test: do most people agree this is a healthy goal?) take the time to identify your triggers. For example, for me, having an open bottle of my favorite wine in the fridge is not too wise, and may be referred to as a “sabotaging environment”. For the person who really needs to increase physical activity for health reasons, putting on your jammies the minute you walk in the door is also self-sabotage.
  3. Once you identify your triggers, modify your environment towards being more supportive. Make it doable. For the person who wants to increase activity, put on sneakers instead of slippers. Start small.
  4. Pay attention to your dialogue without judgement. Notice how hard it is to ignore. Even if you give in (I am putting on my PJs, I deserve it! YOLO!) don’t judge yourself. Instead, reflect on the reality (how many days are you actually putting on those PJ”s, and are you expecting too much to stop this behavior every single day? Can you modify your goal to make it doable?) If you change your dialogue to one of acceptance and learning (“wow, that was harder than I thought. Let me readjust this. On Tuesday and Thursdays I am putting on sneakers). In my world, Friday happy hour is totally good with me. And if a friend I have not seen in awhile invites me to happy hour during the week, I am going. This is not about being perfect. It is about gradually changing bad habits.
  5. Substitute a new behavior for the old one you want to change. Omitting something from your life leaves a huge void. You need to fill it up with something equally enjoyable but more supportive of your goals for health. For me, having a constant cup of hot herbal tea is symbolic of relaxation and serves a similar purpose as that wine. I feel like I deserve it and it represents nurturing.
  6. Instead of jumping right into your old behavior when it feels like a YOLO moment, take 20 minutes to stop and think. Postpone it, take a long hot shower and relax and think about your goals for yourself. Then make a decision without judgement. Is this just an automatic impulse, or is it truly an opportunity that arose, or a true need (you really may be exhausted and need to go straight to that couch). Some days are like that and it’s all good.
  7. Remember, it is repetition that creates habits, both good and bad. Once you get a few weeks under your belt of a new healthy behavior, you do feel better, both physically and emotionally. After a month or so, some new habits will take hold. After this, when you feel a YOLO moment coming on, go for it! Once it is a mindful choice and not just an automatic conditioned habitual response, then it truly is ok to totally enjoy every moment of every day. But, you want it to be your choice, not mindless.
  8.  Give yourself time. Don’t give up! Remember, it is all a learning experience.

I will always want to enjoy as much of every day as I can. I light candles for ambiance, even if nobody is home. I have “happy clothes” which I put on the moment I walk in the door. I may take hours to cook a single meal on Sunday because I enjoy every minute. But, these things don’t interfere with my health. Lack of sleep and dehydration definitely do. If you have something that makes you feel less than optimal, don’t beat yourself up or expect change tomorrow. But do start paying attention to that dialogue in your head. THAT is where to start, the rest will eventually fall in place. And if not, seek help. Life is too short and remember….YOLO!