Should you count calories?

calorie labelI was a little concerned when restaurants started to post the calorie content of menu items. I have to admit, I am a bit torn between the importance of educating people about nutrition and my mission to prevent disordered eating and promote a healthy relationship to food. My friends and family often argue with me when I say “listen to your body”. My husband says “my body told me to eat the whole thing!”.

What my husband is referring to is most likely the “trigger” that yummy food is to most of us (and not true hunger, something not very easy to tune in to for many). We are all different in the way we respond to food and eating, and not everyone is able to “listen to your body” because they have a unique eating, weight, dieting, genetic history that no one can understand except themselves. So what does counting calories have to do with anything? Why would I have any concerns with labeling calories on menu items? Should you count calories to have a healthy weight?

My answer: The Top 5 Reasons you should not count calories:

1. It is hard enough to work on the task of paying attention to your hunger and fullness, so when you attach a number to a meal or snack, you are almost guaranteed to become “disconnected” to your true body signals. Imagine you have determined you need a certain amount of calories for the day, and by evening you feel full after your last meal and do not want that pm snack you are supposed to have. Should you force yourself to eat it? or what if the opposite happens and after your dinner with the specified calories, you are still hungry? Do you forbid yourself a snack and think about food all night long? What if you made a mistake, which leads me to reason number 2.

2. You will not be accurate! The calories posted on many packages and menus may not be accurate! Check out this interesting video about a small experiment in NYC regarding this topic. WARNING: this video only looked at a few foods and most had more calories than stated on the package or menu. The reverse is also likely, where menu items have less than stated. The message is, nobody is held responsible for accuracy! If you are obsessive already about eating and calories, this video may be triggering and you should skip it.

3. It encourages obsessive thinking about food which can backfire. When you use “cognitive restraint” such as counting calories, you become MORE focused on food, not less. Research shows that people who are overly restrictive tend to be more likely to binge eat. Even worse, this behavior is more likely to lead to disordered eating patterns.

4. Counting Calories does not translate into healthy eating.  As I said earlier, although I believe in “listening to your body” I also believe it is good to want to be healthy. That may mean learning about nutrition, healthy cooking, what your body needs to feel good, etc. If you only look at calories, you are missing the boat.

And Finally,

5. Counting Calories is not fun and really interferes with your social life! Not only is it harder to go out to eat once in awhile with friends, even family celebrations become a chore instead of something that should be enjoyed as one of the most wonderful parts of life. Not only that, people who are restrained eaters (such as calorie counters) tend to be more depressed.

So the bottom line is: it is ok to educate yourself about nutrition, but calorie counting is not a great thing. You can’t avoid seeing the calorie count on the menus, and if you get indigestion every time you get that certain giant burger, well, seeing the calories may help you understand why….but your tummy will tell you that, you really didn’t need to know the number after all : )

Can I eat after 6 pm?

clock and plate

People ask me the same question over and over: “is it bad to eat at night? I shouldn’t eat after 6 pm, then it all turns to fat, right?” WRONG!

The fact is our bodies are constantly burning energy, even while we sit. It really doesn’t matter if you eat something before bed (such as a small snack if you are hungry). Researchers, however have been investigating the difference between meal frequency as well as when you consume the majority of your calories. In other words, does it matter if you eat the same number of calories in ONE meal verses several? Does it matter if you eat very little during the day and then MOST of your calories in the evening?

That is a different story! The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently published a study discussing this very topic. In the April, 2015 issue, “The Impact of Eating Frequency and Time of Intake on Nutrient Quality and Body Mass Index: The INTERMAP Study” the eating pattern of 2,385 participants were evaluated (1,232 men and 1,153 women). The principal findings demonstrated that more frequent eating (eating 6 times per day) as well as a higher energy intake during the day verses during the evening resulted in a lower BMI as well as an improvement in nutrition quality. In other words, those who tended to avoid eating that often (<3 eating occasions during the day instead of 3 meals and 2-3 snacks) tended to eat most of their calories at night, and their diets weren’t as healthy. The frequent eaters (6x daily) still ate at night, however they tended to spread it out (they did not miss meals during the day).

What does this mean for you? If you want to have a healthier diet, and be the weight your body is supposed to be, you need to fuel your body all through the day. This study strengthens the evidence that skipping meals during the day requires that you will need to make up for it in the evening. A snack is fine, and a late meal is fine, too. But when you do not eat enough during the day, you will be starving and tend to overeat.

So go ahead and have that snack if you are hungry!! Just be sure to give your body what it needs during the day too!!

The Milkshake Study


About 40 years ago, a landmark study was conducted that launched the research investigating why diets fail. This important study is sometimes referred to as “The Milkshake Study” (Herman CP, Mack D. Restrained and unrestrained eating. Journal of Personality. 1975;43:647–660). In this experiment the researchers administered a “Restraint Scale” questionnaire to determine who the dieters were (restrainers) and who the normal eaters were. They then had subjects participate in what the subjects believed was an ice cream tasting where they were to rate the ice creams. They were given either one milkshake “pre-load”, two milkshakes pre-loads or no pre-load and then told to eat as much ice cream as they wanted or needed to rate them. What was expected was the more milkshakes a subject consumed before the tasting the less they would probably eat (because they were already full, right?). But that is not what happened!

Instead, the researchers found that those individuals who were highly restrained (dieters) actually ate MORE ice cream with the more milkshakes they had before they started tasting! They hypothesized that dieters who constantly restrain their intake tend to become “disinhibited” after they break their diet boundary (sometimes referred to as the “what the hell” effect). This study triggered many more years of research into “cognitive restraint” and its negative consequences (binge eating being one).

Unfortunately, most people are not aware of this vast body of research, and so the diet industry has been able to continue making its billions. The good news is that finally a “Non-Diet” approach to weight management has been researched and proven to be effective in promoting health. Keep posted for more information and resources to come!!!

Warm Weather Dieting Woes


IMG_4090Happy Spring!!

Have  you ever noticed how the start of warmer weather gets people focused on dieting? I have been biting my tongue at work these past few weeks as it seems so many people are talking about the crazy eating plans they are starting. The new buzz seems to be a one or two food diet that is supposed to magically “cleanse” your system in a few weeks (a “kick start” as some people refer to it). I usually keep my mouth shut unless someone notices the dietitian sitting at the computer and dares to ask “what do YOU think?”

I love it.

Today I got asked the question, and I gave my answer. The research has connected dieting (any kind of cognitive restraint where you tune out your body signals) with binge eating. And weight GAIN in the long run. Yes, any trick to make you eat a lot less will of course result in weight loss (that good old “kick start” that is supposed to motivate you). Unfortunately, that short term weight loss ends up frustrating people rather than motivating them. They of course can’t keep up that rate of weight loss (and if they did, the loss would be valuable muscle). They end up feeling bad and usually just go back to their old ways.

Instead, what I shared with my coworkers was that it is smarter to take a non-judgmental look at your lifestyle and eating habits. Do you often eat when not hungry just because food is there? Do you have the habit of watching too much TV or sitting in front of a screen for hours on end? Instead, work on listening to your body. If you are hungry for a snack, and you want a cookie, eat a cookie. It is the non-hunger eating that goes against your body’s needs. Sometimes it is our sedentary lifestyles that prevent us from feeling better about our bodies.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again! Work on being healthier in every way and forget about dieting!!!! In the long run you just might end up being happier AND healthier.

Is Pizza bad?


I find it somewhat funny when patients often ask me about a food such as pizza. “Is it bad?” Or maybe pasta, or bagels or potatoes. Why is it that some foods are so confusing to people? Why is there a need to classify foods as “good” or “bad”?

My simple answer is always “if you like it, it is good!”.

I think what people really want to know is “is this food good for me?”. The truth is there is a place for ALL foods in our lives. We all need to have a variety of healthy foods to feel good, stay healthy, and have energy. Yes, we need protein foods, fruits, vegetables, etc. But food plays a much more important role in our lives than just keeping us healthy. I am not a big fan of the slogan “eat to live”, because most of us have wonderful connections to certain foods and great memories around meal time.

For instance, being from an Italian family, holidays always came with specific foods. Easter breakfast had sausage and peppers, fried dough and ricotta pie. Christmas Eve had an assortment of fish dishes and Christmas day was always several gigantic pans of lasagna and eggplant parm. And sometimes, it is just simply wonderful to order a pizza delivered to your door on a Friday night after a long week at work when you are just too exhausted to even think about cooking.

Unfortunately we have been brainwashed to avoid carbs, avoid fat, avoid sugar, and that is why so many people are so confused. The diet industry relies on us to have these concerns, or how else would they be able to sell their products?

So instead of trying to judge if a food is “good” or “bad” why not try to eat healthy most of the time, but enjoy the foods you love, in moderation, listening to your hunger and fullness, eating so that you enjoy it and feel good afterwards;

In the end, you will be both healthy AND happy!

Hunger and Food Insecurity

full frogOne topic I discuss often is the concept of hunger. It may sound like a simple thing. Either you are hungry or you are not, right? Well, unfortunately, for those who diet and restrict, or binge eat as a result of this, hunger is much more complicated.

Today I was fortunate to have the opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen. It was quite interesting to see the different kinds of people come in. Kids and elderly and families. What struck me was how some people came up a few times and took second and third plates, and I am talking full plates. I wondered how they could fit that much food in their tummy in one meal! Then it struck me. “Food Insecurity” was what I was seeing. The feeling that you will not get enough food. It is a scary feeling many of us have never experienced.

Unless you have dieted. Then, maybe, that feeling is there. With a self-imposed diet, restricting many foods, you get the same mind set that those who truly do not have enough food have. And so the answer is, to eat as much as you can when you have the opportunity. When you break your diet (and know that you will start again tomorrow). Very similar to the person who gets to have a good meal once per week when the other days of the week are not so good. It makes sense.

But the reality is, for those of use fortunate enough to be able to buy the foods we need, we never have to experience this feeling. You can always have what you want. So why overeat when you break your diet? If you don’t diet in the first place, and instead try to listen to your “true” hunger (typically a meal time or snack time when you have not eaten for a few hours) you are more likely to avoid getting into this mind-set. Listen to your body! Easier said than done, but keep trying!!

Having a “Goal Weight”

scaleThroughout my years as a dietitian working with people with eating and weight issues, it seems that a majority of people have a set “goal weight” in their heads. It is if there is some perfect number they need to reach, and then they will be happy with their bodies. Even parents of young children ask me “what should he weigh?” as if at 8 years old his body needs to be at the perfect weight (despite needing to grow a few feet by the time he is 18…), so does it really matter if his weight is “perfect” right now?

Let me ask, do you really think our heads can determine what our physical bodies need to weigh? and is a body ever really stagnant, stable, the same day to day? No, it is not. And I have learned a few things throughout the years (research of course demonstrates that our bodies are all different and have a genetic “set-point” weight range) but watching what happens to people’s bodies has taught me more than books or research.

Here is what I have learned:

1. An individual’s weight NEVER stays at one number. It is normal to fluctuate a few pounds up or down.

2. Goal weights are typically unrealistic. And when people manage to reach them, either they can’t stay there for long (and give up whatever rigid lifestyle they used to get there often going the other way to the extreme) or they live with having to constantly focus on eating (usually leading to an eating disorder or depression).

3. If and when people reach their “goal weight” they change it. Because their need is to focus on that number instead of the other scary and uncomfortable things in their lives. It serves a purpose (not a healthy one, but for some people, it distracts them and this is easier for awhile than addressing real issues).

So what should you focus on if not your weight? How about looking at your lifestyle and deciding to make healthy changes you can live with! And giving your body what it deserves, healthy food, good sleep, fun movement, joy, and the permission to be what it was born to be…healthy AND happy! Many years ago one patient of mine said it best, and I will never forget: “It finally dawned on me. Why do I care about the force of gravity on my body???” I wish you the same freedom!

Does 3500 calories equal a pound?

why 3500 calories is not a poundFor all the years that people have been dieting, especially those who count calories, they have followed the golden rule: cut 500 calories a day out of your diet and you will lose a pound a week. That is because 3500 calories is equivalent to one pound of adipose tissue (body fat).

While this is true, it does not follow that if you decrease your intake by that amount of calories over time that you will lose a pound. New research now proves this to be true!  The way your body responds to a calorie deficit is dependent on baseline body composition, age, height, gender, and degree of caloric restriction. The result is a curvilinear pattern of weight loss over time rather than the linear pattern predicted by the 3500 kcal rule.

In other words, no two people are alike. Some have more muscle mass than others, and even at rest, muscle uses more energy (so muscular people, even at the same weight will need more calories). Also, quick weight loss typically results in loss of muscle mass, which then results in your body needing less calories. Finally, your body adjusts to a lower body weight once you do lose weight, so your energy needs change.

If your weight has creeped up higher than your normal weight, instead reflect on any lifestyle changes or eating habit changes that may have occurred over the years. Did you change jobs from a very active one to a sedentary one? Did you start a job at a restaurant where you now get food for free (and so you take it, even when you are not hungry)? Are you going back to school and no longer have time to cook, so eating fast food every day instead? If you focus on ways to shift into a healthier lifestyle, your body will know what weight it wants to be! So stop counting, and start living!

If your child is overweight…

mom cooking with child

Has your pediatrician informed you that your child is overweight or obese? With all the focus on the “obesity epidemic” pediatricians are now required to address the issue if a child’s Body Mass Index (BMI) falls above the 85th percentile (overweight) or 95th percentile (obese). A good parent’s natural instinct is to do the right thing which usually means take action.

Unfortunately, the first logical thing is to restrict a child’s intake,  which most parents don’t realize is the worst thing you can do! Recent research actually identifies three major contributors to childhood obesity: (1) lack of sleep, (2) parental lifestyle and eating habits and (3) parental restriction. This means that the more a parent tries to stop a child from eating more, or withholds food from a child, the more likely they are to seek out food and overeat. It backfires.

What should parents do instead? Childhood obesity is a very complicated issue with many contributing factors. I recommend seeking out a pediatric registered dietitian for guidance. You can also start now to work on being the healthiest you can be as a parent! This means work on being active, cooking healthy balanced meals, and focusing on health and NOT weight. More on this important topic to come!