Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

No automatic alt text available.One morning last week I went to jump out of bed as usual, ready to start the day in a rush. I had lots to do to get ready for my yearly holiday open house and had to start planning. I love mornings because that is when I have the most energy, however this one morning I encountered a little problem. I couldn’t walk. When my feet hit the floor and I began to move toward the bathroom door, I felt severe pain in the back of both calves that caused me to freeze in that spot and not move. What on earth is happening? That is what I thought at first, but then I paused to recall all of the probably stupid things I might have done to affect my calves like this. And then it came to me: lunges. My daughter had tried to show me the appropriate way to do lunges while we were hanging out in the kitchen, I was probably cooking (can’t remember, just that we were not exercising, just chatting). Somehow we got onto the subject of strength, flexibility, endurance, getting older and what was more important, etc. Anyway, I must have tried a lunge or two. Apparently, I did not get it right, and clearly, I probably need to do more as doing only a few affected my severly inflexible and weak calves in a major way. I was thrown because it really hurt. Needless to say, I limped toward the bathroom and vowed to fix this.

The funny thing is I actually have been making an effort to stretch and do yoga-y kind of things in the morning while I am watching the news because things like this have happened to me before. I am a happy slow jogger/walker/biker kind of exerciser, anything mindless that does not involve counting or time or thinking and serves to relax me. Plus my more aerobic types of activity have served me well over all these years, both keeping me sane as well as giving me a good amount of endurance (more than a lot of people my age I have noticed). I can work for hours moving wood, gardening, cleaning, shopping, you name it, I don’t usually poop out…..and I love that feeling. But, lately more than ever I have been experiencing things I really don’t love such as knives stabbing me in the back of my legs simply from getting out of bed. I need to fix this, that is what I thought.

As usual, experiences like this help me relate to a lot of people who are trying to change and become healthier. It is not easy. I started to think about all of the things people want to change like eating habits, drinking habits, sleep and fitness habits. What is so hard about it, and how long does it take? As the New Year rolls around and you start thinking about resolutions, I think it is so important to give yourself a reality check.  I see people make some common mistakes the serve as a guarantee that in a year from now they may be in the same spot. Here are some things that i have noticed and some suggestions on what may be a better way:

  1. Having really unrealistic goals. You know what I am going to say here. “Lose 10 pounds a month”. “Go to the gym every day after work”. “Run a mile in 7 minutes”.  “Stop skipping meals”. When you set lofty goals you are setting yourself up. How do you know if it is a “lofty goal” or unrealistic? Ask yourself if you have set this same goal before and failed. That might tell you something. Instead of doing the same thing year after year, why not stop and reflect on the true behaviors in your life that really do affect how you feel and even your health. For example, if you smoke cigarettes I think we all could agree that you are risking hurting your health and you definitely do not feel as good as you should. If you have tried to quit before by saying “I am quitting on Monday” and then slipped back to your old smoking habit, then chances are it may happen again. Instead, think about other options. Reading a book on quitting or checking into classes for quitting smoking is still a step toward accomplishing your goal (even if you don’t stop suddenly like you wish you could). The point is to move in a direction. Educating yourself and exploring your options is much smarter than doing the same thing over and over. When it comes to dieting and weight loss, if you have dieted before and it “worked” but somehow you have gained weight back, there are several questions you may want to ask yourself. The first being, why are you trying to lose weight? You know my thoughts on this, not everyone is supposed to have the same body. If your weight has been stable for years and you feel good and are healthy, then instead of jumping on the diet bandwagon, why not take time to reflect on where you want to be for the rest of your life? Could there be a different goal instead of changing your weight? Can you envision yourself years from now preparing healthy meals, being in tune with your hunger and fullness, freeing your mind to focus on learning how to eat healthier instead of counting calories? Following a “diet” may be helpful to some (so I have been told, and I never knock what someone chooses for themselves or what they find helpful). But, in the end, if you want to be your best and healthiest self ever, the diet won’t do it.
  2. Having a “start date”. I have noticed when people say “starting Monday I am going to blah blah blah” they tend to really overdue whatever it is they are stopping on the days and weeks before that magical date. Wouldn’t it be better to avoid this altogether by doing your research on the direction you want to go instead of doing the same thing over and over? For example, if your original goal is to lose weight, but you have decided to take the plunge and focus on eating healthier instead, why not pick something you know is not the best in your diet and focus on that? For example, if you want to drink less soda do some taste testing of flavored waters or experiment with infused waters (adding different fruits to water to flavor it). Then start by decreasing the amount you drink by increments you can handle. It is so easy to tell someone who drinks 8 cans of Coke a day to stop because it is bad for you. Have you ever had that habit? Personally, I dislike the taste of soda however I have known people who really feel they need it. They just can’t stop cold turkey but I have seen people do very well with weaning themselves off it they find a good substitute. So having a “start date” sets you up for overindulging as well as failure. Instead, looking at your long-term goals and moving in that direction is much more doable.
  3. Having self-expectations. Although I have decided I need to work on flexibility I have not given myself any specific expectations. I did that once and almost killed myself (I was going to be able to do a back bend by Christmas). It didn’t work and I could have hurt myself for life. Now, I go with the flow, sometimes taking more time in front of the morning news and other times just a few minutes because I did not get done what I needed to the night before. It doesn’t matter because I feel really good in that I am slowly developing this habit, this association between the morning news and stretching which has now become fun and enjoyable. I don’t need to do a back bend, ever. If you just let yourself move in a direction, just start something without imposing these crazy expectations on yourself, in a year from now, who knows where you will be? And if I ever am able to do a back bend, trust me, I will brag about it……but is is not my goal anymore.
  4. Defining what means “success” or “progress”. This is kind of related to number 3. When we impose ridiculous expectations on ourselves, we are almost guaranteed to feel unsuccessful.  I feel like I have made progress over these past months because my definition of success has evolved into a more realistic one. Are there things in your life that you are trying to change but don’t give yourself credit for? For example, having a goal of eating more fruits and vegetables is a smart goal for your health however expecting yourself to eat 5 cups every single day is hard. Just adding something to your lunch (like a fruit) is success. The more credit you give yourself for even small positive changes, the better your feel and the more likely you will keep doing it.
  5. Taking out instead of adding in. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say “I am giving up sugar”. Or coffee. Or soda. Or bread. Or carbs. Fast Food. You name it. Getting rid of unhealthy things in your diet doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but often this leads to the “all-or-nothing” thinking. So when a situation arises, and that person eats or drinks that forbidden thing they not only feel like a failure, they tend to give up on their health goals. Instead, try thinking about “adding in” instead of “taking out” For example, for the soda person, carrying some water bottles with you might help to quench that thirst and prevent a trip to the vending machine. For the sweet tooth, having some extra fruit in your lunch, or even purchasing “Fun Size” candy bars instead of giant ones may help move in the right direction. Not to say you can’t enjoy a jumbo candy bar when you really want one. It is just the mindless habits of buying things and then thinking you can magically eliminate them from your life that doesn’t work. And instead of “cutting out pasta” why not “add in vegetables” to your dinner? Adding in the healthy instead of unrealistically cutting out all of the other stuff makes more sense. (Note: the exception to this is people who truly can’t control eating sweets or other things if they are around and this leads them to binge eating. You know yourself best and you need to do what you need to do for YOU. These suggestions are for the average “dieter” mindset. We are all different and need to respect these differences).
  6. Comparing self to others. I know lots of women my age who can do a lunge without paralyzing themselves the next day. I know women who are yoga teachers who can touch there toes to their heads and even stand on their heads. This will probably never be me. If you compare yourself to others you are setting yourself up to feel inadequate (not always, but sometimes). We are all unique in what we enjoy, how we like to move, our sleeping habits and foods we like to eat. Block everyone else out of your mind and think about where YOU are personally and where YOU want to be.
  7. Cultural ideals over personal needs. Things change year to year when it comes to what is cool to eat (right now it is pink salt and coconut anything). You also have the diet fads and exercise trends that are easy to get caught up in. Try to be aware of the goals you are setting for yourself, and ask yourself “am I choosing this just because everyone else in the world is doing it? Or is this something I want to do because it makes so much sense to me and I feel so much better when I do it this way? Have you done the research into the facts about whatever it is you are starting to try? Instead of jumping on the band wagon, again, think about where you want to be years from now (not next month). If it is truly not you, skip it.

The bottom line, as my mom always used to say “Rome wasn’t built in a day!” I never really thought about what she meant when she said it, but now I think I get it. We don’t need to set deadlines for change, we don’t need to have unrealistic expectations, we need to stop putting time limits on ourselves. Instead, habits take time to change. We used to think it took 21 days but according to Psychology Today it is more like 66 days. Yes, change takes time, but is also takes falling on your face and failing . You learn something when you get out of bed and can’t walk to the bathroom because you were stupid enough to think you could do a lunge when you haven’t done one in…well, ever. I know I have learned I am much less flexible than I thought and at the rate I am going, it may take a few years to be able to be as flexible as I want to be. But I feel good because I have been able to incorporate it into my life. Even those 10 minutes a day is a huge success in my mind. It is a great feeling to have low expectations sometimes. I still feel like I am moving in a direction, and that feels good.

Happy New Year and here’s to you and your healthier direction, whatever that may be!!!

Giving Thanks For A Bumpy Road

Image may contain: people standing, tree, plant, sky, outdoor and natureThere is a reason I don’t ski.  And it is not just because I am not a fan of heights, I hate speed and despise the cold. Why would I ever want to sit on some shaky lift that brings you way up high just so you could freeze your butt off while at the same time sliding out of control at an uncomfortable speed….with those things strapped to your feet? Well, when a ski trip is a Christmas gift from your boyfriend at the time, what choice do you have but go?

It was not pretty. What was supposed to be a wonderful weekend spent skiing with friends, then cooking a nice dinner in a beautiful chalet in the mountains of Vermont did not turn out exactly as planned. This girl decided to criss-cross her skis on the last run down the (baby) hill. Just to be clear, the baby hill at Mount Ascutney in Vermont is like a wall (if you ask me). Anyway, when I found myself face first in the snow, I felt a new joint in my shin, somewhere between my left knee and ankle. Yup, something broke. I didn’t move, and I didn’t look at it because I knew I would faint. I just stared up at the blue sky and waited……I could see my friends come toward me and tear off their equipment so they could help. Thankfully, they both were in medical school and knew what to do. Being as it was on the side of a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, there apparently were no ambulances or stretchers, so I was gently placed on a toboggan, slid down to the waiting station wagon that transported me to the hospital. Long story short, my left leg had 2 breaks (tibia ad fibula) and when I could not walk with the crutches, they realized my right ankle was broken also. So I arrived home with not one, but two casts, one on my entire left leg and the other a walking cast up to my knee.

It just so happened to be in the middle of my dietetic internship (at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville) and now I would have to stay home for a month. I was not happy. One minute I was enjoying a daily jog around the city of Nashville and bee-bopping around the hospital learning how to be a dietitian. I had just finished a dance-a-thon at the college. Now, I was flat on my back….for a month.

It was my younger brother David who said a few words that changed everything. Just as I was feeling like life was over, he said “just think….this is probably the only time in your life that you are legitimately going to get to sleeze!” hmm. I am not one to “sleeze”. I have lots of energy and feel lots of guilt when I don’t do what I think I am supposed to do. This was not easy, yet, I realized he was probably right. There was nothing I could do but wait. I might as well enjoy it.

So I started to watch all the dumb TV shows I never would have time for before. I read magazines and played board games and cards with whoever would sit long enough on the couch with me. The month flew by and before long, one cast was off and the other cut down to a walking cast, and I didn’t even need my crutches. Back to school, work, studying and moving again. The funny thing is, my brother was right. I learned so much from that time, a time that at first appeared to be a major bump in the road for me, one that made me afraid and want to give up. After that, I learned I actually could get through things. Little did I know at the young age of 22 how often I would need to remember this lesson over the next almost 40 years of my life.

Have you ever had a plan, or a dream that did not go as planned? Have you gotten rejected from what you thought was your dream job, or dumped by who you thought was the love of your life?  Did you ever have the rug pulled out from under you just when things were going along just perfectly? In the world of body image and dieting, have you worked hard dieting and exercising and lost all of the weight you wanted, but then gradually found yourself back where you started? Or, have you struggled with an eating disorder, worked hard at recovery, gotten to a better place, only to fall into ED’s clutches again?  With Thanksgiving around the corner, I have been reflecting about all of the things I am grateful for. Like everyone else I imagine, the simple things come to mind. Family, children, friends, shelter, electricity, food, flowers, music, a job, eyesight, hearing, taste, legs to walk, hands to cook and garden, a cozy bed to sleep in, peace in my home, love in my life. As I reflect on all of this obvious stuff, what I realize is that I would not be here if I had not had the bumps in the road. When I look back, all of the times I felt like crawling into a hole actually equipped me with strength. With every fall, I learned something about how to cope. Yes, it would be lovely if we could avoid every painful experience, or so it would seem. But I imagine life would be so much less rich, way too vanilla. How can you appreciate warmth if you have never been cold? How can you appreciate peace if you have not experienced friction? How can you treasure freedom if you have never been imprisoned (by something)? By that I don’t mean the steel bars of jail, but what may feel just as restraining and debilitating. Rules about how to behave, self-expectations about where we should be by now, self-imposed standards about pretty much everything. And I could go on and on about that one.

So with Thanksgiving and the holidays coming up, I think a lot about the people I have know throughout my life and how they are coping. I think about former patients and pray they get through all this, and even find themselves enjoying it all. I think about those who are dieting and have fallen (or feel like they have fallen) because they have taken a bite or a serving, or maybe succumbed to a binge because of all the triggers around this time of year. I can almost hear their self-talk and feel the weight of the guilt that descends like a ton of bricks, like a loud yelling voice, a voice that insults and berates….a judgmental voice.

It has dawned on me that when it comes to pretty much everything in life, we need to fall. But it is how we look at our falls that matters, not the fall itself. Even if it is not that we fell, but that something was thrown in front of us that caused us to stumble, it matters how we decide to look at it (yes, decide, because it is our choice). I understand that we are all different as far as how resilient we are. Some of us can just stand up after a fall, dust off our clothes, and move on. But others tend to get dragged down, and just can’t stop thinking about what they could have done, should have done, or even fall into the blaming of everything on their bad luck. Any way you look at it, these are what some consider to be the negative-ish people that always seem to complain about their circumstances. They may not be able to help it, it may just be their nature. But I like to think that if we become aware of what we are doing, and we don’t like it, at least we can decide to experiment with going in a different direction. Notice I said “experiment” and not just “decide to do it”. Maybe because I am not a fan of commitment when it comes to changing behavior. I think it is rarely that easy. I believe we do need to try different approaches to things, and that we don’t always know right away what may work for us. Part of the problem I see is that many people who want to change think there is only one way to do it, and that is just not true. There are a gazillion ways to change, and sometimes we need to try dozens of different things before we ease into what works for us. And therefore, that requires stumbling. And falling. But then you get up. And when you do, I hope you smile and say “that was interesting! well, that didn’t work! I wonder why…………..let me think about this”. Analyze it. What happened? What were the barriers? What are your triggers? How do you get rid of them? And then start experimenting….again.

Sometimes, though, the bumps in the road have nothing to do with us or our choices. Sometimes, really bad and sad things happen that we have no control of, and these sad things really affect us. Losing a loved one is the hardest thing (in my opinion). My mom has been struggling with the loss of my dad over a year ago. A friend of hers (who also lost her husband years ago) said to her “don’t let anyone tell you when you should be over it. It took me 7 years. It takes as long as it takes”. This one statement helped her so much. She let go of her own expectations and self-judgement as to why she was not in a better place. She now accepts where she is and does as much as she can to help herself. She is getting out, and hiking up mountains and getting lost in corn mazes (it was a first for both of us, we both get lost at the mall, a corn maze was not a good idea). She talks to strangers wherever we go. When she grocery shops (which is often…she is not good at keeping a list) she donates to the food banks when they are there. She bakes cookies for us and still cooks on Sunday. But, she no longer seems to be expecting herself to live up to some magical standard when it comes to getting over the loss of a man she spent decades with.

So with this holiday season, I wish everyone would be thankful for the bumps in their lives. I hope we all just accept wherever we are (it is probably where we are supposed to be, after all) because we may have more to learn. We DO have more to learn. We probably will ALWAYS have more to learn. I never want to be that person who knows everything (or who thinks they do). I am not a fan of those kind of people. I prefer the real ones.

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, and hope you find lots to give thanks for. Family, children, friends, shelter, electricity, food, flowers, music, a job, eyesight, hearing, taste, legs to walk, hands to cook and garden, a cozy bed to sleep in, peace in your home, love in your life.

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.

Remembering a Day That Changed My Life

Your future is in your hands

It was a cold and drizzly fall day,the year was 1976. I had agreed to meet my friend Joe outside in the parking lot of the condominium where we lived off-campus at The University of Connecticut. At the very last minute, I found myself changing my mind. I did not want to do this. What if I couldn’t do this? I was feeling insecure and afraid, but yet, when I agree to something I hate backing down. My motto is “you never know until you try”. For instance, I tried golfing once, I tried to get on a horse, and I tried skiing. People seem to love these things, and I wanted to understand why. After getting kicked by the horse and breaking my leg in two places as well as my ankle on the bunny slope, well, I can say I tried. Golf didn’t work out either. It was kind of like baseball for me, I just could not hit the darn ball.

So there I stood in the drizzle, waiting in my new Nike sneakers and windbreaker. He finally shows up and starts talking, giving me such encouraging words, describing what we are going to do and how we are going to do it. Joe was a physical fitness major and he knew what he was talking about. I had recently quit smoking cigarettes, and I needed something else to help me deal with life in general. After chatting with him the days before, I agreed to give running a shot. He was here to help me, and to guide me on my very first “run”. He had mapped out our route, which simply was a half mile to the end of the street and back, totally an entire mile. He guided me through some simple stretches, and then we started. Can I do this?

I literally felt like a fish out of water. Just a few months ago, I could barely walk to class without running out of breath (and would light up a cigarette once I finally got to sit down and catch my breath). It had been awhile since I smoked, and I actually was feeling so much better (I did not realize how bad I felt until after the fact…..when I had much more energy and realized this is how I am supposed to feel! this is how people who don’t smoke feel very single day).  I also need to share that my roommate Marion at the time was my inspiration to even consider this. She was a runner, and loved it, and although I did not understand why, I wanted to be like her! So Joe and I started out on this country road, and I started to run as fast as I could (isn’t that what you are supposed to do?) but he stopped me. He showed me how to pace myself, and trust me, it was VERY SLOW! So slow, in fact, that it actually felt GOOD. I could breathe. My legs felt strong. I could do this.

We made it to the end of the country street and turned around. I will NEVER FORGET how I felt when we got close to the end of our “run” and I could see our condo complex. I am going to make it, I thought. We reached the parking lot and I felt something shift inside of me that changed me forever. I loved that feeling so much, that feeling of success and accomplishment, it changed my “definition” of who I was, and who I wanted to be. I think we all have our own self-dialogues going on in our heads, thoughts nobody else can see about ourselves that eventually create who we actually are. Sometimes the thoughts are self-deprecating. “You are so lazy! You can’t do that!”

Yes, I can. And I did.

After that, I looked at myself in a very different light. I loved the idea of feeling good, and being healthy and fit. THAT is who I wanted to be. NOT someone using cigarettes to deal with stress. But, I definitely needed something, and the reality is, when we give up a “habit” it is almost always necessary to substitute something else. In my case, it was running. It became my new “habit”. It stuck. For years. Over time, I increased my distance and my usual runs became 2 or 3 miles. I did not run fast, but I loved running longer. It gave me time to think and meditate, solve problems, plan and dream. As I got more fit, running was just as relaxing as sleeping. I started to do road races and loved the camaraderie of other friends who had discovered the same joy I had.

Over the years, my running habit has shifted along with my life. It is funny, but I think because I always ran after classes (4-5 pm), that is the time my body seemed to crave movement throughout my life. To this day, after work, I just can’t wait to move. My body just craves it. I went through phases of running longer distances, but now prefer walking and slow jogging. I can day dream on a track, on the side walk or even on a treadmill. It doesn’t matter to me, just let me move. It can be kayaking on a local reservoir or mowing the lawn. I just need to move. If you have ever taken a few minutes to watch young children outside, they usually can’t stop moving. I think it is innate in us to move our bodies in ways that are fun and enjoyable. When we put unrealistic goals and numbers and expectations on it all, well, to me the fun is gone. Maybe that is why people “hate exercise”?

The benefits to my life thanks to Marion and Joe are too many to count. Because of this life-changing experience, I can enjoy vacations as much now, at my (older) age as I did in my 20’s. I can hike up Red Rock in Sedona, or down the Grand Canyon. I can walk for miles up and down the cobblestone streets of Cinque Terre in Italy. I can walk almost the entire town of Venice, never tiring. I can enjoy all of the bike trails on Cape Cod, explore the cliffs of Gay Head, garden for hours, walk all over the lively North end of Boston and still dance the night away. Yes, that day changed my life.

Since that day, I also became passionate about promoting health. I felt it, the way this simple act changed my life and my identity, and I wanted everyone to feel it, too. With every patient I have ever worked with, this has been my goal. So many people focus on how they look, and not on how they feel. They focus on the number on the scale, they judge themselves for that, and the self-talk and dialogue in their minds do nothing to help them be who they are supposed to be. People “try” but unfortunately, not everyone has a “Marion” for inspiration, or a “Joe” in their lives who can guide them in such a gentle and self-loving way to be the best they can be. To just start. One foot in front of the other. One pedal around the block. Dancing to even one favorite song.

Unfortunately, not every has the physical ability to enjoy all kinds of fun movement. I know many with joint issues, back pain, muscle issues, and other ailments that will always impact them. I am so grateful to be blessed with a body free of pain, and know that many do suffer. If you can move without pain, you definitely are blessed.

As I was writing this blog, my husband walked in and asked me to read what I had written so far. So I did, but as I started to read the 4th paragraph (“We made it…..”) I could not continue. I got choked up. That is how powerful that experience was, that is how important to my life. It took me by surprise, how strongly I felt, but then again, life-changing shifts in self-identity can do that.

I hope you take a minute to stop and reflect on your own self-thoughts and the dialogue in your head. Do you have unrealistic expectations when it comes to “exercise”? Do you call yourself names? Use the “L” word? When it comes to moving, to be clear, I definitely do not think everyone should be running! I have absolutely no advice on what anyone should do as far as physical activity. YOU are the expert on that. YOU know what you love. Some people absolutely love competition, enjoy running fast, getting stronger and stronger, keeping track of times, and amounts of weights they can lift, how many reps they can do, etc. The bottom line is, they enjoy it. It makes them happy. If what you are doing is not enjoyable, or does not make you happy, that is a different story. I just hope you look at moving in a different light. If you look at it as a means to an end, it may be hard to enjoy. If you instead can find something that has the capacity to be one more thing to enjoy in your day, a fun way to move your body (think kids, think hula-hoop, think fun, think freedom), well, that may be something you keep in your life for as long as you live.

So, that is the story. A day that changed my life, who I am and is part of why I have a passion to help people be healthy. Not perfect. Just healthy. I don’t want to be the only one on the dance floor when I’m 80.



Routines vs Spontaneity: Lessons Learned from a Mountain Road Trip

13012841_1399130246779755_6786660702991710477_nThe plans were all set. I would catch a very early 6 am flight from Hartford to Albuquerque so we could be on the road before noon. My good friend Debra and I had planned every last detail as far as what hotel we would stay at, how long we would stay at each place, and even which restaurants we would eat at (even made reservations ahead of time). She is my “road trip” sister. Ever since she and her family moved from Connecticut back to their home state of New Mexico, she has gotten me to do some crazy road trips which,before meeting her, I would never do. She is an adventurous spirit, horse rescuer, true cow girl and I am pretty much the opposite. Anyway, since my son moved out to Nederland, Colorado several years ago she has been urging me to fly out and take a road trip up there to visit him. She goes to Colorado all the time to ride her horses and it would be fun….so she says.

Well, I missed my son so much and needed to see where he lived and needed to understand what it was about the place that made him never move home back east. Between two mothers, we had the plans made in no time. She would pick me up in her giant white truck at the airport and we would be in Sante Fe, New Mexico before noon. I would be sitting in the sun, sipping a margarita on the rooftop deck at the Coyote Cafe by lunch time. I could almost feel the sun and taste that yummy lime. But almost as soon as I landed in sunny New Mexico, my son sends me a text “you might want to get here as soon as you can. We are supposed to get a lot of snow”. But that was not in the plan.

When Debra pulled up in that giant white truck, after being shocked at the size of this monster (aka Bertha), we hugged and laughed and started on our adventure. All I can say is thank goodness Bertha is a big strong girl.

I immediately told Debra about my text. Since Sante Fe is less than an hour away, we needed to make a decision quick as to what to do. Should we cancel our night there and head straight to beautiful Boulder (which was supposed to be where we went the day after our wonderful day of shopping in Sante Fe). We thought it would be easier to drive the almost 500 miles on a Saturday, missing rush hour in Denver and still getting enough time in Boulder. The problem was that sometimes the main road going up gets shut down due to snow, and we did not want that to happen. Debra was worried I would be too exhausted to go straight to Boulder since I had woken up that morning at 3:30 am to get to the airport by 4:00 am. But I was on a mission, and as much as I wanted to have my moment in the sun in Sante Fe, I even more so wanted to get to my son.

I said, “Let’s go for it!” And so we did. It took over 7 hours to reach what was to be our 2nd destination in Boulder due to some traffic when we hit Denver. But the ride was beautiful, and we could see storms brewing out to the west of us and also to the east (if you have never been to the southwest, you can often see for miles and miles). The hotel in Sante Fe did not charge us to cancel and the hotel in Boulder had a room for us a day early. After we checked in, it started to lightly rain, but we both were starving (Debra stocked her car with munchies but pistachios, chips and grapes only go so far). So we walked around the beautiful town of Boulder in the drizzle and found a great place to eat and sip a glass of well-earned wine. I was starting to feel a little funny, a bit dizzy and just contributed it to the altitude and lack of sleep. I had been out west before, and I remember the effect on breathing in the higher elevation, and it was no big deal. But I had not been to Nederland which was a bit higher (like a few thousand feet).

Morning came, and the original plan was to take the day and shop in sunny beautiful Boulder (I was really looking forward to this as I never saw Boulder, and my older daughter absolutely loved the town when she visited). It was now Saturday, and the plan was to go Sunday up to Nederland which was less than 20 miles away. We had rented a house up there instead of a hotel, because I really wanted to cook for my son and have a place to hang out. So Saturday morning we made our way to a wonderful little breakfast place to try to decide what to do. It was starting to snow. My son’s girlfriend texted me “we are supposed to get 3-4 feet of snow, you might want to get here as soon as you can. A foot has dropped already and is just starting to stick”. This was not the plan, it was supposed to be sunny and warm! We decided to check our options. Yes, there were hotels that had rooms up in Nederland, and even better, we would be able to check into the VRBO house we rented a day early. Again, we decided “let’s just do it! Let’s get there!”

The hotel again let us cancel without charge and we made our way up the mountain. It was only 9:30 am. The road was just wet in Boulder, but as we made our way up the mountain and got closer, the snow started sticking. When I checked out this road on google maps, it did not look this curvy, and I certainly did not even realize it went up and up and up……and up. Debra was clinging to the steering wheel, going nice and slow, staying away from the edges when it got a bit hairy. My body was reeling from a mix of excitement and anxiety, but also (now I have learned) from a case of “Mountain Sickness”. Like I said, I knew the altitude can affect your breathing, but I had never heard of the illness before. Apparently, it can be very serious for some people, and even result in death. I just felt nauseous, exhausted, like I could not take a deep breath and like I needed to curl up in a ball. Some people get bad headaches, I did not.

Anyway, we finally get to the tiny sweet town of Nederland which is 2 feet deep in snow by now (with more to come) and we head straight to the grocery store. I huddled under a huge winter coat as my sweet friend trudges through the snow to get the groceries. I was shivering, even with the heat on. This was not the plan!

Debra finally emerges with the groceries, I text the owner of the home to see if we can check in early. He needs a payment apparently, so, I see a coffee shop and we walk (well, not walk, but trudge though the 2 feet of snow, that is the only word that works, trudge) get to the tiny restaurant, log on to their internet and make the payment. Finally, we find the house, I drag myself in, immediately take off the wet cold clothes, take a long hot shower, put on PJ’s, grab a big fluffy throw and curl up in front of the fire. Again, not what I had in my mind as to how it would be when I got here. We were supposed to be sipping wine in front of this fire, celebrating, and getting ready to go out to see my son. Instead I could not move and was clinging on to my can of instant oxygen (don’t laugh, and be sure to get one if you ever visit Colorado), and sipping my herbal tea.

Once the snow stopped and I felt better, the rest of the trip was wonderful! The moment I first hugged my son, I was so happy Debra and I had the ability to be spontaneous. And brave. I was thankful for my health and that I had the stamina to get up at 3:30 am, fly a few thousand miles and still be able to drive 500 miles (and enjoy it). We were ok with things “not going as planned”and we both laughed at how much we loved the craziness of it all.

The rest of the week was spent with my son and his girlfriend, meeting his great friends, eating at the eclectic restaurants there and driving around the mountain roads to see even more lovely majestic mountains. It seemed to me the people there were different. Nobody dressed up, no high heels, not much make up, no fanciness at all. The children ran free and played with each other, with no tablet or video game to be seen. People worked hard and cherished their time with friends and family. Even with the 4 feet of snow, people were laughing and smiling, everyone was so kind. There were many artists and interesting characters in this tiny town. As it finally was time to drive down that mountain to head home, it all made sense to me. Why my son never left once he found this tiny community in the mountains. The experience also made me think of how most of us live out here in the faster-paced east coast. The trip made me think of what a gift it is to be able to change your plans and be spontaneous. Some people I know are definitely not ok with this. Some of us do the same things every single day, get up, make the coffee, get dressed, go to work, go home, do it all again the next day. Some people are very picky with food, and might have struggled with the unpredictability of what and when you could eat. There were no gyms to be found up there in the mountains, although lots of outdoor activity like snow boarding, mountain biking, hiking and skiing. The drive down the mountain was much different than the snowy drive up. The sun was shining, it was warm out, the views were crystal clear. We got our walk in around Boulder, window shopping and finally a goodbye toast. Debra dropped me off at the airport and drove off in Bertha (who went from covered in snow to covered in mud, and finally cleaned at the car wash and back to herself). I got in to Connecticut late (almost 1:00 am) and woke to sunshine and blooming tulips, it seems everything woke up when I was gone.

This road trip to the mountains of Colorado taught me a few things, and reminded me of a few things, too.

  • Don’t go visit a high altitude destination and assume you are going to be ok. Research “mountain sickness” and take precautions. Drink a lot of water, rest, and the best thing is to get there gradually if you can so your body can get adjusted
  • Try to stay in touch with your body even when you travel. If you are going from one time zone to another, it does have an affect on your appetite and hunger. It can be confusing. Most of us have environmental triggers to remind us to eat (“it’s lunchtime!”) but when you are traveling and there is no “lunchtime” and you start to feel tired and grouchy, you are most likely hungry. Bring food with you to keep you going. There is not always a restaurant on the way (especially out west where you can travel for miles and see absolutely nothing but the mountains and sky).
  • ALWAYS carry lots of water. I learned that most people die of dehydration in the spring and fall, and not the summer when they are in the mountains. It is because you don’t feel hot and don’t feel sweat, but the air is so dry, you lose more water from your body even if you are not sweating.
  • It is a gift to be spontaneous. Can you deal with a change of plans? Do you have “expectations” as to how things will be when you plan something, so that you end up being totally disappointed when they don’t turn out that way? Maybe change it up a bit, even in your simple daily life. Skip the gym and work in the garden. Heck with the meat, potato, vegetable, pick up some random ethnic food and try it. Mix it up, life it short.
  • People look at the world with different glasses. When Debra and I woke up to 4 feet of snow covering Bertha, we could not stop taking pictures. To us, it added to a wonderful adventure. It was beautiful. To some of my friends back east, it triggered nausea! My husband, who hates the snow, would not have been happy. What is wrong with us? Both Debra and I were ecstatic to be there with a fire blazing, reading, relaxing and enjoying this fluke spring snow storm. Maybe it is a matter of choice? Maybe you can look at many situations as good or bad, depending on what glasses you choose….
  • Life is kind of nice without TV
  • Having fancy clothes, perfect hair, an expensive car and manicured nails does not bring smiles to people’s faces. Human connections do. Seeing a small community where my son lives care about each other so much, helping each other, laughing together, simply playing and eating and connecting seems healthier to me than the things we seem to focus on.
  • It may not be easy for restrictive eaters or dieters or picky eaters to go with the flow when you travel, but part of the fun to me was trying different foods and dishes. I don’t eat steak much, mostly because I don’t know how to cook it well. This week I had steak a few times and it was yummy. One dish had “mixed vegetables” made of corn and peppers and onions and a few other things, and it was so good, I asked the cook (who my son knew well) how she made it. “Bacon fat” she said. I wondered why I felt so unbelievably full. It was worth it. There is one thing I won’t try and that is Colorado Rocky Mountain Oysters because they are not fish. Anyway, if you have the opportunity to experience something new, don’t let “food rules” ruin your life experiences. You may not get another chance.
  • We all deserve to nurture our family and friend relationships. Give yourself time with your children, parents, brothers, sisters and your friends. I know I often feel guilty when I don’t accomplish what I think I am supposed to (like not writing a post last week….it was one thing I just could not accomplish before I left). We can’t always “do it all”. Be thankful if you have children, parents, friends and relatives to visit and enjoy. These are the important things in life (if you ask me). This road trip confirmed that in so many ways. It was so good to see Debra and words can’t describe the joy of seeing my son.                                                                                                                                                                       But for now, it is just good to be home, seeing the flowers starting to bloom, and not a snow flake in sight. Back to reality.



Forward, Backward or Standing Still: Where Do You Stand?

DSCN2664 The other day another co-worker emailed me a link to her new eating plan. She wanted my opinion. This is where it gets hard for me, because I just want to say “please don’t waste your time or money” but that is not what I said. As a dietitian who has researched dieting, and wrote my Master’s Thesis on restrained eating back in 1996 I clearly remember how blown away I was by the proof I found about the failure of dieting, feeling outraged that this never made headlines. Well, now, when people talk about dieting,  I keep my mouth shut……at first. I have learned that people will tune you out if you hit them all at once with the truth. I have learned that most dieters are very hopeful and truly think they can do it “this time”. Instead, I share my experience with my patients. So I may say “can I tell you what I have seen happen?” If they say “yes” that opens the door. I warn of “all-or-nothing” thinking, how going “on” something means you eventually will go “off”. And on and on and on.

What struck me the other day after chatting with this woman about her diet was a realization that when it comes to health, we are all either going backward, going forward, or staying still. This is not about losing weight (although that is the goal for so many people) but about your lifestyle in general, what is health-promoting about it or not health-promoting about it. Clearly, we all have things we do that we regret at times and swear to change. It could be trying to get to bed earlier (because you feel like crap the next day but can’t peel yourself away from CNN). Or maybe it is trying to drink less wine because although it is good for your health in moderation, you drink a bit more than one 5 oz glass, and you want to preserve your liver. Maybe heart disease runs in your family, or your blood pressure has creeped up over the years, and you really need to cut down on salt. You are getting to the age when being active is more important than ever, both for a healthy heart but also to preserve bone mass.

Anybody trying to change knows it is not an easy task. When someone goes on a diet to lose weight, and the diet seems to work at first, they feel as though they are moving toward their goal. But when the diet ends, most people slowly start gaining again. Frustration eventually sets in and the thinking goes like this “I can’t do this, it’s too hard”. When someone decides to start exercising, goes all out, gets shin splints, the thinking is the same: I can’t do this.  The person who is trying to stop drinking breaks down and has a drink. Again, “I can’t do this”. The person with an eating disorder and doing well with taking care of their bodies encounters a trigger, starts to restrict, or purges. The immediate feeling is the same. I can’t do this. It seems to me people tend to be harsh on themselves and feel that either they need to be doing it all, or not at all.

Instead, why not accept that sometimes we are moving forward, sometimes backwards, and sometimes just sitting still.

Ask yourself:

Are there certain unhealthy behaviors that you think about often, and have wanted to change? Instead of thinking “all or nothing” why not try to take a non-judgmental look at where you are? Here’s how:

  1. Try to identify the behavior first, and be sure it is something that really matters. Bounce it off of your partner, friends or even a health professional to see if you are being reasonable and are not distorted in your thinking. For instance, if you think snacking is unhealthy, maybe you need a reality check. Pretty much everyone I know who is a normal eater needs a boost in between meals. Are you hungry? If, on the other hand, you are munching out of boredom or because you have some excessive stress in your life and are doing some emotional eating (completely normal unless excessive and interfering with your life), well, if it is preventing you from dealing with the real issues then seeking help from a therapist would be wise. Taking a step to getting help is definitely “moving forward”.
  2. Think about the things you have done in the past to change the behavior. Where has it led you? If you are the person who got shin splints from overexercising and this turned you off for good, you could be simply “standing still”. It does not mean you are a failure or can’t do it. It just means overdoing it did not work. Could you think of some other fun things that won’t hurt you? I sometimes wonder why even going for a simple, short but enjoyable walk “does not count”. The idea is to move in a direction of health, not become a marathon runner. People who have a gentle approach to moving more tend to feel really good about even the small accomplishments and these small moves in the right direction really do add up to a healthier body and life. As for people who are bent on starting another diet, it often leads to binge eating. This is “going backwards” in that it typically makes people feel even worse about themselves than they did before starting the darn diet. Instead, just “staying still” and taking the time to reflect on the past diets you have tried and the affect they have had on you in the long run is a good thing.  People often tell me “it worked before”, and you know my answer to that one. Someone wrote (sorry can’t remember where I read it) that Weight Watchers was a successful business because it really does NOT work…..and so people have to keep coming back. Starting another diet is going backwards. Unless you are one of the few people who actually learns some positive things (such as great healthy recipes, getting in touch with hunger and fullness, etc.) and transitions well into normal eating, I just don’t ever recommend diets. The repercussions are almost always bad, it is truly risky business.
  3. Try to project and think about a year from today. If you truly have examined yourself and your past behaviors and where it has led you, could you just this once try thinking about simply “moving forward”? This means taking small but doable steps to accomplish your goal of being the healthiest you can be. Perhaps instead of starting a diet, you could make a positive change in your eating. For instance, if you waste money by buying lunch every day could you plan to bring your own next week? This means making a grocery list and planning your menu. If you can’t resist the peer pressure to go to happy hour every day after work, could you make a plan to start skipping a day? If you stay up too late and feel exhausted the next day (and this happens every day), could you start with just one day to get to bed early? Eventually you can add more early bedtime days as you get used to it. Feeling good the next morning will start to become the motivation for repeating the positive behavior. This is moving in the right direction. It is not about “all or nothing”. Eventually, you will find the right balance for you, where your body feels better yet you get to enjoy life, too.
  4. Don’t beat yourself up when you do indeed “go backwards”. Instead, these backwards steps are priceless teachers, and we need to be thankful for them. Can you instead ask “wow, I thought I had that habit licked! let me figure out why I did it”. When you find out your triggers, or barriers, you can come up with a better plan the next time. Nothing lost, and lots gained. Even from mistakes.

So for today, ask yourself if there is anything you have been thinking about regularly as far as health is concerned. Take the time to reflect on where you have been, where you are now and where you want to go. Remember, deciding to “stand still” is a much wiser decision, and better for your health than “going backwards”. Skip that crazy diet that promises fast weight loss. Stand still and reflect, then move forward. Every step counts.


Why you need to stop trying to have “willpower”

hungry man and burger I have always disliked the word “willpower”. Maybe because so many people cast judgement when they think someone does not have any. Why do you keep smoking? You need to have more willpower! Why do you keep overeating? You need to have more willpower! Why are you binge eating? You need to have more willpower! Why do you drink so much? You need to have more willpower! If only you had more willpower. I hate that word.

Also, people judge themselves. When they want to change and can’t, most people beat themselves up mentally and verbally. Why can’t I have more willpower?! This makes me sad because changing, especially when it comes to eating behaviors, has nothing to do with willpower.

I like looking at things in a somewhat holistic way. It is never one simple answer and most people behave in a certain way because of a variety of influencing factors. When it comes to eating, I always have felt there are three things that affect us (probably more but to me, these are the three general areas I have encountered with the people I have worked with).

  1. Physiology
  2. Environment and habits
  3. Emotions

First, let’s talk about physiology. By this I mean all the physiological things that are going on in your body that most of us never think about. What most people do not know is that our bodies regulate themselves as far as what and how much to eat. For example, people who try to avoid carbohydrates eventually end up craving them. Why? Because a chemical messenger named serotonin in our brains will drop if we do not eat enough carbs and will send the message that we need to eat them! Have you ever craved something sweet? We all have. Even dietitians usually can’t keep track of what they eat, let’s face it, we all have busy lives and sometimes just eat what is there. But our bodies will definitely tell us, they are keeping track! A good example is a dinner I prepared for my husband the other day. We kind of ran out of food and I had gone out with a friend so had already had an early dinner. I threw together a “Chef’s Salad” because I had leftover grilled chicken, leftover pepperoni slices from a party, some prosciutto I had left from a recipe I made over the weekend, cheese and lots of salad (it was buy one, get one!). He loved it with his Chipolte Ranch Dressing, but I knew he was going to be craving something sweet later at night because there were no carbs in it. He is not a fan of beans and I had no croutons : ( So later at night it was kind of funny when he said “do we have anything sweet? I need something sweet!” So predictable. Nothing to do with willpower and everything to do with physiology.

What kind of imbalances are YOU creating with your eating? In addition to not getting enough carbs, if we don’t get enough calories our bodies regulate that also. Leptin is one messenger that will make sure you know you have not eaten enough. Are you skipping lunch to lose weight? Are you then getting mad at yourself for not having “willpower” at night when you end up binge eating? Not your fault, and not your lack of willpower. Physiology, plain and simple. You can’t fight it, so don’t blame yourself. There are so many more examples, but the bottom line is that your body is much smarter than you are, and having more willpower is not the answer. Trusting your body is. Check out more on this topic (especially for you biology buffs) with these articles:

Appetite Hormones (July 2015 Issue, Today’s Dietitian,Appetite Hormones  By Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD, LD, Vol. 17 No. 7 P. 26)

Gastrointestinal-Brain Connection

The second reason people need to forget about willpower is the power of environment and habits. We all have behaviors that are affected by our environment, and eventually we fall into habits that we don’t even have to think about. Let me ask you a simple question: what do you do when you walk in the door after a long day of work (or school)? Do you kick your shoes off and run to the couch, click on the TV and relax? Do you go straight to your room, remove your work clothes, put on your jogging shorts and sneakers and run to the track? Or do you go straight to the fridge and open the door? Or maybe grab a beer and sit in front of the news?

All of these behaviors are habits. None has anything to do with willpower. The person who has been coming home and going to the track has no more willpower than the person who runs to the fridge to grab a snack or a beer. The issue is that each person has developed a habit over time, triggered by their environment. Just walking in that door sets all behaviors in place. The question we need to ask ourselves is NOT why we don’t have more willpower, but what behaviors are we not happy with and want to change? Changing habits is another long story and not easy. We can start however by changing that initial trigger, not by blaming ourselves for not having enough willpower! What if you avoided that couch and put on sneakers instead? then went and sat outside on the porch just to watch the birds. Anything to break that chain. Wishing you had more willpower or berating yourself because you do not is not the answer.

Finally, the third reason to forget about willpower is to remember that emotionally we are all different. No one has the same life growing up, the same role models, the same experiences or the same biological make up. How can we expect to have the same amount of willpower? Consider the woman I once worked with many years ago. She was a binge eater and was a stay at home wife to a man that wanted her to be thinner.  She had gained weight throughout her 20 year marriage and he just wanted to help her. So what he thought was helpful (“you don’t need that! That is enough for you!”) was actually hurtful. She told me that she would eat her Special K with skim milk in the morning while he had his bacon and eggs, then watch through the window as he drove away. The minute he disappeared from sight, she would go straight to the fridge and start eating. And eating. She had a binge eating disorder that was partly due to emotional reasons. NOT lack of willpower.

The bottom line and take-home message I hope you get is that expecting yourself to have more “willpower” may be a losing battle. Instead, can you consider looking at your lifestyle and asking yourself what behaviors you feel are not contributing to health? Are you restricting too much and then binge eating and getting mad at yourself? Are you wishing you could be more active because you really do want to have more energy but feel you have no willpower to go to the gym?  Are you drinking too much and blaming yourself?  I suggest just start by thinking about which of these three areas are affecting you most. Then work on figuring it out without judgement. Stop expecting yourself to have willpower to fix things that are way more complicated.

Working on your health both physically and mentally is a wonderful thing! Just taking the time to read this post shows you care about yourself and that is a great thing too! Stop berating yourself for not having enough “willpower”. No one does.

Remembering My Addiction

have-1-on-me-1316923 It was the summer of 1969. I was hiding in the bathroom in my parent’s home, (the house I grew up in) when I lit my first cigarette (it was a Marlborough). I probably did not inhale.  I also remember exactly what I was thinking that day: “I don’t like it, I don’t get it, but there has to be something good to it or my mom would not be doing it”.

All the kids my age smoked back then because it was “cool”, but I was embarrassed to smoke in front of anyone, it felt awkward to me. But I continued to do it and not sure why, only that my role models did it. Of course back then, the dangers of smoking were not broadcast, and people could smoke wherever they wanted (on airplanes, buses, even in church!). That’s how addicted we all were.

As time went on, and I went off to college, I went from smoking 3 or 4 cigarettes a day to more than a pack. I slowly but surely developed an addiction. After an hour of studying I would have a cigarette to take a “break”. I had one with my coffee in the morning. I had one after dinner. I had one with a beer on a Friday night. I had one when I was anxious about an exam or mad at my boyfriend. I turned to smoking to make me feel better. What started out as a simple behavior I did because I wanted to be like my mom ended up being something I craved and needed to cope with life.

The next thing that happened changed my life. I was going to be moving into an apartment with my best friend and another girl who both were on the track team. The summer before the move into the apartment I would go stand there and watch them jogging around the track, while I would be puffing away and thinking “who would jog 2 miles? That’s what cars are for!” I could not understand how or why they would do that. Anyway, a few weeks later it dawned on me that I was the only smoker, and I would be the reason our apartment would stink. I did not want to be that person. I had tried to quit before (mostly because the price of a pack had gone up to 65 cents….I know, that was a LONG time ago!) Every attempt I had made previously failed, probably because my self-talk kind of went like this: “how long can I last? Oh well”.

This time, something was different. I remember that day clearly. Instead of saying “how long will I last?” I made a decision. “I am a non-smoker”. I cried and I never knew why I felt so overwhelmingly sad until years later when I was working in health promotion. I was trained by the American Cancer Society on teaching their class “Fresh Start” to help people quit smoking. I learned about the 3 parts of addiction:

  1. chemical addiction (nicotine)
  2. habit
  3. emotional addiction

The nicotine (chemical) addiction does not last that long, it is out of your system rather quickly (ten days? I am not sure, but just that this is not really the hard part!). The habit addiction is just like any other habit, it is repeated so often and associated with many triggers that we just automatically reach for a cigarette in certain situations. Pouring the coffee, seeing the beer, sitting down with friends (even after I quit, when I would go out with my friends and as they all reached into their purses to get a cigarette, my hand would be going into my purse automatically! and then I would laugh and realize what was going on. It doesn’t happen any more!) It takes a longer time to break a habit. Some say 21 days but after checking into the evidence for this, the reality is everyone is different. It can take a shorter time for some to get over it and longer for others. But eventually, it goes away. Starting a new, healthier habit to replace the old bad habit has been shown to help. For me, don’t laugh, but I took up jogging! I remember the first time I went out and slowly jogged a mile. It probably took me a half hour, but it did not matter, I felt so good. It ended up turning into another “habit” but this time, it was a good one and changed my life. To this day, I need to get outside and move to feel good (maybe not running, maybe sometimes jogging, mowing, gardening, biking or walking, but still, it is a good habit that helped me get over the unhealthy one). Unfortunately, we know that our brain connections for the bad habit remain there and that is why some people go right back to smoking (or another habit) if they slip up. Over time though, these connections get very weak and this is less likely to happen. Creating really strong healthy connections in our brains through repeating the new healthy habit over and over really does help (such as my need to move now is so ingrained, the connections in my brain are strong after all these years of repetition!)

Finally, the emotional addiction was the part I never knew until I learned to teach that class. It all made sense to me why I cried that day I decided to be a “non-smoker”. What I had been doing was using cigarettes and smoking as a “friend” who was always there, that I could turn to. It filled up the spaces in between the other stuff in my day. I was never alone! So when I made that decision, it felt like a death. I know it sounds ridiculous but for those of you who have gone through it, or maybe have given up something else in your life that was an addiction, you know what I mean. After that day, I had to learn to be alone in between those times. Over the years, I learned to LOVE being alone with my own thoughts to figure things out, create, dream, relax. Anything! anything but smoking. But it was not easy in the beginning.

So that is the story of my addiction. I have been thankful for this experience because it has helped me be more empathetic to the patients I have worked with who may have some very unhealthy habits and addictions with eating, dieting, over exercising, etc. It is not about willpower, it is not easy to change and it is much more complicated than anyone can imagine. But it is doable. Maybe you DO have to try 10 times before you succeed. Maybe you DO have to lose something that feels like a friend to you. Making that “choice” is the hard part. Substituting a positive and healthy behavior does help and may be the only way.

Now, off to my gardening!

PS Both of my parents have thankfully quit decades ago! In their 80’s and going strong, thankfully.

Dieting and Weight: A New Way to Think

healthy lifeI struggled with what to title this post even though I know exactly what I want to say. Sometimes I notice things or patterns or trends about people, eating, food, or whatever and say to myself “I need to write about that”. Especially when it is something I see over and over again. To me it may be glaringly obvious how ridiculous it is yet so many wise and wonderful people are still doing the same dumb things (I don’t mean to be insulting to anyone as they are not “dumb” at all, which is why it is so baffling they might make the same mistakes over and over, even after many years).

I am referring to dieting, specifically spending money to go on the same diet program they may have been “successful” on 2 years ago. Lately I have bumped into old friends or acquaintances who last time I saw them looked a whole lot different. It could go either way, either they may have gained a lot of weight or lost a lot of weight. Following the same “program”. Or not.

It seems they have so much faith in their diet program because after all, it did “work”. If only they could have stayed with it, had more willpower. So this next time should be the last. But it never is and the reason is because nothing has really changed except the number on the scale (down, then up). You have heard it before, from me and others, why dieting and focusing on your weight is not the answer to feeling good or being healthy… know that any new diet book hooks you in because it gives a false sense of hope.

Instead, my hope is you might be open to stopping for just a few minutes to reflect on this. Do you have a goal stuck in your brain that you absolutely will not give up until you reach a certain size or weight? Then I am asking you for just a few minutes to let go of that thought and think about all of the things you have done over the past months or years to change your body. If you have spent months or years working on this and are still in the same place, would you consider something different? You could go another few years repeating the cycle and many people do. And you should not be hard on yourself if you have, because that is the only way to learn (and learning what does not work is equally important as learning what does work). Just like with dating, you have to kiss a lot of frogs!

Anyway, my suggestion is putting on a “detective” hat instead. Instead of judging and commanding yourself, could you first of all try to stay neutral and nonjudgmental? What are some of the unhealthy habits you may have fallen into that you wish you could change? For instance, are you stopping for fast food on the way home from work on a daily basis? Do you plop on the couch the minute you get home? Do you notice you drink too much when you go out with certain friends or overeat when you have sweets in your house? How about considering some simple “health” goals and making a mental list of some of the healthy things you would like to incorporate in your life? Someone once told me, or maybe I read it somewhere, that you are either moving forward, backward, or staying still. It is ok to stay still sometimes. And we learn from going backwards too. But why not take some simple steps to “move forward” instead of starting that same old diet plan or program (or a new one) that will leave you in the same place a year from now? You may decide to pick just one day where you don’t stop for fast food and cook instead. You may just decide to collect some of those healthy recipes you actually did enjoy from that diet plan and cook dinner (even if you are not “on” the diet, if you found healthy meals you liked, that could be useful!). Or maybe you may decide to take just ten minutes after work to walk before you settled in to watch TV. Even just one day a week. It is all positive action and all with a good goal: to move into a healthier lifestyle. Yes, you can stop for fast food, overeat with your friends, drink too much sometimes, and decide to spend the entire day on the couch if that is what you need. It is finding the balance that leads to a healthy body and mind. In the end, you will probably find that a year from now, for once, you will be in a better place, both physically and mentally (and financially!).

So consider putting on that detective hat, think about YOUR unique lifestyle and habits, and YOU decide what you may want to start with to move FORWARD. One step at a time…..

Feeling “Full”

boy with cake

Back in the day when I was young, I am guessing it was easier to know if you were “full”. These days I find many of my patients are very confused about this. Now that we know a lot more about the physiological contributors to feeling both hungry and full it is easy to figure out why back then people didn’t struggle as much.

So what are some of the contributors I am referring to? This topic is so complex that I am going to only focus on three:

(1) Balanced Meals: we now know there are messengers that respond to what we eat that communicate to our brain that we got what we needed. For instance, if we do not include adequate protein with our meals, our belly may feel “full” but our brain will tell us we are not satisfied because of a messenger called NPY (Neuropeptide Y). If we do not consume adequate carbohydrate our serotonin levels will fall and likely trigger a craving for something sweet later on. Back in the day, getting “three square meals” a day was the norm (and you were very lucky if you ever got a dessert, and that was probably on holidays and birthdays!). Today, things are different. Family meals barely exist as families tend to be busier, children tend to be glued to computers and video games, and family meals have fallen by the wayside. A typical “meal” for many teens I have seen is a package of Ramen Noodles (not much protein there, more snacking will be needed).

(2) “Sensory Satisfaction”: research has demonstrated that when you eat while distracted (such as while watching the TV or on the computer) you do not get an adequate release of dopamine which tells your brain you are satisfied and can stop eating. Need I say more? With one small TV in the home, 3 channels to choose from, and the remote not invented yet, back then we all ate at the table.

(3) Fitness: studies show that people who are active are more in tune with their hunger and fullness. In other words,one of their fullness messengers (called PYY) works better. Back in the day, there was no choice but to be active. There was nothing to do in the house, so kids played outside. We had to walk 2 miles to school and then back home, etc etc etc.

So, feeling “full”, a very normal physiological function is no longer that easy. Working on having balanced meals, shutting off the TV and sitting at the table sounds like simple advice, but more important than most people realize. And getting outside to play now that spring is here is a good idea too!!