Remembering a Day That Changed My Life

321602_278316702194454_4244576_n
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.

 

 

Weight verses Health

scaleYesterday a co-worker told me about her husband who just found out he had high cholesterol as well as high blood pressure. She said he had gained about 20 pounds over the past 2 years and she wondered if that was the reason he was now having health issues. The stigma against body size verses health is one that can be very confusing. When we talk about a “health at every size” approach to weight, people often react and think we are crazy. Of course weight affects health, they say. To help clarify this confusion, I wanted to share this great post from Dare Not To Diet (dietitian GlenysO). As for my friend’s husband, he was told to start to exercise and to eat more fruits and vegetables. It sounded like his lifestyle was not too healthy, and the bottom line is even if his weight had not changed at all, he probably would have had his health issues due to the way he was living his life. If you are working toward being the healthiest you can be, but confused about the weight issue, be sure to check out this post! See link below:

What exactly does Health at Every Size® mean for my weight?

Source: Am I Healthy at Any Weight?

Normal Eating, Dieting and Weight:Finding Your Way Through the Jungle

Finding peace with eating may take time, just like finding the perfect sea shell….but it is worth it

“Don’t listen to this Joanne” one of the teachers said as she walked into the office at work the other day. I knew immediately what the story was going to be. I knew it would be about food. I was right…..she proceeded to tell my co-worker about the peanut butter cheesecake she made for a baby shower. As well as she knows me, how could she still think of ME as the food police? But after I thought about it, I realized it is not about me, but about all of the cultural confusion about food and eating, and what normal is. Despite the increase in awareness that dieting does not work and intuitive eating is better, it is a mighty task to find a way to stand up to the utter illness in our society when it comes to food, bodies, weight and eating. This may sound extreme, but after you have been around for as long as I have I can say that (recently celebrating a BIG birthday to prove it…born in 1956, if you do the math, you will agree!).I have also spent years struggling to help those with eating disorders fight against the barrage of unhealthy messages coming at them from all directions each and every day.

Think about this scenario: Jessie is in her last year of college, but after losing too much weight and developing an eating disorder she has to take a leave of absence from school in order to get better. She attends a day program where she has group therapy, meals and snacks and also sees me for nutrition counseling. Jessie seems to get it that she needs to gain weight and eat more because she feels awful, is obsessed with food, is always hungry and now it has affected her life, having been forced to leave school. Although she is working through her issues, she is very confused about why she needs to gain all this weight back. Everyone she knows is dieting so why is it ok for them and not her? She lists some famous actresses along with their heights and weights (which are horrifying) and again wonders why it is ok for them? Plus, both her mother and her grandmother are on a low carb diet because they are trying to lose weight. On top of this, she watched Dr. Oz and learned some random things about certain foods and so now did not want to eat those anymore. Oh, and on the radio in the car the DJ was talking about some place that actually can sculpt your body to get ready for swim suit season….why can’t she do that?

How is this poor girl going to block all those unhealthy messages coming at her from all directions? There is such a thing as “normative discontent” which is just what it sounds like. It is pretty normal if you have something about your body that you just don’t love (great roots, for instance, curly hair, short legs, big ears, bulging tummy, you name it, we all have something probably). But we live with it, and don’t think about it that much and certainly don’t starve ourselves to change it. It seems to me we have become immune to what is happening in our world when it comes to food and eating and bodies, and slowly over the years it has become “normal” to talk about bodies, and avoid certain foods and exercise to lose weight (not for fun, not to feel good, but solely to change the body). It has become normal to praise people for body parts (either natural, genetic endowments-“she has such beautiful long legs”, or changes resulting from some drastic measure-“your legs look great since you’ve been going to the gym nine million hours a week”). It drives me nuts. Everywhere I go, every single day, it strikes me. In the car, on the radio, on TV, visiting friends or family, inevitable the talk turns to eating and weight and bodies and body parts.

So here I am, along with many other intuitive eating, “listen to your body”supporters, trying to help people live a life focused on what actually IS important, and it is very difficult. I feel like the odd man out most of the time. Even my own husband sometimes looks at me like I am a weirdo when I talk about this stuff. He does not understand why you would not want to compliment someone on achieving a weight loss. Unless you know a person well, it is dangerous to do this because we never know how the weight was lost, it could be through very unhealthy means and I for one do not want to compliment or reinforce anyone’s eating disorder. If, on the other hand, someone has done a lot of work to change an unhealthy lifestyle and now eating healthier and loving it (and maybe has lost weight) complimenting healthy changes feels ok to me. As a dietitian that is what I like to see if it is the goal of an individual to be healthier, and they are happy with what they are doing and it serves them well both physically and psychologically, that is different. But focusing on the body size alone is what most people tend to do, and that is the mistake.

As far as eating, I can totally understand why my mom calls me at least once a week to ask some pretty funny question about food. She watches Dr. Oz sometimes, and the news and so I often have to clarify. She also asks funny questions about what she cooked and if she can still eat it. “I made this beef stew on Sunday, is it still good? I hope so because I ate it!”Those questions I don’t mind : ) But sometimes she is triggered to start reading every label (lately, it is all about corn syrup…”that’s bad, right? But why? My gluten free crackers have it, does that mean they have gluten?”). Ugh.

And then there is the low carb craze that never seems to go away. You know what I mean, I bet if you go out on the street and ask every random stranger you meet if carbs are good or bad, you will see how we have been brain washed. Our culture just seems to love labeling foods. Is it good? Is it bad? I get that question all the time. “Joanne, kale is good, right? Potatoes are bad, right? White bread is bad, right? Is rye bread good? Are cheerios good? Are Froot Loops bad? It is 100% fruit juice, so that’s good, right? It is gluten free, so that is good right? ” You get the picture. No wonder we are all confused, the messages we get every single day are hard to ignore.

How do you see the forest through the trees? How do you know what to believe, and more importantly, what kind of relationship do you currently have with eating and food and your body, are you happy with it and content, or do you want to move in a different (and happier) direction? Then here is some advice:

  1. Remember, you are unique. Your eating style and lifestyle is a complicated matter that is unique to YOU. Your environment, habits and emotions all play a role. It may take time to unravel how each affects you. That is why one diet or another is not the answer. We are not all the same.
  2. Be kind to yourself as you go through your exploration of how you want to eat. You may feel that our culture judges you (trust me, every time I am spotted with a non-healthy food item in my hand, I get a comment, “your’re eating THAT! Aren’t you a dietitian???”). Remember, they are the crazy ones, not you!
  3. Be aware of the messages coming out of the mouths over everyone around you either on the radio, on TV, at work or even at home. Realize that you are being bombarded by messages you should question (and even stand up to if you have the inclination). On Facebook the other day someone shared how McDonald’s labeling of all of the calories was actually not helpful at all to those with eating issues, and many people agreed.
  4. Educate yourself about health and nutrition from reliable sources.I recommend even one consultation with a registered dietitian (preferably a Health at Every Size RD). There are some good websites such as Choose My Plate, but unfortunately, even reliable sources are slanted toward weight control, so be sure to put your own filter on it and ignore that focus. Stick with learning about what you need to have energy and feel good.
  5. One of my favorite definitions of “normal eating” is from Ellyn Satter. Check it out at What Is Normal Eating?  The important message is that it is not perfect : )
  6. If you are not able to get out of a rut of dieting and weight gain, or find yourself getting depressed about your body or weight or eating, get help. Ask your doctor about a referral to a therapist who specializes in eating issues. The sooner you get help, the better.

The bottom line is that eating and dealing with our bodies and weight can be a very complicated matter because of our cultural focus on dieting and weight and eating perfectly. Don’t accept everything you hear. Be aware of the amount of bombardment of these messages you get on a daily basis. In the end, you are the expert of your own life, and you get to decide how you want to live it.

As for that peanut butter cheesecake, I will share the recipe once I get it!!

Should You Care About Your BMI?

hips-don-t-lie-1324351Friday morning as I was having my coffee, doing my usual multi-tasking, kind of listening to the news from my bedroom, something I heard made me stop what I was doing and run to the TV. “Indiana Teen refuses to calculate BMI”. What? I am a huge anti-fan of BMI. I was dying to hear this story. In case you have not heard, this young eighth grade athlete has received national attention after her Facebook Post about refusing to calculate her BMI in a class at school. She had been shamed in the past when she was told she was “obese” according to her BMI. Although she says she knows she is a bigger girl, it never had bothered her before but after that incident she felt bad and so the next time, she refused. Instead she wrote an essay about why BMI should not be used to determine health, especially in a middle school where girls are already super body conscious and insecure. Check out just one article  Indiana Teen Refuses to Calculate BMI to read more. She went to her doctor who did a complete physical with labs and let her know she was fit and healthy. Her message is simple yet powerful: BMI has nothing to do with health.

An eighth grade kid understands perfectly, yet unfortunately, the medical community still does not get it. Besides falsely labeling larger sized people as unhealthy, people who are very ill but have a “healthy BMI” fall through the cracks. I have story after story of eating disorder patients I have worked with in the past who have been starving themselves, purging in all kinds of dangerous ways, yet when they go for their yearly check up, the doctor responds: “You look great! You lost weight!” Which leaves the poor patient who is suffering in a confused and sometimes angry state. Most of the time the health care provider never asks how the weight was lost. It seems assumptions are made that the weight loss was a result of some healthy eating and exercise, but in these situations it is not the case. As long as that number is where it should be, it seems it does not matter.

The reality is that having a healthy  body  is not a simple task. Eating a perfect diet or having the correct BMI does not result in a healthy body, and does not negate unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or starving yourself or being stressed out. Genetics play a gigantic role (we all joke about the old man who smokes a pack a day and drinks whiskey and lives to 100). How it is that we have come to rely on some number based on a calculation using height and weight to tell us anything about someone’s health is beyond me. I believe part of the reason could be because it saves time. It is so much quicker to get a height and weight measurement and calculate BMI than it is to ask someone about all of the details of their lifestyle. Most health care practitioners don’t have time for this. In the hospital where I worked as an outpatient dietitian, we moved into a “productivity” based practice, so instead of an hour with a new patient, I was now expected to assess and counsel a patient and family in 30 minutes. If they were 10 minutes late, I was in trouble. It was heartbreaking to me. How could I even start to help a family with so little time to even find out about who they were? I left that job because of it, but I imagine that office is not unlike many others. Time is money.

So, it you ask me, you definitely should NOT worry about your BMI. Instead, you should worry if your health care providers give you advice without ever asking you about your lifestyle. Oh boy, does it make my blood boil when I hear stories from both friends and patients alike about the assumptions made based on weight or body size. It is prejudice, plain and simple, and it is wrong.

Forget the numbers, and keep it simple. How do you feel? What things run in your family that you need to be aware of? Look at all aspects of your life, both physical and mental (which is why I left that job, the stress was affecting my health). What you eat does matter but just to a degree. For instance, if you don’t drink enough to stay hydrated, you just won’t feel good and it can hurt you, especially in hot weather. If you live on sweets, you will likely not feel good either. If you don’t consume any calcium your bones may eventually be at risk. If you don’t eat any fruits or veggies, you may experience constipation which is not fun. So yes, nutrition matters, over time. You can eat brown foods for a week with no repercussions. You can eat sugar every day and have no ill effects. It is all in the big picture, with all aspects of your life having an impact on your health. Food, sleep, stress, movement, fun, family, friends, all of it.

So when someone brings up your BMI, tell them you want to talk about your health, not some dumb number that is meaningless.

 

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.

 

My Tips for Holiday Happiness

IMG_8074
New Tradition: The Funky Tree

I remember way back in the day when I was a child visiting my old Italian Grandmother at Christmas time. She had this tiny fake table top tree on a coffee table. Yes, it was lovely, but I thought to myself “how can anyone settle for such a small fake tree? I will never do that!”

But now I understand. I love traditions, but as time passes by, children grow up, time is short and priorities change, so do traditions. Sometimes these are hard to give up. The tradition when I was growing up was for my mom and her sister and two brothers and all of their kids to go to Great Grandma’s (small) home and have Christmas (25 people in addition to random great aunts and uncles and cousins who might stop in). There was always a gigantic fruit tray covered with dates and figs, nuts and chocolate along with all varieties of Italian food. We kids would be all over the place, climbing on couches and under tables, eating and laughing. As the years went on, Great Grandma passed away, and new traditions evolved.

After I had three children and a home of my own, I took it upon myself to have a gigantic family “Open House” the Saturday before Christmas. This way, my siblings (who also had children) and I could be home with our families Christmas Eve (easier for Santa Clause).  Because most of us were struggling financially, we totally eliminated buying gifts for each other and instead, for this party, everyone bought a 10 dollar gift for their children, wrapped it and stuck it in a Santa Clause bag that was kept hidden. After much talking, eating and holiday music Santa would arrive with fanfare! He would be loud with his HO HO HO (since he was a professional who my aunt was able to get due to the fact she hired them for the malls…one year even I was almost fooled). Santa would take out the gifts one by one as each child would go and sit on his lap. We would gather around, the adults almost as excited as the kids. Since everyone brought a dish or dessert, and no one needed to bring gifts except for their own child, it was a simple yet wonderful night filled with all of the important things: family, fun and love.   Since then, our children have all grown up . Many of them are in their 30’s with children of their own. Some have moved out of state and can’t afford to fly home every Christmas. Yes, times have changed. And so have the traditions.

I continued to have open houses however not everyone could attend. One year we decided to look for a retirement home in Naples, Florida (not that we are ready to retire, but prices were low at the time). We ended up purchasing a lovely condo with a “Lazy River”Pool that is fantastic. We are able to rent out the condo for all of the winter months, but for the last 3 years have gone down for 2 weeks over the holidays. At first it was hard because I felt guilty leaving the one daughter who still lived home in CT as well as missing seeing my parents and siblings who still get together at Christmas. Because I still had my “Open House” or at least a family holiday dinner the week before we left, I still had that feeling of connecting with family that I needed….just not on the exact day of Christmas.

Now, I count down the days to fly away! Last year two of our daughters were able to join us and that was wonderful. Thank goodness for Skype and Face-time because I was able to “see” my son in Colorado and my parents and family at home.

Even with all of the ways we have changed, and even simplified the holidays, this time of year can still be draining. Besides accepting that traditions are bound to change a bit, there are other things that interfere with enjoying this season that I think we all struggle with. These are my top issues and how I have learned to deal with them:

  1. Making everyone happy. I remember when my daughter was about 7 years old and wanted this walking barking toy dog. They were all the rage….and no where to be found.  My friend asked me if I wanted to drive to the next state because she found two there in some store. I declined. Where do you draw the line? If she does not get the walking barking fake dog, will it really ruin her Christmas? Instead, Santa left a note that he ran out but he would send some money to buy one if she still wanted one. A week went by, she got to see her friend’s walking barking fake dog…came home and said “I’m glad he ran out. I don’t want one”. What makes your family happy? YOUR happiness : )
  2. Baking the traditional cookies for everyone so they will be happy. This may only be my issues (probably because making the same traditional cookies allows me to reconnect with my family, and all of those great memories). The fact is, I do not like baking. It has to be cold and dark, and maybe with a candle or two lit. Snowing is better, and conducive to baking enjoyment. It rarely snows when I have to bake. I need to send out my cookies to Colorado and Austin and South Carolina, so I need to get them done. I have learned to compromise. I no longer bake every single cookie. I no longer make 92 dozen. One small container per person will do. I need to fight my Italian instinct that more is better when it comes to giving people food. They truly don’t care. It is the thought that counts.
  3. Getting gifts for important people in your life to show you care, when you don’t have extra money lying around. My close friends and I no longer exchange gifts. Instead, we go to Happy Hour. There are still people however that means something to you, maybe a special co-worker or even just the mail man, or your hair dresser. Yes, I may give a cash gift (especially if it is your hair dresser who you have known before your hair turned gray). Otherwise, I like to make what I call “White Chocolate Crunch”. This is a yummy mix that can be wrapped in those small cellophane holiday gift bags, tied with a ribbon, and good to go. A batch might make ten gifts. Here is the recipe that I found in a newspaper while waiting for my snow tires to be put on a few years ago: Melt 3 (12 oz) bags of white chocolate chips on low. Stir in 3 cups of cheerios, 3 cups of rice or corn chex, 3 cups of pretzel sticks (thin), 2 cups of raisins, 2 cups of peanuts, and a large bag of M and M’s. Mix well. You can add more or less of whatever you want. Spread on wax paper and cool completely. It is the best.
  4. Parties. Happy Hours. Too many social events with people that you want to see but you don’t always have the energy for. Don’t get me wrong, I love parties and happy hours, talking and sipping wine and catching up. But not when I am exhausted. Unfortunately, I have had to decline a few happy hours, and had to leave one of my favorite annual holiday parties early because I am fighting a cold. It just is not worth it. So, my advice is, as usual “listen to your body”. Just say no. Your good friends and the people that matter will be just as happy getting together in January.
  5. Taking care of your health (sleep, eating, fun moving, etc) when time is flying. Even though our schedule is busier, with more to do than usual, our bodies still need to be nourished with food, sleep and movement. Our diets don’t need to be perfect, we may not get our usual sleep, and our exercise/physical activity patterns may change for a month. It really does not matter much unless it is extreme. Are you missing meals or living off of cookies? are you drinking too much Wassail punch and not enough water? Are you staying up to the wee hours so all those packages can be wrapped perfectly? It is wise to look ahead at your week and weekends and be prepared. Plan to get to events early so you can leave on time and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Bring water or other non-alcoholic drinks to parties so you can stay in balance (or just know your limits). Don’t forget to buy your usual lunch food for work, food for dinner (even if you have to buy ready made food such as a rotisserie chicken) so that you don’t miss meals for the simple fact that you were so busy getting stuff done you forgot to buy food. Maybe you have too much to do and can’t get to your Zumba class, but you still deserve a break such as going for a leisurely walk on a weekend when you may have more time. On the other hand, if you have been shopping and cooking and cleaning all day, don’t try to get in visit to the gym just because you feel that you should. Listen to your body if it is exhausted. If is it not going to be rejuvenating, but will only serve to exhaust you more then skip it.
  6. Christmas Cards. I know there is some kind of rule that you only need to send holiday cards out to people who send them to you. I love getting the cards from old friends and others, but I just honestly don’t love doing cards. I love making calendars though from the hundreds of funny pictures I collect throughout the year. So I may make a funny calendar for someone, or a funny card….or not. I used to feel like it was a job, an obligation, but not anymore. I don’t think people care. I know I don’t care if  you send me a card. I just want everyone to have a happy and healthy holiday. But like I said, I may send a funny calendar, it just might not be on Christmas…                                                                                                                                                                                                                              So, that Funky Tree you see at the beginning of this post…..our new tradition started several years ago. Since we now go to Florida we can no longer have a real tree, so we purchased the funky tree which, you guessed it, stands on the table. Whenever we travel we keep our eyes open for the silliest funkiest ornament we can find (hippo on skies, Santa on a Hammock, etc). Each ornament carries a special memory….we love our little tree and everyone else has grown to love it too. So yes, traditions change, holidays are stressful, but, if you take the time to keep it simple, this time of year can be as special and meaningful as it was meant to be. Happy Holidays!
  7. IMG_8078
    Santa Clause……

Cornell Study on Junk Food: Does it affect weight?

french-fries-1057342

You will soon be hearing about a new study about “junk food” that has been conducted at Cornell (see summary: Study on Junk Food)  Because the press and the public tend to want to draw some huge conclusion and generalize findings of studies such as this, I wanted to be sure to share my thoughts.

According to a Summary by Katherine Baildon researchers reviewed “a nationally representative sample of adults in the United States and found that consumption of soda, candy and fast food is not linked to Body Mass Index (BMI) for 95% of the population. The exception is those who are on the extreme ends of the BMI spectrum: those who are chronically underweight and those who are morbidly obese. Given that there was no significant difference in consumption of these indulgent foods between overweight and healthy weight individuals, the researchers concluded that the overwhelming majority of weight problems are not caused by consumption of soda, candy and fast food alone.”

What does this mean for you? I have noticed the tendency for people who diet to lose weight is to be a bit “black and white” in their thinking. People want to think there is a specific reason they can’t lose weight. They are typically searching (some for many years) for the perfect “diet” or plan to solve their weight issues. The diet industry makes a lot of money taking advantage of the importance of body shape, size and weight in our culture. We jump on anything new (just in case it could be the answer).

The same holds true for when people are tired of dieting. Dieters often break out of their Diet Jail just by having one bite of a forbidden food (aka junk food). Does this study mean that healthy eating does not matter? Does it mean you should stop caring about what you eat?

The good message of the study is that your weight is not affected by any single food (not a chip or carrot has any power over your body size). No, you won’t gain weight by eating french fries with you burger. Actually, this study provides more fuel for the “non-diet” approach to weight. There are many more factors than food that contribute to health (and yes, body size). For instance:

  • Genetics-if high cholesterol runs in your family, you are more at risk. Nothing to do with body size.
  • If you are sedentary, chances are your body is not the healthiest it can be (and you are less likely to be at your natural body weight). This does not mean you have to join a gym or work out like a lunatic. It just means that your lifestyle matters and doing fun active things that you love is more important than having (or trying not to have ) a candy bar when you really crave one.
  • Sleep-if you don’t get enough, your body just plain won’t function the way it is supposed to. Again, your weight will be affected because lack of sleep messes with your appetite (increases it).
  • Stress-mental health is just as important as physical health. Many people overeat or under-eat because they are stressed. This does not promote a healthy body.
  • Nutrition-yes, you need your fruits and vegetables and protein and water and fiber and vitamins and minerals. Focusing on health verses counting calories, dieting, weight and never eating junk food is what gives you your healthiest body.

So the bottom line is, yes, you can have junk food. We have been saying that all along. A perfect diet is not normal eating. Keep on the path of listening to your body, healthy eating, enjoyable movement, decreasing stress in your life, and accepting where your weight falls wherever it may be.  Feeling good and having energy and being happy are possible, even if you have a french fry.

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…..you 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…..