Should You Have A “Cheat Day”?

donut vs apple and womanWhen I hear a person say “Saturday is my cheat day” I gotta be honest, it pushes my buttons. To most people it sounds like a harmless thing, but to me it is a red flag. An alarm goes off, triggering this irritating feeling throughout my body. I try not to react, it is a conscious decision on my part to ignore it if I am overhearing a conversation in the elevator of the hospital where I work part time, or somewhere else where there really is not time to get into it. Otherwise, such as a party or other informal gathering where women especially tend to chat about what they are doing to change their bodies…. I always take the opportunity to educate people about Health at Every Size, and how focusing on being healthy verses being thin is a much more sane goal. Then I may ask what they mean by”cheat day”. Inevitably, it means following some type of “healthy” eating plan or dieting throughout the week, then allowing themselves to overeat any of the foods  they have denied themselves during the week on Friday or Saturday, and often again on Sunday.

What bothers me about this approach to eating is that it ignores all of the principles of “mindful” eating, and about “listening to your body” . It gives food so much more power than it deserves. It makes me think of how back in the day (and actually still today unfortunately) food is used as a reward. For example, “if you finish your spinach, you can have the cookie”. What does that message send? It says “something is very wrong with spinach, and something is very special about cookies”. I wish food was never treated this way. If you are really honest with yourself, you have to admit, that sometimes fresh vegetables or a great salad or roasted garlic with asparagus is extremely yummy. And an Oreo cookie could never substitute for that taste. If however, one were to hold that Oreo up as a reward, then it might be different. Over time,we might become conditioned to look at that sweet in a different way, and want it even if we really didn’t want it! If we really were mindful and not conditioned to think some foods were good and some foods were bad (that we could only eat them on a “cheat” day) and REALLY listened to what our bodies wanted, then we would not even need a “cheat” day. We would eat in a mindful way, cooking meals that were healthy and that we enjoyed, because we want to feel good, have energy and live a long and healthy life. But that means enjoying the fun foods too, the ones that are important to us, in our culture, our family traditions or socially. Having a homemade blueberry muffin at Grandma’s house or sharing a favorite dessert when out with our old college roommate,or Grandma Harmon’s favorite cinnamon buns that you only get once in a blue moon. It may not be a Saturday or a “cheat” day, but it may be and should be just part of normal life. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday….I hope everyday you listen to your hunger, and fullness, and enjoy healthy eating, have energy, and never miss an opportunity to enjoy a serving of a special food that you enjoy. Heck with “cheat” days. Enjoying life is living, not cheating.

Regarding “Clean” Eating….

mopThis women’s face is how I feel several times per week. Have you fallen for the latest weight loss craze? This is driving me crazy!! It angers me when people are taken advantage of because they are desperate to lose weight. How do you define “clean eating”??? And why does it usually involve some type of juice that you need to purchase?? Anyway, try to find some good long term outcome studies on this diet approach, and please share them with me. I can’t find any. The bottom line is any trick to make you eat A LOT less will make the force of gravity on your body less over time (that means you will weigh less). It won’t last. Most of these diets have you do a juice fast or just fruits and vegetables or maybe a “clean” shake for a certain amount of time. You will lose weight as your body breaks down muscle (sorry but the Krebb Cycle prefers amino acids to keep producing it’s ATP’s for energy, not the fat you are hoping it would use). Not to mention the typical dehydration that occurs when your body is breaking down muscle from starvation (because when you break down muscle you need to get rid of the nitrogen through your kidneys, and your body knows to use water to dilute it otherwise your kidneys would be damaged…unfortunately, that happens to some people anyway). And if you are getting way too little calories, your body may be building up toxins in your blood called ketones….that isn’t too “clean” if you ask me.

Not to mention, don’t you have to eventually eat something? Then what? Have you learned anything about yourself? Have you identified some unhealthy habits you may have had and are you magically now able to change them? Probably not. If I could have a dollar for everyone I knew who lost weight on a plan like this, but then gained it back, I might have retired by now. This latest fad is nothing new, just like the low carbohydrate diets, the low fat diets, the high protein diets, and on and on, it just delays the inevitable work your really need to do.

I’m good with vegetables and fruits in your diet. But this is way too much thinking and that is something we know people can’t sustain over time. Why not simply work on adding in these healthy foods to your diet and continue working on listening to your hunger and fullness, recognizing when you are eating when you are not really hungry, taking time to move your body because it is fun and feels good and also contributes to your health? Stop all the “cognitive restraint” and focus on health. There  is no such thing as clean eating.

Vegetarian Diets….the question is “why”?

veggie burger

Why on earth would a dietitian even question a vegetarian diet when it seems like such a healthy way to eat? Eliminating all that saturated fat in the form of meat from your diet has to be a good thing, right? And when you think of vegetarians, don’t you get a vision of someone munching on a giant salad?

Well, let me give you a reality check. Having been around the block a few times (meaning I have been a dietitian for over 35 years),  I have encountered my share of vegetarians. When someone tells me they are a vegetarian, or a vegan, I do not make any assumptions about their diet or their intentions. But what I have found is that the reasons people become vegetarian are not always clear. I have noticed that people turn to a vegetarian diet for a few different reasons. In fact, I have encountered 3 types of vegetarians over my long career as a nutritionist (my experience only, I can’t speak for everyone). The people I have worked with or have known in my life tend to fall into the following categories:

1. The True Vegetarian: This is the individual who truly has a strong empathy for animals. They just are not comfortable with consuming them.  They may have had meat in their lives but then, they change and make a decision that they do not want to eat meat any longer. There are different types of vegetarians, those who are ok with eating dairy or eggs or fish, but not meat. I remember my daughter as a teenager getting very upset when the rodeo was in town, and she actually joined a group who stood on the corner and protested. This led her to looking into protecting animals and she decided to stop eating meat at the time. I also have a best friend who is vegetarian, is a great cook, and who also is all about protecting animals (it is a passion with many vegetarians I have come to know over the years). They eat everything, just not meat. I have to say, not all of those I have met who are true vegetarians are healthy eaters like my friend. Many people (especially teenagers who love their kid-foods) tend to live on noodles and chips, still vegetarian, but no vegetables involved!

2. The “I want to be healthier” Vegetarians“: These are the people I have encountered who may have developed some health issues such as high cholesterol, and decided they are going to “cut down on” meat consumption. The reason they want to change their diet is because being healthy is important to them. They may have an occasional meal with meat, but otherwise they believe eating less of it is healthy.

3. The “I am pretending to be vegetarian because it is a good excuse to eat less” Vegetarians: Unfortunately, I have worked with many people over the years with eating disorders who start out with “vegetarianism”. They start eliminating foods, and becoming a vegetarian is kind of a good “excuse” for the eating disorder to NOT EAT. This type of “vegetarian” is different in that they typically refuse to eat the normal vegetarian standbys such as peanut butter, nuts, beans, etc. They may say they do not like salad dressing, olive oil, trail mix, granola or nut butters. This is always a “red flag” to me. Most of the “True Vegetarians” I know rely on nuts and peanut butter for protein and have no problem with pasta and rice and beans and all the other food needed to round out their diets. Not to mention delicious Tofutti Ice Cream!

So what is the bottom line? If you or someone you knows decides to become vegetarian, always ask “why?” If it is to be healthier, or because you care about animals, then you can definitely meet your nutritional needs with some guidance. Vegan diets are a bit harder in that you may need supplemental iron, vitamin B-12 and calcium, and also you need to know how to get protein in your diet (I recommend seeing a Registered Dietitian to be sure-check out http://www.eatright.org and “Find a Dietitian”). But if you know someone who just started being a vegetarian, is losing weight, who no longer eats potato chips (those are vegan!) then don’t ignore it. It could be an eating disorder just beginning.

For more information from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, check out: http://vegetariannutrition.net/

Healthy or Thin?

IMG_2637My guess is these two words get different reactions from different people. It has been my experience over the years that in our culture we assume pretty much everyone wants to be “thin”. And most people equate being “healthy” with being “thin”. Most of us assume if we tell someone they look “healthy” it would be a compliment. Or, we assume telling someone they are lucky they are so “thin” is also a compliment.

What I have learned from my patients is for those with eating disorders, being told you are “healthy” is equivalent to being told you are “fat”. For some of the patients I work with who have trouble gaining weight, being told they are “too thin” is very hurtful, as their body image concerns are often interfering with their lives just as the person who is concerned about being “too fat”.

My goal is to help people see that a goal of “healthy” is the smartest goal. The first step for some is working on their “self-talk” around the word “healthy” and eventually accepting it has nothing to do with your size. For others whose goal is being “thin”, instead changing to a goal of being “healthy” because that may be a goal they can actually achieve (not to mention, a goal of being healthy is also mentally healthier!)

I will always remember a teenage patient of mine who had moved from Africa and had lost a few pounds (still a very normal and healthy weight). Dad brought her in because he was very concerned about this. When I asked about his concerns, he said “I want her to be fat. Doesn’t everybody want to be fat?” He was very serious but I couldn’t help but smile inside. I did have to explain to him that we can’t always control that but I wanted to be sure she was “healthy”. He never came back ; )

Is Pizza bad?

pizza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does 3500 calories equal a pound?

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

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

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

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