Eating “What You Want”: Easier Said Than Done

IMG_5635I was at a lovely outdoor graduation party yesterday  and happened to walk in on a conversation that was going on between a sweet young man in his 20’s and my husband. “She’s a dietitian, you should ask her”. Apparently, this healthy-looking but thin young man was trying to gain weight. He had been a runner in high school, now worked out but not as much, sharing that when he was lifting he was able to put on some weight. I went into my spiel about “listening to your body”, explaining how our natural set-point makes it difficult to change (our genetics) and that even if he tried to eat more or add protein shakes (what he has tried in the past), it would be hard to maintain due to the fact that it requires way too much thinking and also, just as with dieting, your body tends to compensate and do what it needs to so you will go back to where you are supposed to be. “But what should he eat? He doesn’t know!” my husband says. I looked at this guy and he says “he’s right, I don’t really know”. Oy. How did eating become so complicated for even a twenty-something year old male? I kind of understand, it makes sense that women, especially older women who have spent a life time dieting and not being happy with their bodies continue to try one diet after another, end up on and off restricting and overeating, but this just felt odd to me. I just wanted to say “Just eat what you want!” It struck me at that moment that people who don’t know much about nutrition and really do care about their health (and body size, which always seems to be the motivating factor to look into nutrition) really don’t know where to begin.

I started to share a few websites I thought might be helpful about nutrition as far as basic facts (such as how much calcium an adult needs, protein needs, etc) and I tried to convince him to let his body determine how big it is going to be once he finds an eating pattern that he is happy with along with a healthy lifestyle (which he already pretty much had). But I left that conversation feeling as though I really didn’t help him much. I also got a bit of a reality check when my husband commented “people can’t eat what they want, they are not dietitians, they don’t know!”

If you can relate to any of this, I hope to give you another way to solve the puzzle of being healthy and at the same time, “eating what you want”. In another post, Humming and Beckoning Foods I mentioned a book I read decades ago called “The Psychologist’s Eat Anything Diet” which I now feel was way ahead of the game because the science behind what the authors were recommending was not yet discovered. We now know our brains are regulated tightly by many neurotransmitters, or messengers when it comes to eating. We now know the physiological reason why when people cut out carbs they may end up craving sweets (which often leads to binge eating them). Anyway, even though we know this, people continue to diet and restrict because they really want to lose weight.On top of this, if you are someone who wants to be healthy, eating “what you want” is a scary proposition because you may fear (as my husband thinks) you would live on corn dogs. And that would not be good.

The truth is, although it is not easy, you could do both (eat what you want and also be healthy). One exercise I remember from the book was taking the time to really think about what particular food you wanted. You were supposed to wait until a “meal time”, in other words, you were not supposed to mindlessly nibble all day, you needed to get to a point of physiological hunger (such as lunch time). This alone would be a very hard thing for many people to do, since random snacking is common. Mindless snacking without hunger is a behavior many of my past patients needed to work on since this was not conducive to the “intuitive” eating they wanted to learn. Mindless eating is disconnected eating. So this exercise forces you to be “mindful” in that you really have to check in to see if you are hungry. Then, when you get to the point of hunger, instead of automatically making what you think you should have, or eating food just because “it is there”, you are supposed to really think about what you want. Do you want something cold? Hot? Salty? Crunchy? Sweet? The healthiness of the food was not what you were supposed to think about. When you chose your foods (let’s pretend it is a tuna fish sandwich), then you are supposed to put it on a plate (or in a bowl?) , sit at a table without distractions (no TV, cell phones and tablets and all that weren’t invented yet, but none of that kind of stuff), and eat. Paying attention to the taste, texture and pleasure of the food you were eating was key. Funny how now we know that for our “fullness” messengers to get to our brain to tell us we had enough, we need to look at our food and pay attention. Mindful eating is how our bodies function best.

This type of exercise is not easy for those who have a “good food/bad food” mentality. It might be scary and uncomfortable for some people, especially those with eating disorders to do an exercise like this, and that is why therapists often supervise these kinds of experiences (and if you are interested in working on mindful eating, but have an eating disorder, you should ask your therapist about it). For chronic dieters, or those struggling with mindless eating, it might be helpful to think about really paying attention to how often you don’t let yourself “eat what you want” but never do enjoy what you eat.

So is it true that if you eat just what you want that you might want to eat corn dogs everyday? The tricky part is combining “eating what you want” or “intuitive eating” with healthy eating. Ask yourself: how often do you REALLY have a food craving? Is it every single meal or snack? Probably not. By food craving, I mean that urge for something that is not in your presence at the time (so not those donuts you saw when you walked into the break room, that is a “trigger” or “beckoning” food and not a true craving). The more imbalanced your diet, the more cravings you are likely to have. If your serotonin levels drop because you avoided carbs all day you might find yourself craving pasta every night. However, if you eat a variety, then you may have less cravings. This is where educating yourself about healthy but yummy cooking and nutrition come in. I believe that it is good to know about eating healthy, simple things like including more vegetables and fruits that you really enjoy because we know they promote health (different than forcing yourself to eat broccoli every night, instead discovering you love garlic roasted asparagus or kale salad with goat cheese-my new favorite, I am talking yummy). Learning that you need protein to keep your blood sugar stable, so you don’t get cranky by 2:30 pm in the afternoon is good to know. There are many resources out there on general nutrition (unfortunately, most of them are obsessed with obesity, weight loss, etc), so try to ignore that lingo and pick out what you need to know. My favorite book as far as learning about getting in touch with your hunger and what/how to eat is Intuitive Eating so check out the website for more great information to help you on the way to “eating what you want”….but being healthy, too.

Just to clarify, if have any predisposition to heart disease, or genetically inherited hypercholesterolemia or hypertension, or diabetes, or any other condition that requires a special diet, then you really do need to think about what you eat. We are all different and all unique in our health needs, as well as our eating style, cultural preferences, dieting history, emotional eating, disordered eating, or any other issue that may affect our health. But tuning into your body instead of ignoring it can only help.

And my body says go get another cup of coffee : )

No, it is not an easy task, but if you are not happy with your current eating style, why not try?


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.



Holiday Food Traditions:Embracing the Joy

This morning I finally sat down to dig out my Christmas Cookie recipes that I have made every single year for the past 36 years (or more). Some of them were almost illegible having been written on scraps of paper that happened to be what was available at my Auntie Maryanne’s house (my mom’s sister, and the one who baked in the family and therefore had the very best recipes). There are a few other favorites such as the candy cane sugar cookie recipe. My younger sister Fran  was taking a home economics class in high school at the time (1976?)  and came home with these absolutely delicious sugar cookies in the shape of a candy cane. That recipe I finally had to rewrite since it was so faded after all these years. Another addition to the original Auntie Maryanne list was an Italian almond paste cookie that I searched for after having some at Michael’s Italian Bakery in Boston that were so good, I went on a search to recreate them. The recipe isn’t exactly the same but dang, pretty darn close.

So the final traditional list I have acquired consists of Auntie Maryanne’s Chinese Chews, Jelly Print Cookies, Peanut Butter Blossoms, Walnut Butterballs, and Merry Cheesecake Squares. The ones added on (with a story behind each and every one that evokes a memory of a special person in my past) include Thyra’s Raspberry Almond Bars, my sister Fran’s Candy Cane Cookies, Barbara’s Peanut Butter Bars, Laurel Bean’s Vanilla Bean Crescent Cookies, Lucy’s Chocolate Fudge and Barbie’s White Chocolate Crunch (well, she refused to share her secret family recipe however I found a similar one, so it still makes me think of her!)

What is the point of going into detail about all of these cookies on a health/nutrition blog? It makes me sad when people are so focused on dieting and eating perfectly (sometimes), and worrying about weight gain they end up missing out on the important things behind the food. Just trying to recall all of the recipes and thinking about all of these old friends in my past made me happy. It has nothing to do with the sugar or the butter or the health of the cookie or bar but everything to do with the connection and memories created. The problems arise when there is an imbalance in eating often triggered by restriction followed by compensatory binge eating or overeating and guilt. Not a way to enjoy the holidays.

Yes, all of the sweets and drinks and other holiday foods are very triggering for some people. Some people truly are not able to stop if sweets are in the environment. Again, as I have said so many times before, work on knowing yourself.  If you have been working on intuitive eating, and you have learned to have some fun foods without binge eating them, then embracing the food traditions may not be a problem for you. For others, trying to avoid foods, not enjoying old family traditions or recipes because of fears of weight gain means missing out on part of the joy of the season. If this rings true for you, why not at least try to think about your own family traditions over the years? Do you have an Aunt Maryanne in your life who has the best recipes ever? Why not ask for them so you can start to build your arsenal of memories for the future……..when hopefully, you will have learned to enjoy every aspect of the season. That means getting to enjoy different foods, yet still listening to your body and remaining healthy and feeling good.

Anyway, after talking about all of these cookies, I feel I should at least share one of the recipes. Here it is!

Fran’s Candy Cane Cookies

Cream together: 1 1/3 cup butter, 2 1/2 cups sugar, 4 teaspoons vanilla, 2 eggs and 1 tsp salt. Blend in 3 cups flour. Divide dough in half and add a few drops of red food coloring to half the batter. Chill, then roll into small logs the size of a marker or pencil or crayon. Roll together  a red strip and a white strip then shape into a candy can on the cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 6-8 minutes. Cool on a rack. They will get crispy as they cool. If you use more dough for each one, they will be bigger, so make them as big or small as you like. You can also shape into circles. Enjoy!




Humming, Beckoning or Phantom Food: Why You Need to Know the Difference

Our last meal in Italy started (as usual) with some great Italian bread, olives and salami……….

What do you do when you go out to eat, and the waiter or waitress bring a nice basket of hot rolls to the table? What do you do when you walk into your office and someone brought a box of donuts from your favorite bakery? What about when it is 9 pm at night and you just can’t get chocolate off of your mind? Or you have planned a nice healthy dinner for your family, but you are not in the mood for it at all?

We have to make so many decisions every single day about what to eat. It is complicated and stressful even to those who don’t think about their eating or weight. We all have to eat. Unfortunately, most of us are not millionaires, and so there will be no cook preparing our favorite meal every night (getting tired of the joke “if I was Oprah, I would be healthy because I would be able to hire a chef!”). Unless you love to cook, planning and preparing meals can be a pain. Add to that a concern about weight and you have a recipe for anything but intuitive eating. What I mean is that for those who are always dieting or dissatisfied with their weight, there seems to be a constant war going on when it comes to food choices. It is not about what is available and what tastes good or you are in the mood for, it is about what is on your diet plan. The food rules are in full force and the food police loud and clear in some people’s thinking.

Although I am a big believer in “intuitive eating” and “listening to your hunger and fullness” I also know that most people are not that aware of the forces that pull them in all directions when it comes to eating and food. What made a lot of sense to me was from a book I may have mentioned before that I read way back in the 70’s. It was written by two psychologists (“The Psychologist’s Eat Anything Diet” by Pearson, et al) and had an approach that was not founded in science at the time, yet years later, we now know they were right. The book was one of the first to advise us to “listen” to your food cravings because your body innately knew what it needed. Now we know that there are numerous neurochemicals, or messengers that tell our brains what to eat based on what we need. For example, if you go without adequate carbohydrates for a period of time, your brain serotonin levels will drop and this will trigger you to want something sweet. There are many more, but the bottom line is there is a physiological reason we sometimes really crave something. Also, the authors of the book were the first to coin the term “beckoning” food verses “humming” food. I love those terms because if you understand them, it really can help you to become a more intuitive eater (and less susceptible to environmental triggers).

So what about those humming, beckoning and phantom foods and why do I think it is smart to know the difference?

First,let’s talk about “beckoning” foods. These are the foods you were not thinking about at all until you saw them or smelled them. For instance, you are at the mall, you ate before you went and you are not hungry at all, but you walk by that Grandma’s Cookie place and the aroma overwhelms you.  Or, you wander past the McDonald’s in the mall, and the smell of french fries permeates the air (your favorite fries of all, nobody can make them like the Ronald). Maybe you are in the grocery store after work, a bit hungry and you see the pizza counter with a great looking meat lover’s pizza. That, my friend, is a beckoning food. It is the food you really don’t crave at all at the time, but you see it, smell it, and then want it. The fact is that a beckoning food is probably not what your body wants or needs. It is a trigger in your environment that if you manage to ignore, you will forget about it in short time. But what if you are at a party or social gathering, and someone made something you absolutely love, and even if you were not craving it, you hate to miss out? For example, yesterday I had to teach a class to a group of nutrition students. They had put together a smorgasbord of snacks such as veggies and hummus, fruit and also some very yummy homemade cookies. I was hungry for food, not sweets, but I don’t often get a chance to have good cookies like that (I hate baking, it is way too specific). So I took a plate home because I always want something sweet in the morning (yes, a cookie and coffee makes me happy at 6:30 am-and I am prepared for the crash at 10 am). So the message is, you don’t have to miss out when there are beckoning foods around, but you should not eat them at the time when you really did not want them. Save them for when you really do. That is intuitive eating.

Secondly, what do I mean by “Humming foods”? Have you ever, out of the blue, had a very specific food craving? Once in awhile, maybe every three months or so, while I am at work, getting hungry later in the day, I get an intense craving for some very specific buffalo wings. It does not matter if I had a meal already planned, I change it. I call my husband and tell him “I am stopping at Buffalo Wild Wings, what do you want?” I just save whatever I planned for the next day. No, half my plate is not “colors” the way we dietitians like to teach. Most of the plate is brown that night (well, they do give you carrot and celery sticks).  I figure my body knows what it is telling me. Maybe I need more fat or protein or whatever. Maybe it is a need to treat myself. Whatever it is, if we listen to our cravings (remember, a true craving comes from your body, not from the smell of french fries or the visual trigger of a giant cookie in a store window), we will likely be so much more satisfied without overeating. So pay attention to specific food cravings, a feeling of needing a specific food without ever seeing or smelling it.

Finally, we have “phantom foods”. I do not remember where I first heard this term, but I think it was when I was working at a college with college students who were restrained eaters. The dietitian I worked with was very used to working with these “sub-clinical” eating disorders but I was new to it. I remember her using that word and it made a lot of sense to me with what I was seeing. A great example is a student I saw back then who was binge eating on healthy snacks at night. It was funny because she was somewhat of a “health nut”. She did not eat much meat or any unhealthy foods. Her dorm room was stocked with rice cakes, sugar free jello, and fat free granola bars. She would eat just a salad for lunch, and then again for dinner, and after dinner she would have an apple, then a fat free granola bar, and then another, and another, and then some sugar free jello, and then another apple….and on and on. When I asked if she craved anything, she said she craved cheese burgers. I asked her to experiment just one week with eating what she wanted instead of making herself eat the foods she was making herself eat because the were healthy (also know as Phantom Food). She came back a week later and said “I can’t believe it! I have been having cheeseburgers for dinner, and I am not eating all those snacks anymore! I am actually satisfied and feel so much better!”. That student was able to eat what her body really wanted, and she was no longer forcing herself to eat just the “healthy” snacks-the phantom food that does not satisfy, but that the “diet mentality” says is the only thing that is not bad. Unfortunately, what I have seen in my years of working with people with eating and weight issues is that trying to eat only phantom foods-foods that you think are safe and ok but that really do not satisfy you-leads to overeating, weight gain, and dissatisfaction.

So there you have it. Can you take that chance and really let yourself eat what your body is telling you? Can  you satisfy your hunger and then move on to all the more interesting and fun things in your life to do? Can you stop forcing yourself to eat those phantom foods that you really don’t want? Can you walk past those good smelling food places, and tell yourself that when you really want that, you will go get it? Can you ask for a doggie bag and take those cookies to go so that when you really want them, they will be there? (You can freeze stuff too, you know).

Some people may find this very hard or impossible-that is ok! My goal is to help you be reflective and think about yourself, not to turn you into an intuitive eater overnight. I just hope to open your eyes to a different way of looking at eating and food, with the hopes that you will take just one more step to being happier with your relationship to food. Or at least understand yourself a little bit better.

My husband’s last meal in Italy, same restaurant with the bread in the bag

So that picture of the bread and salami and olives? Totally beckoning foods before an amazing dinner in Milan. Of course I tried that bread. Sometimes, if  you are in Italy for example, you know you won’t get to have that again for who knows how long. And we had no freezer.  So Joie de vivre ! Enjoy life : )

IMG_5681The Italian Restaurant outside of Milan, Italy

Having Your Cake and Eating it too….what to do about “junk food” for you and your family

IMG_7692Let’s face it. Do you really and truly think you should live the rest of your life without having a good old homemade chocolate chip cookie? The cookies pictured here were baked by my mother-in-law for a recent family gathering. I was fortunate to grab some that I packed away in a freezer bag for later cookie cravings. Anyway, after a recent post about childhood obesity and the damaging repercussions about an unhealthy food environment, I got some feedback about how children should not be restricted as this will likely contribute to binge eating, and an increased focus on food.

While I totally agree with the principles of hunger-motivated eating and “intuitive” principles of eating, I also know that it is not as simple as it sounds. My husband has always joked when I have said “listen to your body” because his body says to eat the entire bag of Lay’s! Of course this is not exactly true, and I have never seen him consume an entire gigantic bag of chips, however this is an issue that comes up often when “intuitive eating” and “listening to your body”is promoted. What is a parent to do when a child does appear obsessed with whatever sweets are in the home and can’t wait until he or she can get a hold of it? What is an adult supposed to do when they are dieting and truly craving something sweet? or salty such as chips?

We are a culture of “all or nothing” thinking. You have heard it before….the dangers of being “on” a diet, then “off” a diet. People follow the craziest and most restrictive diets for a variety of reasons, but when, inevitably, they can’t maintain the restriction (usually due to a powerful physiological response to starvation coupled with an environmental trigger, such as exposure to a particular food), well, after they break the diet, everything changes.

After having that cookie, or eating a handful of those chips, total mind games take over. The “all or nothing” mindset kicks in and people lose control (who wouldn’t?)

The problem is that if we want to encourage our children to eat healthy, but also don’t want them focused too much on eating and food, then we need to be careful about the messages we send. We want them to make healthy choices, however, we don’t want them to feel guilty about having a cookie. What is the best advice to promote a healthy relationship to eating and especially, to “fun food”? Here are my 5 Tips for Having Your Cake and Eating It Too….

  1. Never withhold food from a child, especially a sweet or dessert, until they have finished the main meal. This serves to reward them with sweets and teach them that something is very wrong with the food they are being served and something is very special about the sweet they are being rewarded for. Instead, let them have the sweet right along with their meal. This bothers many parents because they were brought up back in the day when sweets were used as reward, or withheld for punishment. Many of those brought up this way tend to continue to reward themselves with sweets when they are finally adults and can do what they want. I remember one patient I saw for binge eating. She had gained and lost hundreds of pounds over the years. Her mom used to restrict her to make her lose weight, so when she finally was out on her own, she was all about getting back at her mom and started to use food (sweets especially) as a reward for almost everything. Now as an adult, her mom still made comments about her weight and eating, and it bothered her, even though she was 50 years old.  I remember her telling me after her mom passed away that she still was feeling restricted and it was hard for her to accept now that her mom was no longer alive, she did not have to sneak or get back at her. It still was hard for her as she had been doing this for so long (binge eating sweets). So the message is, beware of restricting sweets or making them special as it will likely mess up your child’s relationship with eating (or if YOU have been restricted, maybe it is time to think about sweets in a different way?)
  2. Pay attention to your child’s reaction around food (and pay attention to your own feelings when food is around). Accept that everyone is different. You may discover that your child has little interest in eating (I see these kinds of kids all the time in the Feeding Team, where children are referred for feeding issues). Or maybe the opposite is true, and your child seems obsessed with food. This sometimes is due to a child’s food intake being restricted, or too much attention placed on a child’s eating or weight. Other times, I have seen it just be that the child simply enjoys food and eating.  Even as an adult, some people seem to be bored with eating (“eat to live”) while others are somewhat obsessed with it, love cooking, love eating, and spend lots of time on it. This is not a bad thing necessarily, however if it is due to previous restriction, or dieting as an adult, then this kind of eating and food obsession tends to come with guilt, not pleasure and enjoyment.  The bottom line is you need to pay attention and accept that everyone is different. If you have a child obsessed with eating for whatever reason, or if you are for whatever reason, then it is important to create an environment where everyone is able to enjoy food and eating, but not be triggered into binge eating. This means having those fun foods on a regular basis because you enjoy them, but not going to Costco’s to buy the mega cookie tray to leave on the counter where there is a child who is not going to be able to stop. Or do what I do, and put them in zip lock freezer bags so you can take out what you want when you want it. No one is deprived and no one is triggered. Yes, I have had patients who are not able to do this as they will binge on them frozen. Know yourself, and do what you need to do to have balance in your eating.
  3. Again, I have said it before and I will say it again. Don’t treat children (or adults for that matter) differently when it comes to sweets, or what foods you allow them to eat. If you want to make sweets or some other fun food (chips, fries) a part of a meal, let everyone, no matter what their weight or body size have it. Don’t make comments like “that is enough”. Let everyone have what they want and need. Encourage listening to your “tummy”. How do you feel? Do you feel satisfied, stuffed, still want more? It is important to help children, and also important for adults to learn how to eat ALL foods in amounts that make them feel good. Not stuffed, not uncomfortable, but good. Satisfied. The only way to do this is to have these foods on the menu.
  4. Talk about being healthy, and not about how “good” or “bad” a food is. I personally think it is ok to educate even children a bit about nutrition. It is ok to say “milk makes your bones strong!” or “this broccoli has lots of vitamins and makes us feel good” or “that has a lot of sugar in it, so we need to brush our teeth so we don’t get a cavity”. But is it not ok to talk about food and weight. Don’t say “cookies are bad for you! If you eat too many you will get fat!” Instead, have cookies as a part of a meal that provides some good nutrition (such as a dinner with meat, vegetables, grains, a glass of milk). It is really amazing how children will not devour all the cookies first as you would expect when they are given in a neutral manner, without judgement along with the rest of a healthy meal. Yes, if you have been restricting sweets, kids will go to them first. But after awhile, they won’t be special anymore. This will work for you, too. Although if you have been dieting or restricting excessively, you may need the help of a dietitian and therapist to guide you. Don’t feel bad if this sounds impossible. For many who struggle with eating disorders, it is. That is why knowing when you need help is important.
  5. Realize as a parent or as an adult, you make the decision about what your food environment will be. You go to the grocery store and you bring home whatever you buy. It is not restrictive or wrong to decide to predominantly have healthy foods in your home. If you know how to cook, healthy meals are really yummy! You are the one to decide if food is left on counters or in cabinets where children can help themselves. Don’t villainize the food, but instead, have it be a part of your normal healthy meals when you really feel it fits (and you want it). We all have our family favorites. When I grew up, ice cream was our thing. We would go every Sunday on long drives in the country and eventually stop at the same farm where they made their own ice cream. We all got what we wanted (I always asked for the green ice cream, also known as pistachio…still my favorite). In my husband’s family it was Grandma Harmon’s cinnamon buns. They are a pain to make, but when my husband does, he makes a lot, and we freeze them. We make them last!

So the bottom line is that it is smart to normalize “fun foods” so they are not so special after all. There is less need to be obsessed with them when they are treated neutrally, and when we get to have them. At the same time, we want to feel good. Therefore, it is smart to have our favorite fun foods as part of our normal healthy meal. It does not mean we need to have these fun foods at every meal. It could be once a day or a few times a week, or even a few times a day. As long as everyone gets the nutritious foods we all need to survive, that is what matters.

Also, it is imperative that we don’t talk about any foods in harmful ways (“this will make you fat”). Instead, talk about how yummy it is and enjoy it. With a focus on a healthy lifestyle (adequate sleep, fun physical activity, balanced healthy eating, relaxation) a normal amount of sweets, chips or other fun foods is fine.

So what is YOUR family traditional fun food?

The Power of a Cookie

chocolate-chip-cookies-20-1328002This weekend I was reminded of the power of a cookie. I was at a social gathering which was a very joyful celebration filled with laughter, games, children, and great food. As with most summer time picnics that are pot luck, people bring their favorite dishes or desserts to share. Being someone who loves to cook and get new recipes, it is a fun experience for me. I tend to skip the dishes I can make myself (simple potato salad, coleslaw, plain old chocolate chip cookies, etc) and always enjoy trying things where I don’t even know what is in it! For example, there was an interesting quinoa salad with avocado and kale that was amazing (it looked a bit sketchy but tasted great!). Someone made buffalo chicken appetizer balls with a blue cheese dip that I am definitely getting the recipe for. You get the picture, great food, great day, great fun.

But near the end of the night a woman came out to the dessert table looking for a cookie. There had been a few platters of cookies but most of the guests had left and apparently the platters were gone too. She seemed really desperate for a cookie, so I looked around and found a small plate which I showed her. She quickly grabbed one and gobbled it up. I was glad she was happy until a few seconds later when her mood drastically changed. I was thrown when she started to say “why did I eat that cookie? I feel so guilty! I have to fit into my dress next week! What was I thinking!?” I suddenly felt bad for being a part of this, as she was truly upset. But then my dietitian mode kicked in as I tried to convince her one cookie truly would have no effect on her body. It took some time but eventually she seemed to let it go.

It struck me later that reactions like this to a cookie are not uncommon. Have you ever witnessed someone reacting to what they have eaten is such a dramatic way? The reaction is one you might expect from someone who truly did something really bad. The primary feeling is one of guilt. The word “guilty” came up several times. To me, that word is a strong one. It means you did something really wrong, something you regret and don’t want to do again because you feel so bad. How does one cookie make someone feel like that?

Part of it could be the “black and white” thinking many people have about food and eating. Food is “good” or food is “bad”. Who decides what foods fit into what category is the individual and how they define the word as well as how they judge the particular food. To me “good” means it tastes good. To someone else, good means it is good for you, a “healthy” food. So for me, those buffalo chicken balls with the blue cheese dip were definitely good! But to someone else, they may be considered “bad”. Peanut butter cookies may be “bad” to someone who thinks sweets are bad because they don’t consider cookies “healthy”, but to me they are bad because I just plain don’t like peanut butter cookies (sugar cookies however are definitely good).

Another way to explain some people’s guilty overreaction to eating just one cookie might be the “diet jail” I referred to in a previous post Are You in Diet Jail? When people are dieting to lose weight (which often happens when they are getting ready for a specific event, such as a reunion, holiday or wedding, big party, etc and want to fit into specific clothing) they put themselves in diet jail where most normal foods are forbidden. Even one bite of a food that is not in their diet world of foods in diet jail can set someone off.

It also seems like a “perfectionism” kind of approach to food and eating. The word “perfection” is interesting because I think we all have areas in our lives where we strive for it. To my grandfather back in the day, it was his lawn. It was perfect. He would have a fit if a neighborhood dog would set foot on it, and heaven forbid, pee. I remember being very careful as a child when we went to my grandparents home, being sure to stay within the manicured border of the small sidewalk leading to the door. Don’t step on the grass!!

My husband is a bit of a perfectionist when he entertains friends. He spends a lot of time on cutting foods perfectly so the presentation is the way he wants it to be. I, however do not have that kind of patience, and tend to throw it all together. Other people need to have a perfectly organized closet. One woman I worked with had all of her clothes hung up by color, and her shoes all labeled. I, on the other hand, still have sweaters stuffed in my closet mixed in with the sun dresses…never did get around to switching those clothes around. My perfectionism tends to involve being a bit overly concerned that I make everyone happy if they are coming to my house for a get together. It is important to me that everyone has a great experience and I truly do enjoy the cooking and entertaining. It is stressful though to be thinking so hard about pleasing everyone, and I am working on having it be “good enough”.

So maybe that is the take home message. Why can’t everything be “good enough?” Why isn’t your body good enough? Why isn’t your diet good enough?  Not that I promote looking at calories, but the truth is your body certainly does not care if you eat 100 calories from an apple or a cookie, it is probably just happy to have the energy. Yes, you should care about nutrition and getting the nutrients you need, and yes, your health does matter. Assuming you are not allergic to it and don’t have some other health condition such as diabetes, one cookie truly does not have the power to affect your body in any significant way.

So the next time you catch yourself reacting dramatically from eating something, try to stop and do a reality check. Do you really need to waste so much time feeling guilty about something that has no affect on your body or your health? For some, this is much harder than for others. Some have spent months and years with this mindset and it does not change overnight. But even just being aware of your own experience is a step in the right direction. Try not to accept this and instead start questioning yourself. Look at the big picture and all the positive things you do to be the best you can be. To me, being perfect means being imperfect.

And the truth is a cookie has no power at all.

“Intuitive Eating” verses “Hedonic Hunger”: A Balancing Act

hungry man and burgerA few days ago I was walking out the door to go to work, and noticed the very last and very ripe banana in the fruit bowl that sits on the counter on the way out of the door in our kitchen. I like bananas, but really need to be in the mood for one. This is such a silly and repetitive dilemma I seem to encounter way too many times a month. Why do I buy so many bananas for just 2 people? I ask myself this every time I walk out the door and see those bananas going bad (yes, I can make banana bread, but I’m not a big fan of baking and without central air, it won’t be happening). Do I make myself take the banana just so that it won’t go bad, or do I follow my own advice and eat “intuitively” which means not forcing yourself to eat things you don’t really want (and also eating the things you really DO want!).

We all have to make decisions about what to eat every single day, and most of the patients I work with struggle with these decisions. They are torn by wanting to eat “healthy”, by having food “rules”, and by the “food police” in their brains screaming commands at every meal (“that’s bad! That has too much sugar! That has too many carbs!”). People who are dieting to lose weight especially have a hard time making food choices as well as tuning in to their hunger.

Then you have those of us who believe the repercussions of dieting and being too strict with eating usually backfire, trigger eating disorders, food obsession, or at the very least make life miserable (and boring). So we promote “intuitive eating” which means learning to “listen” to your hunger and fullness rather than relying totally on just your thinking (“cognitive” restraint). This approach to eating tends to promote feeling better both mentally and physically (related to no longer feeling starving, or not feeling overly stuffed).

Sounds simple, right? Well, as you probably know, it is not. Part of the reason is something called “hedonic hunger”.  Hedonic hunger is “the appetitive drive to eat to obtain pleasure in the absence of an energy deficit”. In a paper written by  Elizabeth Rose Didie in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Drexel University in June of 2003  an instrument called the “Power of Food Scale (PFS)” was introduced. According to the paper, “the 21-item Power of Food Scale (PFS) was developed to assess the psychological influence of the mere presence or availability of food” (a self-report measure of hedonic hunger). It is suggested that a “preexisting vulnerability toward over-responsiveness to food” may exist for some people. In other words, some people may be more responsive to a food plentiful environment which makes “intuitive eating” more difficult. Not every person is the same when it comes to hunger. (if you are interested in the original research article, read it here: Power of Food Scale The actual questionnaire is on page 110).

Since the PFS was validated more research has been done looking into hedonic hunger and binge eating. There’s a lot more to learn, however just knowing that you are not like everyone else may be helpful. Instead of beating yourself up because you were not able to resist something, instead start to pay attention to your behavior. Try to accept what you discover (“if I bake cookies, I can’t help eating most of the batch”) and don’t berate yourself (which is what most people do, leading to even more bad feelings). Instead, you may want to consider only baking when you need to and go out for a few cookies at the bakery instead when you really want a cookie. Work to create a less triggering environment if you are one of those people who is more susceptible to hedonic hunger. Don’t set yourself up!

In the meantime, we all should be eating foods we really enjoy. You still can work on making healthy foods yummy, planning your meals and planning to have the foods you enjoy on a regular basis. It is ok to “use your head” when it comes to creating a healthy eating environment. Learn to cook and experiment with different healthy foods so that you always have meals you enjoy, yet continue to take care of your health. Cater to food cravings in a smart way (remember, if you see a food and then want it, it is not a real food craving, and more of a “beckoning” environmental trigger). When you are really in the mood for something, go buy it! If you want ice cream, go out and get a cone. This is way different than having large containers of ice cream in your home when you know you have trouble stopping, and end up feeling bad about yourself.

Yes, hedonic hunger makes it hard to eat intuitively, but with a little self-acceptance and smart choices, you can have your cake and eat it too. So what did I do with that banana?

I froze it.