The “Eat Whatever You Want” Diet

20160326_132628I just stumbled upon a really fun and mindless activity in the process of doing some research for today’s blog. I wasted a bit too much time because I was kind of blown away. A few weeks ago I was slightly enraged after a Dr. Oz show promoting the miraculous grapefruit diet, implying some magical activity of “nootkatone” the substance in grapefruit that supposedly leads to increased metabolism (long story short, I could find no meaningful research other than it also repels tics). The reality is the eating plan promoted was an extremely low calorie diet (on the verge of starvation if you ask me) which clearly would cause weight to be lost (from muscle breakdown, water loss mostly and probably not the grapefruit). Oh, and nootkatone is found primarily in the skin. Yum.

Anyway, I decided to google food words followed by the word “diet” just to see what came up. I decided to go with some of my favorite foods. I googled “ice cream”. Yup, there is an ice cream diet. Then chocolate. Yes again, The Chocolate Diet. Cookies. Bananas. Pizza. And finally, The Pasta Lover’s Diet. I concluded it would never end. Try it, it’s kind of funny.

What isn’t funny is the extreme feelings of guilt and shame many dieters get when they eat something that is not on their diet. Typically, people watching their weight avoid certain foods like the plague, but then break down and eat them due to many reasons (cravings related to inadequate intake which triggers your brain to have the craving is the usual reason). Often, a distorted assessment of the “damage” done by eating that piece of cake or slice of pizza or side of fries occurs. People tend to assume (imagine) that weight will be gained from eating that specific “bad” food. “If I ate pasta I would gain so much weight!” I hear people say. Or, “how can she eat that and not gain weight?”

Yes, lots of foods have a bad rap and assumptions that they can make you gain weight as if they have some super-power to magically add weight. And yet, many of those same foods have their own weight loss diets named after them. Don’t you find that interesting? Or a bit crazy? Even infuriating if you ask me.

I am here to keep repeating the truth. As a woman who has been around the block a few times (as they say) at least when it comes to working within the weight loss world and eating disordered worlds, as well as just observing those who diet, and those who successfully evolve into a happy eating lifestyle, I have something to say. I wish I had a magic wand that make it stop but I don’t, so let me explain:

  • There is no one magical food or drink that makes you lose weight. I remember a mom from years ago whose child attended the Headstart preschool where I worked. She was trying to lose weight, so she bought some “Slimfast” shakes. She did not understand why she was not losing weight because she was drinking one after every meal she ate. She thought she just needed to have one of these magical shakes after everything she ate (mostly fast food) and it would make her “slim-fast”. Don’t be fooled into buying anything that sounds magical.
  • Most diets, any diet based on any food (even the grapefruit claim) causes weight loss because of the calorie deficit that results with restriction. They all come with a “diet plan”. Losing more than a pound or 2 a week almost always translates into muscle loss (and resulting lowering of metabolism). In the long run, when people fall back to old eating and lifestyles, weight returns. Don’t waste your time or money.
  • You actually CAN eat your favorite foods every single day of your life. If you can work on the principles of intuitive eating, and understanding your own feelings of hunger and fullness you will figure out how much and when you want to eat what. This is not easy for everyone. Some people have true fears of foods and need help getting over it. Others have the brain chemistry as well as genetic make-up that makes it difficult to feel fullness. If this is you, getting help from a registered dietitian and a therapist to help with strategies to work on coping mechanisms and an eating plan that works for you is often called for.
  • Nutrition matters. You don’t have to be a health-nut but it is helpful to understand the effect of different meals and nutrients on your body, hunger, appetite, fullness, digestive system, etc. For example, I may prefer sweet foods in the morning (maybe your favorite thing for breakfast is a donut and coffee) but the physiological response to this will be crashing a few hours later because there is no protein in donuts and they won’t sustain your blood sugar. So should you add an egg or two on the side? Eeeeww if you ask me….eggs don’t go with donuts, and personally, I can’t eat an egg at 7 am. You can however, have that donut but chances are, when you crash, you will want something with protein (your brain and body tends to work that way). So bringing a Greek yogurt or peanut butter and crackers, or leftover chicken wings, whatever floats your boat in the protein world should do the trick mid morning. Get it? Nutrition matters because the more you know about it, the better you can blend your food preferences with feeling good and getting through your day with both health and  happiness.
  • Please don’t feel bad if you like to buy some diet products that might work for you. People ask me to check out bars, shakes, etc. all the time. One bar someone shared recently was from some type of diet plan which also sold its products. This particular bar was supposedly a “meal replacement” and per the nutrition label it actually was pretty good. The problem was it cost about 5 dollars. That is a lot, but then again, that’s the diet industry. This person loved the convenience and could afford it. Like I said, whatever works for you as far as foods or products. I just hate wasting money and I hate supporting the diet industry.
  • Regarding those people who “gradually evolve” into a healthier lifestyle and tend to maintain their genetically determined natural body weight? I have noticed they focus on healthy eating but without dieting. They tend to structure meals and snacks (such as having 3 meals a day with a snack in between) so they don’t get overly starving and tend to maintain energy levels (which feels good compared to dieting, skipping meals, etc). Although they do tend to do some planning to have the foods available they like, they also go with the flow when there is a celebration or pizza party, or happy hour and enjoy what everyone else is eating. They do come prepared and bring lunches they like to work that also tend to be healthy (maybe leftovers from the night before). They also tend to exercise, walk, jog, work out on a regular basis because they are not on a “diet”, just working on all aspects of health. And that feels good, too.

Where do you go from here? If you want to move away from that dieting mind set and get to the point where you feel you are moving in a healthy direction, yet also getting to eat your favorite foods, I always suggest checking out Intuitive Eating for a great introduction into the world of normal eating and for guidance on how to get there. And remember, you know yourself best. If this journey is too overwhelming for you, seek support from a therapist who specializes in eating issues (you can ask your doctor for a referral near you).

In the meantime, go google your favorite food with the word “diet” after it. I hope it makes you laugh and see the insanity. No food is magical after all.

PS I just googled “wine diet”…..yup, it’s there.


Summertime Eating Challenges: Dieters verses Normal Eaters

We just can’t control ourselves. The plans and preparation started over a month ago. What began as a small fun thing to do to add to our neighbor’s July 4th annual picnic has evolved into a huge production and we love every minute of it. Our annual “Infused Fruit by the Fountain” keeps growing in the variety of infused fruits as well as the number of people who come to sample it. This year in addition to the Fireball Cherries, glazed rum pineapple, Rum Raison bananas, infused mixed fruit, and others we added cheesecake cherries (infused with vanilla and cake vodka, rolled in cheese cake cream cheese and dipped in crushed graham crackers) as well as Pina Colada pineapples. And there was more.

The weather was perfect this year for our annual July 4th Celebration with our neighbors and my guess is 100 people came to share salads, casseroles, desserts, eat burgers and dogs, listen to a live band and finally to enjoy our Fruit by the Fountain. What a great time, and yet, again, it struck me how powerful a topic food and eating and dieting and body image is. Besides Donald Trump jokes, comments and remarks about diets unfortunately filled some conversations. Don’t get me wrong, I feel passionately about promoting health and I love hearing about healthy changes people make. When people start cooking for once and making healthy meals instead of grabbing fast food, they do feel better. When they cut down on drinking or stop smoking, they feel better too. One friend I know started really getting into yoga, she absolutely loves it and her increased energy level and fitness level show. Yes, she has lost weight but her smile and what she talks about is all the cool stuff she can do now (from someone who can’t do a simple cartwheel anymore, trust me, that is a great accomplishment when you are over the age of 40). What struck me is that not everyone looks through the same glasses when it comes to picnics and celebrations and food. For some, this kind of thing is a blast, but for others, it is anything but fun.

I often refer to a “spectrum” or continuum when it comes to how people feel about food and eating, with severe eating disorders or eating issues on one end and absolutely normal eaters on the other end (whatever that means, a topic on its own). It is important to reflect on where you are and how you deal with crazy food situations such as this (not to mention there was a pool involved, so bathing suits often another issue altogether, combined with eating and drinking, well, that is enough to put some over the edge). The mumbling I heard that day went something like this:

“I feel so bloated”     “I’ll start again tomorrow”    “why did I just eat that?!”

You get the picture. What strikes me is that people truly believe something big is going to happen to their bodies in just one day of eating differently. It truly becomes a “head game”. Some people make healthy changes to their diets, start to feel better, but because they weigh themselves every day they see the normal fluctuations that occur (which are usually just fluid shifts because of more sodium, less protein, more carbohydrates, or even hormonal changes). For those eating lower carb diets, an increase will usually result in some water weight gain since our bodies lose water on low carb diets.  Also, most people eat more on picnic days or at parties than they normally do, but if you think of a “normal eater”, they probably are not thinking about calories and instead probably eating foods they enjoy. Truly “intuitive” eaters will notice a smaller appetite in the days after they may have consumed more than normal, and over time, their bodies naturally balance out. I often have told my patients to think about the reality: if it takes roughly 3,500 calories to equal a pound, and if we use an estimated 2,000 calories as a maintenance level for an average female to maintain their weight, that person would need to consume 5,500 calories to really “gain” a true pound. That is not easy to do, even at a picnic, since there is only so much one tummy can hold. It just “feels” like a lot because for those who diet and tune out their normal body signals to restrict, even a normal amount of food can feel like overeating (hence, the feeling of “bloated”). Yes, if this person jumps on a scale the day after a big picnic, the extra water that clings onto the carbs and sodium may add up to several “pounds” but these are not actually real body weight, remember. The reality is just going over your typical calorie intake by even a few thousand calories STILL will NOT equal even 3/4 of a pound. So why waste half the day worrying and stressing when you should be savoring every minute of such a beautiful day with friends, family and fun?

Instead, why not try to think about tuning in to your body especially at large picnics where you may have experienced discomfort in the past (can you relate?) For example, try looking ahead at the foods being offered before you start eating. Some people who are “breaking their diet” for the day tend to over eat foods they actually really don’t even enjoy that much (“I can’t have this tomorrow, I’m going back on my diet”) and so they may overeat cookies (the kind you can get anywhere), or hot dogs (you can make any day) or chips and dip, etc. Instead, a “normal eater” usually picks their favorite. That special potato salad Merri Jo makes (that they can’t replicate), or Bobby’s fried peppers and sausage they love but will never make at home, or Michelle’s amazing caramel brownies. Yummy foods to truly enjoy….without feeling guilty and knowing your body knows how much to eat…if you truly practice listening.

There are more picnics and holidays to come this summer. Enjoy the variety of foods you get to try, work on listening to your body, accept mistakes, and that this may be a learning process on what works for YOU as far as falling into a healthy (and happy) lifestyle. There is no right or wrong, just learning.

In the meantime…..time for some leftover fruit!

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!!

Food: More Than Just Something to Eat

Wagon Wheel Pasta inside a Rigatoni: How to Maximize Sauce in Every Bite!

This weekend it really struck me what a blessing it is to be a  (somewhat) normal eater. We all know food is more than just fuel, or something to eat. And I am not talking about food as medicine, or food as as (emotional) pain reliever, but rather how complex our relationship to food is merely because of our history with food and eating. I am talking culture, your upbringing, the food you were raised eating. Usually, I learn about a patient’s history with dieting, or body image concerns, or how their parents wanted them to lose weight, and how it affected their eating, etc. It is sad that in our culture what we eat mostly has evolved into what affect it is going to have on our bodies. Yes, we need to care about that (if we want to have energy, feel good, increase our chances of living a long and healthy life). But what about the pure joy of eating, especially based on our (early, hopefully happy) memories of food?

This weekend I was treated to a wonderful birthday trip to Boston, and it was such an interesting experience, especially when it came to food, that I felt the need to share. The first night we stayed in the theater district, and had tickets to see the Blue Man Group (awesome!). We had a short time to find a place to grab a quick dinner, and most of the nice restaurants had long waits. So we took a short off-the-beaten-path side street and found a funky tiny cozy half-empty bar/bistro and grabbed a seat. I got crab cakes which were giant and yummy, my husband got a fish platter (we were in Boston, you gotta get fish!). It was fast and wonderful.

The next two nights were spent in the North end of Boston, which is the Italian section, Boston’s “Little Italy”. My husband had rented an apartment right in the center of it all, right off of Hanover Street (the famous main drag of Little Italy). It felt like we lived there! The second surprise I received was a ticket to a walking “food tour” called “Off the Eaten Path” which was a 3 hour tour of restaurants, hidden bakeries, wine cellar, sweet shop, coffee shop and tiny grocery shops where locals get their meats and cheeses. The tour guide was wonderful and our groups was small (10 people).See Boston Food Tour for more information.

Being Italian, and growing up with some great Italian food, I felt right at home. So many things brought back so many memories. Memories of my grandmother and her sauce, helping my mom grate the Parmesan cheese (nothing but the real stuff, and to this day, I still only use the best). Those giant platters of cookies at weddings, the salami and other meats, the smell of strong coffee, REAL Italian bread. I remember the giant cans of olive oil and the constant aroma of garlic. And of course there was the wine! Even the smell of the gas stove where we stayed brought back memories of both of my grandmother’s who spoke Italian and hated electric stoves because you could not control the heat. They cooked with gas (unless we were on the “farm” on the weekend, where our families gathered just to cook and eat and run around while the older people would play cards and laugh). At the farm they cooked over fire.

Anyway, on this tour, the first stop was for pizza at a place that brought back a giant pizza oven from Naples, Italy which cooked at super high heat and produced the best pizza around. After visiting Italy this past spring, I can tell you the pizza was the same. Very thin crust with spare but wonderful toppings of prosciutto on one and fresh mozzarella and basil on the other. After pizza, we stopped in to a restaurant that perfected pasta to hold the most sauce in every bite (see picture above), then off to the wine cellar (100 years old, in a dark basement, with a tasting of red and rose). We heard about how wine was made and after that I really wished I could always afford the good stuff. Next came a visit to a tiny hidden bakery, down an alley way, then down stairs where they made bread from yeast that was smuggled in from Italy over 300 years ago. After our bread tasting we stopped at a home made chocolate shop, and 2 tiny shops which again brought me back just because of the smells and aromas. Finally, we stopped at a local coffee shop for expresso, cannoli and the only home made gelato in Boston. Here are some pictures:

We walked and talked and sampled, and I was so thankful for my culture, and the way I was brought up when it comes to food and eating.

The next day we spent lots of time walking around the Boston Farmer’s Market. If you have never gone, and you live in the area, you need to go. As you walk among the tents and farmers, you hear so many languages spoken, witness funny interactions and bargaining for fruits and vegetables, as well as fish, and feel like you are in some movie, or in a different country. I love it! To me, that is what food and eating are about. Culture. If you love cooking, you know what I mean. In America we have some good food (all I can think of is cheeseburgers right now, but there is also New England Clam Chowder). There is so much to learn from other cultures about cooking and food and spices and eating that it seems most of us just never think about. This weekend, wandering through the North End, as well as the Farmer’s Market, I was reminded of the beauty and wonderfulness of all of it. Here are some pictures of the market:

All in all, it was a great weekend filled with lots of great meals, lots of walking, lots of laughter, but most of all, an important reminder: don’t go through life forgetting to embrace your culture. When is the last time you had your favorite dish growing up? Is there something your family used to make that is from your culture that you have not had in a long time? Is it because you think it may be unhealthy, or make you gain weight? After this (BIG) birthday, it motivated me even more to “live life to the fullest” Joie de vivre!!! as the French might say……

now off to make my puttanesca sauce!

What I learned about food and eating in Italy

IMG_5635 I recently returned from an almost three week vacation in Italy. It was an amazing trip in many ways, mostly because it truly validated who I am and why I like the foods I do, (and why I love dancing). I felt very connected to my roots. Growing up in an Italian family with a grandfather who spoke broken English and a grandmother who did not speak a work of English created many wonderful memories. Family was the center of our lives and meals and gatherings that centered around cooking and eating were just a part of life. I remember going to my grandmother’s house who did not speak English, and she would take chunks of aged Parmesan cheese and melt them on a gas stove as a snack on the end of a fork. Every Sunday was pasta and meatballs and fresh Italian bread.

In Italy I loved the way everyone was never in a hurry. Meals took a long time! If we went to a restaurant, the bread always came out with the olive oil first. Then the liter of homemade red wine which was cheaper than the water! and tasted better : ) And then the “first course” would come which was your pasta, pesto or sauce or whatever and it was always homemade. Then came the meat or fish, chicken was rare to find on a menu. And salad was last, always simple and always olive oil and vinegar. Dessert was offered but the funny thing was that every single breakfast we had at every hotel or B and B consisted of beautiful homemade cakes and croissants and pastry as well as some type of cheese and ham. We joked at the end of the vacation that we did not want to see another slice of ham or salami for awhile! Italians love their ham and prosciutto and salami! and the olives were out of this world. In fact, if you stopped in anywhere for just a drink you were always given a platter of food that usually consisted of cheese, ham, bread, nuts, olives and/or potato chips….I was in heaven.

What I loved the most was the feeling of never being rushed. Italians will never bring the check until you ask for it. They do not seem to care if you sit for three hours over the same plate…..they understand the importance of savoring a delicious meal and a glass of wine and spending time with friends talking. It was absolutely wonderful. Oh, and I had real gelato for the first time…in a word, YUM! But they have not learned about super-sizing…the cups were tiny….but just enough. It did not strike me that Italians wanted quantity, they were more into quality and deliciousness.

I hope to continue to take the time to enjoy and savor all that meal times represent. It is more than just eating. It is savoring and enjoying and connecting over traditions. Whether you are Italian or Polish or Asian or French or Hispanic, whatever your culture and your food traditions, take the time to learn about them, learn how to prepare them and cherish your heritage.

But it is good to be home!!!