Two Cookies and a Yogurt

Image may contain: foodThe other day I was casually chatting with a young man about healthy eating. When someone finds out you are a dietitian they often have lots of questions. Anyway, this young man said something that really stuck in my head: “I feel like a war is going on in my head” he said when talking about trying to eat healthier. Apparently, he had been trying to lose weight and thought he should totally avoid eating junk food, and, just like everyone else who tries to “not eat” something, it creates a struggle.  But the way he described it as a “war” made me think. I actually could relate to having “wars” in my head with lots of things. We all have ideas of what the “right’ thing to do is, and struggle with decisions on a daily basis. Whether it be about what we should be accomplishing, if we should spend money on something, if we should have another drink, or visit a loved one, or make an appointment for a colonoscopy.

But when it comes to food and eating, what does this “war” mean? What is going on here? Where does it all stem from?

I have my opinion about that war, and where it originates when it comes to eating, and it is complicated. I don’t think we can ever totally come to a conclusion with this as everyone’s experience is different. I know people who grew up with health food nuts (sorry, don’t mean to offend anyone, but I am referring to those who are kind of obsessed with eating healthy foods only…..whatever you consider healthy food….you are talking to an Italian here, I have trouble thinking sausage is not ok). And then there are those who have a different food background with cultures dictating the foods they are exposed to. Or, think about someone who grew up with a weight watcher kind of mom who was always dieting and talking about her weight, jumping on a scale and degrading herself depending on the force of gravity that day. Another common scenario I have seen these days is the truly good and caring parents who have heard from the pediatrician about BMI concerns with their child. These parents unknowingly start thinking they need to restrict their children and scold them for wanting what everyone else is eating. Then of course there is the cultural influence, the final word of what we are supposed to look like. One year big breasts are the thing to have for women and the next year it is all about muscles. Abs always seem to be “in”. The bottom line is how we look at food can be complicated. God bless the untainted soul who somehow is resilient to all of it. Far and few between.

No matter what the contributing factors are as to why an individual may be so affected as to feel at war with themselves when it comes to food, it is helpful to know we are not alone. The experts have been looking into this for many years. There happens to be decades of research exploring this phenomenon of what is typically referred to as “restrained eating”. I have talked about this before as it is a theme that never seems to have disappeared. People don’t seem to stop and re-evaluate, even when they experience the same thing over and over (dieting, losing weight, gaining it back, dieting again). Not sure why, but guessing it has to do with the constant focus and pressure on being the right body size, something that women especially seem to distract themselves with. Although those suffering from eating disorders focus on eating, weight and food for other reasons, I am referring to the “typical” dieter, that person who just simply wants to lose weight. Even for these people, looking at food in a restrictive way eventually can become harmful. The person who starts out just wanting to lose a few pounds often starts to look at food in a different way (once they start dieting). For example, before the weight concerns and dieting/restrained eating started, maybe they were a bit picky about what kind of cookie they liked. They could easily refuse an oreo because they only liked their mom’s homemade oatmeal cookies. Nothing could hold a candle to those. But, suddenly, after 3 months of dieting and avoiding sweets altogether, even fake cookies look good. At a meeting at work, if cookies are on the table, they call out to dieters. The bigger the “war” in a person’s head, the louder that cookie’s voice. The non-dieter, on the other hand, may glance at those cookies and just not want one. Yes, any cookie takes on a different meaning depending on the war in someone’s head.

But is it not just about cookies. According to that young man I was talking to, any “bad” food was a food to be avoided. Once he realized he needed to lose weight he fell into the trap of thinking what everyone else in the world seems to think: certain foods make you fat and other (healthy) foods don’t. The good/bad  all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to food is the problem yet again. Giving any one food this particular power is a mistake. When it comes to health (or even weight for that matter) NO FOOD IN THE WORLD has the power to affect either (well, unless of course it is poisonous, but that is not what I am talking about and I think you know just what I mean).

What I told this young man is the same thing I will tell you. Yes, nutrition matters because eating a variety of healthy foods gives us everything we need to feel good, do what we want and prevent illness. But, it does not have to be that complicated. I believe in working on “mindful” and “intuitive” eating, and listening to one’s body, which is not easy for everyone (especially dieters or those with eating disorders). But, for the typical dieter who is at war with themselves, I have seen it work to free them. I have seen people actually learn to have just one slice of cake instead of half of the entire cake…..like they did when they told themselves they should not have any, ever. When people are able to tune out the “war” voice, and instead tune in to their true hunger and actually give themselves permission to have it, a funny thing happens. Your body really does not need or want more than a normal amount of anything. It is only when we deprive ourselves, when we restrict and unrealistically tell ourselves we can’t ever eat something that we break down and overeat it. And continue a war that we will never win.

Instead, I suggest you care about your health, make it a priority. Eat your vegetables (experiment with ways to prepare them to make them taste yummy such as roasting). Include protein sources with all your meals because it makes you feel better and last longer. Eat fruits you enjoy because they taste good and are healthy. Buy wheat bread instead of white. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t go to war over something as simple as a food choice. Your body knows what to do if you learn to listen to it. A normal serving of anything will never hurt you. But, if you deprive yourself, you definitely will be more obsessed with food and more likely to overeat and binge on it…..and not feel so good afterward.

Oh, you might be wondering what the heck “Two Cookies and a Yogurt” means. Well, I hate throwing away food, especially cookies. So on New Year’s Eve when my good friends Barbara and Fred had us over, there were gobs of Italian cookies leftover. She offered them to me, and well, you know, I couldn’t say no. They ended up in my freezer and I have been having them with my coffee for breakfast ever since (only 6 left I think!) No, cookies do not comprise a well balanced breakfast however, throw in a Greek yogurt and you are good to go. Well, I am. Everyone is different. Eat what is good for YOU for breakfast.

But don’t go to war over a cookie.

 

 

Restrained Eating Vs Intuitive Eating: Finding the Balance

donut vs apple and womanI was not surprised when my doctor told me I needed to take a calcium and vitamin D supplement after a recent bone density exam. Being at the age where bone density starts to diminish, and being a dietitian on top of it, I was fully aware that my intake of calcium was sub-optimal. But time flies by, doesn’t it? No matter how much I know about nutrition, somehow here I am. Although I do believe in good nutrition I have never been a fan of thinking about it too much (unusual maybe for someone in my field of work).

The reality is that dietitians and nutritionists are probably at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to “cognitive restraint”, or using your head to figure out what to eat instead of listening to your body. Our training can make it kind of difficult to “listen to your body” or “eat intuitively” which often translates into “eat whatever you want for heaven’s sake”. So, although I was well-aware of my dietary inadequacy, I admit to leaning more heavily into the “eat whatever you want for heaven’s sake” mentality…..which was not too good for my bones apparently.

When you hear the term “intuitive eating” it typically is in reference to dieting behavior and offered as an alternative to stop the insanity of dieting. Yes, billions of people diet to lose weight, and many yo-yo, gaining and losing the same weight year after year (which we know is not good for our health, yet it is hard to give up that hope that this time it will stick). Despite the statistics on the failure of diets, I don’t tell people what to do and will support those who wish to follow some type of guideline because for some people, re-learning how to eat can be very helpful, and yes, it can stick. But this is probably rare, and from what I have seen at least in my patients is when it “sticks”too much it is really disordered eating. When it “sticks” in a non-harmful way is when individuals truly change detrimental habits even when they no longer are following a specific “diet plan”. So, how can you prevent the negative consequences of “cognitive” eating yet also avoid the repercussions of interpreting “intuitive eating” as meaning  “eat whatever you want”? The trick is learning how to do both: be “cognitive”, but also intuitive, gradually interweaving both into your eating style so that you can be both healthy and sane.

The first step is to try to determine if you are a “restrained eater”. Although “cognitive restraint” is often defined by the experts  as “the intent to limit food intake to prevent weight gain or to promote weight loss” to keep it simple, I like to think of cognitive restraint as “using your head to figure out what to eat” despite the signals coming from your body. Sometimes people think too much about food even if it is not because of weight related issues. For example, it is lunch time and you brought a salad. You are absolutely famished, craving a burger but will not allow yourself to go to the cafeteria to get one. You read somewhere that red meat is bad for you so you are not going to eat it. Or, it is 9 pm at night, you are counting your calories and according to your records, you still have 200 calories left that you can eat. You are not hungry at all…..yet you go ahead and pop some popcorn because you like popcorn and you “can have it” since it is just the correct amount of calories. You don’t pay any attention to the fact that you are not hungry. Both situations are examples of “cognitive” restraint, using your head and ignoring your body. Both examples are contrary to “intuitive” eating.

For research, investigators use very specific tools to evaluate if someone is a restrained eater or not. Some of the common characteristics of restrained eaters include, but are not limited to:

  • frequent dieting
  • counting calories
  • self-weighing
  • excessive fear of weight gain
  • guilt after eating
  • food avoidance
  • labeling foods as “good” or “bad”

For our purposes, if you can relate to any of these statements, you may have some characteristics of restrained eating. For those of us who are dietitians or nutritionists, or even those of you who educate yourself about foods and nutrition, you can also fall into the trap of too much thinking about what you eat. I have seen extremes in thinking when it comes to nutrition, with fads coming and going as well as information that is not evidence-based. Some examples include avoiding gluten at all costs, not eating carbs,avoiding foods with added sugar, avoiding processed foods, etc. Some people need to be on special diets due to medical conditions or allergies, or even having a digestive intolerance to a food. Avoiding GMO’s or choosing to eat organic or fresh food is not what I am talking about. It is having an unreasonable fear of foods that on occasion have no affect on health whatsoever. Missing out on eating your grandmother’s famous sticky buns on a holiday because you have chosen to avoid gluten (without evidence of an allergy or medical condition) is restrained eating. Feeling guilty because you “don’t eat processed foods” yet gave in and bought some Girl Scout Cookies to support your niece (plus you LOVE Thin Mints) is also unrealistic. Refusing to eat a meal in a restaurant because you don’t know what they put in it (even if you don’t have food allergies) might be an issue. If what you allow and don’t allow yourself to eat tends to interfere with your social life, well, that may suggest a problem.

What about “Intuitive Eating”? The basic principles of intuitive eating can be found on the website Intuitive Eating. Basically, learning to be more intuitive with eating means getting re-connected with your natural body signals, rejecting the “diet mentality” and relearning how to trust your body’s natural wisdom. This sounds simple, but it is downright scary for many. “If I let myself eat what I want, I will gain 50 pounds! I will live on cookies and ice cream!” or so the thinking goes. To be honest, from what I have seen in former patients, the process of moving into a more intuitive eating style is different for every single person and depends on their unique eating/dieting history. I have seen people do exactly that: live on ice cream for a week. If you have lived for several decades denying yourself certain foods and suddenly the bars come down, it is almost instinctual to dive in! But a funny thing tends to happen. You honestly and truly DO get sick of ice cream. Suddenly, grilled chicken looks very appealing. The wisdom of your body really does win out in the end. But the path is not always simple or easy (which is why I always recommend anyone who has a history of dieting and is tired of it seek the help of a therapist and a dietitian, preferably both who have experience working with individuals with eating issues). Some people do fine on their own, after reading the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole (Author), Elyse Resch (Author) they can gradually make the changes they need to free themselves and move into a healthier relationship with eating and food.

The question is, how do we be both “intuitive” and eat what we want while listening to our natural body signals (and trusting them) yet also be “cognitive” in a way that helps us make smart and healthy decisions about eating? I feel ignoring nutrition is a mistake. I like the term suggested with intuitive eating called “gentle nutrition”. The reality is, if we eat a variety of all of the food groups (meats or protein foods, fruits and veggies, grains or starches or other carbs, dairy and fat) we tend to crave less. Imbalances trigger cravings. Remember the chemical messengers our bodies have to tell our brains what we are missing?  For example, serotonin levels drop in our brains when we don’t get enough carbs and trigger us to want sugar or sweets (survival!). Yes, our bodies are pretty darn smart that way. Eating well also makes us feel well. Learning what makes you feel your best (with foods that you actually really enjoy) is key. One example I often give is eating adequate protein to avoid that afternoon blood sugar crash. Without it, you will almost be guaranteed to run out of energy and be excessively hungry which is really irritating when you are at work and there is no fridge to run to. So planning to include your favorite yummy protein packed lunch is not what I call excessive “cognitive” restraint, but smart and enjoyable eating. Yes, you do have to think about it. But over time, you start to find your favorite, doable, somewhat healthy meals and snacks that taste good and make you feel good. You may make mistakes, you may change your mind (we all get burnt out on foods, even our favorites) and so you experiment with other meals and foods. The key is to keep learning through trial and error. You do have to educate yourself a bit about nutrition (the basics, not fads, even the My Plate government website is helpful for basic nutrition info if you can promise me you will ignore the weight loss focus of some of the links). Once you get a basic idea of how to balance meals to feel good and meet your basic needs, experimenting with cooking is also helpful. Last night I took my mom grocery shopping and made her favorite black bean and corn salad. She just loves it, and to watch her tasting it, you would have thought she was eating something amazing (to her it was, to me it is just bean salad, good, but not lobster salad which is much more amazing if you ask me). The point is, good food should be yummy, too.

For those of you interested in the reasons restrained eating often leads to increased hunger, you may enjoy the research article  Cognitive Restraint and Appetite Regulating Hormones which describes a connection between ghrelin, the “hungry” messenger and dietary restraint. Despite the leaps and bounds we have made in understanding how what we eat affects our brain chemistry and appetite, there’s lots we still don’t know. All the more reason to work on a better connection to the natural wisdom of your body.

One more thing. Clearly, knowledge about nutrition does not translate into action. I was well aware that I probably was not getting enough calcium in my diet (the ice cream in my morning coffee, yogurt and grated cheese on everything was not enough). Don’t be like me and wait for something to happen. I did purchase that supplement. Now I need to remember to take it : O

One step at a time.

Should you count calories?

calorie labelI was a little concerned when restaurants started to post the calorie content of menu items. I have to admit, I am a bit torn between the importance of educating people about nutrition and my mission to prevent disordered eating and promote a healthy relationship to food. My friends and family often argue with me when I say “listen to your body”. My husband says “my body told me to eat the whole thing!”.

What my husband is referring to is most likely the “trigger” that yummy food is to most of us (and not true hunger, something not very easy to tune in to for many). We are all different in the way we respond to food and eating, and not everyone is able to “listen to your body” because they have a unique eating, weight, dieting, genetic history that no one can understand except themselves. So what does counting calories have to do with anything? Why would I have any concerns with labeling calories on menu items? Should you count calories to have a healthy weight?

My answer: The Top 5 Reasons you should not count calories:

1. It is hard enough to work on the task of paying attention to your hunger and fullness, so when you attach a number to a meal or snack, you are almost guaranteed to become “disconnected” to your true body signals. Imagine you have determined you need a certain amount of calories for the day, and by evening you feel full after your last meal and do not want that pm snack you are supposed to have. Should you force yourself to eat it? or what if the opposite happens and after your dinner with the specified calories, you are still hungry? Do you forbid yourself a snack and think about food all night long? What if you made a mistake, which leads me to reason number 2.

2. You will not be accurate! The calories posted on many packages and menus may not be accurate! Check out this interesting video about a small experiment in NYC regarding this topic. WARNING: this video only looked at a few foods and most had more calories than stated on the package or menu. The reverse is also likely, where menu items have less than stated. The message is, nobody is held responsible for accuracy! If you are obsessive already about eating and calories, this video may be triggering and you should skip it.

3. It encourages obsessive thinking about food which can backfire. When you use “cognitive restraint” such as counting calories, you become MORE focused on food, not less. Research shows that people who are overly restrictive tend to be more likely to binge eat. Even worse, this behavior is more likely to lead to disordered eating patterns.

4. Counting Calories does not translate into healthy eating.  As I said earlier, although I believe in “listening to your body” I also believe it is good to want to be healthy. That may mean learning about nutrition, healthy cooking, what your body needs to feel good, etc. If you only look at calories, you are missing the boat.

And Finally,

5. Counting Calories is not fun and really interferes with your social life! Not only is it harder to go out to eat once in awhile with friends, even family celebrations become a chore instead of something that should be enjoyed as one of the most wonderful parts of life. Not only that, people who are restrained eaters (such as calorie counters) tend to be more depressed.

So the bottom line is: it is ok to educate yourself about nutrition, but calorie counting is not a great thing. You can’t avoid seeing the calorie count on the menus, and if you get indigestion every time you get that certain giant burger, well, seeing the calories may help you understand why….but your tummy will tell you that, you really didn’t need to know the number after all : )

Can I eat after 6 pm?

clock and plate

People ask me the same question over and over: “is it bad to eat at night? I shouldn’t eat after 6 pm, then it all turns to fat, right?” WRONG!

The fact is our bodies are constantly burning energy, even while we sit. It really doesn’t matter if you eat something before bed (such as a small snack if you are hungry). Researchers, however have been investigating the difference between meal frequency as well as when you consume the majority of your calories. In other words, does it matter if you eat the same number of calories in ONE meal verses several? Does it matter if you eat very little during the day and then MOST of your calories in the evening?

That is a different story! The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently published a study discussing this very topic. In the April, 2015 issue, “The Impact of Eating Frequency and Time of Intake on Nutrient Quality and Body Mass Index: The INTERMAP Study” the eating pattern of 2,385 participants were evaluated (1,232 men and 1,153 women). The principal findings demonstrated that more frequent eating (eating 6 times per day) as well as a higher energy intake during the day verses during the evening resulted in a lower BMI as well as an improvement in nutrition quality. In other words, those who tended to avoid eating that often (<3 eating occasions during the day instead of 3 meals and 2-3 snacks) tended to eat most of their calories at night, and their diets weren’t as healthy. The frequent eaters (6x daily) still ate at night, however they tended to spread it out (they did not miss meals during the day).

What does this mean for you? If you want to have a healthier diet, and be the weight your body is supposed to be, you need to fuel your body all through the day. This study strengthens the evidence that skipping meals during the day requires that you will need to make up for it in the evening. A snack is fine, and a late meal is fine, too. But when you do not eat enough during the day, you will be starving and tend to overeat.

So go ahead and have that snack if you are hungry!! Just be sure to give your body what it needs during the day too!!

The Milkshake Study

milkshakes

About 40 years ago, a landmark study was conducted that launched the research investigating why diets fail. This important study is sometimes referred to as “The Milkshake Study” (Herman CP, Mack D. Restrained and unrestrained eating. Journal of Personality. 1975;43:647–660). In this experiment the researchers administered a “Restraint Scale” questionnaire to determine who the dieters were (restrainers) and who the normal eaters were. They then had subjects participate in what the subjects believed was an ice cream tasting where they were to rate the ice creams. They were given either one milkshake “pre-load”, two milkshakes pre-loads or no pre-load and then told to eat as much ice cream as they wanted or needed to rate them. What was expected was the more milkshakes a subject consumed before the tasting the less they would probably eat (because they were already full, right?). But that is not what happened!

Instead, the researchers found that those individuals who were highly restrained (dieters) actually ate MORE ice cream with the more milkshakes they had before they started tasting! They hypothesized that dieters who constantly restrain their intake tend to become “disinhibited” after they break their diet boundary (sometimes referred to as the “what the hell” effect). This study triggered many more years of research into “cognitive restraint” and its negative consequences (binge eating being one).

Unfortunately, most people are not aware of this vast body of research, and so the diet industry has been able to continue making its billions. The good news is that finally a “Non-Diet” approach to weight management has been researched and proven to be effective in promoting health. Keep posted for more information and resources to come!!!