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!!

Blood Sugar and Willpower: Taking A New Look at New Year’s Resolutions

cheers-1443534 First of all, I need to be honest, I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions (for myself anyway). But I know that a majority of people make them (over 75 percent of Americans) and most people, after a few months or so tend to give up (if you have ever belonged to a gym, you know what I am talking about). The resolutions some people choose are never that easy to keep. Since most of them focus on health issues or eating/weight loss and exercise behavior, I felt obligated to share my opinion (and experiences).

There are many reasons people are not successful with their resolutions, and there is disagreement as to what makes some people more successful. It has nothing to do with “willpower”, a word I don’t use because it insinuates some of us are “better” than others while others are “less than”. When it comes to behavior around eating, some individuals, due to their genetic make-up (the way they were born) get full fast, and consequently don’t tend to overeat (nothing to do with their character). Others just do not get that message to their brains (again, due to their genes, and not because they are weak or have no willpower) and so may need to eat more to feel satisfied. Other factors affect eating behavior of course, but that is one example of why willpower is not my favorite word. For more details, check a previous post for a review of  Willpower

Anyway, while researching the topic of resolutions, I stumbled upon an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007, Volume 92, No.2, 325-336), “Self-Control Relies on Glucose as Limited Energy Source: Willpower More Than A Metaphor”. The researchers investigated an important point that most people aren’t aware of: self-control processes act as if they depend on “some type of a limited energy resource”. The article reviewed previous research providing evidence that a single act of self-control (for instance, resisting dessert) uses up a limited energy source that makes it difficult to be successful at any other attempt at self-control.

The researchers hypothesized that glucose was the energy source that our brains have a limited supply of, and that the brain uses more energy (glucose, or blood sugar) with an act of self-control verses performing cognitive tasks. Participants in the research were college students, and nine different experiments were performed with different groups to test out various conditions (specifically, “the major goals of this investigation were (a) to establish that blood glucose levels are reduced from before to after performing an initial self-control task and (b) to show that low levels of glucose after a first self-control task predict behavioral deficits on a second self-control task”). In other words, when your are trying to resist something, you use up a lot of brain energy, and if you try a second time to resist something else, it gets harder and harder due to the fact that you have no energy left.

The experiments that were conducted challenged subjects in different ways. For instance, in just one part of the study subjects were asked to watch a video of a woman talking with words appearing under the video which the participants were supposed to use “self-control” and avoid reading. Challenges such as this were then followed by different challenges, with glucose levels monitored. In other parts of the study, glucose was provided in the form of a sweetened beverage (with a placebo of an artificially sweetened drink) to see if this had any affect.

Findings from this study supported the hypothesis that self-control depends on glucose. As reported in the article: “First, measurements of blood glucose showed significant drops following acts of self-control, primarily among participants who worked hardest. Second, low glucose after an initial self-control task (e.g., emotion regulation) was linked to poor self-control on a subsequent task. Third, experimental manipulations of glucose reduced or eliminated self-control decrements stemming from an initial self-control task”.

What does all this have to do with your New Year’s Resolution?  The bottom line is that expecting yourself to have enough “willpower” or self-control to accomplish a bunch of resolutions is not only psychologically challenging, but probably physiologically impossible. The fact that it takes more energy (glucose) to use self-control means that you easily become depleted if you take on too much.  And this is just one of the issues why making too many resolutions is not a good idea. Instead, if you insist on making a new year’s resolution,here is some simple advice. Some you may have heard before, but well worth repeating:

  1. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Instead of biting off more than you can chew (“I am never eating junk food again!”) pick just one thing that has been gnawing at you. For example, do you always complain about lack of sleep? Or eating fast food because you don’t know how to cook? Or do you truly live off of fast food and have the indigestion to prove it? Instead of making an “all-or-nothing” decision which I can almost promise will set you up for failure (not good for either physical or psychological health), start small. Make it doable. Cooking a healthy meal even one night a week is a success that you will feel good about.
  2. Keep it positive. Don’t use “negative” words. Instead of “I am NOT eating this or doing that, how about “I am going to……add a fruit to my lunch. Take a karate lesson. Walk to work. Taking away too much is not only negative, it tends to make you feel deprived and makes you want the forbidden whatever even more.
  3. Don’t talk about it. Many people will disagree with me. Some people feel that if you tell everyone (or someone) that you have a goal that you are more likely to feel accountable. Really? It doesn’t sound right to me (and would not feel right to me anyway) to care about what anyone thinks of me or my health habits or lifestyle. I want to sleep better because it makes ME feel better. Plus, if you tell someone, or make a big deal about it, what if you don’t accomplish what you set out to do? Even the people you share with will feel uncomfortable. They likely don’t want you living up to their expectations either. Do what you want to do because you want to do it. On the other hand, there are some people who truly do love and need the support of others. This is different. If you are happy sharing, then do it. And if you need support, and have good friends or family who truly are supportive, go for it. Having healthy and supportive people around us can be inspiring.
  4. No numbers. I just hate numbers when it comes to health. People get all wrapped up in numbers and I just don’t think that is healthy at all. It takes all the fun out of some really healthy things. Take physical activity for example. It can be really enjoyable to go for a walk, or a hike in the woods, or even to jog slowly around a track and daydream. When you have to count the laps, or measure the miles, or time your speed, yuck. It just is not fun.Yes, there are exceptions, those people who just love numbers. Some people thrive on competition and all of that. Those aren’t the people I am talking about. It is the people who start something but then stop because they can’t accomplish the number. Yes, a “smart goal” is specific, but that can mean making a goal of getting outside twice a week. It does not have to be something ridiculous. The same holds true with eating. It takes the joy out of meals and food, and disconnects you from what your body needs. The number on the scale is also pretty useless when it comes to health. I have known many individuals who have succeeded in bringing down blood pressure, glucose levels, and others who have taken up a sport and gotten fit, but then stopped just because the number on the scale stopped moving down. Why not skip the number goal and just focus on the health aspect?
  5. Pretend it is not January 1st. Really. Yes, it is great to reflect on your life and health and want to make changes that move you in a better direction. But you can do that any time. June, September, your birthday. Actually, our lives change more than once a year in one way or another, and it is important to readjust sometimes. Getting into the habit of even just caring about your health is much more important than picking some unrealistic and extreme resolution on January 1.

So there you have it. No resolutions for me! As I get older, and my life (and body) change, my focus on figuring out how I can feel my best, be my healthiest (physically AND mentally) and live the longest fun life really doesn’t change. I hope you consider a focus on health too.

Here’s to a Happy Healthy New Year!!!!!!

Why you need to stop trying to have “willpower”

hungry man and burger I have always disliked the word “willpower”. Maybe because so many people cast judgement when they think someone does not have any. Why do you keep smoking? You need to have more willpower! Why do you keep overeating? You need to have more willpower! Why are you binge eating? You need to have more willpower! Why do you drink so much? You need to have more willpower! If only you had more willpower. I hate that word.

Also, people judge themselves. When they want to change and can’t, most people beat themselves up mentally and verbally. Why can’t I have more willpower?! This makes me sad because changing, especially when it comes to eating behaviors, has nothing to do with willpower.

I like looking at things in a somewhat holistic way. It is never one simple answer and most people behave in a certain way because of a variety of influencing factors. When it comes to eating, I always have felt there are three things that affect us (probably more but to me, these are the three general areas I have encountered with the people I have worked with).

  1. Physiology
  2. Environment and habits
  3. Emotions

First, let’s talk about physiology. By this I mean all the physiological things that are going on in your body that most of us never think about. What most people do not know is that our bodies regulate themselves as far as what and how much to eat. For example, people who try to avoid carbohydrates eventually end up craving them. Why? Because a chemical messenger named serotonin in our brains will drop if we do not eat enough carbs and will send the message that we need to eat them! Have you ever craved something sweet? We all have. Even dietitians usually can’t keep track of what they eat, let’s face it, we all have busy lives and sometimes just eat what is there. But our bodies will definitely tell us, they are keeping track! A good example is a dinner I prepared for my husband the other day. We kind of ran out of food and I had gone out with a friend so had already had an early dinner. I threw together a “Chef’s Salad” because I had leftover grilled chicken, leftover pepperoni slices from a party, some prosciutto I had left from a recipe I made over the weekend, cheese and lots of salad (it was buy one, get one!). He loved it with his Chipolte Ranch Dressing, but I knew he was going to be craving something sweet later at night because there were no carbs in it. He is not a fan of beans and I had no croutons : ( So later at night it was kind of funny when he said “do we have anything sweet? I need something sweet!” So predictable. Nothing to do with willpower and everything to do with physiology.

What kind of imbalances are YOU creating with your eating? In addition to not getting enough carbs, if we don’t get enough calories our bodies regulate that also. Leptin is one messenger that will make sure you know you have not eaten enough. Are you skipping lunch to lose weight? Are you then getting mad at yourself for not having “willpower” at night when you end up binge eating? Not your fault, and not your lack of willpower. Physiology, plain and simple. You can’t fight it, so don’t blame yourself. There are so many more examples, but the bottom line is that your body is much smarter than you are, and having more willpower is not the answer. Trusting your body is. Check out more on this topic (especially for you biology buffs) with these articles:

Appetite Hormones (July 2015 Issue, Today’s Dietitian,Appetite Hormones  By Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD, LD, Vol. 17 No. 7 P. 26)

Gastrointestinal-Brain Connection

The second reason people need to forget about willpower is the power of environment and habits. We all have behaviors that are affected by our environment, and eventually we fall into habits that we don’t even have to think about. Let me ask you a simple question: what do you do when you walk in the door after a long day of work (or school)? Do you kick your shoes off and run to the couch, click on the TV and relax? Do you go straight to your room, remove your work clothes, put on your jogging shorts and sneakers and run to the track? Or do you go straight to the fridge and open the door? Or maybe grab a beer and sit in front of the news?

All of these behaviors are habits. None has anything to do with willpower. The person who has been coming home and going to the track has no more willpower than the person who runs to the fridge to grab a snack or a beer. The issue is that each person has developed a habit over time, triggered by their environment. Just walking in that door sets all behaviors in place. The question we need to ask ourselves is NOT why we don’t have more willpower, but what behaviors are we not happy with and want to change? Changing habits is another long story and not easy. We can start however by changing that initial trigger, not by blaming ourselves for not having enough willpower! What if you avoided that couch and put on sneakers instead? then went and sat outside on the porch just to watch the birds. Anything to break that chain. Wishing you had more willpower or berating yourself because you do not is not the answer.

Finally, the third reason to forget about willpower is to remember that emotionally we are all different. No one has the same life growing up, the same role models, the same experiences or the same biological make up. How can we expect to have the same amount of willpower? Consider the woman I once worked with many years ago. She was a binge eater and was a stay at home wife to a man that wanted her to be thinner.  She had gained weight throughout her 20 year marriage and he just wanted to help her. So what he thought was helpful (“you don’t need that! That is enough for you!”) was actually hurtful. She told me that she would eat her Special K with skim milk in the morning while he had his bacon and eggs, then watch through the window as he drove away. The minute he disappeared from sight, she would go straight to the fridge and start eating. And eating. She had a binge eating disorder that was partly due to emotional reasons. NOT lack of willpower.

The bottom line and take-home message I hope you get is that expecting yourself to have more “willpower” may be a losing battle. Instead, can you consider looking at your lifestyle and asking yourself what behaviors you feel are not contributing to health? Are you restricting too much and then binge eating and getting mad at yourself? Are you wishing you could be more active because you really do want to have more energy but feel you have no willpower to go to the gym?  Are you drinking too much and blaming yourself?  I suggest just start by thinking about which of these three areas are affecting you most. Then work on figuring it out without judgement. Stop expecting yourself to have willpower to fix things that are way more complicated.

Working on your health both physically and mentally is a wonderful thing! Just taking the time to read this post shows you care about yourself and that is a great thing too! Stop berating yourself for not having enough “willpower”. No one does.