Archive for the ‘Current Nutrition News’ Category

Eating Problems: Get Answers…Today!

February 23, 2016
  • Do you worry constantly about what and how much you eat?

    The Struggle

    The Struggle

  • Are you afraid that eating “the wrong foods” will make you fat?
  • Does it seem like you spend too much time thinking about food and eating?
  • Do you fast, diet, use laxatives, diet pills or “cleanses” to make up for eating too much food (or the “wrong” kinds of foods)?
  • Do you eat in secret or feel like you don’t deserve to eat?
  • Do you feel out of control when you start eating or when you eat certain foods – as if you cannot stop until the food is gone or you feel physically sick?
  • Is figuring out what and how much to eat really stressful for you?
  • Do you ignore hunger and/or fullness cues? Or is it hard for you to tell if you are hungry or full?
  • Do you avoid entire food groups or specific foods out of fear they will make you fat or unhealthy?
  • Does stress lead you to either avoid food or overeat?
  • Do you exercise to “earn” your food?
  • Do you exercise even if you are sick or injured?
  • Is exercise mainly a way to burn calories and something you don’t otherwise enjoy?

Many of these statements are common thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that we don’t think are a problem. In fact we live in a culture that promotes many of these things. We don’t hear much about healthy eating or exercise that become problems when taken too far. For some people however, many of these statements can be clues to problem eating or even full-blown eating disorders.

Food is often used to comfort, numb or distract from uncomfortable feelings or problems that seem overwhelming. If this is a once-in-a-while thing you may be fine. But when this is the main way you cope (or don’t cope) it can be a serious problem.

How do you know if what you are experiencing related to food is “simply” emotional eating vs. a full-blown eating disorder? This year’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week promoted by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) can help you explore this question. The theme this year is:

3 Minutes Can Save a Life. Get Screened. Get Help. Get Healthy.

 The NEDA website (http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org) has a free, confidential screening tool and lots of information about eating disorders both for people who may be suffering with an eating disorder and for friends, family and others who are concerned about someone who may have an eating disorder.

Whether what you (or a loved one) are struggling with is an eating disorder or other eating issues that is causing physical or emotional distress, you are not alone. And, there is support and guidance available. Don’t wait – act right now.

 

 

 

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I Had No Idea: a “healthy” passion can become a problem

February 26, 2015

Passion drives many athletes and outdoor enthusiasts here in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Surrounded by rugged mountain ranges and access to raging rivers, this recreational Mecca is a sort of proving ground for athletes who want to push their limits skiing, rock climbing, boating, biking, running and more. There is a strong subculture here that sets a high bar for “normal” exercise.

Passions Can Become Problems

Passions Can Become Problems

More than 20 years ago during my early years in Jackson a friend and I did a 24-mile day hike up in Grand Teton National Park, a major feat for us east coast transplants. We got an early start and crested the top of the divide feeling pretty good about our accomplishment until a couple of local friends came jogging up the trail and passed us wearing fanny packs with water. If you climb or ski something here someone has climbed or skied it faster, or as part of a multi-peak day, or they first biked from town, swam across a lake, and were heading down to reverse their route after passing you. Seriously.

This Uber-athlete mentality makes it difficult to define “excessive exercise.” Disordered eating patterns that often accompany problem exercise are also normalized here. Sometimes eating takes obvious disordered forms such as severely restricting all food intake or bingeing and purging food. Less obvious disordered eating can be adhering to rigid food rules such as “eating clean” or following any number of fad diets that are socially accepted. This does not mean anyone who is consciously eating well to improve health or athletic performance has an eating disorder but points to the difficulty in identifying problems in subcultures like ours where extreme behaviors are normalized.

A group of friends on a long backcountry ski tour together may have no idea one member of the group has not eaten for 12 hours because she “ate too much” yesterday. Or she needs to hike, skin and ski first to “earn” her next meal. Or she “feels too fat” to eat. Or the food available doesn’t meet her strict guidelines of acceptable food. And with the exercise itself, if someone works out despite illness or injury or never takes a rest day, she is badass, dedicated, someone to be admired.

Excessive exercise as a form of purging in Bulimia Nervosa was added to the DSM-5 (the manual that outlines criteria for a variety of mental illnesses including eating disorders) in June of 2013. Exercise has long been recognized as a problem in a variety of eating disorders but it was not previously defined as a form of purging in place of other purging behaviors such as self-induced vomiting.

Unfortunately, the general public health messages that encourage people to “move more and eat less” don’t acknowledge any downsides to either of these mandates. “Earning” meals or treat foods with exercise is commonly encouraged and the fine line between balancing calories and physical activity or obsessing about these habits is often blurred. Exercise habits can’t be adequately assessed based simply on the number of hours or days each week, the type of activity, or even the intensity, we must look at what drives the exercise.

Is it enjoyable?

What happens if you miss a day of working out?

Has exercise replaced time you spend doing other things you enjoy or time you spend with friends and family?

Do you fuel and hydrate to support your activities?

Do you feel better afterwards or do you just feel relief that you exercised?

All of these questions must be considered in the context of the whole person. An elite or professional athlete may have to train on days conditions are less than ideal and training can appear compulsive to an outside observer and a recreational athlete who sometimes overdoes it may not have a problem. The point is we need to know that despite all of tNEDA - Exercisehe positive benefits associated with physical activity, exercise can have a dark side. People who exercise while malnourished and underweight can experience accelerated bone loss and exercising after food restriction or other forms of purging can cause dangerous electrolyte imbalances.

If you suspect someone you care about has no idea that their passion may have crossed a line into dangerous territory – seek support. NEDA has a free Coach and Athletic Trainer toolkit with ideas that may apply to recreational athletes who are not being coached. Also from the NEDA website are the following risk and protective factors for athletes that may be helpful to consider in the broader context of appropriate or “healthy” exercise.

Risk Factors for Athletes:

  • Sports that emphasize appearance, weight requirements or muscularity. For example: gymnastics, diving, bodybuilding or wrestling.
  • Sports that focus on the individual rather than the entire team. For example: gymnastics, running, figure skating, dance or diving, versus teams sports such as basketball or soccer.
  • Endurance sports such as track and field/running, swimming.
  • Overvalued belief that lower body weight will improve performance.
  • Training for a sport since childhood or being an elite athlete.
  • Low self-esteem; family dysfunction (including parents who live through the success of their child in sport); families with eating disorders; chronic dieting; history of physical or sexual abuse; peer, family and cultural pressures to be thin, and other traumatic life experiences.
  • Coaches who focus primarily on success and performance rather than on the athlete as a whole person.
  • Three risk factors are thought to particularly contribute to a female athlete’s vulnerability to developing an eating disorder: social influences emphasizing thinness, performance anxiety and negative self-appraisal of athletic achievement. A fourth factor is identity solely based on participation in athletics.

Protective Factors for Athletes:

  • Positive, person-oriented coaching style rather than negative, performance-oriented coaching style.
  • Social influence and support from teammates with healthy attitudes towards size and shape.
  • Coaches who emphasize factors that contribute to personal success such as motivation and enthusiasm rather than body weight or shape.
  • Coaches and parents who educate, talk about and support the changing female body.

 

Beyond Broccoli’s Response to Article: “6 Things I Don’t Understand About the Fat Acceptance Movement”

December 29, 2014

This morning I read a blog post by Carolyn Hall entitled “6 Things I Don’t Understand About the Fat Acceptance Movement.” I realize that as with so many contentious current issues, people on all sides are so entrenched in their own views they struggle to step back and look at the whole picture. We all do this – we judge what we see and hear based upon our own life experiences. The bigger problem occurs when we are not open to changing our preconceived notions. As I tell my university students – if we want to be part of the solution to our current problems we must learn to communicate with people who don’t think like we do. This post is an attempt to do just that.

frozen creek

Though I felt frustrated reading this article I recognize Hall’s questions are shared by many who are unfamiliar with the nuances of the HAES (Health at Every Size) approach and provide an opportunity to respond with my take on these questions. I assume this author genuinely wants to hear a different view point and respond to her 6 points accordingly. Each response is based on my 14 years of work as a Registered Dietitian with a major focus on a non-diet approach to health, and a specialty working with problem eating all along the continuum, including eating disorders.

1. America is extremely accepting of fat.

Only someone who has not lived in America in a fat body could make this statement. To be clear, despite feeling fat most of my life starting in preadolescence, and going through periods of being 20-25 pounds or so above what is considered “healthy” for my height, my work with clients in larger bodies has shown me that I do not really know what it is like to be fat in our culture. I am haunted by their life stories however, and I can assure you this statement is not accurate.

I do agree with Hall that our culture accepts and even encourages many of the factors that contribute to unhealthy lifestyles, including excess weight and inadequate physical movement. As a whole (with some very vocal exceptions) we accept a food system that produces and promotes a plethora of unhealthy foods and makes them cheap, convenient, and accessible 24/7 for most of us. We accept that our “busy lives” don’t include time to prepare and eat health-promoting food at regular intervals and without distractions. We don’t encourage people to connect with their internal cues of hunger and fullness or with how their physical and mental health is linked to their eating habits. We accept a fear-based approach to education about virtually everything, including nutrition, and then blame people who don’t make sustainable changes based on fear (a topic for another post).

2. “Body positivity” should include health.

I cannot speak for every member of the Fat Acceptance or Health At Every Size Movements but I can tell you as a longtime advocate of a non-diet approach to health, and an eating disorder professional, my motivation to do this work is a focus on health. As with all social “movements” I suspect there are advocates with extreme and more rigid views than mine but having read many books by HAES proponents, any suggestion that health is not a key part of this movement is a misinterpretation.

The problem I see is that weight and health are so intertwined we overlook the fact that many lifestyle changes related to food, exercise, stress resilience, and more, can improve health with little or no change in body weight. Even if weight loss can increase health benefits, which is likely to be true in the extreme cases of morbid obesity the author refers to throughout her article, as long as positive lifestyle changes are tethered to weight loss, we encourage yo-yo dieting and unsustainable changes linked to metabolic mayhem that are not likely to yield long-term health benefits.

Body positivity does not mean you love being fat or want everyone to be fat. Accepting that you are a human being with worth that extends beyond your appearance is body positivity. In my experience working with people who struggle with food, weight and body image, the preoccupation with body weight, shape and size occurs in underweight, overweight and healthy weight individuals, male, female and transgendered. Shifting the focus toward what Connie Sobczak calls “intuitive living” in her excellent book Embody, is about self-care in every aspect of our lives. As long as we are only focused on a number on the scale we are not truly engaged in sustainable self-care.

3. “Health at every size” seems physically impossible.

Again, Hall is hung up here on the extremes – as many critics of the HAES approach are. As stated above, the main idea is that we need to shift the focus from weight to health, for everyone. Weight gain, or loss, may be part of the bigger health picture for people at the extremes of anorexia and morbid obesity. However, I see clients on a regular basis who are within a “healthy” weight range and routinely engage in unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to change (or maintain) the way they look.

I cannot count the number of times clients report compliments about how “good” they look or how much weight they’ve lost after days of erratic eating, purging, starving themselves, or exercising in dangerous ways. They not only hear this positive feedback from friends and co-workers but health professionals – doctors, personal trainers, and yes, sadly, nutritionists. All of us can be blind to the physical and emotional health consequences of a weight-focused vs. health-focused culture.

4. People are allowed to not be attracted to certain body types.

I have no issue with this statement. Attraction is thankfully diverse and individualized. My issue is that the fat shaming prevalent in our culture is an accepted form of discrimination and prejudice. Though I don’t believe we are anywhere near “post-racial” or beyond any other form of discrimination widely accepted earlier in my lifetime, I see examples on a regular basis of serious discrimination based on weight that is totally accepted in mainstream culture. Even people who still believe race, ethnic background, sex, gender, or religious preferences are undesirable, don’t express such views widely (except of course on the internet). Yet somehow there is a general acceptance of negative comments made about someone’s weight. As a society we allow fat to be a code word for lazy, stupid, weak, and other harmful judgments.

Promoting the idea that people come in different shapes and sizes does not mean we all suddenly have to be attracted to fat people. This is more of a social justice issue than a personal attraction or general health issue.

5. Food addiction is a real medical problem.

A complete response to this point is easily an entire blog post unto itself. In brief however, the concept of “food addiction” is controversial, particularly if we attempt to address this “diagnosis” as we do addictions to other substances. There are many issues that contribute to both what and how much we eat on a regular basis. While biochemistry and neuroscience can explain pieces of this complex puzzle, any attempt to reduce problem eating to “simple addiction” is not helpful.

Foods that are highly processed and bypass our internal cues of hunger and fullness are a problem. As stated previously these foods are cheap, convenient, and accessible. They are also heavily promoted using results from billions of dollars of food psychology research. I fully agree we need to address these issues.

To understand eating problems more completely however, we need to include the biochemical aspects of our response to food, along with our long-established neural pathways or habits, various influences in our food environments, and other aspects of human behavior. Evolutionary psychology can also help us better understand our currently maladaptive tendencies with the curiosity and compassion we need to make significant and sustainable changes to our behavior.

Like it or not, eating habits are complicated and reductionist “solutions” must be recognized as such. The HAES movement may not focus on all of the points I mention here but it does recognize the “answers” to the “obesity crisis” are not simple.

6. Childhood obesity is something we can’t be accepting of.

I could not agree more on this point. I know many health professionals who endorse non-diet and HAES approaches and none of them are “pro-obesity” of any sort, especially among children. Raising children to eat based on fear – don’t eat this or that because you will get sick, or worse, get fat, is not helpful. Continuing to advocate a weight-focused vs. overall health-focused paradigm will not help our children. They need to know that eating nutritious foods and moving their bodies daily is good for their brains, bodies, mood, energy levels, and overall health. But they also deserve to know that thin does not equal healthy; that as they transition from childhood to adolescence and then into adulthood, their bodies will grow and change, and these changes don’t mean they are unacceptable when they don’t fit narrowly defined ideals of beauty.

Our children need to know there is no “perfect body” or “perfect diet.” In fact it would be great if they abandoned the notion of perfection altogether. Striving to do the best they can is awesome. Chasing the illusion of perfection can be dangerous.

It is our responsibility as adults to provide an environment for our children that supports good health and a sense of well-being. In our current culture this is no easy feat. It is clear however, that what we have been doing for the past few decades is not working. Focusing on short-term fad diets, succumbing to the trappings of modern society that support unhealthy lifestyles and then blaming people who gain weight or don’t exercise enough, using fear-based tactics in an attempt to change people’s habits, are not helpful strategies to produce the changes we want to see.

I don’t like the phrase “fat acceptance.” I prefer “human acceptance” which gets more to the core of our various health problems linked to weight. In fact we know that the statistics related to weight and health also apply to socioeconomic status and health. This doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention to these relationships but hopefully it means we try harder to understand the complexity of the issues beyond what we see on the scale.

There is no single way out of the mess we are in related to poor health as a society. Blame, shame, fear, anger, and a lack of compassion for ourselves and others are not working to make us healthier physically or mentally. What I am drawn to in alternate paradigms such as Health at Every Size (HAES) is the refusal to reduce our current health problems to weight alone, nor to continue clinging to approaches that don’t work. It is time for a fresh perspective and frankly I don’t care what we call it as long as it takes us in a more positive direction.

Find Willpower in Self-Compassion and Calm

December 4, 2014

Have you ever tried to change a habit related to food or eating?

What I’m going to share with you today applies to any behavior chSwanange. I’m going to use a food example that most of us can relate to as eaters entering the holiday season.

Imagine this scenario:

You decide this year that you are going to take it easy on sweet treats throughout the holidays. Not only do you feel better on a daily basis when you keep sweets in balance, but this change is consistent with your long-term health goals.

You go to work and shortly after you arrive a co-worker walks in with a plate of home-baked cookies – your favorite kind. And there are a lot of them. You graciously accept a cookie then immediately start criticizing yourself for eating it. That voice inside starts in: “Not even an hour into the workday and you’ve eaten a cookie, so much for that healthy eating goal.”

Then you have a second cookie. The voice gets louder, and harsher. By the time lunch rolls around you’ve lost count of how many cookies you ate. You go out to lunch and order dessert after your cheeseburger and fries because at this point you have “blown” your healthful eating plan for the day.

You have just experienced a well-known behavioral psychology phenomenon called the “What-the-Hell Effect.” This cycle of indulgence-regret-greater indulgence was first described by psychology researchers Polivy and Herman.

Now I want you to think about what happens in these “What-the-Hell” situations for you. What are some of the things you tell yourself?

The most common response I hear from my clients is “I have no willpower.” They believe they “cave in” to temptation because somehow they just don’t have enough willpower or their love of food is so powerful they cannot resist that first cookie. They are convinced that first cookie paves the way to “What-the-Hell.”

The reality is that the initial decision to revert back to an old habit, to eat that first cookie, is NOT what leads to the What-the-Hell behavior. It is our feelings of guilt, shame, loss of control, or loss of hope that follow the first relapse that lead us to continue the path away from our longer-term goals.

According to Kelly McGonigal, a psychology researcher at Stanford who studies Willpower, to break this “What-the-Hell” cycle of indulgence-regret-greater indulgence we need self-forgiveness. We may think guilt motivates us to correct our mistakes but it’s just one more way that feeling bad leads us to give in.

Now here is where things get really interesting. There is another important factor in this scenario: your brain.

Some of you may be familiar with neurobiologist Dan Siegel’s “Hand Model of the Brain” (if not click here). The limbic area of the brain is where our “fight/flight” response starts when we are faced with a potential physical or emotional threat. Dr. Siegel calls this the “lower brain”.

The cortex, including the prefrontal cortex or the “upper brain,” covers the limbic area, and enables us to reason and to see the bigger picture –specifically our longer-term goals. Decisions from our lower brain are impulsive, short-sighted and reactive.

When we berate ourselves for eating the cookies, we engage the stress-response in our lower brain and set ourselves up to continue not acting in accordance with our longer-term goals. Blood actually diverts away from the cortex or upper brain.

When we beat ourselves up mentally, our brain works against us!

Study after study of adults shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control.

Self-compassion – being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure, is associated with more motivation and better self-control.

Psychologist Kristen Neff describes 3 core components of self-compassion:

  • Self- kindness (treat ourselves as we would a loved one who is struggling)
  • Recognize our shared humanity (we are all imperfect –connects us)
  • Mindfulness of our inner critic and our discomfort (to respond differently we first must be aware of what is happening)

Going back to our example of the cookie, what if your initial response is “wow, that cookie is delicious” and you eat it slowly, savoring the taste, appreciating that your co-worker made this cookie from scratch?

Afterwards when you are tempted to have another cookie (or 5), you take a few deep breaths instead. You gently remind yourself that enjoying a cookie here and there is consistent with your longer term health goals, but wolfing down 4 more cookies right now probably isn’t. You don’t beat yourself up for eating that first cookie. You are human and many humans like cookies!

When your inner critic kicks in and starts screaming: “You idiot! Why did you eat that cookie? What were you thinking?” you calmly respond, “I wanted the cookie and it was delicious.” End of story. If you stay calm, blood continues to flow to all parts of your brain and you are able to remember your longer-term goals.

This self-compassionate and calm response takes away the driver of the “What-the-Hell” (WTH) effect– if there is no guilt and self-criticism, then there is nothing to escape.

As we enter the holiday season filled with all kinds of ways to tempt us away from our health-promoting self-care habits, a time when we are prone to the “What-the-Hell” effect and to impulsive decisions made by our “lower brain” due to stress, let’s think about sharing some of the compassion we give freely to others, with ourselves as well.

In addition to the many holiday stresses, alcohol, sleep deprivation and distraction can also trigger our “lower brain” and cause us to abandon our longer-term goals. In these situations we need to be extra kind to ourselves. We also need a strategy to help calm our stress response and promote resilience.

One of the simplest stress relievers is to take 3 deep belly breaths. LET’S TRY THIS – 3 deep belly breaths, each followed by a long, slow exhale. ONE, TWO, THREE.

If you were stressed and your limbic brain was threatening to take charge, those 3 deep breaths just redirected the blood flow to your whole brain. Now your cortex has a chance to be part of your decision making.

This calmness in combination with self-kindness may be your most enjoyable holiday treats ever –ones you can look back on in January with a smile on your face!

Overweight and in Recovery from an Eating Disorder

November 17, 2014
Photo from a client in recovery

Photo from a client in recovery

Last week following a presentation about eating disorders to a group of mental health professionals a participant stood up and shared that a relative of hers had just returned from eating disorder treatment and was overweight. What should she (the relative in recovery) do?

Each time I hear this question my heart sinks. We live in a culture where the primary metric for health is weight. If someone does not meet clinical criteria for a “healthy” weight range she is encouraged by everyone around her, often including her health providers, to “diet.” It astounds me that even when a person has struggled with a full-blown eating disorder the focus remains on weight, and too often “dieting” is the recommendation. Keep in mind that a “diet” for someone with an eating disorder is like a drink for someone addicted to alcohol.

Responding to the question about what to do next is difficult for many reasons. First, I know nothing about this person’s eating disorder journey – how it began, the form it took, the treatment she received, current support, etc. What I do know is that no matter what her journey looks like, working with a combination of outpatient therapist and dietitian with training and experience in eating disorders is the ideal next step. I’d like to say this type of follow up care is essential based on the many stories I’ve heard from my eating disorder clients about working with professionals not experienced with eating disorders. Unfortunately the reality of living in areas where specialized services are not available makes this an ideal scenario rather than an essential one.

The long term nutrition goal is to create a positive relationship with food (body and emotions too but these are more in the psychotherapy realm). Here are my top 3 next steps for nutrition in eating disorder recovery after some type of residential or inpatient treatment:

  • Seek support related to a more intuitive and mindful approach to eating. There are several books and websites on these topics. For Intuitive Eating resources Evelyn Tribole’s website is great http://www.evelyntribole.com/resources/intuitive-eating-articles-studies-support-groups/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating and for Mindful Eating guidance Michelle May, MD has some really good resources http://amihungry.com/resources/about-the-mindful-eating-cycle/
  • Be aware of any type of food restriction – especially if your eating disorder includes binge eating. This is one of the most counter-intuitive aspects of eating disorder recovery for those who struggle with binge eating. This is also commonly ignored among dietitians and other health professionals not experienced in eating disorder treatment. The focus is too often on the binge rather than the food restriction that can begin a cycle of disordered eating. Skipping meals and snacks, avoiding certain foods or food groups, only allowing yourself to eat at certain times, or arbitrarily determining portions sizes rather than relying on your body to tell you what and how much you need, are all forms of food restriction that can be harmful in eating disorder recovery.
  • Watch for “always” and “never” thoughts and statements. These words are red flags for “black-and-white” “all-or-nothing” types of thinking that support disordered eating behaviors of all kinds. These words are rarely true when it comes to food and can help you identify struggles that lurk beneath the surface during your recovery journey.

There are many more issues to address in support of long-term, sustainable eating disorder recovery and a positive relationship with food. If you are overweight as you face the next stage of your recovery these steps can help you stay focused on health and well-being while you support your body’s return to a healthy weight range tailored to your individual needs.

Never Enough

December 6, 2013

Last week kicked off the holiday season with our celebration of Thanks. I love the simplicity of Thanksgiving – gather with family, friends, or neighbors to celebrate what we are grateful for and share good food. However, the irony of this day of thanks followed by the biggest shopping day on the American calendar is not lost on me, nor is the fact that we spend the rest of the holiday season focused on what we don’t have or what others don’t have (the latter to guide our giving). It seems that despite our gratitude for what we have, somehow there is never enough of something.

I am reminded of Brene Brown’s gem of a book The Gifts of Imperfection in which she writes about cultivating a gratitude practice to counter our feelings of scarcity. She points out ways that we buy into the myth of scarcity, often subconsciously. In our society, despite abundant resources relative to other parts of the world or other times in human history, many of us focus on the ways we don’t have enough, can’t get enough, or just are not enough.

We don’t get enough sleep, exercise, recognition for our hard work, or vegetables (couldn’t resist). We don’t have enough time, power, love, or money. We aren’t attractive, thin, fit, smart, or rich enough. These everyday thoughts and feelings of lacking something (or lots of things) keep us searching, both consciously and unconsciously to fill a void, real and imagined.

The reality is, many of these things may be true, at least on the surface. We may not have enough money to pay all of our bills on time or to buy the perfect gift for a loved one, and it’s no secret that lots of Americans are sleep-deprived. But the continued focus on what we lack in every aspect of our lives is not helpful, even if it is true.

Balancing thoughts of what we lack with thoughts of what we have, and more importantly what we are grateful for in ourselves and in others, may help us fill this void. No, positive thoughts don’t directly pay our bills and this isn’t some hippie notion like “love will conquer all” (though love is a great start). In fact ignoring discomfort leads to a host of issues beyond the scope of this blog post. But unless we take a closer look at what we actually have, it is difficult to accurately assess what we really need.

So how does all of this relate to nutrition? Well, it turns out that one of the ways many of us try to “fill” this inner void is by eating (or not eating – food restriction is another way to numb, distract or ignore emotional pain and discomfort).

Now Brene Brown and others who write about perceived scarcity and the benefits of cultivating a gratitude practice don’t frame this practice specifically as a way to address emotional eating (compulsive overeating, binge eating, or eating when feeling any number of emotions and not physically hungry). But I wonder what could happen if we try to focus daily on what we are grateful for, even in some small way. I understand the challenge of starting something new during the insanely busy holiday season but I don’t think this needs to be super time-consuming or complicated (see below for ideas).

I also realize this is an emotionally difficult time of year for many of us who have experienced losses. Though it has been nearly 20 years since my Dad died, his love of all things Christmas still makes me sad at random times throughout this season. It is clear to me though, focusing on the loss and sadness isn’t helpful anymore. However, focusing on how grateful I am for my memories of Dad, even if they make me feel sad, is intriguing to me. Will this somehow help mindless munching I do while not conscious that I am feel an emptiness? I don’t know but I think it’s worth a try.

It does occur to me however, that it may be better to not immediately try to counter feelings of sadness, emptiness, or other emotional discomfort with thoughts about gratitude since the idea is not to invalidate our feelings. I think it may be better to set aside a time to practice gratitude, and to allow thoughts of gratitude to naturally surface at other times but perhaps pay slightly more attention to these thoughts. Say them out loud or share them with someone close to you.

Perhaps if we all try to notice when we are falling into thoughts and feelings of scarcity, and acknowledge what we are grateful for more consistently and consciously, we may not feel a need to fill ourselves with food when what we need or want has nothing to do with food.

So let’s try an informal cultural experiment. If you struggle with any variety of emotional eating, try to somehow incorporate a gratitude practice for even a few minutes each day and see what happens. If you want to, you can come back to this post and let us know how the experiment went for you or you can email me privately (mary@beyondbroccoli.com).

Here are some ideas from people who practice gratitude:

  • Start a gratitude journal – each morning or evening write down at least one thing you are grateful for. Doesn’t need to be fancy, a small memo pad works just fine.
  • Create a gratitude jar in which you write thoughts related to gratitude that come up throughout your day on little pieces of paper and put the pieces of paper in the jar.
  • Begin shared meals with each person at the table sharing something they are grateful for.
  • Use prayer or meditation to reflect on what makes you feel gratitude.

Meanwhile, I am grateful for all of you who read my ramblings. I hope the holiday season is off to a good start for all of you and that you know – you are enough in all of the ways that matter.

Here is a lovely 6 minute video with a Gratitude theme by cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nj2ofrX7jAk

Eating Beyond “Superfoods”

November 22, 2013

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”     – P. J. O’Rourke

Recently as I perused the produce department of my local grocery store, a man asked me if I knew anything about juicing – he pointed to a bunch of fresh beets and chunk of fresh ginger root in his cart. He wondered if the bunch of fresh  greens in his hand from a bin marked simply “greens” was okay for juice, or if he should use kale. Just then a produce employee arrived on the scene and informed us the mystery greens were mustard greens. So I explained to the man that all of the dark leafy greens were very nutritious and the mustard greens have a spicier flavor so the choice of greens to juice is more a matter of taste preference. The produce employee interrupted us to encourage the man toward kale because – “it’s a Superfood.”

Irritated on several levels, (and I am not proud of my next move) I pulled the “I’m a dietitian” card with the hope the annoying employee would go away, which he kind of did. But now the man holding the greens perked up and asked if I knew another dietitian here in town, and when I replied that I did know her, the man beamed as he pointed to his cart and said “she’d be proud of me wouldn’t she?” I agreed, and wished him luck with his juicing adventure. As I walked away, he tucked a bunch of fresh kale next to the bundle of beets and headed toward the cash registers, not realizing mustard greens are also “Superfoods” they just don’t have a publicist yet.

Sigh. Mustard greens are cruciferous vegetables in the Brassicaceae family – along with kale, broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, brussel sprouts, Kholrabi (my husband calls this the “alien vegetable”), bok choy, and cauliflower.

This produce department incident is actually brimming with blog material but right now my focus is: “Superfoods.“ I know this isn’t a new concept. We live in a culture that LOVES superheroes, and celebrities, so it really isn’t a surprise we apply this concept to foods. In general there’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to expand their culinary horizons to include whichever food currently has the best PR campaign or celebrity endorsement. Generally these foods are rich in beneficial plant compounds or some mix of nutrients we don’t get enough of, but somehow I find this trendy obsession irritating. I googled “celebrity kale” and came up with an Us Weekly headline “Stars Who Love Kale” followed by a long list of articles, blogs and websites where apparently celebrities gush about this leafy Brassica. Sigh again.

I  guess I should start with the fact that I have nothing against kale. In fact, I really enjoy kale – starting several years ago when I was a work-share for a season at the Cosmic Apple Gardens, a local CSA over in Victor, Idaho. Prior to that summer, kale was simply a popular garnish used in many of the restaurants and banquets I’d worked in my former food and beverage career. (Current kale enthusiasts would cringe at the thought of the millions of pounds of this vegetable superhero tossed in the garbage of restaurant kitchens after serving its aesthetic purpose.)

I was also thrilled to discover this member of the cruciferous family, a group best known for cancer-fighting powers, grows beautifully in the harsh soil and abbreviated growing season here in northern Wyoming. Even I, brown thumb who generally does best with plants like cactus that thrive on neglect, can grow kale!

But here’s the thing, if we focus on a narrow array of “Superfoods,” we not only miss out on the variety of tastes and textures that make eating pleasurable, we burn out on whatever the latest thing is. I mean how many times a week can you eat kale before you are over it?

Not to mention that I can buy broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts for half the cost of a bunch of fresh kale (especially if I go organic).  And, better still, incorporating more variety allows me to make a delicious cabbage salad with toasted pumpkin seeds to go with Mexican main dishes, broccoli (or even more fun – broccoli rabe) with pasta, a mustard greens and goat cheese omelet, and by the time I get to the kale and white bean soup I’ve been in cruciferous heaven for days! Admittedly I stumble a bit with cauliflower and brussel sprouts – not my personal faves. Though I have found ways to make these two palatable, it takes a bit of extra effort (and a lot of garlic – or a grill) so I choose them less often.

I guess my point is – it is difficult to find a vegetable or fruit that isn’t a “Superfood.” Nutrition research shows again and again that eating more fruits and veggies of all kinds (non-starchy anyway) offers a whole host of benefits from lowering our risk of heart disease and many cancers, to helping us achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Just because Gweneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston aren’t raving about broccoli (and let’s not forget George Bush Sr.’s anti-broccoli tirade) doesn’t mean we need to forgo the (broccoli) trees for the (kale) leaves! And what if broccoli actually had a PR campaign? Check it out http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/magazine/broccolis-extreme-makeover.html?ref=health&_r=2&

Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us

November 15, 2013

I am no stranger to the genre of Food Industry Horror Stories, both in book and film forms. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation was my first plunge into the seamy underside of our industrialized food system and its myriad cultural implications. Sadly many others have expanded on Schlosser’s work, including the latest contribution from investigative journalist Michael Moss called Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

Moss shares what he learned from food industry researchers and executives themselves about how foods are specifically designed to entice people to eat past the point of normal fullness; calculated “bliss points” are used for added sugars, just the right texture and amount of salt for a “flavor burst” to maximize the rush to the brain’s pleasure centers upon hitting the tongue, and fats that add both flavor and a quality called “mouthfeel” – a powerful combination that does not seem to trigger messages to stop eating.

For those of us who encourage our clients to work towards normal or “intuitive eating” rather than restrained eating, Moss’ reminder about the many foods engineered to derail this internal system is both frustrating and important. People who struggle with compulsive overeating, binge eating, or restricted eating that stems from fear they will not be able to stop eating once they begin, at some point need to know that their behaviors are not entirely emotionally based or a sign they are somehow bereft of willpower. This is exactly what food manufacturers want all of us to do – eat what they produce, in excessive amounts, and often. These so-called Food Giants also spend billions of dollars to market highly processed, ultra-palatable foods, and to make sure they are available nearly everywhere we go.

My hope is that the information in Moss’ book will help us be more aware when we eat processed foods, knowing they are deliberately hard to resist overeating. If this deeper understanding about how processed foods are made and marketed so we will eat more helps us let go of the guilt that often comes with eating these foods, particularly if we eat more than we planned to, then I am all for this type of consumer education.

I am concerned however, that yet another of these dire warnings about our food system will reinforce rigid all-or-nothing thinking about what we eat (or don’t eat) based on fear. It is one thing to strive for more whole or minimally processed foods that support good health and another to be so fearful of processed foods that when our options are limited and that is the only food available, we either don’t eat at all, or we are overly anxious while eating (not good for digestion or absorption of nutrients not to mention the increased release of damaging stress hormones).

I guess I’m a bit of an idealist in that I prefer to inspire change rather than jam it down people’s throats with a heavy dose of fear. But I have to admit, I like the idea that when we eat more whole foods and prepare more of our meals at home rather than outsourcing this important work to big food companies (restaurants, ready-prepared or frozen meals in grocery stores, etc.) we are effectively rebelling against a modern food system in dire need of repair.

Make Healthy Foods Taste AMAZING!

April 8, 2011

I saw this headline today “ADA Survey Shows More Families Eating at Home” and clicked through to read more. According to this survey of roughly 1,200 pairs of parents and children:

  • At-home family meals increased from 52 percent in 2003 to 73 percent in 2010.
  • Most families eat out less often, with an average of 57.2 families eating out less than once a week.
  • Aside from hunger, most children said taste was the main reason they ate, and said it would be easier to eat more healthfully if the food tasted better.

While I am encouraged by the first two points that contradict much of the trend data I have seen in recent years with respect to meals eaten away from home, the third point was most interesting to me.

This quarter I decided to audit the quintessential Bastyrian nutrition course “Whole Foods Production” taught by renowned author of Feeding the Whole Family Cynthia Lair. I have taught my own versions of whole foods cooking classes and incorporated whole foods cooking demonstrations into classes, community talks and events for several years but I have never taken a formal cooking class. I know from my experience both cooking and serving at different vegetarian restaurants prior to pursuing my nutrition career, that healthful food can taste amazingly good and often much more interesting than the standard American fare. I also know both from personal and professional experience, many people do not know how to make healthy foods in general and vegetables in particular, taste great.

What excites me most about the Whole Foods Production class is that the hundreds of students who take this class each year will go forward to spread the knowledge and skills (often with enthusiasm) related to making healthy foods taste great. When I go to a restaurant where the salad consists of iceberg lettuce topped with a few pale, mealy tomato slices, maybe a bland cucumber slice, and a few croutons sprinkled on top I think about how I, a longtime vegophile, would not eat vegetables the way I do if this was my regular option!

So here’s a question for all of you….what makes healthy foods taste GREAT to you? Do you already know how to make these foods taste good? Let’s get a conversation going to drive the trend towards eating better not because it will make us skinny or live longer (though these are certainly noble goals) but because we will enjoy eating that way!

“Baby Carrots – Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food”

March 24, 2011

“Life expectancy would increase by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.”

–      Gary Larson, The Far Side cartoonist

Despite the huge growth of farmer’s markets and apparent interest in better quality food over the past few years, we aren’t eating any more veggies now than we were a decade ago. Let’s face it, vegetables have an image problem. I’ve heard all the reasons so many times – not tasty enough, convenient enough, too expensive, too much work to prepare, take too much time to eat, etc.

Oh sure the farmer’s market crowd oohs and aahs over bundles of rainbow-colored Swiss Chard or fresh, crisp asparagus, but in general people aren’t sneaking out at night to the produce department to satisfy snack cravings. In fact last time I checked French fries were still the most commonly consumed vegetable in the U.S. (unless they are omitted from a particular survey in which case iceberg lettuce claims top spot).

So, this week I stumbled onto something potentially exciting in the vegetable world (at least for nutrition geeks like me) as I prepared to show my Food & Society class (the class I described in my last blog entry) an example of a sign of positive change.

There is a new PR campaign by “a bunch of carrot farmers” to promote baby carrots “like junk food.” (www.babycarrots.com) The $25 million dollar effort started last fall with vending machines in a few east coast high schools that dispense brightly colored packages of baby carrots available for just .50 cents.

Okay, even though $25 mill sounds impressive I realize it’s a mere pittance compared to the billions spent to promote fast and other junk food annually. It’s unlikely the fake orange cheese snack makers are trembling right now at the new orange crunchy snack kid in town. And yes, promoting more excessively (non-recyclable) packaged foods isn’t helping our landfills, nor are these conventionally grown veggies helping the causes of sustainable agriculture or a re-regionalized food system.

But, to reiterate one of my main themes these days, I am looking for signs of progress – not perfection (see previous rant related to Lunchables). As we simultaneously struggle to help people eat better for their health and to re-tool our food and agricultural systems for a more sustainable future, there is much work to do.

As we work to get junk food out of schools we need to replace it with something. Maybe baby carrots can blaze the vending machine trail for fresh snap peas, grape tomatoes, and colored bell pepper strips. Maybe for another quarter you can get a side of hummus or Ranch dressing to dip them in (increasing palatability for picky eaters).

We need to eat more vegetables. Kids need to eat more vegetables. We whine incessantly about the cost and inconvenience of vegetables and lament veggies’ lack of cachet in our modern food culture. (Though last fall in Manhattan an auction featuring heirloom vegetables was part of an event that raised over $250,000 for various charities!) Now enter “a bunch of carrot farmers” and some creative, savvy ad people and voila, baby carrots are getting a makeover.

The part I love about the ad campaign (aside from the prospect of getting more people to eat more carrots) is that it’s creative and fun. The campaign makes fun of commonly used advertising strategies – sexual innuendo, heavy metal music, violence, and politically incorrect (or at least suspect) language. There is a fun website (with LOUD and to my tastes obnoxious music), free iPhone app, Facebook and Twitter links, and downloadable labels you can attach to your own baby carrot bags (providing a more eco-friendly packaging option for those who wish to print on recycled paper and re-use their own baggies or containers).

I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm for what seem like baby steps toward positive change. I hope however, that you appreciate there is no single answer to the many nutrition, food and health challenges we face. If baby carrots are suddenly in the hands of even a few hundred school kids in place of high fat, sugar and salt-laden snack foods, even if it isn’t everyday it’s a good thing.

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”
P. J. O’Rourke