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Trick or Treat – More Than a Sugar Binge

October 31, 2014

I used to love Halloween as a kid. My brother and I started thinking about what we wanted to be months ahead and often spent days getting our costumes together. I don’t remember how old we were when we first got to roam the neighborhoods without an adult, but it was the 70s so likely we were barely “tweens” – and had to bring little sis along many of those years just to make sure we didn’t get lured into throwing eggs or smashing pumpkins. The more we were willing to walk the more candy we came home with, and that was the point.

Halloween was full of rituals. After Trick-or-Treating we’d dump our pillow cases of goodies on the living room carpet and count everything before dividing it into piles of things to toss, like apples (apparently vehicles for razor blades), candy to trade with bro or pawn off on little sis or parents, and the good stuff we’d eat way too much of that first night, then parse out over the next week or so with our school lunch, after school snack (with a glass of milk for “balance”) and evening dessert.

Now it appears Halloween is reduced to some kind of conspiracy to make us into “sugar addicts.” Adults lament the opportunities all of this candy laying around presents for compulsive overeating and outright binges. Parents already overwhelmed with dire warnings about childhood obesity and the addictive nature of sugar, feel pressure to create complicated rule structures around eating the Halloween loot. Many opt not to let their kids Trick-or-Treat at all preferring parties in a controlled environment. We forget that Halloween isn’t just about sugar for kids. I bet it isn’t just about sugar for adults who enjoy this holiday either.

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” – Dr. Seuss

Halloween is the ultimate holiday to let our silly – or scary sides play. If we can let go of our fears about sugar addiction – for us or our children, and embrace Halloween as an opportunity to model a healthy relationship with food, we may find that it really isn’t all that scary.

If you must impose rules related to eating candy, here are a few that support a positive relationship with food:

  • Enjoy candy without distractions – not in front of the T.V. or computer, video games, or while texting.
  • Encourage your kids (and yourself!) to really taste the candy. If it doesn’t actually taste as good as you think it is going to, or you don’t really like it, you can throw it out! Food we eat that we don’t need or want is wasted food – just like food we throw away, only in this case we “waste it” in our bodies instead of the garbage can.
  • Eat candy after a meal or as part of a snack rather than as a replacement for either one of these. Pairing candy with whole foods is a way to give your body the nutrients it needs to work well, including dietary fiber that can help regulate the effect sugar has on blood sugar levels.
Halloween early 1970s 001

Halloween in the 1970s

In our amped up, stressed out daily lives a little silliness can go a long way. Go ahead, dress up, get out there and have some fun, eat some treats, and don’t be tricked into believing absolute control over every aspect of life, including food, will bring you peace – even if this were possible it would be boring!

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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

Food Memories – From Elk Droppings to Bacon

May 12, 2010

I recently said goodbye to my sweet black Lab Abbey. After 12 years of companionship and bonding I’m left with many wonderful memories. The part that strikes me now is how many of these memories relate to food. There is no question that food, in addition to being necessary for survival, is part of the human social experience shared in many celebrations or for comfort. Abbey taught me that domesticated dogs also understand eating goes beyond survival. There is no doubt in my mind that Abbey’s tail wagged as vigorously for a piece of bacon when her belly was full as she did when she was hungry. Food definitely went beyond mere sustenance for Abbey, just as it does for most of us.

I suppose those familiar with Labradors aren’t surprised that food memories are part of our history together, even though Abbey wasn’t a “typical Lab” when it came to food. She would leave food in her bowl once sated, didn’t care much for raw meat bones, and “asked permission” before touching human food – even if it was right next to her nose (like when she rode shotgun in the car and I was snacking on something interesting in the driver’s seat). Don’t get me wrong, Abbey LOVED food she just wasn’t obsessed with it in a stereotypical-Labrador way (unless it was restricted that is). She did eat elk and horse droppings with zeal and when we pulled up to the drive-through window at the bank she would salivate waiting for the little dog treats that magically appeared in the plastic tube.

Since I didn’t really feed Abbey “people food” when she was a puppy she wasn’t much of a beggar at the table, at least until we met Dave. I think it’s safe to say that part of Dave and Abbey’s bond was forged with food. He liked how excited she got when he’d slip something yummy to her from the table and I suspect she welcomed something other than kibble. If Dave was in the kitchen Abbey was very attentive and I recall times Dave ordered meals at a restaurant with Abbey in mind, especially if we were on a road trip or celebrating a special occasion (ribs and lamb chops were among their favorites).

Food became more of a focus for Abbey during the past few years as she aged and her mobility decreased. I guess even dogs eat out of boredom. Last fall after a surgery when I was instructed to cut her usual food portions by 25% so she wouldn’t gain weight, Abbey transformed into the food-crazed dog of Labrador lore for a while. Every crinkle of a package or whiff of food cooking got her full attention (even if it was just me in the kitchen). During that time Dave created a game with Abbey that led her to accept raw carrots as treats – a trick that unfortunately lost its allure once she went back to full portions of food. (Of course I felt awful when her 2-week post surgery check-up revealed she’d lost six pounds!) Once she went back to “normal” unrestricted eating she returned to the atypical Lab who would leave food in her bowl.

I am grateful for so many memories of Abbey – many that don’t include food such as playing outdoors, road trips and camping. But I also appreciate that we (including Dave) shared a love of one of life’s most basic needs – and pleasures, food.

Aflatoxin – The Peanut Butter Scare Lives On

May 3, 2010

I have been asked many times over the years about the safety of peanut butter due to aflatoxin, a carcinogen that is produced by a mold that can grow on peanuts. After a bit of digging I came up with some information that may be helpful.

First, aflatoxin is a naturally-occurring toxin that can contaminate a variety of common crops including cereals (such as corn and wheat), oil seeds (including peanuts), spices and tree nuts. It is also found in the milk of animals given contaminated feed. This toxic substance can contaminate crops before harvest and during storage. Crops with prolonged exposure to a hot, humid environment or that are damaged due to stressful growing conditions such as drought are more susceptible to aflatoxin contamination.

Aflatoxin can cause a number of liver problems including liver cancer and aflatoxicosis is influenced by age, sex, nutritional status, and health as well as both the level and duration of exposure to the toxin. The FDA has established safe levels of aflatoxin for both human food (20 parts per billion) and animal feed (up to 300 ppb) and both peanuts and products made from them are tested regularly. According to the USDA website no cases of aflatoxicosis have been reported in the U.S. – only in third world countries.

Interestingly, some research shows that eating are regular diet that includes apiaceous vegetables such as carrots, celery, parsnips, parsley (and a number of herbs and spices) can decrease the carcinogenic effects of aflatoxin. Good news for the “ants in a log” fans (celery stuffed with peanut butter and raisins)! There is also research that demonstrates chlorophyll (a green pigment that occurs in plants and algae) can reduce the absorption of aflatoxin in humans. http://www.news-medical.net/news/20091230/Chlorophyll-and-chlorophyllin-effective-in-limiting-aflatoxin-absorption-in-humans.aspx?page=2

According the Dr. Andrew Weil’s website the Consumers Union investigated aflatoxin levels in several brands of peanut butter sold in the U.S. (early 2000’s?) and found the major brands such as Peter Pan, Jif and Skippy had less than the fresh peanut butter sold in health food stores. I have also seen recommendations not to purchase bulk grains, nuts and seeds to avoid the possibility of contamination though there is no proof the bulk varieties pose a problem.

In general, keeping nuts, nut butters, seeds, and grains that you don’t use quickly in the refrigerator or freezer may be a good practice to prevent the hot, moist environments that favor aflatoxin growth. Other advice includes: avoid eating nuts that look moldy, discolored or shriveled – perhaps an obvious choice for most of us. The recommendation to choose only major brands of peanut butter is conservative but may put anxious parents at ease…though there are added sugars and trans fats to consider in some of these choices.

All things considered, I love peanut butter – and many of the other whole, nutritious foods that are susceptible to aflatoxin, and this new information is not enough to make me forego these foods. Given the amount of peanut butter the average American eats (especially kids) if this were truly a major public health issue I think we’d know about it beyond the random articles published in cyberspace.  I do keep all of my nuts, seeds and nut butters in the fridge or freezer (they stay fresher that way – aflatoxin or not) along with grains such as corn meal and whole wheat flour that I use in baking (mainly because I don’t bake often). I also eat a variety of vegetables and herbs and spices regularly – with carrots and all kinds of green stuff as staples in my diet, so I guess I’m covered if these plants actually do end up being protective. As always, I believe in balance.

The Beyond Broccoli Story

March 9, 2010

I’ll start this blog with the story of why I chose a career in nutrition – or more accurately, how it chose me. It all started when my Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in 1995, he was only 52 at the time.  I was in Jackson, Wyoming, managing a bar and restaurant and he was in a suburb of Boston. With 2,000 miles between us I felt helpless. So, I did what I’d done to comfort myself since childhood – I read. I wanted to know what was happening to my Dad, and secretly I hoped to find a way to help him.

The theme that cropped up in relation to cancer over and over was nutrition. Nutrition’s link to cancer prevention, as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapies, and possibly even remission, inspired me. My path seemed clear. I’d worked in food and beverage through college and to support my skiing habit for a decade after college and suddenly I saw food as medicine.

Unfortunately my Dad and his oncologist didn’t share my enthusiasm. Dad’s insurance company wouldn’t pay for a single visit with a dietitian and the oncologist thought the supplement regimen he’d prescribed was the only nutritional support Dad needed. In fact Dad went to the emergency room three times for what he called “pancreatic attacks” before a nurse offhandedly suggested he cut back on the fat in his diet – that was the last of those “attacks.” Needless to say I was frustrated.

Dad died 8 months after his diagnosis and I was more determined than ever to pursue a career in nutrition. I couldn’t help my Dad manage his illness but I could learn how to help others. My undergraduate degree was in English so I faced my fear of chemistry classes and got to work. I chose to pursue a program that combined a Master of Science degree with the courses and internships I needed to become a Registered Dietitian. I also indulged my interest in alternative medicine and continue to stay open to learning in this realm.

My dream was to establish a private practice that combined my passions for writing, teaching, and counseling as ways to educate people about food and nutrition. I also wanted to connect people with food – how to prepare and enjoy it. Oh yeah, I also wanted to make it fun whenever possible. Beyond Broccoli is the realization of my dream.

I’m very sad that my Dad is not alive to see the career path he led me to and the incredible journey over the past decade or so. He used to tell me he thought I could do great things. After devoting 27 years of his life to public service with the Massachusetts State Police, I know that his idea of great things meant helping people. Thanks to my Dad I have discovered a career path I am passionate about and I strive always to do great things, one client at a time.