Holiday Survival Guide

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It’s November, and that means the holiday season is upon us. Many of my patients have mixed feelings about the holidays. On the one hand, these celebrations can be a joyous time with one’s family and friends, full of tradition and connection. On the other hand, these same gatherings can be highly triggering and lead to serious anxiety. Of course, the fact that most holiday celebrations are centered around food can complicate matters even more.

While I love my family and cherish the holiday celebrations we have together, it can still be challenging at times. As I have written about previously, my family does not really understand the principles of Health at Every Size® (HAES) and Size Acceptance. In addition to this, my sister is Oprah Winfrey’s personal Weight Watchers coach and firmly entrenched in diet culture. Needless to say, my family gatherings can be seriously difficult at times!

Over the years, I have accumulated some practical strategies for dealing with challenging family situations, so I thought I would share them with you. Keep in mind that not all of these strategies will work for you, but, hopefully, one or more of them will aid you in navigating these tricky situations and permit you to enjoy the holiday season.

1. Create Safe Spaces

One way that I have found to help my family gatherings be less triggering is to ask my family to refrain from talking about dieting, weight loss/gain, or judgments about weight or food choices during our time together. This can be achieved by sending an email to the main holiday participants ahead of time or making a few phone calls. Another way to achieve this would be to send along some HAES materials to explain the basics. Finally, if you feel uncomfortable reaching out to everyone yourself, you could ask your significant other or trusted family member to relay this information to everyone else.

2. Have an Ally

While this might not always be possible, bringing a supportive friend, partner, spouse, or family member to a holiday gathering can be tremendously helpful. Ideally, this person would be someone who understands/is open to HAES and Size Acceptance and could advocate for you if needed. If your ally cannot be with you at the actual event, making a plan to talk, text, or Skype with them before and after the gathering can also be helpful and make you feel more supported.

3. Take Space

Sometimes despite best efforts, family members or friends will talk about dieting, weight, and/or moralizing food choices. Unfortunately, this is common practice in our society, and many people (especially women) use it as a way to bond with each other. If the conversation turns to these triggering topics, you have every right to get up and leave the table, room, or conversation. Take a walk outside, hang out with your nieces and nephews, play with the family pet, or just find another space and take a few minutes. Sometimes all you need is a few moments alone.

4. Set Boundaries

If a friend or a loved one consistently makes comments about your weight or food choices, you have the right to tell them that this is unacceptable. In the moment, it can feel very difficult to stand up for yourself, so it might be helpful to think of some replies ahead of time. Some examples could include “Please don’t talk about my weight,” “I would prefer it if you didn’t make judgments about my food choices,” or “My food choices are none of your business, so please do not comment on them.”

5. Practice Regular Self-Care

While of course I would recommend engaging in self-care activities year-round, the holidays are an especially important time to do so. Practicing intuitive eating and physical activity, getting enough sleep, and managing stress are some basic ways to take care of yourself. If you are in therapy, it can be helpful to prepare for challenging situations with role-playing, i.e., have your therapist help you practice your responses to difficult family members or friends.

In the end, sometimes holiday gatherings are just about getting through it with as little scarring as possible. Inevitably, Aunt Edna will start talking about her latest cleanse, or cousin Fred will comment on how much weight someone has gained/lost. In some cases, there really is nothing you can say or do to change a family member’s or friend’s thoughts about weight/dieting/food, so the best thing you can do is agree to disagree and move on. Remember that these events are time limited, meaning that they will not last forever. I hope that some of these strategies will be helpful for you during the upcoming months – you can do it. Happy Holidays!

Real Reality

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Some of you may or may not know, but I am a reality TV fan. I know, I know, it definitely isn’t doing anything for my IQ points, but watching these shows is one of my favorite ways to unwind and relax. The ridiculous scenarios and personalities are entertaining and help me suspend my own reality for 52 minutes. Now, while I am not a fan of all reality TV, I have been known to watch some of the “Real Housewives” shows on Bravo, and lately, I have been watching episodes of the “Real Housewives of New York City” and the “Real Housewives of Orange County” (RHOC).

This season of RHOC, one of the storylines is about how Shannon, one of the housewives, has gained weight since the last season of the show. Shannon cries to the camera about how ashamed she is of her body, how “disgusted” she is with herself, and how she cannot believe that she has let herself go. Shannon attributes her weight gain to eating to cope with numerous stressors in her life. In addition to this, the camera shows her family (her husband and daughters) making fun of her weight and urging her to eat less.  Some of the other housewife cast-mates also make snarky comments about Shannon’s weight gain to the camera, saying how she should only be eating steamed fish and vegetables.

On last night’s episode, Shannon goes to see her chiropractor/health guru to help her get her body back to where it was previously. From the get-go, this charlatan, er, um, health guru, is brutal to Shannon about her weight. Without missing a beat, he asks her to step on the scale and berates her when the numbers show that not only has she has gained a significant amount of weight, her body fat percentage is “dangerously high.” He warns her that these numbers are dreadful and that she has nothing to look forward to other than cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and an early death. If this wasn’t bad enough, he then insists that he take photos of Shannon in just a sports bra and capris from all angles to show her how much weight she has gained. With every turn, you can hear this guy mutter “ugh” when Shannon turns for each pose, clearly vocalizing his disgust. And, of course, Shannon ends up in tears, not because she is upset with the chiropractor, but because she is angry with herself for her weight gain.

I found myself literally screaming at the television screen during this above scene – I was horrified and sickened by it. If this is not one of the most blatant examples of fat shaming that I have ever seen, I don’t know what is. This “health guru” told Shannon that she is less than human for having gained weight, that if she doesn’t “shape up,” she will end up dead before the end of the week, leaving her in tears. And then he made sure she knew how “gross” and “unappealing” she looked while taking her “before photos.”

I think the thing that most upset me about this scene was how it portrays an actual reality for many people living in larger bodies and how they are treated by “health professionals.” I can’t tell you how many of my patients who are “overweight” or “obese” have been subjected to ridicule and abuse from their providers. Several of my patients have been denied fertility treatment until they lose weight, while others have been told that even though their labs and vitals are perfectly normal, their weight will “catch up” with them and lead them to inevitably develop diabetes or heart disease. Even though there is a mountain of evidence that supports Health at Every Size®, that behaviors are more important in determining health outcomes than the number on the scale, doctors, nurses, chiropractors and the like still believe in the weight-centered paradigm and beat their patients over the head with it. Not surprisingly, these fat shaming instances make people of size reluctant to get medical treatment, and in turn can result in even worse health outcomes. Fat shaming is never okay and when perpetrated by health professionals, it’s honestly a form of malpractice.

In any case, after watching the scene with Shannon and her “health guru,” I had had enough. I am no longer a RHOC watcher and I hope that eventually the show will catch on that this storyline is doing so much more damage than good. It is teaching millions of women that they should be ashamed of their bodies if they gain weight, that weight and health are synonymous, and plays into the “obesity epidemic” rhetoric we have been subjected to for the past two decades. Not only that, it could inspire eating disorders in many of its viewers as they will learn that the number on the scale is the most important thing and eating only steamed fish and vegetables is acceptable behavior. Please, Bravo, get your heads out of your asses. This reality show is too real in the worst possible way.

Veganism

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Veganism has been gaining some traction in the diet world lately. While it sounds harmless enough and even “saintly” to forgo meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, honey, gelatin and the like, I have found that the client’s motives behind going vegan are quite important to figure out when meeting with them initially, as sometimes they can indicate some disordered eating.

For some people, the draw of veganism is purely moral – they do not feel right about taking life (or products) from any animal. In other cases, environmental concerns top the list of reasons why someone might choose a meatless diet because meat production has been found to contribute to pollution via fossil fuel usage, water and land consumption, animal methane, and waste. And of course, there are those who really do not enjoy the taste or texture of meat/fish/poultry/pork and their products. In all of these examples, the individual is making food decisions based on personal preference. Everyone has the autonomy to choose what foods to feed themselves, as that is part of being a human – we can choose what we eat.

What concerns me the most about veganism is the zeal with which some vegans talk about their diet. I don’t want to generalize to the entire vegan community because I know many vegans who do not behave this way, but I have been struck by how many celebrities, actors/actresses, “health experts,” and social media personalities have seemed to paint veganism as the only moral and healthful way to eat and that those who are not vegan are less than/going to an early grave/behaving immorally or selfishly, etc. This is very problematic for me because I believe that shaming others about their food choices is detrimental to their health mentally, psychologically, and physically – not to mention that not everyone can afford to follow a vegan diet due to socioeconomic status, the availability of fresh produce, and other factors.

Another concern I have with veganism is how it can sometimes indicate an underlying eating disorder (ED). Many of my patients with EDs have tried to eliminate whole groups of food from their diets, and for some of them, going vegan is just another variation on that theme. Of course, it is often difficult to suss out what is really going on when someone goes vegan, but if it coincides with increased preoccupation with weight, rigidity or secrecy around food or eating, and other signs of trouble, it is worth taking note of it.

Going vegan is not for everyone. About a year ago, I was working with a young woman who identified as a vegan. She said that it felt like such a part of her identity that the alternative (i.e., eating animals or animal products) seemed impossible and undesirable. This young woman was part of the vegan community, and she strongly identified with the morals and values of this group. For her, it was as much a lifestyle as it was a way of eating. At the same time, however, she complained of physical symptoms, including lack of energy, dizziness, weakness, difficulty concentrating, and weakened immune system, and she wondered if perhaps her vegan diet wasn’t working for her body. After much discussion in my office (Mind you, I did not encourage her to eat meat, just to weigh the pros and cons.), the patient decided to try to reintroduce meat into her diet to see if it made a difference in her physical symptoms. Over the course of a few weeks, she began to slowly add in some animal products and found herself feeling much more energized, clearer, and healthier overall. Of course, there might have been a placebo effect at play here, and we can’t be sure that simply adding back in some meat/animal products “cured” her, but the difference was startling. Despite this, the patient felt very conflicted about giving up veganism because it would mean losing a huge part of her identity. In the end, she decided to continue to eat meat occasionally, essentially becoming a “flexitarian” – someone who sometimes chooses to go meatless but other times will eat meat. This compromise seemed to work best for her physiology.

I believe that anyone considering becoming vegan needs to really weigh the pros and cons of this decision. Why are you going vegan? Is it because you feel it is morally wrong to eat animals and their products or that it is harmful to our environment? Do you feel like your body works/feels better eating this way? Or are you using veganism as a way to further limit your diet, restrict, and try to manipulate your weight? Are you able to make sure you are getting enough protein, iron, vitamin B12, and calcium (nutrients that are more difficult to get through a vegan diet)? Is this way of eating sustainable for you or more of a hardship? In the end, everyone has the right to decide what and how they eat. But it is always a good idea to consider the factors that go into these decisions.

Emotional Eating

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Last week, I received the following email from one of my patients:

“I wanted to touch base about a concept that keeps coming up in food podcasts/books/articles, etc. The idea of ‘emotional eating,’ and what that even means. I understand that it is the idea of food being comforting and thus using it as a coping mechanism, but isn’t food almost always tied with emotion (happy, guilty, satisfied/pleased, disappointed, etc.)?

“I think this concept is referring to eating when not hungry to deal rather than other ways, but often I hear rethinking if that cupcake in the middle of the afternoon is what you need or to call a friend or go for a walk.’ Yes, I agree that sometimes if I am tired, I will crave these foods, and realize I just need a nap. However, what if I crave a sweet snack in the middle of the afternoon, after lunch, because I am hungry and that’s what I want? To be honest, I don’t love this idea because it feels judge-y. Am I interpreting it wrong?

“Also, on a Friday after a long week, I look forward to a drink, a meal of my choice, and some popcorn in front of the TV. Does that make me an ‘emotional eater,‘ too? I don’t think that is wrong but maybe this is not how I should be coping with stress…? Thanks!”

“Emotional eating” is a buzzword phrase that seems to be everywhere lately. Many of my patients come to me to help them stop “emotionally eating” because they see it as a problem or a failure on their part. I thought it might be a good idea to explain what I believe emotional eating is and what it isn’t and whether it should be seen as problematic or not.

From the time that we are babies, feeding (i.e., via breast milk or formula) is one of the very first ways our parents/caretakers take care of us and show us love. Feeding and eating are primal actions that serve as a way to keep us alive; we depend on our caretakers to help us with this at the beginning. When a baby is hungry, he or she will cry, and the caretaker will provide nourishment to take away the feelings of discomfort from hunger and give the baby satisfaction. This basic hunger-crying-feeding-satisfaction loop happens over and over again and basically cements itself in the infant’s brain that the only way to get rid of one’s uncomfortable hunger is to cry until mom or dad gives the infant nourishment. This way, a very strong connection is forged between food and love as our caretakers are the first ones in our lives who provide both of these necessities to us.

As we grow up, food and eating situations are often connected with emotions. For instance, you might have very strong and fond memories of your grandmother’s apple pie and how lovingly she served it to you on special occasions. Or perhaps you remember how your dad used to make you the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich for school every day, cutting off the crusts just so, and how this made you feel loved and special. We collect these eating/emotion experiences throughout our lifetime, and as a result of this, we can elicit some of the above emotions by eating some of the associated foods.

I believe that while eating can often be associated with emotions, it does not necessarily need to be problematic. When most people nowadays use the term “emotional eating,” I believe they are referring to the behavior of trying to cope with negative emotions or situations by eating comfort food in the absence of hunger. In my opinion, someone occasionally dealing with their emotions by eating is not a big deal, but if it becomes a chronic habit that is bringing discomfort or pain and/or not truly helping to assuage that person’s negative emotion or situation, that would be something to be curious about in a very neutral and self-compassionate way. It’s important to realize that feeding ourselves comfort food sometimes even if we are not hungry is one way that we are trying to take care of ourselves. It might not be the most helpful or effective way to give ourselves self-care, but it is a self-care attempt nonetheless.

In response to my patient’s thought that food is “almost always tied with emotion,” I would say that many eating situations are not necessarily connected with emotion. For instance, I had an apple and a piece of cheese for snack today, and while it was tasty and satisfying, I didn’t have any emotions associated with it. I also think one can crave a cupcake in the afternoon for no other reason than it is what they are humming for at the time. It doesn’t have to be emotional.

At the end of the day, “emotional eating” is something that nearly everyone engages in from time to time. In and of itself, it doesn’t need to be a problem, but if it becomes the only way that you cope with negative feelings or situations and it is bringing you distress, it would be worth it to try and develop other coping strategies (with the help of a therapist) to deal with these feelings/situations in a more constructive manner.

Sh*t Tennis Ladies Say

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As some of you might know, I am an avid tennis player. After a very long hiatus (like 25 years long), I started playing competitive tennis in several different leagues three years ago. It has been so wonderful in so many ways – I love that I get to play a sport that is not only physically enjoyable, but is also a fabulous social network as well. My tennis teammates are some of my closest friends and I adore them.

That’s why sometimes it feels particularly upsetting when many of them speak in anti-fat, pro-diet, disordered ways about food, weight and body shape. All of these women are intelligent, well-spoken, kind-hearted people. All of these women are liberal, open-minded and generous. And nearly all of these women have either made negative comments about their own bodies, commented on others’ bodies, and have engaged in any number of diets/disordered eating patterns. It is truly mind-boggling. I have decided to write about a few of these comments partly as a way to vent, but I also feel like they can be valuable learning lessons for our readers.

Tennis friend: “Oh my goodness, did you see X on the tennis court today? She has lost/gained a ton of weight– doesn’t she look great/terrible?!”

Why these types of statements are problematic: 1) We have very limited control over our weight – our genetics are the key determinant of our body size. And while we can lose weight in the short-term, nearly 95% of dieters regain the weight, with many of them gaining even more weight than they had lost; 2) There could be a number of explanations for someone’s weight loss/gain – are they going through chemotherapy for cancer treatment? Did they recently have a traumatic life event that significantly changed their appetite? Are they on a medication that is causing them to bloat/lose their appetite? 3) These types of comments reinforce the idea that the most important thing about a woman is her physique. We are so much more than our bodies!

Ways that I choose to respond to comments like these:

“I really prefer not to talk about others’ weight – every body is different and unique.”

“Commenting on others bodies makes me uncomfortable – you really never know what someone is going through. She could have a medical condition we are unaware of.”

“Hey, how about we focus on her tennis game rather than her body shape/size?”

Tennis friend: “I’m so hungry.”

Me: “Oh, I have a granola bar in my bag – would you like it?”

Tennis friend: “Oh, no. I’m dieting.”

Why this is problematic: As Jonah and I have written about too many times to count, diets don’t work long term. When we restrict our intake and actively disregard our bodies’ hunger cues, our body goes into starvation mode. This results in a slowing of metabolism, decrease in energy, and heightened awareness and obsession with food. When you feel hungry, that is your body’s way of telling you it needs fuel. It is not a weakness. It is a necessity, like breathing air and drinking water. Not only that, once someone stops dieting (because the inherent nature of dieting is temporary), that person will likely overeat on high-fat/high-carb foods (which are your body’s preferred macronutrients in times of scarcity), and with their slowed metabolism, the weight will pile back on. Unfortunately, many women engage in this yo-yo dieting, which a number of studies have shown to be more damaging to one’s health than just maintaining a higher weight.

Ways I choose to respond to situations like this one:

“Being hungry is your body’s way of telling you it needs food. I guarantee you will feel so much better if you a eat something. I also bet you would have so much more energy to play tennis!”

“It sounds like you have been on quite a few diets over the past year. I know it’s hard to believe, but it is possible to eat in a non-restrictive way and be healthy.”

“Did you see Serena’s last tennis match? She was eating a snack on the changeover. I think she’s onto something!”

Tennis friend: “My knees/ankles/hips are killing me. If I could just lose these 20 lbs, I know that would fix the problem.”

Why this is problematic: As I wrote about several months ago, focusing on weight loss to cure physical ailments is not the right approach. Yes, biomechanically speaking, weighing less might help one’s knee pain resolve, but there is no guarantee of that. Not to mention, many people of all shapes and sizes have knee/ankle/hip pain (even thin people!). As we age, we tend to lose cartilage, and this often leads to joint pain. Sorry folks, but getting old is unavoidable! There are many ways to help joint pain that don’t involve weight loss (such as quad strengthening exercises for knee issues, medicine, wearable braces). And finally, even if someone were to lose weight to help their knee/ankle/hip pain, it is still highly unlikely they will be able to keep off that weight for any significant period of time.

Ways that I choose to respond to comments like these:

“You know, there are plenty of other strategies to use that could help your ankle pain. I would recommend talking with your doctor.”

“When I had knee pain, I started seeing a physical therapist who gave me a bunch of exercises to try to strengthen my quads – would you like his/her contact info?”

“While weight loss might initially help, it’s nearly impossible to keep off the weight, and it is likely that you will end up gaining more weight in the long run. Maybe you could find some other strategies to deal with the pain?”

At the end of the day, I really do understand why so many of these women make comments like the ones I shared above. And I also know that these comments are not just limited to the suburban female tennis playing community. We as a society have been brainwashed by the media, our doctors, our family and friends to think that it is right and normal to comment on other people’s bodies, to believe that what we choose to eat (or not eat) makes us virtuous or sinful, and to view weight loss as something that is easily achieved and maintained (all of these things being plainly false).  I just wish that we could change the conversation to one about things that really matter, like the state of the world, what we are passionate about, how our families are doing, etc.  Focusing on our bodies and what we put in them is terribly myopic. How much we could achieve if we just changed our focus.

Wishful Thinking

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Last December, I stumbled upon a very interesting article on the website Ravishly. The piece, entitled “Being Thin Didn’t Make Me Happy, But Being ‘Fat’ Does,” written by Joni Edelman, caught my attention for pretty obvious reasons. In it, Edelman included two pictures of herself, one with the caption “Before” and one “After.” As you might have guessed, her before picture is of her when she was at a much lower weight at the age of 35. The after picture is of her and her family, five years later when Edelman was at a much higher weight. Edelman goes on to describe the extreme measures she took to achieve her “physical hotness” displayed in the first photo, including counting calories obsessively (limiting her calories to 1000 per day), exercising excessively (running 35 miles per week), and overall living a very restrictive lifestyle.

While Edelman concedes that being at this low weight came with some “benefits” such as being able to fit into size 4 clothing and receiving positive attention from men, she says that the amount of effort, sacrifice and mental energy it took to maintain this weight significantly diminished her happiness. She found that the time and energy it took to keep her figure ended up taking away from her relationships, especially with her children, as she was preoccupied with her food and working out.

Realizing that “happiness does not require thinness” and “fatness does not presume sadness,” Edelman stopped her extreme dieting and exercise behaviors. As one would expect, she gained weight, and with medication changes to treat her bipolar depression, she gained even more weight. Despite this, Edelman wrote that she had found a “stillness, a joy, and a peace” that she had never had and that “it’s worth 10 pounds.” The article ended with Edelman telling her readers to “be fat and happy. Be unapologetically fat. Wear a bikini, and mean it. Eat pizza and ice cream and enjoy it. Drink up your life and a bottle of wine, and make no apologies.” It was a refreshing article and one that I imagine took a great deal of courage for her to write. In our fat-shaming, thin-exulting world, it’s rare to hear someone (especially a woman) talking about being both fat and happy.

A few weeks ago, one of my patients forwarded me another piece written by Edelman. Apparently, Edelman has decided to start writing a bi-weekly column entitled “Beyond Before & After,” (BB&A) where she hopes to discuss “living without dieting, fostering self-love and healthful choices made on our own terms. No scales, no calorie counting, no before, no after. Because we’re so much more than that.” Sounds promising, I initially thought to myself.

In the first installment of BB&A, Edelman talks about her blog from last December. How she received so much praise and attention for writing so bravely about something that many woman would be afraid to do – to call themselves “fat” and be okay with it. But then the article takes a turn. Edelman writes that even though she fully believed that she could be fat and happy, something started to shift. She describes instances in which her body started to fail her, such as not being able to sit on the floor without falling because she was not able to bend due to her stomach getting in the way. How she was tired of feeling breathless after walking up 13 stairs and how her weight was making it nearly impossible to heal an injured ankle. All of a sudden, Edelman writes that being fat “stopped working for [her],” and that she wanted to change this by losing weight, that “if being fat doesn’t work for you, you can change, or you can at least give it your best effort.”

Oh dear. I don’t know where to begin with this. First of all, this piece makes me sad. Here was someone who was fighting the good fight, who really seemed to get it: that weight and health and wellbeing are not inextricably linked. That there are plenty of thin people with health problems and plenty of fat people with none. Interestingly, Edelman talks about how she got her blood work done (in addition to numerous other health tests) and surprisingly enough, her labs were nearly impeccable, with a low thyroid as the sole issue that arose. Other than this (and being diagnosed with peri-menopause), Edelman was in excellent health. But, even with this positive information, Edelman is resolved to change her body.

Okay, time for some full disclosure: part of me understands where she is coming from. I am also living in a larger body and there are times that I think to myself, “you know, your knee pain and plantar fasciitis would likely improve if you lost weight.” Biomechanically, I understand that carrying more weight translates to more stress and strain on my body. But, then my rational mind kicks in and reminds me of several facts: 1) There are plenty of thin people with knee pain and plantar fasciitis (just ask nearly all of my slender tennis teammates) 2) There are numerous ways to address these health conditions without losing weight (just ask my podiatrist and my physical therapist) and, most importantly, 3) Permanent intentional weight loss is impossible for 95-98% of those who try to achieve it. So, even if losing weight did improve my issues, no one has found a way to keep the weight off. In fact, most people end up gaining even more weight than they had lost in the first place, resulting in an even higher weight.

The other issue I want to shed light on is Edelman’s admission that she has struggled with an eating disorder (ED) in the past (namely exercise bulimia). Even if she is not actively engaging in restriction and over-exercise, her weight loss goal is simply ill advised. Recovery from an eating disorder is a life-long process and it is completely at odds with purposefully losing weight. You can’t be in recovery and be actively trying to lose weight. They are incompatible. Even Edelman realizes how tricky her endeavor is going to be, admitting that she has already been weighing herself more than once a day and has been drinking copious amounts of water to help her feel full. I will not be surprised to see her get back into an ED mindset if things continue this way.

Listen, I get it. Being fat can be tough in our society, and it’s easy to blame our physical maladies on our body size. But just deciding that being fat isn’t working for you and that you are going to change your body permanently is at best wishful thinking and at worst a very dangerous endeavor. I hope that Ms. Edelman figures this out before it’s too late.

Thoughts on the 2016 Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) Conference

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On May 14th, I attended the 21st annual two-day conference held by the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA). This year’s conference theme was “Thinking Outside the Body: Empowering Yourself, Your Clients and the Community.” I was only able to go to day two of the conference, but I feel like I learned a lot during that one day of presentations and thought it would be helpful to summarize some of what I learned.

The first talk I attended was the day’s keynote address, “Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Eating Disorders,” presented by Carly Guss, MD, Allegra Gordon, MPH, ScD, and Jerel Calzo, PhD. Obviously, the topic of gender identity has been on the forefront of many people’s minds given the latest legislation around transgender individuals being able to use public restrooms. While I am familiar with transgender issues, I have only worked with one transgender individual in my practice, so I was very interested in hearing what the presenters had to say on the matter.

While the presenters gave a helpful primer on gender identity, their main focus was on the prevalence of eating disorders (EDs) in the transgender community. According to the presenters, two recent studies found that compared to cisgender heterosexual women, transgender men and women have 4.6x odds of past-year self-reported ED, were more than twice as likely to have used diet pills and purging in the past month, had 4.8x risk of being “underweight,” and had 2.5x risk of being “obese”.  Two other studies on ED risk in the transgender community found that the majority of participants (transgender men and women) reported a history of disordered eating and that there was a “strive for thinness” to suppress unwanted secondary sex characteristics, particularly in people who were gender assigned “female” at birth but identified as males. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it – if one were to identify as a male but were born female, that person might want to prevent the development of curves and beginning of menstruation that naturally occur as a girl becomes a woman. Restriction and maintaining a very low body weight can prevent these developments from occurring.

My takeaway from this talk was that it is important for practitioners to be aware of the challenges that transgender individuals face in our society (particularly in healthcare) and their increased risks for EDs and body-image issues. It also made me examine my own practices when working with transgender clients, including how to make them feel most comfortable (e.g., using the client’s preferred pronoun[s] and having gender-inclusive language on our patient forms) and incorporating the best strategies to help them recover from their EDs.

The second talk I attended was “What You Need to Know about Trauma and PTSD: A Personal and Professional Perspective for Working with Eating Disorders.” The first presenter was Jenni Schaefer, a very well-known figure in the ED community. Ms. Schaefer is a self-described individual who has fully recovered from an ED and has written a number of books on her recovery journey. What I (and perhaps many others in the audience) was not aware of was that Ms. Schaefer is also a survivor of trauma. Her presentation was quite an eye-opener as it described how her trauma and ensuing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were impacted by and complicated by her ED. This part of the presentation was especially illuminating for me, as I have a number of patients who have been victims of trauma and struggle with both PTSD and EDs. The second presenter was Luana Marques, PhD, and she discussed the different therapeutic options for patients struggling with both disorders. While the content was not exactly geared towards registered dietitians, it gave me some insight into how PTSD can affect recovery from ED and vice versa.

After an hour lunch break, I was thoroughly excited for the third talk of the day. As many of you know, Jonah and I identify as Health at Every Size® (HAES) practitioners and are supportive of the size acceptance movement. Well, we were absolutely thrilled to learn that Ragen Chastain (blogger at Dances with Fat), a world-renowned , self-described fat activist and proponent of “behavior-centered health,” was going to be presenting on both HAES and Size Acceptance in her talk entitled “The World is Messed Up, You are Fine – Helping Clients Deal with the Culture of Body Shame.”

Ragen gave an absolutely electrifying talk about how our society gives extremely damaging messages about our bodies via the medical community, the media, and even our politicians (e.g., Michelle Obama’s fight on childhood “obesity”), and how these messages can make recovery from an ED very difficult. She started the presentation by giving a quick primer on the principles of HAES and Size Acceptance, stressing the point that people of all body sizes have the right to exist and that healthy habits are more likely than body size to determine healthy outcomes.

After this introduction, Ragen displayed a number of images taken from popular magazines and websites, each showing how the media tries to manipulate celebrities’ appearances by using Photoshop. All of these manipulations aimed to make the subjects appear thinner and younger, perpetuating the idea that everyone (especially women and girls) are only beautiful if they are young and slender. A number of years ago, I never would have thought about how these images are manipulated, but now in my work with ED clients, I am super sensitive to how these images can be extremely damaging to girls and women, and I often suggest to my clients that they avoid certain magazines and publications for fear of triggering negative body image thoughts.

Ragen continued on to talk about the role of HAES in ED recovery and how important it is for ED healthcare providers to give consistent body positive messages that counteract the negative, fat-phobic messages that our patients receive every day. She gave examples of how practitioners could create a safe environment for their ED patients, such as providing a space that includes positive representations of diverse body sizes, creating “body affirming” spaces by having chairs that can accommodate people of all sizes, and being aware of our own beliefs and assumptions around weight and size.

While I was familiar with nearly everything Ragen discussed, for I am an avid reader of her blog, it was interesting to observe those in the audience who were hearing this information for the first time. There were a number of thought-provoking questions that were posed during the Q and A section at the end, and Ragen adeptly answered all of these queries with the grace and presence of someone who is confident as well as extremely knowledgeable about the topic on which she was presenting. Her talk finished with a standing ovation from the audience, something that I have rarely witnessed at any of the MEDA conference presentations I have attended. It was truly a special moment.

The presentation that followed Ragen’s was called “Taking the ‘Th’ Out of #Thinspiration – Utilizing Social Media to Encourage, Empower and Bring Hope to Those Battling or In Recovery from Eating Disorders”. The first half of the talk was presented by Donald Blackwell, a man whose own daughter had suffered from an ED and who himself became very active in ED recovery. Mr. Blackwell’s part of the presentation centered on the many different social media platforms that people use today. While I am already quite familiar with Facebook, it was helpful to learn more about the other commonly used social media vehicles, including Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, and how they are used in pro-ED (people who believe that EDs are “lifestyle choices”, not illnesses) as well as ED-recovery circles. I have always been aware of the numerous pro-ana (promoting anorexia nervosa [AN]) and pro-mia (promoting bulimia nervosa [BN]) websites out there, but this talk gave me an even clearer picture of the amount of harmful information that circulates on the internet.

The second part of the presentation was given by Joanna Kay Mercuri, an ED sufferer who is now in recovery. She went into even more detail about the pro-ED websites and their content as well as the pro-recovery websites and what they focus on. Ms. Mercuri also discussed her own blogging and how it helped her in her recovery, as it gave her a platform to discuss her feelings and struggles while connecting with others. The end of the talk centered on how we as a society can actually respond to the pro-ED social media and bring the pro-recovery content front and center. All in all, this talk was helpful in showing the influence and use of social media platforms regarding EDs, and it gave me a lot of insight into what my patients might be seeing online possibly every day.

The conference’s endnote address, “Overview of ARFID: Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder,” was given by Ovidio Bermudez, MD. It was very interesting to learn about this relatively newly recognized group of disorders as it has recently been added to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). ARFID is defined by the Center for Eating Disorders as an “eating or feeding disturbance as manifested by persistent failure to meet appropriate nutritional and/or energy needs associated with one (or more) of the following:

  • Significant weight loss (or failure to achieve expected weight gain or faltering growth in children).
  • Significant nutritional deficiency.
  • Dependence on enteral feeding or oral nutritional supplements.
  • Marked interference with psychosocial functioning.”

Those struggling with ARFID are not the same as those with AN or BN, as ARFID sufferers typically have no fear of weight gain and no body image distortion. Instead, individuals with ARFID are those who, due to a problem with eating, aren’t able to take in enough nutrition through their diet. Some examples of eating problems are difficulty with digestion of certain foods; strong aversions to colors, textures or smells; no appetite; or being afraid to eat as a result of a frightening episode of choking or vomiting. Sometimes individuals with ARFID can develop BN, AN, or other EDs, but not in every circumstance. I myself have worked over the past few years with several clients who have struggled with ARFID, so I found this talk most helpful in recognizing the signs and symptoms, treatment plans, and prognosis.

All in all, I found my day at the MEDA conference one filled with interesting ideas, helpful tips, and above all, support from my fellow colleagues. These types of conferences are not only a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with familiar ED treatment practitioners, but they are also a terrific time to meet the “new kids on the block.” I look forward to returning to the MEDA conference next year, for I am sure I will learn even more!

“Real” Science

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Some of you may or may not know that one of my favorite activities is solving crossword puzzles. Not just any puzzles, mind you, but the Sunday New York Times crossword found in the very back of the magazine. Every Sunday, I eagerly sift through my newspaper and find the magazine, ready to start working on the puzzle and figure out all of those elusive answers. This week, as I was thumbing through the pages, I came across an article under the “Well” section of the magazine, which caught my eye: “Mind What You Eat: Can ‘intuitive’ eating be as effective as calorie counting?” written by Gretchen Reynolds. The picture accompanying this article was that of a corpulent, blind-folded man, whose stomach was feeding itself a piece of pizza.

Given the nature of the work that Jonah and I do, I was intrigued to see what Ms. Reynolds had to say about intuitive eating, especially since the idea of intuitive eating is still relatively unknown to most of the general public. As I read on, however, my curiosity turned to disappointment and frustration. The article was riddled with inaccuracies, and, above all, truly missed the point of what intuitive eating is all about.

Although the idea of intuitive eating (also called the “non-diet approach”) has been around for many years, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, two registered dietitians, brought the topic to the public’s attention in their 1995 book “Intuitive Eating.” In the book, the authors explain the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating, including such ideas as “Reject the Diet Mentality,” “Honor Your Hunger,” and “Make Peace with Food.” The authors assert that by following these principles, an individual can create a healthy relationship with food, mind, and body. The basic “rules” of intuitive eating are quite simple: eat when you are hungry, eat what you are hungry for (not what someone else or some diet is telling you to eat), and stop eating when you are satiated.

While the book does discuss the likelihood that by eating this way one will reach their “healthy weight,” it is in no way meant to be a diet book or a how-to weight loss treatise. One’s “healthy weight” is not based on the BMI or what popular culture says is healthy – it’s the weight that one’s body arrives at when he or she is engaging in healthy behaviors such as eating intuitively, engaging in pleasurable physical activity, and managing stress.

Since weight loss is not the ultimate goal of intuitive eating, I was confused as to why Ms. Reynolds decided to compare the approach with calorie counting to see which resulted in more weight loss. In addition to this, the article was flawed in a number of ways.

Ms. Reynolds begins her article by saying that intuitive eating has not been studied extensively by researchers. This statement could not be further from the truth! Per the Intuitive Eating website, there have been over 40 studies which have looked at the health benefits of intuitive eating. According to Ms. Tribole who posted her reaction to Ms. Reynolds’ article on her own Facebook page, “last month a systematic review was published on Intuitive Eating with 24 studies, totaling over 9,000 people.”

Ms. Reynolds’ article goes on to discuss a study in which 16 overweight men and women were split up into two groups of eight: one group was assigned to a restricted-calorie diet between 1,200 and 1,800 calories per day, while the other group was to engage in intuitive eating. At the end of the study, which ran a total of six weeks, the researchers found that those in the calorie-controlled group lost more weight than those in the intuitive eating group. Given these results, posits Reynolds, limiting one’s calories is a more effective way to lose weight than engaging in intuitive eating.

Yikes. This article is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, the study itself is a poor one to use, as it has an extremely small sample size of 16 subjects and is conducted over a measly six-week time period. Secondly, to draw any conclusions about health outcomes from this study is wildly irresponsible. And thirdly, duh, of course the calorie-restricted group lost weight! This study literally gives us no useful information!

We all know that going on a diet results in weight loss for the vast majority of people. The question is: how likely is it that those individuals will actually keep the weight off for a significant period of time? Given that we know that approximately 95% of people regain the weight they lost through dieting, I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that all of the individuals in this silly little study regained the weight they lost during the first six weeks of the study. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up heavier than when they started!

I guess the thing that bothers me most about this article is how it completely misses the point of what intuitive eating is all about. Intuitive eating is about eating in a way that promotes one’s health, not in a way that is meant to result in weight loss. Ms. Reynolds reinforces the diet mentality of the general public by her assertion that cutting calories is what is necessary to reach a healthy weight. Articles like this one just create more confusion for Jonah’s and my patients, as it backs up the ideas that weight loss should be one’s ultimate goal and that long-term maintenance of weight loss is achievable.

One Step Backward for Dietitian-Kind

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With National Nutrition Month upon us, I have been reflecting upon the work that I and my dietetic peers are doing with our patients. Are we helping to guide our patients toward better health? Are we presenting them with the most accurate, up-to-date, and appropriate nutrition advice based on peer-reviewed, evidence-based research in the field of nutrition and health? Are we acting ethically in our profession? I would like to think that most dietitians would answer yes to the above questions. We entered this field to help people, right? Well, unfortunately, some dietitians really get it wrong. And this can damage the dietetic field as a whole.

Recently, an article came across my radar screen, which illustrates the above point to a tee. In the article, entitled “I’m a Nutritionist. Here is How I Plan to Lose 20 Pounds,” Erica Sawers, a chiropractor and registered dietitian (RD), talks about how after giving birth to two children in the past three years and “indulging in croissants and treats” during both pregnancies, she wants to lose twenty pounds to get back to her pre-pregnancy weight. She then goes on to list seven ways that she plans to achieve her goal.

For the most part, this article is plainly ridiculous. In her first bullet point, Sawers delineates that she is going to set a “realistic goal” of losing one to two pounds per week. In the very next step, however, she says that she plans to “banish the scale,” by focusing on how her clothes fit rather than focusing on a number. She then follows that sentiment with “the most I will allow myself to step on the scale is once a week, and even once a month will do.” Um, ok. I’m totally confused now. So, are you going to weigh yourself or not? Because in my lexicon, banishment means “none.” And if the number isn’t that important to you, why set twenty pounds as your goal? Am I missing something here? Seriously.

Later in the article Sawers advises, “find a diet that works for you.” She then goes on to say that she herself avoids gluten, dairy and refined sugar, but doesn’t deny herself a few squares of dark chocolate or homemade cookies on occasion. Ugh. What she is describing sounds pretty restrictive to me. Honestly, who could stick to that regimen for an extended period of time without feeling horribly deprived? It is unrealistic to think that this way of eating would be sustainable for most people. And while someone might indeed lose some weight following her regimen, I would be willing to bet that the individual would regain the lost weight and then some.

As an RD, Sawers should know better than to write an article like this. As we all have heard many times before, diets fail 95 percent of the time, meaning only 5 percent of weight-loss attempts are sustainable. In fact, most people will end up regaining the lost weight and then some when they go off the diet. Research is also starting to point at yo-yo dieting as being more dangerous than just maintaining a higher weight, as it puts more stress on the body to chronically lose and regain weight. What Sawers is presenting is a diet, pure and simple. How can she publish something like this with the knowledge that the outcome will be failure for most people who try it and could result in increased health risks?

Instead of writing an article about how to lose weight, how about writing one about how to achieve better health? As Jonah and I have written about too many times to count, weight is not an accurate indicator of health – behaviors are. The research shows time and time again that the more healthy habits an individual has (e.g. not smoking, being physically active, eating five servings of fruits and veggies daily, and drinking moderately), the better that person’s health outcomes will be. These findings are independent of weight. Let me repeat that: it’s the behaviors, not the weight!

Unfortunately, Sawers’ article is not unique. I often see these types of nonsense blogs pop up all over the internet. If this was some random person’s article about wanting to lose weight and her strategies to do so, I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it. But, Sawers is a registered dietitian. That means that many people will take her weight-loss guide as a how-to for themselves. As dietitians, we have a responsibility to present accurate information in an ethical way. This article misses the mark.

I Get Knocked Down

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The first six weeks of 2015 have been pretty rough for me. It started on January 4th. I made the fatal mistake of running down our wooden steps in just my socks. What happened, you ask? Well, I slipped and fell down the steps with such a thud that Jonah thought a piece of furniture had fallen on me! Luckily, the fall only resulted in a broken baby toe and a whopping bruise on my butt, but I was still pretty shaken up about it.

Just as I was healing from my trip down the stairs, I woke up the following Wednesday with my throat on fire and feeling feverish. My doctor told me to come in to her office so she could do a strep test on me. While the rapid strep test came up negative in her office, she took another swab and sent it to the lab. What are the chances that the second test would be positive? Well, apparently, they were pretty good – I had strep. I haven’t had strep since I was a kid, and boy, was this a bad strain. After taking a course of antibiotics, however, I started feeling better and thinking to myself that I was finally out of the woods.

How wrong I was! Just a week after recuperating from strep, I again woke up with another sore throat. This time there was no fever, and it was definitely better than the strep I had previously, but this illness along with a cough that is driving me crazy, just won’t seem to go away! Today I feel like I might finally be kicking this cold in the butt, but it has really wreaked some havoc on my mood.

All of these illnesses and injuries got me thinking – you know, I never really appreciated how wonderful it is to just be healthy until all of a sudden I wasn’t. I wish that I wouldn’t be so hard on my body when I feel like it has let me down. My body has gotten me through 36 (almost 37) years of life, most of which have been relatively healthy and safe. I should feel lucky that I can walk, swim, ride a bike or play tennis. Many people cannot do these things.

So, while the start to 2015 may not have been the best ever, I am determined not to let these past six weeks get me down. I love my body and everything it allows me to do. I will do my best to take better care of it, and that’s all I can do!