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.

He Said, She Said: Menu Calorie Counts

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He Said

Nutrition information has its upsides, but the data are only as useful as their interpretation. Context and framework matter; without a solid foundation, food labels and menu calorie counts can do more harm than good.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that we, as humans, have basic needs that must be met before we can fulfill more advanced needs. Nutrition has a similar structure. At the base, someone has to have food – period. If food security is an issue, whether it is due to financial limitations, self-imposed restriction, or any other factors, then not much else matters. At the structure’s very top rests the hard science of nutrition as it relates to whatever medical conditions we may have; this is where we might talk about grams, calories, or various micronutrients. In between are issues of eating behavior that often go overlooked and yet are critical to address. Many people want to jump right to the top, but the danger in doing so is that without a solid middle, the structure is likely to fall apart.

Nutrition labels on packaged food can be helpful to someone with a healthy relationship with food and their body, but in the hands of an individual who does not have the solid middle that I previously discussed, the information can be misinterpreted, maybe reinforce a good/bad food dichotomy, and lead to or exacerbate issues like weight cycling and disordered eating.

In grocery stores, at least, we have a certain level of privacy and ambiguity that may mitigate the damage. Few shoppers probably recognize the yogurt in your cart as being higher in calories than its counterparts, and ultimately neither your fellow shoppers nor the cashier know whether that ice cream you are buying is for your kid’s birthday party or for yourself. Such uncertainties can help comfort people who fear judgment from the people around them.

Calorie counts on restaurant menus present a more complex problem. We place our orders in front of friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, waitstaff, and fellow patrons who are primed for judgment because they – thanks to the menu – know how many calories you have elected to order for yourself.

Certainly, not everyone judges, and some of us are coated with more Teflon than others, but for many people, even the mere fear that the person across the table may be thinking “No wonder you are so fat/skinny/slow/etc.” can be enough to cause problems. The middle layer of the nutrition hierarchy involves making food decisions based on internal cues rather than external constructs. Issues of guilt, virtue, judgment, praise, and fear cloud the picture and make the establishment of this kind of relationship with food that much more difficult to attain.

Of course, restaurant nutrition information can be helpful sometimes – for example, I remember looking at the Bertucci’s website with a patient of mine in search of menu items that would mesh with his sodium restriction – but it can be provided in ways that are cognizant of potential harm. My suggestion: Post nutrition information online, as many chain restaurants already do, and have it available on site per customer request, but leave it off the menus.

 

She Said

When Jonah and I went to Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant the other night, we both realized that the menu had been redesigned (Clearly, we are regulars at Bertucci’s!). In addition to new entrees and different graphics, I was dismayed to see calorie counts prominently displayed above each and every menu item. I remember when the law was passed requiring all chain restaurants to publish their calorie information on their menus, but for some reason I had forgotten about it. (I feel like the law was passed a few years ago and just now is being implemented.) In any case, it was jarring for me to see this information, and it also made me quite concerned for my patients with eating disorders (ED).

Most, if not all, of my clients with EDs have engaged in some sort of calorie counting. Whether tallying up carbs, “macros,” or points, these patients have misused the nutrition information available to them in order to help them engage in ED behaviors. Much of my work with these individuals is around helping them to move away from the counting because it is completely antithetical to intuitive eating.

As Jonah and I have discussed before, intuitive eating is the practice of using one’s internal cues rather than depending on external factors to make food decisions. That means that someone who is an intuitive eater will (most of the time) eat when they are physically hungry and eat what they are hungry for in an amount that is satisfying. It’s about trusting your body to tell you what it needs and then honoring your body’s needs by fulfilling them.

Most of my patients with ED struggle with the idea of intuitive eating because it flies in the face of what their ED is telling them – food is to be carefully monitored and planned, certain foods are bad for you and should be off-limits, you can’t trust your hunger cues, etc. Many of these patients use calorie counting as a way to gain some control, to feel like they know exactly what they are putting in their bodies. One of my patients who is doing quite well in her ED treatment says that she still can’t shake the calorie counting habit, and she notices that this behavior ramps up when she is anxious, stressed, or overly hungry. One could say that calorie counting is a coping mechanism for many people because it helps to alleviate unpleasant feelings by giving them something concrete to focus on.

In any case, I often encourage my patients to ignore nutrition labels as it can trigger their ED. And in many cases, it is possible to (mostly) avoid this information – by purchasing unpackaged foods, buying prepared food from smaller restaurants or stores, etc. However, with this legislation, many more people will be exposed to calorie information at restaurants that they have gone to for years, and it is inescapable. I know that much of the nutrition information for chain restaurants has been available online for years and that anyone could just look up the calories on the restaurant’s website, but that at least takes a bit of effort. If someone really does not want to see this information, they will avoid it, but printing it directly on the menu makes that nearly impossible (short of never visiting the particular restaurant again).

In my opinion, I think that calorie information should be made available if the customer requests it. Everyone has the right to know what they are putting into their body. But it would be great if restaurants could also provide menus without the calorie information in order to prevent triggering individuals with ED or a history of disordered eating. It could make a number of people feel safer in these establishments, and that would make a big difference in many people’s lives.

Politics

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Shortly after we published our March e-newsletter, I received an automated notification informing me that one of our readers had unsubscribed. His given reason: “your political bias – no thanks.”

The only overt political statement we made is that we had followed through on our promise to donate all of the co-pays we collected between Thanksgiving and New Year’s to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization that fights hate, teaches tolerance, and seeks justice. Huh, I wonder which of those missions our reader objects to the most?

Anyway, at first I felt bad, as if the loss of a reader indicated a shortcoming on my part. Maybe I had crossed a line of some sort by bringing politics into our work.

On the other hand, fuck that. Acknowledging that nutrition is political and declaring what we stand for is important for our practice’s identity.

Nutrition is science, and science, as recent times have reminded us, is political. A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the Boston March for Science. Take a moment to steep in the ridiculousness that is having to stage a protest in hopes that our current leaders will incorporate evidence into their proposed policies.

Nutrition is healthcare, and healthcare, as Republican efforts to destroy Obamacare have reminded us, is political. Today, the House voted for the American Health Care Act, which – if enacted – will result in the loss of health insurance for millions of people and hasten death for many of our fellow citizens. The American Medical Association has condemned the Act, while I remember would-be patients who were unable to receive treatment because their insurance refused to pay. I think to myself: This is only going to get worse.

Nutrition is cultural, and our culture, as we have known for years, is political. Regardless of her intentions, Michelle Obama’s support for the “war on obesity” made our societal focus on weight that much more glaring. Our current, umm, leader’s objectification of women and admissions of sexual assault, for which millions of voters inexcusably gave him a free pass, are exacerbating matters. In an effort to flee weight stigma and oppression, people run towards a diet culture that damages relationships with food, increases eating disorder risk, and – ironically – promotes weight gain and worsened health.

Politics are not just about which bubbles each of us fill in on election day. Our positions reflect how we move about the world and what we want not just for ourselves, but for our friends, neighbors, strangers, the generations that will come after us, and of course our patients.

Nutrition is political, and our stances regarding the latter are intertwined with how we approach our work. We believe that everybody – regardless of their gender, size, weight, religion, country of origin, wealth, lifestyle behaviors, ethnicity, language, mobility, or sexuality – is deserving of respect, informed consent, and affordable access to evidence-based healthcare as a matter of human rights.

Wins and Losses: Old Habits Die Hard

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The following piece was written by one of Jonah’s patients who wishes to only be identified as a 36-year-old male.

Befitting the New Year, you would think I’d be writing about my resolutions for 2017, but I have a win from this past Thanksgiving that I’d like to share.

A little about me

I was a dancer as part of a performing arts group, and I traveled throughout the world dancing and performing in various venues — some as big as football stadiums and others as intimate as a small conference room. I was very fortunate to have this experience growing up (I began performing at the age of 16 and “retired” at the age of 26.) and feel grateful to have the talent and courage to pursue this sort of lifestyle. I’ve been to almost every U.S. state (excluding Alaska and the Dakotas) as well as various cities around the world — Paris, Amsterdam, Taiwan, Yokohama, Toronto, etc. I loved seeing all the different cities and how different cultures interacted within themselves, with other cultures, and even with their surroundings.

As you can probably imagine, traveling the world was glorious, but it was not easy by any means. I lived out of a suitcase for 6 months at a time; missing family events while I was on tour was the norm; and our sense of “home” was based on how long we would be staying in Anytown, USA. We were also at the beck and call of the directors and the schedules they created. Rehearsals every day, 7 days a week from 9am to 6pm (or some days even later if we didn’t have a show); additional performances that really strained every minute for “ME” time; and when and what to eat (and usually how much to eat) were always decided for us. It’s not as bad as I just made it seem. Like I said, it was quite glorious. It was nice to not think about the outside world — everyday tasks were managed for me. It really allowed me to focus on why I was there: to be the best performer I could be.

Perfection is attainable…right?

Dancing, much like any other sport, is really tough on the mind, body, and spirit. To be the best, you really have to work hard and be committed to the craft (not to mention have good genes and be somewhat of a natural talent). After all, the producers don’t give solos to the 2nd-best dancer. Dancing is also very specific — there is only one correct way to stand in first position. Any slight variation thereof is, well, simply incorrect. One might perfect their skills in other sports (i.e., one might work hard enough to make 9 out of 10 free throws), but in dance, there is always something that can be improved. So the idea of dancing “perfectly” does not exist. Yet, to be accomplished in dance, you constantly strive for this perfection. The struggle to jump higher is real. Turn faster. Turn faster! TURN FASTER! Even though these pressures mainly came from within myself, I became so worried (and obsessed) about being the best that nothing I did was ever good enough. Somehow, I thought I could achieve something better than perfection.

This battle bled into all aspects of my life: from personal relationships and self-confidence to body image and diets. Especially the latter. I distinctly remember a moment during the high point of my career. We were in dress rehearsal, putting together the finishing touches before our big opening night. At this point, we were all dancing 7 days a week for 6 to 7 hours per day. I was in peak fitness. I also wasn’t eating much because there was a portion of the performance where the men had to perform shirtless, and well, I was self-conscience about that since I wanted to look perfect. I mustn’t have weighed more than 130 pounds (I’m 5’10”.). My director approached me and suggested I watch my diet for the next few days because I would be standing next to some of the other men. She glanced over at the skinniest performer. She didn’t need to say the words, “and you are bigger than he is,” as the look was enough for me to really think about what I was doing and, more importantly, why I was doing it.

That moment was so pivotal to my career as a dancer. For me, dancing was like having a relationship with a double-edged sword. I loved to dance and was so passionate to share that with the world. I was enamored by the craft, while being pricked by both ends, as dancing created an environment that allowed me to neglect healthy eating and nutrition choices. I have trouble dealing with and embracing my own body image (The constant critiques towards a dancer are never-ending.); I struggle with the concept of working out to live a healthy life versus exercising to burn calories/lose weight; and even more, I have a hard time figuring out how to tune in to my body to find what I want to eat, when to eat it, and, more importantly, when to stop eating because I’ve reached an acceptable level of fullness.

Now (over 15 years later), my life is completely different. I’m not dancing anymore, so there’s that. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to dance into retirement, so I decided to pursue a different career and won’t bore you with those details now…just know that my life as a world traveler is much less exciting. What is exciting though is that I’m the leader of my own ship. I am in control of how my story goes, and I’ve come to love this freedom in most aspects of my life.

Setting expectations

Years following, I had the hardest time staying “in shape” — I would try any sport that would help me keep the pounds off: yoga, running, triathlons, obstacle course races. And even though all the training helped to maintain my body shape, I was still unhappy with the results I was experiencing. After talking to my sister-in-law about her nutritionist, I thought I’d give it a shot.

You should’ve seen me in my first session with Jonah — looking back now, I think it was quite comical — I came into the office, strong and confident, ready to establish expectations for our future work. I said, “Listen, you can put me on any kind of diet, but I won’t give up my sweets. I love them too much!” I didn’t realize I had the experience all wrong — it wasn’t about the sweets. I would then be educated about the different theories of nutrition, their applications, and the work I had ahead of me.

During our sessions, we would work on binge eating, recognizing fullness, honoring my hunger, and celebrating my relationship with food. We talked about embracing my body image and what that meant for me. We formalized strategies for upcoming occasions where my old habits would challenge my new relationship with food. Most importantly, we didn’t give up my sweets!

So…about that win!

As I mentioned earlier, I have trouble accepting my level of fullness. I went from being told what to eat to complete eating freedom, so you can imagine the binge eating every Thanksgiving, year after year, leaving the dinner table filled to the brim with stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes. You name it, I would eat it — if I didn’t really like the taste — or even if I was already full — or because there was something about missing out on the taste that I couldn’t let go — or because I didn’t want to upset the host by not eating the food they’d so lovingly prepared for us that day.

I wanted this Thanksgiving to be different from previous years, however. This year, I came to dinner with a plan on how I was going to eat during this meal, and I was determined to stick to it! (Spoiler alert: I did!)

Plan of attack

Through my work with Jonah, we were able to formulate a plan, and it was simple (in theory). I was going to take an inventory of the available foods during our Thanksgiving feast. As I walked around, I recognized foods that were appealing to me — I really tried to tune in to my intuitive eating skills — and what foods I could skip out on. I say “in theory” because by doing inventory, I also had to accept the foods that were appealing and give myself permission to eat those foods without guilt (For the record, I love bread and butter…lots and lots of butter.).

The result: I don’t really like all three varieties of stuffing, I don’t need to eat them all, and no one was going to heckle me about trying them all. Most everyone else was too busy serving themselves anyway. This quick walk-through allowed me to really honor and respect my hunger. It gave me the opportunity to carefully select the foods I was so excited to eat — it was Thanksgiving after all.

For the first time I can remember, I left Thanksgiving dinner feeling comfortable in my own skin (and clothes) by not overeating. I am still on the high from this win, and it helps give me confidence going in to whatever meal comes next. It might not be the most exciting win, nor does it mean I am over battling my other eating issues. But it is a “W” in my column.

Don’t get me wrong

I have good days and bad days. There are days where I eat multiple times throughout the day without ever consulting my intuitive eater. There are times when I feel like I really need to get to the gym to burn off that cookie I had earlier. Even though my day-to-day’s nutrition success fluctuates, what I’ve realized is that it’s a work in progress, and I won’t deny myself (and you shouldn’t either) the ticks in the “W” column (the everyday wins). I’ve earned that “W” and proudly display it on my sleeve (Ok, not literally. I am writing this anonymously, so if I wore a “W” on my sleeve, it might give me away.). You should too. No matter how big or small.

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.

The Struggle Is Real

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The following is a guest column by one of Joanne’s patients, Ashley, a 28-year-old female. We sincerely thank her for sharing her story.

Processed foods.  Whole foods.  Organic.  GMOs.  Good Foods.  Bad foods.

When did all of these labels become so powerful? When did we stop listening to what our bodies wanted to eat, rather than what the media deemed appropriate? If you are a person living in this country, my guess is that your food intuition got drowned out somewhere in your childhood/adolescent years. For many, once we gained the wherewithal to understand the outside world and the messages being thrown at us via TV, radio, internet, we were no longer allowed to listen to our bodies and were told the “right” and “wrong” ways to eat. Or maybe you are one of the rare people that maintains a healthy, nonjudgmental relationship with food. If so, please don’t change your ways; you are unique and courageous.

Let me start by saying that I have been in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder for about three years. At the height of my eating disorder, I felt as though I could not escape the judgmental voices in my head that were only amplified by the outside messages I was receiving. I have never been considered an overweight child or adult, but at a young age, I became hyperaware of my food habits and developed an overwhelming fear of being fat. Growing up in an affluent town, where the pressure to succeed in every way, shape, and form became the standard, maintaining a “thin” ideal was the only way I felt I could succeed, as I did not believe I was successful enough in my studies at school. I was very studious and maintained As and Bs, but this was not comparable to the others around me in high-level AP courses with perfect scores. With this frame of mind, I turned to food restriction in the hope that if I couldn’t be the smartest, I would strive for the “perfect” body instead – whatever that even means.

I later learned that food would become a perceived source of control for when anxiety took hold in my life. Generalized anxiety, with a bit of obsessive compulsive behavior, is a genetic component of my brain chemistry that I inherited; it is a feature I share with others in my family. This seems to be a common theme amongst those with eating disorders, and thus I am not unique in this. My life became consumed with thoughts of food, body image, and the fear of becoming fat. I never thought I was dieting, just “eating healthy.” Striving to increase fruit and vegetable intake, and getting physical activity, in and of itself is a great thing. However, it is commonly a gateway mindset to disordered eating. What most people don’t understand is that an eating disorder is not something that is chosen or easily reversed. A lot of people have said to me “just eat,” or “you have nothing to worry about; you’ve never been overweight.” Trust me, I would not choose a life full of counting calories and innate voices telling me that if I maintain my thinness, I am a better, more beautiful person. That is an insurmountable amount of pressure to be put under, so no, I did not choose to think and act this way. Of course, an eating disorder, while potentially deadly in its own right, is not necessarily a terminal disease, and for that I am very grateful, but that does not mean my story is any less important or challenging. It is a taboo social/mental health issue that we don’t often discuss (until most recently), but I would like to put an end to that. Many of us suffer in silence with voices telling us that we are not thin enough, or that if we put on weight, we will not be loved. I myself did not have the discussion with many of my closest friends until a year or more into recovery.

I can tell you that although I have come a remarkably long way in my journey to recovery, these voices never go away; they only get quieter. I have come to terms with the fact that this may be my own destiny, but that doesn’t necessarily mean food has to run my life in a negative fashion. It has been embedded into our brains as a society that there is a certain way to eat, and not to eat. For some reason, food has gained a moral power, and we are judged on character by what and how much we eat on any given day. For those of us who have struggled with any form of eating disorder, it feels nearly impossible to ignore the flood of messages we receive on an hourly basis regarding food choices. For some, it may be easier to block these harmful messages out, and for that, I am envious.

By nature, I am an easy target for the influence of what I refer to as “Ed” (as in Eating Disorder), the alter ego voice that reinforces negative and irrational food thoughts and behaviors. I was an insecure child growing up in a high-pressure minicosm within a larger society that places increasing value on the “thin ideal.” Trying to navigate the steps to recovery has felt impossible at times in the modern-day era, where food and body size remains a constant topic of conversation. This hyperawareness of food is a fairly novel phenomenon. The seemingly harmless recipe blogs found on Pinterest, fitness blogs, and health research articles have grown in numbers, highlighting the fact that food obsession has become the norm. There have been periods in recovery where I had to deactivate my Facebook account and/or unfollow certain websites in order to regain my sanity and focus on what works for MY body and holistic self. The number of conflicting (and often untrue) facts and opinions on the “best,” “healthiest,” “clean” diets, available at our fingertips is more harmful to achieving a “normal” food mentality than we realize. Even something as seemingly innocent as family, coworkers, and friends asking what I was having for lunch or dinner, or what was in the lunch I brought to work. The analysis and chatter regarding food trends and health is inescapable, and when I took a step back and became aware of it, I recognized my OWN disordered comments with others. I became more sensitive to asking others about their food habits, or how I complimented them, such as the common, well-meaning “Wow, have you lost weight? You look great!” The number of disordered messages that this single statement holds is often overlooked, as weight loss is praised and often equated with beauty.

A very tricky component of my recovery process is that I enjoy cooking (and have to say I am quite decent at it). I often justified cooking my own meals because it was cheaper and “healthier.” Now while that is certainly true, I now realize that measuring and calorie counting every morsel of every meal provided me with an immense feeling of control. I continued with these obsessive thoughts and behaviors for over 3 years, and only about a month ago did I literally throw out any form of measuring cup or spoon. Over the past year, I began forcing myself to eat out once a week or more, where I couldn’t count calories or micromanage the ingredients in whatever I ordered. What I have learned in regards to this is that control feels safe, but rebellion is uncomfortable, and progress often does not occur without discomfort.

In my recovery process, the practice of “intuitive eating” has truly given me hope. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this style of eating, it is basically a practice of getting in touch with your body’s needs, wants, cravings, and satiety. Instead of “how many calories are in this sandwich?” or “how many calories have I eaten today?” the focus shifts to “what is my body in the mood for, and how can I create that? What type and quantity of food is going to make me feel nourished and energetic?” I have to say that honoring my hunger intuitively has been one of the most difficult challenges throughout the recovery process, but without a doubt, the most rewarding and satisfying. Eating without internal judgment? I have never known what that feels like or what it truly means. I may never fully recover from my eating disorder and have come to terms with that idea. However, I continue to learn about my body and coping skills in ways that I never thought possible. I will continue to have great days and very anxious days, but overall, I can say with confidence that life is truly brighter when food freedom feels just within my grasp.

Gentlemen, the Ladies Do Not Hold a Monopoly on Weight Obsession

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Gentlemen, the ladies do not hold a monopoly on weight obsession. Us guys engage in diet talk and body shaming, too. You know that, right? Maybe not, actually, as such talk is so casual and commonplace that you might not even be aware (consciously, anyway) of its pervasiveness. Consider the interaction I had yesterday evening at the gym with a male acquaintance we will call “Brad,” whom I had not seen in a long while.

Brad walked past me as I was warming up on the Arc Trainer prior to a tennis match. He had just finished a spin class and stopped to say hello. Brad and I first met 16 years ago while taking a core-strengthening class together, but the only place I had seen him in recent years was when we occasionally bumped into each other at the local pub where he eats dinner every Friday.

“You’re in nutrition. What do you order when you go there?” Brad asked with a smirk. Although he did not specifically say so, I knew exactly what he was getting at: He wanted to know if I follow a strict diet or eat freely like a perceived hypocrite, hence the mention of my profession.

Pausing, I considered the various replies at my disposal. On one hand, this was an opportunity to reeducate Brad regarding both the nature of my work and the problems with a good/bad food dichotomy. On the other hand, this was also my free time, and really I just wanted a few minutes to myself to get loose before heading out to the court, not an obligation to broach complex topics when I had neither the time nor inclination to do them justice.

“I order what I want,” I finally told him. “I order what feels like the best choice for my body at the time,” and specifically cited the pizza and nachos, which are my salty favorites to replenish the sodium I lose during long runs. (Note: By no means am I implying that one needs to exercise in order to “earn” these menu items or any other food.)

Then I asked him if he has seen our mutual friend (Let’s call him “Gary.”) who resumed exercising earlier this year after a long absence. “He’s down 40 or 50 pounds,” Brad responded, “He looks great!” Again, I paused and internally debated my next move. At the very least, I knew there was no way I would echo Brad’s praise for weight loss, as I know the damage such extolment causes, especially without fully knowing how or why someone lost weight.

“Weight loss aside, I’m just glad he is taking the time to care for himself again,” I told Brad. Like me, Gary was an avid exerciser, which is how he and I met at the gym soon after I graduated from college, but the burden of his caretaking duties increased as the health of his parents deteriorated and he no longer felt up to working out. His mother and father subsequently passed away in quick succession, which left Gary to settle their estate and figure out what to do with his own life. After everything Gary had been through, I was just happy to see him caring for himself again and returning to the activities he enjoys, including exercise, regardless of his weight.

Unfortunately, Brad did not seem to follow the gist of my sentiments and continued talking about Gary’s weight loss, adding that he has seen Gary do this at least a few times before. By “this,” Brad was referencing Gary’s history of weight cycling: alternating periods of weight loss and subsequent regain. “But not like you have to worry about that yourself,” Brad offered, looking down at my abdomen. “You’re always in great shape.”

Great shape? One of the problems with judging people for their exteriors is that we probably have no idea about the makeup of their interiors, both metaphorically and literally. Too taken aback by Brad’s comment to say anything out loud, I silently reflected upon everything I have been through over the last three years and specifically turned my thoughts to the titanium screws and rods, artifacts from my third back surgery, buried deep inside the midsection of which Brad is apparently so envious.

As is the case for everybody, my size and shape are influenced by many factors, the most significant of which are out of my hands. Among those that are at least somewhat in my control though is my history of never having tried to lose weight, which would have put me on a path most likely to end at, ironically enough, weight gain. In that sense, part of the reason I do not have a “weight problem” is because I never viewed my weight as a problem.

Think about the diet talk and various mentions of body shape and weight that Brad crammed into a casual conversation that lasted just a few minutes. Comments and discussions along these lines are so prevalent that I overhear men talking this way at the health club on a daily basis. Another recent incident comes to mind in which some of my fellow tennis players – adults, no less – bullied another player for the size of his stomach.

The problems with such talk are numerous, including: the reinforcement of the ridiculous, offensive, and dangerous notion that people of certain sizes and weights are more deserving of respect than others; the exacerbation of bullying and unequal treatment that spills well beyond health clubs and into our homes, businesses, classrooms, government initiatives, and doctor’s offices; and the pressure to pursue weight-loss endeavors that most often result in weight gain and worsened health.

Guys, this kind of talk has to stop, and the first steps toward putting it to rest are acknowledging its existence and realizing the harm we are doing to each other through our words.

He Said, She Said: Sports and Nutrition

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He Said

Leading up to this month’s Newport Marathon, I solicited advice from colleagues around the world as well as fellow marathoners regarding fueling strategies that might help me to avoid the nausea that plagued me in earlier endurance events.

The suggestions I received were all over the place: Eat boiled potatoes with salt late in the race. Pack maple syrup in a fanny pack and drink it periodically along the course. Eat bananas, orange wedges, gummy bears, white bread, salt bagels, or jelly beans. Drink Gatorade, Pedialyte, flat beer, coconut water, Nuun, Skratch Labs, or mix the latter two together.

As I sifted through the various suggestions, I realized I was looking at a great example of the intersection between the hard science of nutrition and intuitive eating. During endurance events, we need to replenish fluids, carbohydrates, and electrolytes, but how we do that must be individualized based on what works for each one of us; thus we need the gamut of ideas. How we determine what works best for us is by trying various approaches based upon sound nutrition guidance and personal history, paying attention to how each trial makes us feel, and basing new iterations largely on firsthand experience.

Sometimes we, as patients, have a tendency to defer entirely to our practitioners. We see comfort in directives. “Just tell me what to eat,” a patient may say. In reality, a collaborative approach tends to be much more effective in part because determining the best path involves the patient’s input and experiences. Hydrating with a particular beverage may seem great on paper, for example, but if it disagrees with the patient’s system, then we need to form a different strategy.

Patient input is one of the most significant differences between textbook nutrition and nutrition in real life, which is why Joanne and I strive to create an atmosphere of collaboration and equality at our practice. Only our patients know how various foods make them feel, so we focus on building intuitive eating skills in part so they are able to recognize and communicate these experiences.

Leading up to the marathon, I treated every athletic endeavor as an opportunity to experiment and gather data regarding how various foods and fluids made me feel. One of the drinks I tried during a tennis practice failed to hit the spot whatsoever, but better to find that out during a casual hitting session than during an important training run or the marathon itself. Another beverage worked really well once I was actually running but made me jittery beforehand. Some foods gave me cramps and made me feel sluggish whereas others settled better than I expected. All of these outcomes, even if they were not what I had hoped, represented important data.

As a result of my experiments, I knew exactly what I was going to eat and drink come race day. Breakfast consisted of white toast with peanut butter, honey, and sliced banana with orange juice and Nuun Active. Between breakfast and the start of the race, I drank Gatorade and water until a half hour before the start, at which time I downed more Nuun Active. During the race itself, I consumed Gatorade and bananas from the aid stations as well as Nuun Energy and salted pretzels that I brought with me. Worked like a charm.

If your takeaway from this column is that you should adopt my own specific food and hydration plan during your own athletic events, then unfortunately you have missed the point: the importance of individuality. As I downed the last of my Nuun Active before the start, my friend with whom I ran the race strapped small vials of maple syrup to her waist, a fueling technique that she knew from experience would work for her. If she and I had swapped strategies, both of us would probably have felt awful. We are all different, so figuring out what works best for you is a process that involves both guidance from a professional as well as your own input based on firsthand experiences.

 

She Said

From a young age, I participated in a variety of team sports, including soccer, softball, and volleyball. While I truly loved playing these sports, my family was a tennis family, in that tennis was a sport that we all learned to play as children and enjoyed playing together. As I got older, I played tennis less and less, usually just hitting the ball around for fun with my family on vacations or with Jonah on a public court during the summer. But about 3 years ago, I decided to get back into the sport that I had enjoyed so much in my youth, so I joined several local women’s tennis teams.

While my overall experience on these teams has been overwhelmingly positive, whenever the topic of food or weight comes up, I have noticed some troubling trends. Whether it is one of my teammates or one of our opponents, a number of these women exhibit quite disordered ideas about food and weight.

When I was new to one of my teams, I remember one of my teammates asking me what I do for a living. After I told her that I work primarily with individuals struggling with eating disorders (EDs), she jokingly commented, “Oh, I so wish I had an eating disorder! I just can’t seem to lose these pesky 10 pounds!” I was very quick to correct her and explain how dangerous and life-threatening EDs are and that they are not simply something that someone can choose to engage in or not to lose a few pounds.

In addition to misunderstanding EDs and the seriousness of these disorders, many of the tennis women I encounter seem to struggle with diet mentality. A couple of years ago, I remember one of my tennis friends casually mentioning that one of the primary reasons she plays so much tennis is that it allows her to eat whatever she wants. In fact, I have heard this sentiment from other tennis peers, implying that they view tennis first and foremost as a way to burn calories.

At nearly all of my tennis matches, the home team provides food for the visitors and themselves. Depending on the time of the matches, the foods offered can range from simple snacks to pretty substantial lunches. Of course, with all of this food come a lot of shame, guilt, and judgments. I overheard one group of ladies on an opposing team debating whether they would have one of the cookies offered, with one of them declaring that she does not allow herself any “white carbs.” Other times I have seen women eating only salad or protein, as they are “trying to be good.”

Diets are a hot topic at many of my matches and practices. From Paleo to Whole 30 to Shakeology, a great number of the tennis women engage in restrictive eating in one form or another. One of my tennis friends started a cleanse not too long ago because she felt like she really needed to “detox” her liver and other organs. Another friend has been eschewing carbohydrates during the week and only indulging in them on her “cheat days.” As one might imagine, I try not to engage in any diet conversations as they can become quite charged. But when I mention what I do for a living, it seems like many of these women are only too happy to talk to me about food and nutrition.

I really don’t blame these tennis ladies for their disordered ideas about food, nutrition, and weight – they are subject to the numerous fear-mongering messages we all receive from our doctors, from the media, and from our friends and family. Talking about one’s diet or weight has become so commonplace that the idea of not talking about it seems strange somehow. But just think about all of the other things we could discuss! All of the ideas and stories we could share with each other! Wouldn’t that be more fun than talking about how to lose those pesky 10 pounds?

At the end of the day, I try to pick my battles. If someone asks me about my thoughts on dieting or certain foods, I will oblige. I try to be gentle with them around my strong anti-diet philosophy as it can be quite surprising and confusing for many people. When it comes to EDs, I do my best to educate those who ask about them. So far, many of my teammates have expressed interest in the idea of intuitive eating and the non-diet approach, so I have tried to point them in the right direction by recommending books and other resources. If I can somehow help even one of them to ditch the diets and begin to appreciate their body for what it can do (e.g., play tennis!), then I will feel like I have made a difference.

He Said, She Said: Obesity Awareness Month

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He Said

The concept of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month is flawed in several ways, many of which Joanne covers in her She Said passage. The most glaring issue, in my opinion, is that by promoting the use of weight as a proxy for health, the government is paradoxically distracting from matters of actual health.

Human beings can be healthy at a variety of weights, which is why we cannot draw accurate conclusions about someone’s health or behaviors based solely on their size. Thin folks can have plenty of medical woes. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a slender friend of mine who was diabetic, suffered a heart attack, and ultimately died of cancer. Someone might be thin due to food insecurity, a medical condition, psychological disturbances, eating disorders or disordered eating, or overexercise, just to name a few of the health-threatening issues that might lead to lowered body weight.

With a focus on obesity, not only do we miss an opportunity to identify and assist people at risk for or suffering from these problems, but we actually push them in the direction of trouble. For example, I have recently seen an increase in pediatric patients, including males, with eating disorders or disordered eating that reportedly stemmed from a fear of getting fat brought on by discussions at school or the doctor’s office.

One of my teenage patients recently told me how his pediatrician praised him for having lost weight from one annual checkup to the next after having chastised him the year before, but what his doctor did not know was that my patient had overexercised and restricted his food intake leading up to the appointment for fear that his doctor would again be mad at him if he had not lost weight. My patient’s behaviors brought him further away from health, not towards it, and the poor communication between him and his doctor puts him at risk for improper care in the future. Furthermore, food restriction elevates his risk for binge eating disorder and, ironically, ultimate weight gain.

Trust me, children who are obese already know it. They hear about it on the playground, in gym class, on television, online, maybe in the pediatrician’s office, and from other sources that tell them something is wrong with their bodies and it is their fault. National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month calls even more attention to them and their bodies, thereby exacerbating stigmatization and bullying.

The concept of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month may be well intentioned, but its fallout is the exact opposite of the desired effect. If we want to improve the actual health of our children, better to promote size diversity and the importance of healthy behaviors, such as fun and appropriate physical activity, for everybody.

 

She Said

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Per the HHS website, “one in 3 children in the United States are overweight and obese,” putting kids at risk for developing health problems such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. The website goes on to say that childhood obesity is preventable, as “communities, health professionals, and families can work together to create opportunities for kids to eat healthier and get more active.” Some of the strategies that the HHS recommends are nutrition based, such as “keeping fresh fruit within reach” and providing healthier food options at school, and other strategies are focused on activity levels, such as encouraging families to go on an after-dinner walk and incorporating daily physical activity at school.

While I actually applaud the strategies put forth by the HHS to improve kids’ health, I am saddened to see the focus be on body size. Thanks to Michelle Obama, childhood obesity is at the forefront of the American consciousness. Kids are being weighed and measured at school and then later sent home with a health report card telling them whether they are at a “healthy” body mass index (BMI) or are in the “overweight” or “obese” categories. Even though the medical community as a whole willingly acknowledges that the BMI is woefully flawed as an indicator of health status, it still condones its use in determining the health of our kids. Time and time again, studies have shown that behaviors rather than weight are a better determinant of health, but unfortunately, this is not being reflected in current policy.

My greatest concern is the effect that focusing on childhood obesity could be setting up kids to develop eating disorders (EDs). I cannot tell you how many preteens who have stepped into my office had been sent home with their BMI report card and then developed either extremely disordered eating or an actual diagnosable ED. What often happens is that the parents become alarmed at their child’s negative BMI report and will start to impose harsh diet restrictions and exercise ultimatums. I had one patient whose father promised her and her sister iPads if they both lost weight. Not only would he limit their access to “junk” food, he would make them run laps around their neighborhood after dinner every night. As a result of this, the patient developed a very disordered relationship with food and her body. This story is not unique, unfortunately. I have heard it too many times to count.

So, I have a few issues with the HHS’s focus on obesity. First of all, I don’t believe that we should have schools be weighing and measuring kids and sending them home with a BMI report card. Instead, the child’s pediatrician and parents should be the gatekeepers of the child’s health. Every child has their own unique growth charts – some trend on the higher end of weight for height, while others trend on the lower end of the chart. In other words, some kids are just meant to be in bigger bodies, while others are meant to be in smaller bodies. These body sizes do not tell us anything about the child’s health unless there are major changes in either direction. For instance, one would expect a child trending on the 85th percentile to stay at that percentile. If there was a sharp drop to the 50th percentile, that would be cause for concern. Similarly, if a child was trending on the 50th percentile and then jumped up to the 90th percentile, that should also be looked at. One body type is not inherently healthier than the other – every body is unique.

In addition, I think it is so important to not speak negatively about a child’s weight. Kids are like sponges, and they pick up on everything. Talking with one’s child about how their body works and teaching them how to take care of it is one thing, but telling a child that they are too big and need to lose weight is extremely damaging and can set the child up for years of negative body image and a life of disordered eating. Many EDs start when a well-meaning parent tries to teach their child to diet and use exercise to burn calories. In fact, there are a number of studies that show that when children are put on restricted diets, they will often end up being heavier adults.

Also, I think that if a parent has concerns about his or her child’s weight, they should talk with their child’s pediatrician separately (i.e., not with the child in the room). Instead of telling the parent that their child simply needs to lose weight, it would be wonderful if pediatricians did not just make an assumption based solely on the child’s weight that the child is engaging in unhealthy behaviors. If it is determined that the child is in fact not practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors, it would be best if the doctor just focused on helping the child develop these healthy habits (perhaps by referring them to a registered dietitian or other health care provider) and measure the child’s progress by their weight.

Given that, I don’t think that National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month is helpful at all in helping our kids lead healthier lives. By teaching them that weight is synonymous with health, we are doing them a major disservice. Perhaps September could instead be called National Healthy Habits Awareness Month? Just a thought.