Welcome to Food Insecurity

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The pasta aisle at the Wellesley Whole Foods on March 13, 2020.

Some of the earliest dietary guidelines emphasized high-calorie foods, like butter and margarine, because so many young men were failing their military physicals due to malnutrition. Unlike some of our ancestors, who struggled through or perished in famines or economic depressions, my generation in this country has been lucky in that we could take our access to food for granted.

Of course, numerous exceptions exist. Needham’s food pantry and the SNAP stickers on supermarket refrigerators are evidence that some of our very own neighbors struggle to get enough to eat. When I visited grocery stores on isolated Native American reservations in middle-of-nowhere regions of Montana and North Dakota in 2006, I was floored by how limited the selections were. Poverty and food deserts are not the sole factors that can limit access to food, as some of my pediatric patients growing up in restrictive households could tell us. Dieters know that food scarcity can be self-imposed.

For the rest of us, the panic surrounding COVID-19, the associated hoarding of supplies, and the resulting empty shelves have inducted us into a sensation that so much of the human race has known, but we were too privileged to experience it firsthand.

Welcome to food insecurity.

Whether or not our food supply chain is actually at risk for significant disruption, the mere perception of a threat is enough to trigger feelings of food insecurity. We see the pasta shelves and potato bins empty, the milk section vacant, frozen produce nowhere to be found, and other typical supermarket staples gone, and we feel a visceral reaction that we had better get what we can while we can. Hence, we hear stories of people making purchases that in other circumstances would make little sense. For example, one of our patients was at Costco and ended up buying a gallon of mayonnaise, a condiment she does not even typically use, just because she could get her hands on it in the midst of the frenzy.

We can understand why. Dieters know that restriction, or the mere threat of it, triggers overconsumption. Thematically, little difference exists between someone loading up a shopping cart with whatever items they can and a person who overeats on the weekend while telling themselves, “Diet starts Monday.”

When it comes time to eat, the veil of food insecurity might compel us to finish all that we have served ourselves, lest we “waste” food by leaving it uneaten. My suggestions are to understand the source of these feelings and to validate them, but also to realize you still have a choice and remove moralization from whatever decision you make.

Keep in mind that we have in our lineage ancestors who survived extraordinary circumstances and may have attempted – for better or for worse – to instill their survival skills in us. For example, my grandparents, who grew up during the Great Depression, used to pressure me to clean my plate. As another example, one of my patient’s grandmothers is a Holocaust survivor and made it through her horrific ordeal by eating whatever she could whenever she could because her next feeding opportunity was never guaranteed; like my grandparents, she pressures my patient to eat more than he can comfortably consume, too.

In terms of what to do about potential overconsumption, there is no blanket answer that is right for everyone. Instead, I encourage people to be aware of the dynamics involved in their eating decisions, including any pressures and threats related to food insecurity that might be at play.

Consider the role that stress might have in your eating decisions and know that – contrary to what diet culture tells us – emotional eating is an understandable and relatively benign response to these troubling times. We all have to deal with our stress somehow, and each of us has a different toolbox of coping strategies. Before you feel badly about eating extra in an effort to soothe yourself, remember there are people in your neighborhood reacting to their stress in much more destructive fashions, such as shooting heroin or beating up their spouse. Eventually, we can expand our repertoire of coping options so that eating is just one of many choices we can make to de-stress.

Ultimate decisions matter less than having taken the time to thoughtfully arrive at them. Weigh the pros and cons of whatever options you face while understanding that none of them is likely perfect, choose the one that in balance feels the most right to you, and know that you are neither guilty nor virtuous for whatever choice you make.

Keep in mind that these times will not last forever. Quarantines and social distancing directives will end, restaurant dining rooms will reopen, and grocery store shelves will be fully stocked once again. When they do, be on the lookout for residual behaviors that may date back to your days of food insecurity, as we know from our ancestors that such behaviors can stick around long after the threat is gone.

No Bargaining Needed

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About a month ago, I was watching one of my usual TV shows when a commercial came on for Ore-Ida French fries. Normally, I would skip ahead using my DVR fast forward button, but something made me pause. The commercial starts with a young girl and her father sitting at the family dinner table. The girl has a plate with broccoli on it. She pushes it away with a look of disgust on her face, her father pushes the plate back in front of her, and this gets repeated a couple of times until dad whips out three crinkle cut French fries in his hand. Immediately, the girl smiles, takes a bite of her broccoli, and then happily grabs the French fries. Meanwhile, the voiceover narrates: “Is mealtime a struggle? Introducing Ore-Ida Potato Pay. Where Ore-Ida Golden Crinkles are your crispy currency to pay for bites of this [broccoli] with this [French fries]. When kids won’t eat dinner, Potato Pay them to. Ore-Ida. Win at mealtime.”

Um, what now? Wow. Now, as the mother of a toddler who isn’t the most adventurous or enthusiastic eater, I get that parents often struggle at mealtimes with their kids. As parents, especially parents of young children, we are the “gatekeepers” of meals and snacks, deciding what food will be served and when. There is a lot of pressure on parents to make sure their kids are getting just the right amount – not too much, not too little – of nutrient-dense foods to ensure optimal health. Even prior to birth, mothers are reminded to eat as nutritiously as they can to give their developing baby the best chance of being healthy. This concern continues with infants, as many parents struggle with figuring out if breastfeeding, bottle feeding, and/or formula works best for them. And as these infants grow and eventually start eating solids, the worries about getting enough nutrition while avoiding “empty calories” commence. It’s stressful to be in charge of what your kids are eating (or not eating)!

As Jonah and I have written about previously, we believe that Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DOR) is the best way to help one’s children become competent intuitive eaters. In short, the DOR states that parents or caregivers decide what food will be served, at what intervals food will be served, and where food will be served. Children, on the other hand, are in charge of eating (or not eating) the offered food and how much they eat of said food. Parents/caregivers are encouraged to offer a wide variety of foods at meals and snacks, including not only “nutrient dense” options but also foods that the general public might consider to be “fun foods” that are high in sugar, fat, and/or salt. When using these strategies, children learn to trust their hunger and fullness cues, develop their palates, and learn to eat in a satiating and enjoyable way. They also learn that foods don’t have moral value; for instance, broccoli isn’t inherently superior to French fries, and all foods fit.

Clearly, bribing your child to eat their vegetables (or other foods they don’t want to eat) with “fun foods” is the exact opposite of the DOR. This teaches kids that they can’t trust their own bodies to tell them what and how much to eat. It teaches kids that the only way to eat broccoli is to choke it down in order to earn French fries. It takes all agency away from the child and turns the parent/caregiver into the food warden. Instead of helping kids try and figure out what foods they enjoy (which could include broccoli!), this technique basically punishes kids for having preferences. It can and will create even more stress and power struggles around mealtimes.

Look, I get it. I, myself, have had to curb my instinct to try to push more “nutritious” foods on our daughter when all she seems to want to eat are the high fat, salty or sugary foods. I want her to be healthy! I don’t want her to have nutrient deficiencies! But I also have to remind myself that intervening in her side of the DOR is overstepping my bounds and that by putting some foods up on a pedestal and pushing them on her, I would be teaching her that foods are either “good/healthy” or “bad/unhealthy.” Instead, I want her to know that all foods fit and that I trust her body to tell her when it is feeling more in the broccoli mood or in the French fry mood. I know that she will eventually get plenty of messages around food from her peers, teachers, and TV, but I hope that by instilling the principles of intuitive eating and DOR early on, I can prevent her from getting sucked into diet and wellness culture.

WHETHER U BELIEVE U CAN OR CAN’T ONLY SOMEWHAT MATTERS!

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Anything is possibleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” Kevin Garnett was already one of my favorite basketball players long before he came to Boston and helped the Celtics to win the 2008 championship, but his famous post-victory line made me cringe. No, Kevin, while I understand you were excited and trying to inspire, empower, and motivate, let’s be real: Anything is not possible.

The message board outside Needham’s Mitchell Elementary School triggered a similar reaction when I passed by it earlier this month. “WHETHER U BELIEVE U CAN OR CAN’T YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!” What are we teaching the children in this town, I questioned, and I am not even referencing the problematic grammar that seems to acquiesce to the texting generation.

As someone who was raised on The Little Engine That Could, I can appreciate the power of motivational messages that encourage children to believe in themselves, show courage, and put forth their best efforts. After all, sometimes we sell ourselves short and assume something is out of our reach, when really we could have grasped it if only we took a chance and tried.

However, the little engine’s famous mantra is “I think I can,” not “I know I can,” and the difference of just a single word reflects a broad and important truth: While we can control our behaviors to an extent, outcomes depend on more than just our actions and are often subject to factors that are out of our hands.

Competitive runners learn that time is more in their control than placement, as the latter depends on who else is racing. For example, I may go into a race fully believing in my heart that I can finish in the top ten, but if the Kenyan national team shows up to run, all the self-belief in the world is not going to overcome my competition’s skill. Even finishing time, which is more in one’s control than placement, is still subject to exterior forces, such as weather, that can slow down the entire field.

Life experience has taught me that someone using the language of certainty, such as the verb “will,” when discussing outcomes that are only somewhat in their control is a red flag that the person has lost some touch with reality. One of my first jobs as a dietitian was at a startup medical clinic that boasted that they would expand to 50 locations across the country and build a headquarters complete with a farm and even their own medical school. The leaders disapproved of and took exception to pragmatic questions about the feasibility of their stated goals and used language of certainty when discussing the company’s future. A few years after I left the company, they went out of business completely, having expanded to a total of two locations.

My gripe with the quote outside Mitchell School is not technical, unlike the guy who used logic and mathematics to pick apart the semantics of Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote; nor is it theoretical, as if I were overly worried about a potential impact that may never come to fruition.

Rather, my concerns are based on real experiences I have had with my patients, including children, who cite these sorts of motivational quotes as justification for putting themselves in harm’s way. This most commonly occurs in the context of a desire to lose weight, as some children have told me that they believe they can lose weight and keep it off if only they try hard enough.

While I admire their self-confidence, which will likely serve them well in so many other areas of life, weight regulation is the wrong place to assume that belief in oneself and hard work is enough to get the job done. The truth is that while numerous methods of inducing short-term weight loss exist, nobody has demonstrated an ability to produce long-term weight loss in more than a small fraction of the people who attempt to achieve it.

Some research has found “almost complete relapse” after three to five years, other data are more specific and suggest 90% to 95% of dieters regain all or most of the weight within five years, while other research has found that between one third and two thirds of people end up heavier than they were at baseline. Research in adolescents has found that dieters were three times more likely than non-dieters to become “overweight,” regardless of baseline weight.

To suggest that the people who regain weight simply did not believe in themselves ignores the reality that behaviors play only a small part in weight regulation while factors out of our hands, such as genetics and our gut microbial population, are largely responsible. As an example, consider folks with atypical anorexia nervosa who can implement life-threatening levels of restriction without experiencing weight loss.

Unfortunately, striving for weight loss is not a benign pursuit in which the worst-case scenario means that one simply returns to where they started. Research has shown that weight cycling – repeatedly losing and regaining weight – is associated with numerous health problems, including a higher overall death rate and an increased risk of dying from heart disease, regardless of one’s baseline weight.

Teaching self-confidence is important, but I think we can do better than overly simplistic messages that children can – and will – take literally to their own detriment.

Stop Complimenting Weight Loss

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On the surface, complimenting someone’s weight loss seems like a benign and positive affirmation, but there are a number of reasons why doing so is problematic.

First and foremost, unless we have been told by the individual that their weight loss was intentional, we really have no clue as to why someone is losing weight. It could be due to illness, grief, or depression. It could also be as a result of an eating disorder (ED). Many of my patients say that comments about their weight loss when they were in the throes of their eating disorder fueled the disorder and made them feel like they had to keep up their disordered behaviors in order to keep their body “in check.” This goes double for patients with anorexia who are in larger bodies. These individuals often go undiagnosed with an ED because their weight loss is seen as a positive thing, never mind that they are engaging in extreme restriction and over-exercise to achieve this loss.

While I was never formally diagnosed with an ED, I myself remember when I was a teenager and engaged in very disordered eating and exercise habits and ended up losing a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. Despite the fact that I had lost my period, had very little energy, avoided going out to eat for fear of having to eat “junk” food, and overall felt awful and obsessive, I got compliment after compliment from family, friends, and even from my doctor. I even remember my doctor saying to me, “I don’t care what you are doing to lose the weight, just keep doing it!” I cringe just thinking about it!

Another reason to stop complimenting weight loss? It inherently implies that there was something wrong with the person’s body before they lost the weight. Think about it – do we ever comment on someone gaining weight in a positive light? Nope. These weight loss compliments also imply that being smaller or skinnier is better than being larger. The truth of the matter is that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and they all deserve respect. Placing smaller bodies on a pedestal reinforces the idea that people in larger bodies are less than. This is weight stigma, and it has been shown to negatively affect us not only psychologically, but physically as well. Furthermore, since we know that 95-98% of intentional weight loss attempts result in weight regain, the silence when someone regains the weight they lost can be deafening.

Finally, and possibly the most important reason, is to stop modeling this behavior for our children. Little ones are like sponges, and from a young age, they are acutely aware of our society’s dislike of fat people. One study found that children aged 6 to 11 hold considerable negative attitudes towards their heavier peers, being more likely to describe these “overweight” peers as “mean, stupid or dirty” than average-weight peers. Other studies found that “nearly a third of children age 5 to 6 choose an ideal body size that is thinner than their current perceived size” and that “by age 6, children are aware of dieting and may have tried it”. When we compliment another’s weight loss, we are telling our kids that to be smaller is better and that being fat is a bad thing.

What can we do instead? Don’t comment on another person’s body. Full stop. If you feel compelled to give a compliment, try complimenting the person’s kindness, humor, intelligence, or other attributes not related to body shape or size.

Intuitive Eating: An Introduction

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This article originally appeared as a guest piece in the Progress Wellness newsletter.

What the heck is intuitive eating? We often hear the term, but what does it mean, how can it help us, what are its common misconceptions, and how can we begin to put it into practice?

First, some context: In our society, we are often taught that we cannot trust our bodies and that we need something external from ourselves to guide our eating. Hence, we have calorie counting, tracking apps, points systems, lists of foods to eat and those to avoid, meal plans, and other tools that tell us what, when, and how much to eat.

Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is a system based on the reality that contrary to popular belief, we can actually trust our bodies to guide our eating decisions. Internal signals give us information regarding our hunger and fullness, what foods will hit the spot at any given eating occasion, and how much of those foods we need to feel satisfied. Think of how much better water tastes when we are thirsty versus when we are already well hydrated, for example. Someone with anemia might not know that red meat is high in iron; they just know that a hamburger sounds mighty fine.

In contrast to external tools, intuitive eating tends to be a more peaceful and satisfying way of making decisions regarding what, when, and how much to eat. Not only that, but clinical trials have also found that intuitive eating is associated with improvements in physiological measures (blood pressure, blood lipids), health behaviors (eating and physical activity habits, dietary quality), and psychosocial outcomes (body image, self-esteem).

Whereas diet culture has rules and judgment, intuitive eating offers guidelines and flexibility, and it encourages neutral curiosity when events do not transpire as one would hope. Some people turn intuitive eating into the “hunger and fullness diet” by believing that they must eat when they reach a certain level of hunger and must stop when a certain level of fullness is attained, but such action is an oversimplification and misuse of the skills. If someone practicing intuitive eating ends up overly full, rather than beating themselves up for it and judging themselves as bad or undisciplined, they will just explore what happened to see if perhaps next time they might want to make a different decision.

Some people use intuitive eating as a weight loss tool, but doing so is a mistake. While some individuals will lose weight when they eat intuitively, many will not. By focusing on weight loss, people are likely going to end up disappointed and also stunt their development as intuitive eaters.

We are born intuitive eaters, and internal eating cues still reside in virtually all of us. Even if we fear our signals are gone, more likely they are simply buried by years of disuse, and we can uncover them and put them to use once again.

As a first step, when you are considering eating, take a moment to ask yourself, “How hungry am I right now?” You can imagine hunger and fullness existing on a linear continuum with extreme hunger at one end and extreme fullness at the opposite end. Ask yourself where on that continuum you are. Keep in mind that this is never to be a leading question, and your answer has nothing to do with permission to eat. You are simply gathering data and trying to notice the signals that your body gives you.

As a second step, if you have decided you are going to eat, rather than jumping to immediately see what your options are, take a moment to first look inward. Ask yourself if a particular flavor (sweet, salty, spicy, etc.) would hit the spot. Similarly, consider temperature (hot, frozen, chilled, room temperature, etc.), texture (crunchy, smooth, liquid, etc.), and even color. You might not have answers for all of these questions, but even knowing one of them (Temperature tends to be easiest for most people to discern.) can give you some direction. With your answer(s) in mind, now survey your choices, whether on a restaurant menu or in your own pantry or refrigerator, and try choosing the food that most matches your identified criteria.

Most people who are looking to become intuitive eaters need more help than can be found in a blog. Consider seeking the help of a registered dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating, and remember to be patient, as it can often take six months to a year, or even longer, of work and practice before your intuitive eating skills once again take their natural place as your default decision-making tools.

“Sometimes I want to binge so bad.”

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A guy two months removed from spinal fusion surgery has no business moving a 45-pound plate. For that reason, in the late spring of 2014, I introduced myself to a new personal trainer at my gym and asked him to please put away the plate that another member had left on a machine so that I could use the equipment.

Typically, I shy away from new trainers, who tend to pitch themselves to virtually every member they meet in an effort to build their client rosters. As a former trainer myself, I get it, but I also do not like being pressured. This trainer was different though, and once I saw that he was not going to push me for a sale, I began talking with him on a regular basis. That hey-can-you-please-put-this-weight-away interaction turned out to mark the beginning of what has evolved into a friendship of sorts.

In the five years since, we have chatted about superficial matters, such as the rise and fall of the Celtics, as well as issues of more substance, like marriage and fatherhood. Despite the connection we have developed and my opinion that he is generally an excellent trainer, I have never referred my patients to him because of one factor that makes it ethically impossible for me to do so: He unintentionally encourages disordered eating.

Food and eating behaviors are common topics of conversation during his training sessions. Calories, cheat days, tracking apps, Halo Top, junk food, clean eating, intermittent fasting, and willpower are just some of the buzz words and trendy features of diet culture that I frequently hear him and his clients discuss.

My patients and I sometimes talk about these topics too, but the substance of our conversations is entirely different. Whereas I work towards dismantling diet culture and helping my patients understand the harm that comes from relating to food in such a way, this trainer sees these as positives. He tracks his calories, fasts, and weighs himself regularly, and he cites his own weight loss from the past year as evidence that his behaviors are the secrets to success that his clients should replicate.

Last week, one of his clients texted him to say he was going to be a half hour late. With an unexpected chunk of free time on his hands, the trainer came over and struck up a conversation with me while I was stretching. “Do you help people lose weight?” he asked. No, I do not, and I gave him my elevator speech explanation as to why.

His response somewhat surprised me. He told me how difficult weight loss was for him, how exhausting it is to track everything he eats, and how he just cannot keep up the behaviors. “Sometimes I want to binge so bad,” he conceded. The restriction is unmaintainable, he regains the 15 pounds he lost, then resolves to become lean again, reengages in his previous diet behaviors, again loses 15 pounds, and the cycle repeats.

In the last five years, I have overheard literally hundreds of conversations he has had with his clients regarding nutrition, many of which have referenced his own eating behaviors, but never have I witnessed him disclose his struggles and concerns as he did last week when none of his clients were around to hear about them.

So, I told him about the Ancel Keys starvation study and how binge behaviors were commonplace among the subjects once the dietary restrictions placed upon them were lifted. In their excellent book, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel explain the following:

“What these men [the study’s subjects] experienced as a result of their semi-starvation is typical of feelings and behaviors exhibited by dieters. When the men entered the refeeding portion of the study, the food restrictions were lifted. Free to eat what they wanted, the men engaged in binge eating for weeks yet continued to feel ravenous. They overate frequently, sometimes to the point of becoming ill, yet they continued to feel intense hunger. The men quickly regained the lost weight as fat. Most of the subjects lost the muscle tone they enjoyed before the experiment began, and some of the men added more pounds than their pre-diet weight. Only after weight was restored did the men’s energy and emotional stability return.”

Modern day dieting, I pointed out to the trainer, is really just self-imposed starvation, and it is completely understandable that dieters respond just like the study’s subjects. It is not a matter of willpower, but rather one of biological mechanisms, honed through evolution, that resist weight loss and encourage weight gain in order to help our species survive famines and other times of food scarcity.

Soon enough, our day’s conversation came to a close. He had to get ready to train his client, and it was time for me to head home and prepare for my own day’s work. Just before we went our separate ways, he told me that his clients have no idea how hard it is for him to try to maintain his eating behaviors, and we agreed that we never really know what someone else is dealing with behind the scenes.

Our parting sentiment is also the key takeaway from this blog. Said differently, consider the words of one of our most experienced and knowledgeable colleagues, Dr. Deb Burgard, who once said, “In almost 40 years of treating eating issues, I have found that when someone sits down across from me, I have no idea what they are going to tell me they are doing with food.”

In this trainer’s case, while many of his clients see him as a role model and look to him for nutrition advice, they do not realize that he is struggling and that the behaviors they seek to emulate are actually signs of disordered eating.

The Kids Are Alright

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Weight Watchers, I won’t call you by your new convenient moniker “WW” designed to try to fool the public that you aren’t all about the weight. You might try to kid yourself into thinking that you are just about “wellness” and that the goal of weight loss is just a byproduct of a “healthy lifestyle change.” Nope. It’s just the same crap in a slightly different package. Any way you slice it, the only thing you care about is your bottom line, not helping your customers get healthy. If you really understood health, you would realize that a lifetime of weight cycling, weight stigma, and self-loathing are far more damaging than just staying fat. 

Weight Watchers continues to spread the lie that intentional weight loss is attainable if you just try hard enough. And if you fail at maintaining your weight loss, you, not the diet, are to blame. Bull. If your program worked, you’d be out of business. Even your former financial director Richard Samber stated as much in an interview, explaining that repeat customers are “where your business comes from.”

Where is the evidence that Weight Watchers “works” anyways? The company is famously close-lipped around their long-term success rates. In fact, they cannot demonstrate that anyone, save for a measly tiny percentage of dieters, can keep off the weight they lose for more than five years. And those who do manage to keep the weight off often use disordered eating and exercise behaviors to do so.

Intentional weight loss endeavors, whether they are through Weight Watchers or any other diet or “lifestyle change,” fail 90-95% of the time. Yet our medical community continues to push weight loss on fat patients, telling them that they are at risk of death if they don’t lose the weight. For myself and many other fat people, going to the doctor can be an anxiety-inducing experience, as we are often met with weight stigma and advice to stop eating so much (even if that’s not what’s going on). Many fat people I know just avoid going to the doctor altogether to avoid this weight shaming. Is that health-promoting behavior? I don’t think so.

The notion that weight loss is achievable and maintainable is one of those common beliefs that is put forth by diet culture. Diet culture tells us that being fat is inherently unhealthy and unappealing, that those of us who cannot lose weight are lazy, inept, unintelligent individuals who just aren’t trying hard enough. Diet culture glosses over all of the research that shows how and why our bodies fight like hell against losing weight. Diet culture ignores the facts that repeated dieting and yo-yoing is actually much more physically harmful than just maintaining a higher weight and that shaming fat individuals is not helping anyone but is taking a toll on all of our health and well-being.

Weight Watchers’ latest endeavor, launching an app that targets children aged 8-17, makes my blood boil. In the iconic words of John McEnroe, you cannot be serious, Weight Watchers. Never mind all of the eating disorders that this app will help to create and/or encourage; this app contributes to the weight stigma that plagues our society. It reinforces the idea that being fat is a bad thing and that it must be avoided at all costs. It fosters a feeling of shame in heavier kids, a feeling of being “less than.” 

As a chubby (not fat) child, I was repeatedly told by my pediatrician and my family that my body was wrong. These messages and the messages I got from diet culture led me to develop disordered beliefs around food, exercise, and my body. It wasn’t until I found Health at Every Size that I finally figured out that my body is not to blame. My body doesn’t need to change. Our weight-shaming culture needs to change. And I am honestly scared for the legions of kids and teenagers who are exposed to this toxic culture.

Weight Watchers’ app will teach kids that they cannot trust their own bodies, that their own bodies are damaged or ill-equipped to tell them what and how much they need to eat. This app will create lifelong struggles for these kids, who likely will have a disordered relationship with food and their bodies for the rest of their lives. I cannot even wrap my mind around the amount of psychological and physical damage this program will cause. 

I don’t know if it’s the fact that I have a daughter myself now that this is striking such a chord with me. I fear for her. I don’t ever want her to feel like she needs to make herself smaller to be loved, accepted, or healthy. I don’t want her to spend her life trying to change her body and fear its appetites. I want her to be confident in her body, to trust that it will tell her what it needs, and that her weight is not the measure of her worth. 

So, Weight Watchers, I hope this program fails and you disappear into the ether sooner than later. 

Macy’s

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This month, Macy’s found themselves in hot water for selling plates, made by Pourtions, that many people criticized for encouraging eating disorders and fat shaming.

One of the plates, for example, features three concentric circles, the smallest of which is labeled “skinny jeans,” while the middle one reads “favorite jeans,” and on the largest of the three circles is emblazoned “mom jeans,” insinuating that the bigger the portion, the larger the pants size.

According to Huffington Post, Mary Cassidy, Pourtions’ president, explained, “Pourtions is intended to support healthy eating and drinking. Everyone who has appreciated Pourtions knows that it can be tough sometimes to be as mindful and moderate in our eating and drinking as we’d like, but that a gentle reminder can make a big difference. That was all we ever meant to encourage.”

Her company’s intentions do matter, for if they had purposely intended harm, then this would be a very different matter, but the impact remains the same whether their actions were malicious or an attempt at humor that missed the mark.

“These expectations can actually kill someone, and I know someone it has,” read a tweet from one responder, who elaborated that the plates spread a “toxic message, promoting even greater women beauty standards and dangerous health habits.”

Eating disorders are serious business. They can wreak havoc on one’s health, family, career, and life in general. And yes, they can be fatal. Additionally, they are more common than many people realize.

“As we all know, pressure to be thin leads to dieting, which can lead to a variety of problems, including eating disorders,” I wrote in the April 2016 issue of Boston Baseball. “These life-threatening illnesses are so common in Massachusetts that if the crowd at a sold-out Fenway Park represented a random sample of the state’s population, those in attendance with a diagnosed eating disorder would fill section 41,” which is a large section in the bleachers behind the Red Sox bullpen.

One does not even have to have a diagnosed eating disorder to be suffering the effects of diet culture and weight stigma. We see plenty of disordered eating which can be comprised of a constellation of symptoms, such as a strong good/bad food dichotomy or feelings of guilt and virtue associated with eating behaviors, that does not meet the diagnostic criteria for a specific eating disorder but can be just as disruptive and dangerous.

When we work with people recovering from eating disorders and disordered eating, we help them to uncouple judgment from their eating behaviors, and part of this work entails exploring where they learned such judgment in the first place.

The judgments implied by the Pourtions plates are so blatant that they are self-explanatory, but sometimes the message is more subtle. For example, Trader Joe’s has a line of “reduced guilt” products, such as their low-fat mac and cheese, which implies increased guilt for its full-fat counterpart. One might argue that the “reduced guilt” tag is a tongue-in-cheek marketing gimmick and is not to be taken to heart. Perhaps, but messages like these – whether in your face or toned down – are so commonplace that they are insidious.

Honoring internal eating cues is difficult to do in a society with pervasive messages that our bodies are not to be trusted. We have 100-calorie snack packs, for example, that people often utilize in an attempt to limit their consumption via an external control – in this case, the pre-portioned quantity – but the implication is that 100 calories is the correct amount to consume, that it should be enough food. In some cases, it will be, but 100 calories is an arbitrary amount of energy, and chances are low that it will just so happen to match up with someone’s hunger/fullness cues. If someone gets to the bottom of the bag and yet they are still hungry, the dissonance between their body saying, “Hey, I need more food,” and society saying, “Hey, you have already eaten enough,” is confusing and stressful.

The small print on food labels reads, “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs,” but time and time again, I have patients who believe they should be consuming 2,000 daily calories because food labels imply that this is the standard amount for an adult human. They then have difficulty making sense of their bodies asking for more food than that and feel tempted to restrict in an effort to match the label.

While I am not advocating for the abolition of food labels or snack packs, we have to consider the gap between impact and intent and realize that these tools might not actually be as helpful in reality as they seemed in their creators’ imaginations.

To Macy’s credit, they took the feedback they received to heart; seemingly realized that despite the humorous intent of the Pourtions products, the reality is that the plates are offensive and send harmful and dangerous messages; and consequently stopped selling them.

A Reader’s Intuitive Eating Question

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“The concept of intuitive eating is hard for me to grasp. The way I understand it is that I need to listen to my body so I will recognize when I’m hungry, and eat until my body tells me I’m not hungry anymore. If that’s basically correct, my problem is that I’m rarely ever hungry because I only recently ate, and always continue to eat until external clues tell me to stop (e.g. I ran out of time or food, or my eating partner has finished). How can I begin to listen to my body so I know when I’ve become hungry enough so that it’s okay to eat, and when I should stop eating?”

A reader emailed us the question above in response to an invitation in a previous newsletter to suggest future topics. It sounds as if the writer is still working to fully understand the concept of intuitive eating and how to incorporate it into his life, and I hope I can help.

Some of the language that the writer uses caught my eye: need, enough, okay, should. Diets have rules and directives that are clear and crisp. Even though diets typically fail in the end, part of the reason they are enticing is that they tell us what to do, which simplifies things by taking some of the decision-making out of our hands while paradoxically making us feel like we have more control over the situation.

People who are coming to intuitive eating from a history of dieting commonly and understandably assume that intuitive eating is just a different house built from the same framework of dieting, hence absolute language that implies a set of rules. In reality, intuitive eating has no rules, but rather guidelines and ideas for consideration. The difference is more than semantics, as people who attempt to pound intuitive eating into a rules-based framework end up warping it into the hunger-and-fullness diet, which both misses the point of the approach and makes incorporation more difficult.

With that in mind, I might suggest tweaking the writer’s question in order to remove the implication that his hunger has to reach a certain threshold for him to gain permission to eat and that he must stop when his fullness hits a particular level. He – and everybody else who follows an intuitive eating approach – always has unconditional permission to eat. Tearing down constructs that tell us when we can and cannot eat oftentimes feels scary, but it is essential in order to create the space necessary for us to make multifaceted eating decisions that are in our own best interests.

Instead of the question being how can the writer listen to his body so he can adhere to rules regarding when he can and cannot eat, perhaps a more helpful set of questions would include: How can he listen to his body so he can notice what different levels of hunger and fullness feel like and how different foods make him physically feel? How can he listen to his body in order to be more adept at distinguishing between times when he is eating for physical hunger versus some other factor, such as emotional or social reasons?

In that sense, I actually think the writer is more ahead of the game than he realizes, for he listed some of the external factors – time, quantity of food available, his partner’s own eating behaviors – that are hindering him from making food decisions from an internal standpoint. The next step on this front might be to explore the pros and cons of maintaining the status quo versus implementing change in order to determine the extent to which he wants to and is ready to create change.

Another avenue to explore is the writer’s statement that as a consequence of his eating behaviors, he rarely experiences hunger cues. If we are not hungry as we head into an eating experience, detecting subtle signs of fullness as they set in can be more difficult due to a lack of contrast. In other words, we cannot notice hunger signals subsiding if they were never there to begin with. If we grow accustomed to an absence of hunger cues, we might lose the ability to recognize the more subtle stages of hunger. Therefore, the writer might benefit from performing some experiments to intentionally let himself get hungry, to really notice what that feels like, and then consciously eat in response to it and see how the experience contrasts to when he eats in response to external cues.

Becoming an intuitive eater is a process. The journey never looks exactly the same for two people, as we are all so different and unique, but one commonality is that the road traveled is rarely direct. We discuss ideas, experiment, gather data that suggests areas of opportunity for further growth, and repeat the cycle until someone finds peace with food.

 

Walking While Jacketed

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The Needham police stopped me while I was out for a walk yesterday morning. Reportedly, someone had called them to express, umm, “concern” that I was pushing an empty stroller. But the stroller was not empty, as the officer quickly realized when I introduced him to our infant daughter.

Even if the stroller had been empty, that is not a crime. Maybe I was returning home from dropping my baby off at daycare, or on my way to pick her up from visiting with a family member. Perhaps I was going to use the stroller to transport groceries home from the supermarket.

After I asked the officer exactly what the caller said, he made mention of the heavy winter jacket I was wearing, suggesting that my wardrobe choice raised suspicion. Some people run warm, some people run cold like me, but neither one of these characteristics is illegal either.

Before I get to the elements of this incident with which I take issue, let me first state what my problems are not:

My problems are not with the police department, and I am glad they responded to the call. What if I had actually been up to no good and they declined to pursue a tip that could have prevented a crime?

My problems are not with the responding officer. He was respectful throughout our encounter, and while he was understandably guarded at the outset, he became super friendly once he saw our daughter.

My problems are not with somebody keeping an eye on the neighborhood. “See something, say something” is an important call to action. Even in a relatively safe town like Needham, crimes still do occur, and we have to look out for each other and help the police to protect us.

My first problem is that what constitutes suspicion needs to be set at a higher threshold than what was exhibited yesterday. All the caller saw was a guy, a stroller, and their own prejudices.

My second problem is that not everybody gets treated the same by first responders, so when somebody ponders calling the police, they have to consider not just what crimes their call might prevent, but also what crimes their call might cause. As a white guy, I can see a police officer approaching me and feel confident that whatever transpires during our imminent encounter, I am likely going to be treated fairly and that my safety is probably not in danger. If I had dark skin, I would be less optimistic. We do not have to watch the news for very long before we see examples of seemingly-benign calls to the police resulting in murders of minorities.

My third problem – and the reason I am writing about this in a nutrition blog – is that this incident is emblematic of a broader issue in our town: We judge each other for our looks. Some of my fellow Needhamites have given me a hard time for my appearance as far back as elementary school, when my chosen attire and hair style were out of step with the hip childrens’ fashions of the day. While I am not equating picking on a kid on the playground for his hair and clothes with calling the police on an adult for his jacket, I am saying that they exist on the same bullying continuum and that they are both symptomatic of an intolerance/phobia/disrespect of people who are different than oneself.

This latter point is what most frustrated and disappointed me about yesterday morning. All these years later, from the 1980s Broadmeadow playground to 2019 in my own neighborhood, the message is the same: Look different in this town at your own peril. Despite all of the changes that Needham has undergone over the past few decades, the pressure to conform remains fully intact.

Nobody should be surprised then that so many of our patients are working to overcome eating disorders, many of which – but certainly not all – were triggered by a desire to escape weight-based stigma, shaming, and bullying and to become a member of a more socially accepted group. No wonder then that some of our patients with restrictive disorders are reluctant to weight restore; after having a taste of thin privilege, surrendering it and returning to the crosshairs of stigma is a difficult proposition. Similarly, it is understandable that patients of all ages have a hard time giving up their fantasies of becoming thin, which is a necessary step in healing their disordered relationships with food.

A small fraction of our readers take umbrage at our occasional discussion of politics and societal issues, but most people seem to understand that if we are truly going to help our patients with their nutrition, we have to do more than address the nitty-gritty of food and eating behaviors. We have to advocate not just for greater tolerance of questionable fashion choices, but also for serious issues of equality. We have to fight for size acceptance.