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.

Cause and Effect

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The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics releases a daily Nutrition and Dietetics SmartBrief, which contains summaries of and links to recently released health and nutrition articles. Earlier this month, a headline in a recent issue read, “Too much sitting increases risk of early death, study says.”

The problem is that no, that is not what the study says. In fact, the HealthDay article that the SmartBrief links to states, “The study couldn’t prove cause and effect . . .” and a couple of paragraphs later, the article continues, “It’s not clear why prolonged sitting is unhealthy, Patel [lead researcher, Dr. Alpa Patel] said. It’s possible that people who spend a lot of time on the couch also have other unhealthy behaviors, such as excess snacking, she suggested.”

Okay, let’s back up a moment. First, the author who wrote the SmartBrief’s headline misrepresented the study’s findings by implying causation, and second, Dr. Patel herself seemed to disregard the limitations of her own research by labeling sitting as “unhealthy” based on an association.

This was not just a SmartBrief problem. Other news outlets picked up the story and similarly misled consumers. For example, the headline on NBC News read, “Here’s more evidence sitting too much can kill you,” with the subheading, “Sitting more than six hour [sic] a day during your free time raises the risk of early death by 19 percent.” No, that is not what the research found at all, but such sensationalism probably draws more clicks than a mundane – but more accurate – headline.

We see similarly misleading language when it comes to reporting on the research that investigates the relationship between weight and health. Headlines summarizing these pieces oftentimes imply a causal relationship between increased body weight and morbidity. Remember, however, that when researchers set out to investigate the consequences of obesity, they are also studying the impacts of weight stigma, dieting, weight cycling, socioeconomic disparity, healthcare discrepancies, and everything else that tends to come packaged with the experience of having a bigger body in today’s world.

While increased adipose tissue in and of itself could be a causal factor for certain health conditions, similar to how having fair skin increases one’s skin cancer risk, establishing a causal relationship is extremely difficult given the confounding variables. To assume causation because of correlation is premature at best, and at worst, it could be completely wrong.

Next time you see a headline that implies causation, remember that said headline might be more sensational than factual, as the actual research behind it is probably more complex and nuanced than can be accurately distilled into a single line of text or a sound bite.

He Said, She Said: MEDA Conference Takeaways

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He Said

Today’s society is talking more and more about the idea of privilege. We often hear about white privilege, male privilege, and straight privilege, but people less commonly discuss another form that directly impacts our nutrition work: thin privilege.

My thin privilege became obvious to me four years ago when I went to the doctor about back problems. In early 2016, I wrote a blog reflecting on how different my healthcare experience was than that of many of my larger patients who go to their doctors about similar woes. Not only did I receive evidence-based medicine instead of a directive to lose weight, but some of my doctors even made assumptions (incorrect assumptions, at that) about my diet based on my size. That is thin privilege.

While I was already aware of some aspects of my privilege, the most powerful talk that I attended at the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) national conference helped me to understand that my thin privilege includes elements I had never before considered. Caitlin Martin-Wagar, an eating disorder clinician and doctoral student in counseling psychology, gave a presentation in which she listed several examples of thin privilege, some of which you may not have previously considered either:

  • Chairs and airplane seats fit thin bodies.
  • Thin bodies are represented in all forms of media.
  • Thin people are never the punchline in sitcoms because of their body size.
  • When thin people go to the doctor, their health concerns are generally taken more seriously.
  • Thin people can buy dolls of similar build for their children.
  • Thinness connotes good morals and positive characteristics.
  • Thin people have an easier time shopping for clothing.
  • Thin people do not have to represent all people of their size.
  • In comparison to larger individuals, thin people receive less unsolicited health/dietary advice or veiled concerns about their health.
  • Employers pay thin people more.
  • Thin people face less scrutiny while eating in public.
  • As a thin person myself, I can write this blog without receiving accusations of being self-serving.

In order to escape weight stigma and in hopes of enjoying the same privileges as thin individuals, some people embark on weight loss endeavors that are most likely to make them heavier in the long run and worsen their health. If we are serious about wanting to help people improve their health, then we have to change our society so that people of all sizes enjoy the same privileges.

Ms. Martin-Wagar offered us professionals some tips regarding how we can combat weight bias within healthcare, but she also shared some ideas for how all of us can challenge thin privilege:

  • Read and learn about the relationship – and lack of relationship – between weight and health (which you can do on our Weight Loss FAQ page).
  • Consider the barriers and challenges of living with a larger body size.
  • Learn from larger-bodied friends about their experiences.
  • Do not make comments about people’s body sizes, shapes, or weight.
  • Be aware of weight bias veiled as concern.
  • Call out injustices as you witness them.

We do not live in a zero-sum game in which treating larger people better means treating thinner people worse. Rather, we can and must work to establish a society in which thin privilege is no privilege at all, just the same rights and respect enjoyed equally by people of all sizes.

 

She Said

This year’s MEDA conference had a number of interesting and informative talks given by experts in the field of eating disorders (ED). Throughout the day, I was heartened to see that the ED treatment community is starting to embrace the principles of Health at Every Size® (HAES) and Size Acceptance. But despite this positive movement, unfortunately what stood out to me this year was that we still have a long way to go in the ED treatment community when it comes to helping those in larger bodies who are suffering from an ED.  

Ragen Chastain, the author of the blog “Dances With Fat” and renowned speaker and advocate for HAES and Size Acceptance, was the keynote speaker on the second day of the conference. Her talk centered on the idea that given the culture that we live in (i.e., one that is fatphobic, diet-minded, and generally not welcoming to people in larger bodies), those who are living in larger bodies and struggling with ED can find it nearly impossible to fully recover as everything in our society tells them that being thin is the most important thing. Ragen’s talk hit the nail on the head, and it was interesting to see many of my colleagues in the audience nodding their heads in agreement with her points. At the end, Ragen received a well-earned standing ovation, and it seemed like everyone in the room was on the same page.

Well, not everyone, it seems. During the Q&A session after her talk, Ragen received a question from one of the ED practitioners in the room. This woman started out by saying that she agreed with everything Ragen had just spoken about, but she had an anecdotal experience that made her question some of Ragen’s points. She went on to explain that her “morbidly obese” brother had struggled with his weight for years, and it had gotten to such a dire point that a number of years ago he had gastric bypass surgery. As a result of this surgery, she contended, her brother’s weight went down and all of his troubling health conditions cleared up almost instantly. She went on to say that while she knows that some gastric bypass patients regain the weight due to “cheating” on their prescribed diets, there are those who maintain their losses and “good health.”

This woman’s sentiments went over like a lead balloon, and there were audible gasps from the audience. Ever the consummate professional, Ragen adeptly navigated this uncomfortable situation. She explained that while there are always some outliers who do well with stomach amputation, there are many more who suffer from complications from the surgery, such as lifelong issues with malabsorption, deficiencies, future surgeries to correct structural problems resulting from the original surgery, and even death. In fact, Ragen went on to say that fatphobia is at the root of the weight loss surgery industry because the medical professionals who advocate for these surgeries view fat people as less valuable; that it is better to risk a fat person’s life by having them get the surgery than letting them stay fat. In other words, the weight loss surgery industry is essentially telling fat people that their lives are not as valuable as those of thin individuals and that it is better to be thin and sick or even dead rather than fat.

While I would hope that this woman was the only one at the conference who held positive beliefs around weight loss surgery, I am not foolish enough to think so. Yes, the ED treatment community is getting better about not pathologizing certain body sizes and understanding that EDs can occur in people of all body sizes. But the fact still remains that we all live in this toxic diet culture that constantly tells us that fat is undesirable and unhealthy, that the pursuit of weight loss by any means is admirable, and that thin bodies are superior to fat bodies.  When you have been marinating in this culture for your whole life, it can be hard to realize your own bias around fat people. My hope is that Ragen’s talk changed some minds that day at the MEDA conference and made people think more about how their own fatphobia contributes to diet culture and undermines recovery for patients with ED.

Crime and Punishment

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Michael Felger, a sports radio host in Boston, received national attention last week for his extended rant in reaction to the death of Roy Halladay, the former pitcher who was killed when the plane he was piloting crashed into the Gulf of Mexico.

“It just sort of angers me,” Felger said. “You care that little about your life? About the life of your family? Your little joyride is that important to you that you’re going to risk just dying. You’re a multimillionaire with a loving family, and to you, you have to go get that thing where you can dive-bomb from 100 feet to five above the water with your single-engine plane with your hand out the window. ‘Wheee! Wheee! Yeah, man, look at the G-force on this! I’m Maverick! Pew pew pew! Yeah, man, look at this, this is so cool.’ And you die! Splat! If I die helicopter skiing, you have the right to do the exact same thing I’m doing to Roy Halladay. He got what he deserved.’’

Felger took it too far and he knows it. “In a nutshell, I would say that I feel bad about what happened on a lot of levels,” he said the next day in his on-air apology. “I feel bad about what I said and how I conducted myself. To say it was over the top and insensitive is really stating the obvious.”

However, Felger limited his contrition to the poor timing and distasteful nature in which he communicated his points, but he held firm to his core arguments. “I believe what I believe,” he noted, a sentiment to which he returned over the course of the four-hour show to emphasize that he was not apologizing for his feelings, but only for how he conveyed them.

That is unfortunate, for as much credit as I give Felger for taking responsibility for his tone and tactlessness, going out of his way to double down on his stated beliefs suggests a failure to understand the inherent dangers of condemning someone else for making a choice or engaging in an activity that subjectively feels too risky to the person passing judgment.

Stunt flying, as Halladay was reportedly doing at the time of his crash, is inherently dangerous, but all choices exist on a risk continuum that never quite reaches zero. Every single one of us makes decisions on a daily basis that someone else might deem too risky, but we weigh the pros and cons and ultimately take the risks that in balance feel worth it. Some of us cross busy streets, gather in crowds, work stressful jobs, play contact sports, get behind the wheel, mount bicycles, undergo elective medical procedures, attend protests, testify against violent defendants, and yes, some of us stunt fly. We all draw a line somewhere regarding what we, personally, feel is too risky, but who is to say that our placement is any more right or wrong than where someone else draws their own?

For another example of a choice that could be considered too risky, Felger need not look any farther than the chair next to him. His co-host, Tony Massarotti, elected to pursue a weight-loss treatment plan at a local diet center and pitches the program via radio spots every afternoon. Hopefully he knew going into it that he is u