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 unlikely to sustain his lower weight and that weight cycling, regardless of one’s baseline weight, is associated with a higher overall death rate and twice the normal risk of dying from heart disease.

Hopefully, nobody will claim, “He got what he deserved,” if Massarotti dies of a heart attack, yet some do just that. A fervent raw vegan that I used to run against once suggested that we should treat omnivores who die of myocardial infarctions as suicide victims because, in his eyes, their deaths were self-induced by years of consuming cooked foods and animal products. They are shooting themselves, he explained metaphorically, they are just pulling the trigger really, really slowly.

To suggest that people who follow a diet other than his own are killing themselves is to pass quite a judgment, one that is particularly curious since other restrictive diets have their own staunch followers who similarly believe that raw vegans are bringing about their own demise. Ours is the path to salvation, extremists believe, while others are deservedly damned for worshiping another dietary God.

Across the street from the radio station, a related story of crime and punishment is apparently unfolding at New Balance, where, according to someone I know who works there, the company has started measuring employee body mass index (BMI) annually and now charges fat workers more for health insurance than their leaner colleagues.

Perhaps New Balance’s intent is to encourage employee engagement in behaviors subjectively considered healthy and/or to financially demand more of the individuals who are seen as the greatest burden on the healthcare system. In either case, the company is erroneously conflating behaviors, health, and anthropometrics. To charge heavier people more for health insurance is to issue a stiff sentence after an unjust conviction.

The policy is a clear case of discrimination that exacerbates weight stigma and risks worsening the health of fat people, in part by encouraging them to pursue weight loss, sometimes by very dangerous means, in order to be treated, both financially and otherwise, like everyone else. Such a policy also negatively impacts thinner people. One of my patients, the child of a New Balance employee, is working to recover from a restrictive eating disorder and exercise bulimia that were triggered by – get this – a fear of becoming fat. Given how heavier people are treated, including by New Balance, who can blame this kid for wanting to avoid such torment?

The accumulation of insurance payouts for this patient to attend regular and ongoing appointments with me and the rest of the treatment team is certainly expensive. With this child representing just one small twig on the tree that survives on the light that is New Balance’s insurance coverage, perhaps this reprehensible policy will increase, not decrease, the totality of the company’s financial healthcare burden. If that possibility comes to fruition, I will borrow a line from Felger and decree:

They got what they deserved.

Holiday Survival Guide

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

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

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

1. Create Safe Spaces

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

2. Have an Ally

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

3. Take Space

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

4. Set Boundaries

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

5. Practice Regular Self-Care

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

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

Fitness Trackers

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He Said

As recently as six or seven years ago, I was still estimating the length of my running routes by driving them and reading the odometer. After my runs, I used a program on my graphing calculator that computed my pace per mile based on my time and distance covered. Archaic, I know. These days, I use a GPS watch that gives me all of these numbers and also tells me my speed in real time. The data are tremendously helpful as I train for races, and rarely do I leave the house for a run without my GPS watch.

As helpful as GPS watches and other fitness trackers can be, they also have serious drawbacks. While it is normal to be excited after a great run or disappointed after one that does not go as we had hoped, some people put a concerning level of emphasis on their exercise performance. For example, someone may push through injury or illness in order to attain a certain reading on their device when the healthier play would have been to stop earlier or take a rest day.

Issues with exercise can bleed into food. For example, someone who feels they did not run far enough or fast enough, take enough steps, or burn enough calories might punish themselves by bingeing or restricting their food intake. Someone else might overeat or allow themselves certain foods that are normally restricted after a particularly pleasing exercise session. Some people restrict either way, feeling they do not deserve to eat normally if their exercise was not up to par, while also not wanting to “undo” a good exercise performance by eating. All of these examples and other similar behaviors are red flags of an unhealthy relationship with food and physical activity exacerbated by usage of a fitness tracker.

Furthermore, we must remember that even the best fitness trackers have flaws in their technology. For example, back when Joanne wore a Fitbit (discussed below), it never registered steps she took in the supermarket if her hands were on the grocery cart. When I finished the Newport Marathon earlier this month, my GPS watch reported that I had covered 26.6 miles, which was curious since marathons are 26.2 miles long. As I discussed a couple of years ago, estimates of calories burned can also be wildly inaccurate.

Given the limitations of these devices and the trouble people can find themselves in if the numbers are carrying an unhealthy level of importance in their lives, we best candidly ask ourselves if the pros of fitness trackers really outweigh their cons.

 

She Said

Nearly everywhere you look nowadays, you will see people wearing some sort of activity tracker. Whether it’s a Fitbit, an Apple watch, or a Garmin device, it seems that lots of people are concerned with monitoring their movement from day to day. For a few years (a few years ago), even I wore a Fitbit, and I found myself becoming obsessed with the number of steps I took each day. I remember needing to meet or exceed my goal of 10,000 daily steps, regardless of how I felt physically or mentally. It became such a constant in my life that whenever I took steps without the device, I felt like those steps didn’t really count. If I forgot to wear my Fitbit before a walk or run, the steps I took were automatically negated. Throughout my day, I would often look to my Fitbit to see if I had been “good” that day, to see if I had achieved my goals. It was an obsession!

When I found Health at Every Size® (HAES), something changed for me in regards to physical activity. One of the tenets of HAES is engaging in enjoyable movement that feels good to one’s body. I like to call this “intuitive exercise” (I’m sure that someone else has coined this phrase, but I’m not sure to whom to attribute it!). In my mind, intuitive exercise is engaging in physical activities that one enjoys, i.e., not using physical activity as a way to punish one’s body. Intuitive exercise comes from an internal desire to feel good in one’s body, to participate in sport or activity that nourishes one and makes one feel alive. Intuitive exercise is not prescriptive or punitive – it’s purely for the joy of movement. 

Once I figured out what intuitive exercise was, I found that wearing my Fitbit was not really compatible with HAES. For a while, I had been letting a little wristband tell me how much I should move – pretty much the exact antithesis to intuitive exercise! In a way, I liken it to when people feel they need a diet or set of food rules to follow in order to be healthy. Time and time again, we have heard that diets fail 95% of the time, but for some reason, we are convinced that using a set of external guidelines will lead us to diet salvation. But, of course, we know that this isn’t the case, that eating intuitively and trusting our body is truly the best way to achieve a healthier relationship with food and our body.

A number of my patients struggling with eating disorders (ED) wear activity trackers, and I find this to be a particularly troubling trend. Those patients who never had issues with exercise before now are obsessed with the numbers on their Fitbits. Most of the activity trackers also track the number of calories one burns. Even though these calorie estimates are often bogus and inaccurate, people with ED can become fixated on them. Complicating matters, many of these activity trackers can also double as a “smart watch,” meaning that the wearer can use it to browse the internet and send and receive texts, emails, and phone calls. So even if someone just wanted a device to do these “smart” tasks, they would be unable to avoid the activity tracking aspect.

In general, I discourage all of my patients from using these activity monitors, even those without an ED. In my opinion, while some people may be able to use these devices as a motivating tool (i.e., encouraging them to get more physical activity into their day), the majority of people who wear them become obsessive. Those individuals struggling with ED are particularly at risk of developing (or worsening) excessive exercise behaviors, as these devices become tools for ED.  Unless one can deactivate the step counter and calorie tracker from a device, I feel these trackers can be incredibly triggering for those struggling with ED or disordered eating.  

Sugar makes you fat?

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As a teenage cross-country runner, I believed that if I cut out dietary fat, I would reduce my body fat stores and therefore increase my speed. Besides, many other people around me were demonizing dietary fat, too. In those days, low-fat and no-fat were all the rage. The food industry was more than happy to capitalize on the fad, thus leading to grocery store shelves filled with fat-free products like SnackWell’s cookies, thereby perverting the notion that we were all on the right track to health while simultaneously enabling our disordered eating.

Unlike actual scientific evidence, popular-culture nutrition is fickle. The Atkins diet was hot while I was in nutrition school, but by the time I became a practicing dietitian, going gluten-free was the in thing to do. Hardly any of my patients back then actually knew what gluten was and where it was found, but they erroneously believed they had eliminated it from their diets and boy did they feel better.

Scarce are the people who fear dietary fat now, and these days fewer and fewer people seem wary of gluten, but now sugar is in pop culture’s crosshairs. This past weekend, Joanne played in a charity tennis tournament where she encountered a sponsor who was touting his sugar-free sports drink. “Sometimes people need sugar,” she reminded him, and also threw in that she is a registered dietitian. Offering a rebuttal that lands squarely at the intersection of pseudoscience and weight stigma, he offered, “Sugar makes you fat.”

Regarding the latter, I approached him by myself to see if he would make a similar comment to me, a male in a thinner body, but he did not seem interested in engaging me in conversation. “So, your product is essentially made to rival drinks like VitaminWater Zero?” I asked, but he just walked away. In fairness, he might not have heard me, as many players and staff around us were making quite a bit of noise.

With regards to the factual accuracy of his claim – or lack thereof – no, sugar does not make you fat; that is not how weight regulation works. Body weight is the result of many different factors, including, but not limited to: genetics, environment, medical conditions, and lived experience (for example, history of weight cycling). Eating and physical activity behaviors are of course part of the equation, too, but contrary to popular belief, our weight is largely out of our hands. In fact, a presenter at a conference I attended last year stated that weight is 90% as genetically determined as height.

Besides, Joanne was correct; people do need sugar. Your doctor most likely measures your blood glucose, a kind of sugar, at your annual physicals. If that number reads zero, you are dead. Even if it merely slips below the normal range, you are probably lightheaded, lethargic, and having difficulty concentrating, all symptoms of not having enough circulating sugar to fuel your brain and other organs.

While the rate of the reaction depends on the food in question and one’s individual body chemistry, our systems eventually break all carbohydrates – from sprouted ancient grains to neon gummy bears – into simple sugars. You can get a sense of this by chewing a piece of bread or cracker longer than normal. The sweetness increases the longer you chew because the salivary amylase, an enzyme in your saliva, is already breaking down the long carbohydrate chains into sugar.

Besides, creating a sports drink without sugar is somewhat head scratching. On one hand, I guess it makes perfect sense, just as fat-free cookies back in the 1990s sounded like a great idea, too. Both are cases of smart food manufacturers taking advantage of nutrition fads to satisfy consumer demand and thereby earning themselves quite a profit. Always remember that a food company’s priority is their income, not our health; product prevalence is only a gauge of demand, not the state of nutrition science.

Sports nutrition, in particular, is an area where the fear of sugar is hurting athletes. Carbohydrates and fat are the main sources of fuel during athletics. Even the leanest marathon runner has enough fat stores to provide sufficient amounts during their event, but our carbohydrate stores are much more limited, as we only tuck away small quantities in our liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. If we do not replenish our carbohydrates during exercise, we pay the price, as I can attest from personal experience. As a long-distance cyclist, only twice in my life have I failed to complete rides that I set out to do. The first was when I fell off my bike in Montana and fractured my spine. The other was a few years later when I was temporarily experimenting with a low-carb diet and became so fatigued that I could not make it home.

Much more recently, I went for a 21.2-mile training run in preparation for next month’s Newport marathon and consumed nearly two liters of Gatorade out on the road. Thanks in part to the approximate 112 grams of sugar keeping my energy up, I had a great run and could easily have kept going for another five miles had it been race day.

Back when I was a fat-avoiding teenager, my mom saw the red flags of disordered eating and brought me to a dietitian who explained to me that, contrary to popular belief, dietary fat was fine to consume and that cutting it out would hinder, not improve, my running. Now that I am on the other side of the counseling table, hopefully I can give you similar reassurance about sugar.

You have seen memes and headlines suggesting that sugar is toxic and maybe you have questioned if you have a sugar addiction. Perhaps sugar-free products sound like the path to salvation and virtue. Attempting to cut out sugar might feel like the right next step, especially when so many people around you are going down that road, but I caution you against such pursuits. Remember, soon enough our culture will be demonizing another nutrient, ingredient, or food group. Better to establish and retain a healthy relationship with food and let the fads fall by the wayside.

“Too Fat” vs. “Too Thin”

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Those of us who have had an eating disorder know firsthand that while recovery is possible, the road can sure be difficult. The eating disorder voice is powerful and can make people do and say things they otherwise would not express if their bodies and minds were in healthier places. A woman who is struggling mightily to recover from anorexia nervosa posted on a message board criticism of her treatment team for saying that being “too thin” is problematic while being “too fat” is okay. Does she have a point?

The treatments for someone who is “too thin” versus “too fat” are actually more similar than some people realize. In both cases, the etiology of the person’s size matters as well as whether or not the origin is pathological.

For example, consider two people, each of whom is “too fat.” One person has a healthy relationship with food and physical activity, no significant medical or psychological issues, has always been “too fat,” and comes from a family of people who are of similar builds. Meanwhile, the other person is “too fat” due to binge eating disorder. The former receives no treatment while the latter receives treatment for his eating disorder, not his body size.

Now consider another example of two people who are both “too thin.” One person has a healthy relationship with food and physical activity, no significant medical or psychological issues, has always been “too thin,” and comes from a family of people who are of similar builds. Meanwhile, the other person is “too thin” due to anorexia nervosa. The former receives no treatment while the latter receives treatment for his eating disorder, not his body size.

[Note: Anyone of any size can have an eating disorder, including some “too thin” people who experience binge eating and some “too fat” people who restrict. In reality, we never completely know what struggles someone might have just by looking at them.]

In both cases, whether one is “too fat” or “too thin,” any treatment is targeted at the underlying pathology, if one is present, not at the body size itself. However, for the person who is “too fat” due to binge eating disorder, we let the person’s weight take care of itself as they progress through treatment, as opposed to focusing on the weight. He may or may not lose weight as his disorder subsides, but altering his body weight is not the goal for two reasons:

(1) While being “too fat” is associated with an increased risk of medical woes, causal relationships have not been established, contrary to popular belief. In chapter six of Health at Every Size, Dr. Linda Bacon does an excellent job of explaining the correlations between body weight and the conditions for which weight is often blamed.

(2) While our bodies are relatively adept at gaining weight, they are resistant to long-term weight loss. In other words, interventions aimed at lowering body weight are most likely to result in ultimate weight gain, so in that sense even if the patient’s weight itself is the problem, he is only likely to exacerbate the condition by trying to lose weight.

In contrast, for the person who is “too thin” due to anorexia nervosa, weight restoration is an important part of his recovery. When someone becomes unnaturally thin due to restriction, overexercise, or other disordered behaviors, the body sheds not just fat mass, but also bone structure and tissue from organs, including the brain.

Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer at the Eating Recovery Center, a behavioral hospital for children and adolescents, gave a talk at the 2014 Hynes Recovery Services conference in which he explained, “As a young girl starves herself, or a young man starves himself, and they knock off their sex steroid production, one of the important aspects of that, one of the downstream consequences of that, is that they may also be unintentionally impacting very important aspects of brain development, including neuronal growth.”

When discussing recovery, Dr. Bermudez noted that brain atrophy can be documented just as we can document bone demineralization, and then he continued, “If you stay underweight, your brain size does not recover. So you have to really normalize your weight in order for your brain size to recover.”

Dr. Kim Dennis, former Medical Director at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center and current Medical Director at SunCloud Health, presented at the same conference and explained further, “When a patient with anorexia also says they’re depressed or a parent says they’re depressed, many times that’s not depression. That’s simply what looks like a mood disorder, but it’s based on the fact that their frontal lobes are shrunk, they can’t display affect, they have lower levels of neurotransmitters in their brain, and the cure to that, the treatment to that, is not necessarily Prozac, but it’s food and refeeding.

“Many times patients with anorexia really, really value their brains, and a lot of times you’ll tell someone with anorexia, ‘You’re not thinking straight because you’ve lost neurons. Your brain looks more like a 60-year-old with early dementia than an 18-year-old.’ And they’ll say, ‘I know a lot of anorexia patients might look that way but my brain doesn’t.'”

She then referred to a slide showing a brain with reduced volume due to restriction side by side with a healthy brain. “It’s important for us [clinicians] to realize when we’re working with a malnourished, underweight patient that there’s no amount of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) or trauma work that’s really going to be effective unless that person’s brain is regrown first. So, first and foremost, food is medicine.”

Left: Normal control. Right: Patient with anorexia nervosa. (Image courtesy of Dr. Kim Dennis and SunCloud Health.)

Sometimes patients ask me to differentiate how my role, as a dietitian, differs from the roles played by other practitioners on their treatment team, namely their therapist. Oftentimes, I explain that eating disorders are mental illnesses that get played out through food. My role is to provide nutritional support during the early stages of recovery and then to help someone form a new and healthier relationship with food as the eating disorder recedes, but the bulk of the recovery happens in the therapist’s office.

For the reasons that Dr. Bermudez and Dr. Dennis explained, the brain cannot rebuild without weight restoration, and without an appropriately functioning brain, therapy – and therefore eating disorder recovery – becomes that much more of an uphill battle.

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.

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.