He Said, She Said: 1,500-Calorie Diet

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A patient sent Joanne the following email. “I overheard a coworker talking about food/calories/etc. and noted her saying, ‘We should all be on a 1,500-calorie diet as women.’ For some reason this really got to me and I normally don’t let these stupid comments affect me, especially when I know better. Thoughts?”

 

He Said

Yes, I do have thoughts about this, several in fact, but for the sake of time and space, I will leave aside tangential issues of practicing dietetics without a license (If someone without a medical license made a statement along the lines of, “As women, we should all be taking [insert name of a medication] daily,” would you be cool with that?) and the virtually-constant propagation of nutrition myths throughout our culture. Instead, let’s focus on just how incorrect this coworker’s assertion is.

Caloric needs are surprisingly difficult to determine. The most accurate method is direct calorimetry, which utilizes a metabolic chamber in which the subject occupies a compartment that measures the heat that he or she emits during whatever state of activity happens to be taking place at the time. Unless you enroll in a research study that involves one of these chambers, you will most likely never gain access to one in your lifetime.

Indirect calorimetry, which involves measuring oxygen and carbon dioxide intake and expulsion, respectively, is less invasive in some ways and easier to utilize. Large hospitals typically have metabolic carts that can perform such measurements in their research laboratories, and lesser models exist for office settings. The tradeoff, however, is accuracy, as even the best indirect calorimetry tools are a step down from direct calorimetry.

Next we have the Fitbits of the world, devices that use algorithms to estimate caloric needs based on a crude set of variables. Dietitians use similar equations sometimes as well, and when I do, I always stress to patients that the results are just rough estimates that cannot and should not be taken too literally.

These equations have numerous sources of error, such as the reliance on subjective measures of physical activity. Anybody can Google how many calories certain activities supposedly burn, but really these numbers are general rules of thumb at best. Running a mile burns 100 calories, we are told, but is this right? What about the size and body composition of the runner, or his or her mechanics? Does he or she have short, quick strides or long, less frequent steps? What about swings of the arms, point of contact between the foot and the ground, head bobbing, or any number of other factors that can influence the results?

One of my patients occasionally asks me how many calories one burns during sex. Unless you get two people to have intercourse in a metabolic chamber, who knows? Even then, the heat generated would pertain only to those unique individuals in that specific encounter, so what do you do, divide by two and make the assumptions that their efforts were equal and that these results apply at other times and to other people as well? Logistical hurdles and the countless variables involved make estimating caloric expenditure a guessing game not just for sex, but for pretty much any activity.

As a consequence, estimates of caloric needs are just that – estimates – and vary widely from person to person. My degree in mathematics reminds me that I like numbers as much as the next guy if not more, and I can certainly understand the appeal of having a short, sweet, and specific target for which to aim, but really the best method to determine your caloric needs is to set quantifiable data aside and look internally to your hunger and fullness signals. Despite all of the proliferating nutrition myths and overarching messages we are taught from childhood on that we cannot trust ourselves regarding food, our bodies are actually pretty good at telling us what and how much they need. We just need to relearn how to pay attention and trust those signals again.

 

She Said

Ahhh, the 1,500-calorie diet. It’s amazing how some arbitrary number has gotten stuck in the minds of so many people. 1,200 calories is also a popular number. Flip through any of your typical women’s health magazines and you are likely to read that all women should be consuming no more than 1,500 calories per day to be “healthy.” Unfortunately, there really is no such thing as the “perfect” number of calories for each and every person. 1,500 calories (or 1,200 calories or 1,750 calories) is a myth. It makes no sense to say that every woman should be on a 1,500-calorie diet; we all are unique human beings with unique needs.

As I tell my patients over and over – every body has different caloric needs. Age, height, weight, gender, muscle mass, and activity level are just some of the factors that can affect our calorie needs. Even the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, the equation most often used by most dietitians to determine calorie needs, does not take into account all of these factors. Our caloric needs will vary over our lifespan for a number of reasons. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need many more calories, while as we age, we typically need fewer calories. Anyone who has lived with a teenager can attest to the fact that calorie needs go way up during adolescence! When someone is recovering from an injury, his or her caloric needs might be elevated. For instance, the caloric needs of burn patients can be as much as double what the “average” person’s needs are. The best way to figure out what your calorie needs are? Eat as you normally would. If you see no large shifts in your weight (think plus or minus five pounds), you are meeting your calorie needs!

When working with patients who struggle with eating disorders, I try to steer clear of talking about calories. Many of my patients have spent countless hours logging the calories they ate (and burned), and most of these patients would say that they were “obsessed” with doing so. I had one patient who would log her calories daily, and if she consumed more than 1,300 per day, she felt like she had “failed.” Another patient would try to stick to no more than 1,800 calories per day, and if she went over by just a few calories, she would binge because she had “blown it.”

Instead of talking about calories, I try to use the “exchange” system with my patients. Exchanges are groups of foods that have similar nutritional profiles. For instance, a carbohydrate exchange (sometimes called “grain” or “starch” exchange) contains approximately 15 grams of carbohydrate per serving. This might look like an average piece of bread, a ½ cup of cooked pasta or rice or ½ of a large potato. By using exchanges, we can take the focus off of calories and how we need to limit them and instead talk about making sure we get enough carbohydrates, protein, fats, vegetables, etc. Calories have a negative connotation for many of my patients, while exchanges feel a bit more abstract and neutral.

In short, instead of setting an arbitrary calorie goal for oneself, I think it would be much more beneficial to set other goals. Getting five fruits and vegetables per day, being physically active for 60 minutes per day, and eating intuitively would be much better goals (in my opinion) than making sure one never goes over 1,500 calories per day.

Doctors’ Views on Weight and Weight Loss

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Last week was the Cardiometabolic Health Congress, an annual event for which experts from around the world convene in Boston to discuss the latest developments and treatments for cardiometabolic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

This was my third year attending the conference, and while I found the first two experiences to be largely interesting and pleasant, this time I had moments of anger and disgust so heightened that I occasionally considered getting up and leaving. If I want to fancy myself as having an open mind though I actually have to live it, not just pay the concept lip service and then bolt as soon as a presenter says something with which I disagree. I stayed, listened, and considered what the speakers had to say.

Following this paragraph is my list of key moments from the conference. By default, I was going to group them by disease state, but given the circumstances perhaps it is more appropriate to categorize them by the emotional state they created.

 

INTERESTING

• Gut Microbes A presentation on gut microbes revealed the immense impact they seem to have on body weight. Linda Bacon addresses this topic in Health at Every Size, and I found it interesting to learn more from a professor who made research in this realm the focus of his PhD work. In experiments he did on mice, he found that animals colonized with the microbes of an obese donor developed twice as much body fat as those colonized with microbes from lean donors, even though the recipients consumed the same diets and had the same initial weights and body fat percentages. Gut microbes seem to be so closely related to weight that he said he can predict one’s body mass index based solely on his or her gut microbes with 90% accuracy. He stressed that this is a developing field and nobody knows for sure yet how to take these research findings and clinically apply them.

• Eating Pattern A presenter stressed that overall dietary pattern is what matters for cardiometabolic health and that no individual foods should be considered “good” or “bad,” a point with which Joanne and I completely agree. All-or-nothing approaches may be popular, but balance and moderation are typically the keys to long-term success.

• “Diet can be so rarely effective in maintaining weight loss.” During his presentation, a bariatric surgeon acknowledged, “There is weight regain in every intervention,” even after surgery, and that body fat seems to have a set point just like red blood cells and the liver, both of which will regenerate to their original masses after partial removal. For that reason, he explained, “Diet can be so rarely effective in maintaining weight loss.” We already know this latter point, but it was interesting to hear a doctor say it. He seems to be moving the focus of his surgery away from just weight loss and instead focusing on the metabolic benefits that can occur after bariatric surgery even in the absence of weight change.

• Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Hunger A doctor who specializes in sleep presented research indicating that the risk of developing cardiovascular disease inversely correlates with sleep duration. In other words, the more sleep one gets, the less likely one is to develop cardiovascular disease. He also presented epidemiological data showing that the less sleep people get, the more likely they are to have a higher body mass index. He debunked the theory that people who get less sleep eat more simply because they are awake for a longer duration. Rather, people eat more when deprived of sleep because leptin and ghrelin levels change and increase appetite. His research found that people consume 35 calories/hour more when sleep deprived compared to when they are adequately rested.

 

STARTLING

• Aspiration Therapy A novel bariatric surgery of sorts, known as aspiration therapy, was presented. The procedure involves implantation of a tube through the abdomen and into the stomach, sort of like a PEG tube that is used for nutritional support. In this case, however, the tube is not used to feed the person, but rather to empty the person’s stomach soon after he or she has eaten.

It’s interesting, if I diverted food back outside my body soon after eating in order to keep it from being properly digested and absorbed, I would probably be diagnosed with the serious and sometimes-fatal eating disorder known as bulimia nervosa, but I guess if the behavior is performed via an implanted device and endorsed by a doctor in the name of weight loss then everything is cool, right?

 

DISAPPOINTING

• FDA Oversight On the conference’s second day, the woman sitting at the table next to me struck up a conversation at lunch time. Turns out that she works for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and part of her job is to keep an eye on the messages that drug companies are using to endorse their products. She explained that when she went into the exhibition hall to speak with vendors, she kept secret that she works for the FDA because if she revealed it then the drug company representatives would “shut up” and warn the other reps to keep quiet because the FDA is there. If the drug companies are telling the truth and not doing anything improper, then why do they care that the FDA is present? Reminds me of how I reflexively hit the brake with my lead foot when I spot a police car on the highway.

• “I just push them all to surgery. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.” During a break, I approached one of the doctors who had presented on hypertension and asked her a question about the effect of sodium lost through sweat. The conversation segued to sports nutrition and then ultimately to weight. She brought up the supposed benefits of losing weight for cardiometabolic health, to which I responded by sharing how dismal the odds are of keeping off intentionally-lost weight. While I expected resistance, instead I got agreement. “It’s biology,” she said, “The body is really good at gaining weight, but not very good at losing it.” While I was pleasantly surprised to hear her acknowledgement, this anecdote ends up in my Disappointing category because of what she said next, “I just push them all [my patients] to [bariatric] surgery. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

 

FRUSTRATING

•  Success? Two doctors presented on lifestyle interventions for weight loss. Every single graph they presented for each intervention showed sharp initial weight loss followed by slow and steady regain. With the exception of one four-year study, all of the others lasted two years at most. As the study timelines came to a close, the graphs showed that subjects were still regaining weight, yet the presenters called the interventions successful because the subjects weighed less as the studies ended than at baseline. But the subjects’ weight trajectory was still upward; aren’t they at least a little bit curious about what happened to their weight after the studies ended?

Apparently not, for one of the doctors continued, “As long as you keep the diet and exercise going, you will maintain the weight loss.” But we know that is not true! People often regain weight even as they maintain the behaviors that lost it. Even the doctor I mentioned earlier, the one who pushes everybody to bariatric surgery, acknowledges this.

• Medical Recommendation or Disordered Behavior? The presenters advocated people weighing themselves daily, knowing exactly how many calories they are consuming, and burning at least 2,500 calories per week through exercise. They also suggested that people get together in weight-loss groups for the “healthy competition” of inspiring each other to lose more weight. You know, if lean people did these same things we might describe their behaviors as disordered.

The above point reminded me of an excellent piece that Ragen Chastain wrote about how behaviors that are considered dangerous for thinner people are routinely recommended for heavier people. Trying to keep that open mind I mentioned earlier, I thought to myself that plenty of medical interventions exist that would be cause for concern if someone without a warranting condition began to utilize them. For example, if I prick myself with a needle until I bleed people will probably be concerned about my emotional well being, but a diabetic who does the same thing in the name of checking his blood sugar is taking good care of himself.

The crux of the issue, therefore, is whether or not obesity in and of itself is really a disease. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, much of the medical community still sees it as one so they advocate treatment for it. We could debate obesity’s place as a disease state all day long, but even if it is one, the problem is the “paradigm blindness” that I mentioned in an earlier blog entry: The presumed solution, dieting, actually exacerbates the condition so they keep adding more of the supposed solution to the ever-worsening issue not realizing they are caught in a feedback loop.

• Can’t See the Forest Through the Trees A doctor presented some research that looked at the influence of lifestyle behaviors (eating patterns, physical activity, stress management) on cholesterol and blood pressure. Researchers controlled for weight by screening out subjects whose body weight increased or decreased by more than 3% over the course of the study. They made this decision based on the presumption that excess weight itself is harmful and would confound the data. What the research showed, however, is that the lifestyle interventions themselves improved blood pressure and cholesterol even when no significant weight change took place. I would have thought the researchers would use these results as a basis for reconsidering the generally-held assumption that being overweight/obese is harmful, but interestingly they did not.

 

HORRIFYING

• Yay, Surgery for Everybody! The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening all adults for obesity. “Clinicians should offer or refer patients with a body mass index of 30 kg/m2 or higher to intensive, multicomponent interventions.” The presenter who shared this continued that USPSTF’s recommendation is a grade-B level. He was excited because he said that the Affordable Care Act mandates that all grade-A and grade-B recommendations be covered, meaning that the USPSTF’s recommendation opens the door for individuals to receive pharmacotherapy and bariatric surgery based solely on their weight. The presenter continued that he looked forward to a day when everybody with a body mass index over 30 kg/m2 could get bariatric surgery.

And there it is. Ever since obesity was officially declared a disease, I have heard people talk about how this controversial decision was about finances. Although I did not know enough about the decision-making process to have a solid opinion, I always leaned away from conspiracy theories and figured that those involved in the decision had not fully considered the overall body of research. Given this statement though, I must acknowledge that it sure does seem likely money played at least a part, if not a large part, in the decision. While other moments from the conference made me more angry, as you will soon read, no other instant made my stomach drop like this one.

 

INFURIATING

• Is Weight Cycling Funny or What!? One of the presenters who discussed lifestyle interventions for weight loss concluded his presentation with what I guess was supposed to be a joke, “Better to have lost and regained than to never have lost at all.” That offensive and ignorant comment garnered huge laughs from the audience. Weight cycling (“yo-yo dieting”) is associated with everything from diabetes to depression. Hilarious! Association is not causation, but he should have at least acknowledged the potential dangers of weight cycling and shown some respect for the people who have gone through it. Instead, he literally used it as a punch line.

• It’s All About the Money During a break between sessions, I visited the exhibition hall and wandered over to a table where sales reps were pitching a medically-supervised weight-loss program that physicians can license for use in their clinics as a way to make more money. One of the reps told me that the patient’s first visit is with a “salesman” (Yes, that is actually the term he used.) who asks the patient how much weight he or she would like to lose and then tells the patient how many visits and injections he or she will have to receive to achieve it. Injections? Those would be phentermine injections, which the Mayo Clinic cautions, “Phentermine may be a way to kick-start your weight loss. But once you stop taking it, you’re likely to regain the weight you lost . . . . Although phentermine is one of the most commonly prescribed weight-loss medications, it has some potentially serious drawbacks,” and then continues on to list its side effects.

Presumably the program also includes dietary counseling, so I asked the rep who is responsible for helping patients with their eating. “Dietitians are too expensive,” he said, not knowing that I am one myself. He said they recommend using “lower level” workers, like “nutritionalists.” I have never even heard of a nutritionalist and have no idea what one is. So far, everything the rep had told me was about sales and finances, so I asked him about outcomes. He had no data to offer me about how patients fare on the program and said he would email me some, but he never did. The rep could not even anecdotally offer any information regarding results. My impression was that little consideration was given to health and patient welfare in this program that seemed to be all about making money.

• Question Dodging This year, the conference organizers diverted from the normal format of having attendees verbally offer their questions through stationed microphones and instead invited us to submit our questions via text. The last event of the conference was a panel discussion on obesity, so I texted in the following question, “Research compiled by Linda Bacon in her book Health at Every Size and Ellen Glovsky in her book Wellness Not Weight show (1) long-term research that looks at least five years out shows that only 5% of people who intentionally try to lose weight keep it off and 60% of them end up heavier than at baseline (2) research that controls for behaviors indicate that these are better predictors of health than is weight. Given this, ethically how can we be prescribing weight loss to our patients?”

The moderator never presented my question to the panel. I could give him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps a technical glitch kept my question from entering the cue, but I received a reply confirming that they received my text. I could give him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps they ran out of time, but in fact the question-and-answer period ended earlier than scheduled.

Perhaps the moderator did not want to address my question because one of the conference’s industry sponsors is launching an anti-obesity drug that is pending final FDA approval? There I go with conspiracy theories of my own. Perhaps the moderator had a legitimate reason for not fielding my question, but it was hard to escape the feeling that he was dodging it.

 

MADE ME WANT TO THROW SOMETHING

• A Seed Is Planted Fortunately, somebody with a little more clout than myself raised a similar concern. A member of the panel, a bariatric surgeon, interjected the proceedings with a question of his own. “Sometimes we do surgery too much,” he began, and cited obese patients who are metabolically healthy, yet have bariatric surgery anyway. He continued that over the course of the conference, research had been presented indicating that lifestyle interventions that address eating, physical activity, and sleep can improve cardiometabolic health even when no weight loss occurs, that even bariatric surgery can have positive metabolic effects independent of weight loss, and people who are overweight tend to fare better than leaner counterparts when battling certain diseases. Given that, he asked, “Are we overemphasizing weight?”

I heard a couple of chuckles, but otherwise the room went silent. Crickets. Nobody on the panel wanted to touch the question. Sensing the uncomfortable silence, the moderator said we would come back to the question and moved on to other topics. The surgeon reiterated his question, this time rephrasing it so as to suggest that the presumed link between weight and health might be inaccurate. Fellow panel members trickled out answers: The exercise specialist said that excess weight can make movement difficult, the surgeon himself said that surgery can be more challenging in the context of obesity and specifically mentioned transplant operations, and another doctor offered, “Some individuals are genetically predisposed to have more adipose tissue . . .” before trailing off. Another surgeon on the panel, who seemed angered by the question, emphatically called attention to the association between obesity and cardiometabolic disease.

At that, the moderator cut off the discussion and moved on to other questions. There it was, one of the most important questions of the entire conference, a question of which I had tried to raise a different permutation myself without success, offered by an open-minded panel member, yet the moderator quickly dismissed it before it received the full attention that it deserved. I found myself literally shaking my head at the missed opportunity.

The upside though is that at least the question was raised. Even if it did not receive a proper discussion in response this time around, the seed was planted, and in that action exists the potential for growth.

ASDAH, Please Reconsider the ®

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Our practice was using the Health at Every Size® (HAES®) model before I even knew it went by that name. My personal and academic backgrounds, the legitimate research I had read, and my clinical experience all pointed towards a health-centered, rather than a weight-centered, model of care.

Earlier this year, we learned about the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) from Green Mountain at Fox Run, a program to which a colleague had pointed us. Because we happened to agree with everything we knew about the association, we became proud members. Then I discovered one point on which our opinions differ: the requirement that the ® symbol must follow mention of the HAES® approach.

I understand the advantage of having a title for our approach. By naming it, we can succinctly communicate in a universally-understood fashion how we go about our work, find like-minded individuals in online communities, and separate ourselves from others who take a different approach to health. Entitling different approaches has precedent, just as labels like cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, humanistic, and psychodynamic denote different techniques that fall under the umbrella of psychotherapy. Notice, however, that none of these names have an ® attached.

Know who does use the ®? PointsPlus®, Nutrisystem®, Medifast®, FirstLine Therapy®, Atkins®, HMR®, and similar ilk. By including the ®, we take the HAES® approach out of the realm of legitimate, evidence-based models of healthcare and put it smack in the middle of gimmicky programs that sacrifice health for money. Call it guilt by association; in essence, the HAES® community loses credibility because of the company we are inadvertently choosing to keep.

Concern and confusion lies on both sides of the counseling room. From the patients’ perspective, the ® makes some of them feel like they are being sold a program, as if their practitioners are nothing more than local distributors for a product so standardized it bares no discernible differences if bought on one side of the world or the other. From my perspective as a practitioner, I have chosen to align myself with ASDAH because of our common approach to healthcare, but at the same time we are separate entities with neither one of us speaking for the other. In that sense, the ® feels like a threat to my professional independence.

Because of the ® and the concerns and confusion that it brings, I stay away from using the term HAES® on our website. Instead, we have come up with our own synonymous language to convey the same concept. In doing so though, we lose the universal recognition of the HAES® name and its associated benefits. How nice it would be to able to write HAES and just leave it at that.

If my understanding is correct, the founding members of ASDAH took a great deal of professional risk by going against widely-held beliefs, building the association, and formalizing the HAES® approach. For everything they did, they have my gratitude and admiration. However, just because ASDAH can require the ® does not mean it should. There is a better approach, a solution that will convey the same meaning yet decrease patient confusion and increase practitioner credibility: Drop the ® requirement.

Warning Bells

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The following piece was written by KC, the mother of one of our patients.

I heard the faint warning bell early but didn’t really want to believe it. When she got in the car after a trip visiting a friend and asked if I noticed that she had lost weight, when she started to eat “healthy,” when she became “lactose intolerant” (really? since when?) and couldn’t eat ice cream, when chicken repulsed her– all of these behaviors I noticed. The running and working out increased but it was under the guise of getting ready for fall practices. I started to get nervous, but I kept waiting for her to get tired of the running, to get tired of reading labels. This was my daughter who never considered her size– who would happily try on any clothes– and only knew her weight when she went to the pediatrician. It was not until she told me her weight one morning, at which point I said, “Enough!” and then a week later told me, with what I thought at the time was a rather smug smile, that she had dropped another four pounds that I heard the cathedral bells tolling loud and clear.

I spent the next six weeks taking her to the pediatrician in the practice who was the most knowledgeable about eating disorders– mistake #1– I should have taken her directly to a specialist. She also began therapy with a psychologist who was finishing up her doctorate and had “some experience” with eating disorders– mistake #2. Being referred to Joanne as her nutritionist was the only step she made towards recovery in those first six weeks. I remember clearly my daughter’s initial visit to Joanne because it was the first time I felt I had an ally in the battle against the eating disorder. My daughter sat perched on the end of a chair with a sweatshirt and a down coat on clutching a cup of black coffee while I sat there sweating because it was so hot in the office. Joanne was extremely patient and kind while explaining her meal plan in spite of my daughter’s overt hostility. My daughter contained herself until she reached our car and then started to sob. Uncontrollably sob. Crying was nothing new in our house– she had been doing it daily for months– but looking back I realize it was the first time someone challenged the eating disorder, and it was angry.

The six weeks prior to my daughter entering a treatment facility were incredibly painful. I ate every meal and every snack with her when she was home. And it took her forever. Plus it drove me crazy the way she ate each meal– veggies first then protein then the grain. There were many forbidden topics in our house. No one could discuss exercise or bodies or food. What went on the plate had to be eaten. No one could say that he or she was full halfway through the meal. The list went on. And again, she cried all the time. At one point she confessed that prior to the meal plan, if she ate two apples and a bowl of soup as her food for the day she could tell herself at night that she had done a good job. I learned later that it was actually the eating disorder praising her. After she showered, I would find fistfuls of hair in the drain. She had a bald spot in the front of her head. We took the full length mirror out of her room. I packed up all the clothes that she used to body check and gave them to the Red Cross. She wore pajama pants, baggy shirts, and sweatshirts. Her behavior became child-like– she wanted to sit on my lap, sleep with me, wouldn’t leave my side. We could no longer go out for dinner as a family or a couple. It was far too stressful. When I was not with her, I worried that she was throwing her food into the garbage disposal– when she did come, no one could enjoy his meal– the tension and anxiety emanating from her was palatable. When my husband and I were finally able to get an appointment at Children’s for an evaluation, he expressed concern about her being taken out of school– not to be a part of the peer group. I had to bluntly tell him that our daughter was already gone, and the only hope we had to get her back was residential treatment.

It was frankly a relief when she finally entered treatment. I can honestly say that I could not handle her disorder on my own, and she needed good professional care. Picking the treatment facility is a personal choice, but I am very glad she landed where she did. Her case worker was incredible, and the women who managed her daily were loving but firm. She stayed for a period of time, and we began to measure the success of a day by how many boosts she had to drink or not. I’d like to say that she came out of treatment fully recovered but that was, of course, not the case. I was extremely lucky to be able to put together a post-treatment team for my daughter whom she embraced and respected. Her school was incredibly supportive, but I have heard horror stories where schools have not been. Families who have been told that no allowances would be made– it was either sink or swim. I will be forever grateful to her school administrators for working with and not against my daughter. An acquaintance whose child was a recovering anorexic visited with me while my daughter was in treatment. She imparted some wisdom which I found to be extremely helpful. One, it is not her fault. Two, following the meal plan and finishing her meals is non-negotiable. There is no negotiating with the eating disorder. And finally three supports, love, prayer (if that is one’s thing), and food will help to battle against the eating disorder.

It helped me to think of the eating disorder as a separate entity from my daughter. A few months after she got home from treatment, I made a flippant comment, and she laughed, really laughed. It was her first spontaneous expression of joy in months. I am so proud of her because she has worked incredibly hard to separate herself from the eating disorder. She has listened to her team, gone to therapy, followed her meal plan, and found books on her own to study. She has also developed a spiritual side to her personality which in our barely-go-to-church-on-Christmas family is a wonder to see. She has embraced her treatment and truly wants to get well. Does all this mean she has fully recovered? No, she has not. There have been setbacks, but I am extremely hopeful that she will live a full joy-filled life which has no room for an eating disorder.

Health-Focused Weight Management

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“So I was just reading the Huffington Post article that you guys posted on Facebook. Serious question, is it possible that the pride in your body movement has gone too far? I understand the evils of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, but being fat, especially as fat as the woman in that article, is bad, right? If I eat unhealthily and stop exercising, I gain weight (see, e.g., the 4 months after [my son] was born). So fat [name omitted] is more unhealthy than skinnier [name omitted] (to a degree, of course). And the people who I know that are overweight clearly have the worst eating habits and some of them have ended up with diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular problems.

“So why this big movement of pride in your body no matter how fat you are? I feel like it’s teaching a dangerous message. That lady in the bikini needs to lose weight by changing her diet and exercising more, doesn’t she? Being thinner will inevitably be better for her health and decrease the risk of her getting weight-related health problems. So why are we celebrating her being proud of how fat she is and then broadcasting to the world that she should be proud of her body no matter what?”

One of my best friends sent me the preceding email in response to me posting the Huffington Post article he mentioned on our Facebook page. We have been friends for decades and I know he asks these questions with honest, open-minded curiosity. Here are the points I wrote back to him.

1) Obesity is associated with health problems, but to my knowledge the legitimate research has never established a causal relationship despite attempts to do so. In fact, what the research has shown is that behaviors (smoking, physical activity, fruit and vegetable intake, proper sleep, limited alcohol consumption, etc.) are the real predictors of morbidity and mortality. When we control for these sorts of lifestyle choices, health outcomes are basically the same regardless of body weight.

2) Even if being obese was in and of itself a legitimate health problem, we really do not know how to help people lose weight and keep it off for the long run. The research shows that about 95% of the attempts people make to intentionally lose weight fail in the long run, and the majority of these people end up heavier in the end than they were at baseline. Weight regain can be due to behavior change, but it can occur even when the behaviors that yielded the weight loss are maintained. From an evolutionary perspective, consider that we are designed to keep on weight, not lose it, for the sake of survival. I have a patient who lost about 40 pounds, her motivation to keep it off is sky high, and she is very strict about maintaining the behaviors that got her weight down. Yet the weight is starting to creep back on slowly but surely. We can only do so much to fight biology.

3) When somebody tries to lose weight and it does not go as planned, the endeavor is not necessarily harmless. In other words, they do not automatically just return to baseline as if nothing happened. Weight cycling can cause everything from depression to metabolic issues like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Given that 19 out of 20 weight-loss attempts fail, we need to really consider these risks.

4) The social stigma about being overweight pushes people into weight loss attempts, which we know are likely to fail them. We have a “war on obesity” in this country, which is ridiculous considering there are people everywhere making all sorts of behavior choices that could legitimately be considered unhealthy, but they do not face the same ridicule. Where is the outrage against people who do not get enough sleep? Why don’t we bitch about inadequate sleepers raising health care costs for the rest of us? Why don’t people who yawn in public seem to face the same bullying and looks of disgust that many obese people deal with on a regular basis? Our culture is so unaccepting of people who we deem overweight that we push them into weight-loss attempts that will likely leave them less healthy in the long run.

5) Because they are trying so hard to lose weight, Americans spend upwards of $60 billion annually on weight-loss programs and products. That’s insane. Imagine if we took those same resources and put them towards things that would actually help with health: cooking lessons, sports equipment, fruits and vegetables, walking shoes, gym memberships, comfortable mattresses, etc.

It is true that when somebody adapts unhealthy lifestyle choices, he or she might gain weight. If we have a baby and no longer have time for physical activity or proper sleep, for example, our weight might increase. The weight gain itself is just a symptom of the problem though, as opposed to actually being the problem. The real issues at hand are the lifestyle changes that happened to result in weight gain.

At the same time, we cannot conclude that somebody who is heavier automatically has an unhealthy lifestyle. Too many factors, including genetics, are in play. If we look at a heavier person and make any assumptions about how he or she leads his or her life, we are showing a prejudice that is as abhorrent and as any other stereotype.

The approach I take with my patients is to focus on behaviors, establish healthy lifestyle choices, and let the weight settle wherever it naturally belongs. Because our weight may or may not end up where we, our moms, our partners, society as a whole, etc. would like it to be, I encourage people to love and accept themselves no matter what they look like or weigh. That is why the Huffington Post piece and similar posts that confront weight stigma and call for size and weight acceptance are so important.

He Said, She Said: Lessons from Mom

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He Said

1) Food Can, and Should, Be Fun

I often went grocery shopping with my mom, and I helped her make meals, too. Because I enjoyed baking, she let me experiment with various recipes, including many of which I made up on my own. Some turned out well, others not so well. Regardless of the results though, by involving me in the food selection and preparation process, my mom taught me to have an appreciation for food that I would not have developed if food just suddenly appeared on my dinner plate. I learned that food can, and should, be fun.

2) Listen to Hunger/Fullness Cues

Perhaps in part because they lived through the Great Depression, my grandparents’ generation seemed to emphasize finishing everything on the plate. “There are people starving in China,” I would hear; as if by overeating, I would somehow lend a hand to somebody in need on the other side of the globe. My mom stood up to this misguided notion and taught me to listen to and honor my hunger and fullness cues. Forcing food down past the point of comfortable fullness helps nobody. Uneaten food can be packed up and saved for later. If we must throw it out, at least we learn a lesson to take or make less next time.

3) Where Food Comes From Matters

My brother and I were raised mostly eating organic foods, especially fruits and vegetables. The potential advantages of organic versus conventional foods are debatable, but I learned several lessons from my mom’s emphasis on eating organic: A food’s identity does not automatically indicate its quality; where it comes from and how it is grown/produced/raised matter.

4) Balance Is Key

When parents restrict their children from eating certain foods, the resulting irony is that the children often end up overeating on the forbidden foods as soon as they get access to them. In recognition of this reality, my mom instituted a “Sweet of the Day” policy, whereby my brother and I got to have a small treat each day. We enjoyed our favorites in quantities that did not ruin our health, and we learned not to see any foods as “bad.” In short, this policy was my initial exposure to the concept of nutritional balance.

5) Always More to Learn

Even though she has no formal study in the field, and her employment has nothing to do with the subject, my mom has always taken an interest in it, reading articles, newsletters, and magazines. Research is constantly yielding new insights into nutrition and health. Not only do I have to stay on top of new developments in the field, but I have to be open-minded enough to consider new information and opinions that challenge the status quo.

 

She Said

My mom is one of the most amazing women I know, and she inspires me in many different ways. One of the areas she has the most expertise in is cooking. Just looking at her kitchen, one can see all of the evidence of an experienced chef – tons of dog-eared and worn cookbooks, various cooking gadgets, and binders filled with old family recipes passed down from her mother (and her mother’s mother). Along the way, I have learned a number of nutrition lessons from her, and here are just a few of them.

1) Food is more than just fuel.

In nutrition school, a lot of the focus is on the science of nutrition – chemistry, physiology, nutrient metabolism, etc. But there is so much more to nutrition than just calories in/calories out. Food is family, love and connection. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom cooking and baking, so calm and happy in her kitchen. Of course, every holiday has its traditional meals – roasted turkey and Saltine stuffing on Thanksgiving, brisket and matzo ball soup on Passover, and chocolate brownies for dessert on July 4th. Aside from the holidays, though, my mom’s food can elicit such strong feelings of warmth and comfort. Her oxtail soup is a hearty, thick stew, perfect for cold winter nights. Her sweet and sour tomato cabbage soup is perfectly balanced and is the perfect meal with a piece of crusty French bread. More than anything, her food nourished the soul, and, in turn, inspired me to learn more about the wonderful world of nutrition.

2) When cooking or baking, always use real, fresh ingredients.

Whether the trend was low-fat, low-carb or just plain low-calorie, when it came to cooking and baking, my mom rarely ever made ingredient substitutions in her recipes. Butter, cream, and sugar were regularly used in her kitchen to concoct delicious desserts. Likewise, if the recipe called for bone-in, skin-on chicken, then boneless, skinless chicken breasts wouldn’t cut it. Foods that are made with real, whole, unadulterated ingredients are not only so much better tasting than the diet-y, low calorie stuff, they are more satisfying and satiating. Think about this – on a hot summer’s day, when you are craving an ice cream cone, will fat-free frozen yogurt really satisfy you? In all likelihood, you will eat the frozen yogurt and then, still feeling deprived, munch on other stuff afterwards. Better off sticking with the real treat; it will take less of it to satisfy you, and you won’t feel deprived.

3) You can make your own food rules.

While most of the time we had traditional meals in our household, every once in a blue moon, we would do something out of the ordinary. One time, my mom and I had ice cream for dinner! Obviously, this is not something I would recommend anyone do on a regular basis, but once in a while won’t kill you. We would also occasionally do “breakfast for dinner,” which meant omelets, cereal or bagels for dinner. At the end of the day, you don’t need to follow the food pyramid guidelines (or MyPlate) to be a healthy eater. Mixing it up can be fun and can get you out of a food rut, too.

4) Food tastes so much better when you let yourself enjoy it.

It is not unusual to hear my mom voice her love of food. Dinnertime was (and is) often filled with “mmmm’s” and “yummm’s” and other sounds of pleasure. While this habit of my mom’s has embarrassed me on occasion (mostly during my teenage years), more often than not, I find myself doing the very same thing! It is okay to enjoy your food! Let me rephrase that: The enjoyment of one’s food is a wonderful part of life. Not only is delighting in one’s food a wonderful part of life, there are studies that show that nutrients are absorbed better when the eater is enjoying his or her meal. So go ahead, savor, enjoy and delight in your food – it’s human nature!

5) There are few things more satisfying than planting, harvesting and eating veggies from your own garden.

I have many fond memories of my mom tending to her vegetable and herb gardens. She would grow everything, from tomatoes and zucchini to snap peas and basil. There is a certain joy in watching these plants grow from seedlings to ready for picking. And there is nothing better than crunching into a snap pea straight off the vine. Oftentimes, zucchini in my mom’s garden would be so numerous that it would be difficult to figure out what to do with all of it! Aside from a tasty side veggie, my mom incorporated this bounty into zucchini bisque and zucchini bread, which to this day are some of my favorites. Unfortunately, the next-door neighbor’s trees have grown so tall that my mom’s garden can’t grow anymore. But she still has her herbs, and they show up in many of her recipes.

I owe a lot to my mom in regard to my appreciation and interest in food. She taught me to be adventurous and try new things. She showed me how nourishing a well-prepared meal can be. And most of all, she taught me that food is so much more than just food.

Noms: Farm Grill, Newton

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FarmGrillWhile we enjoy trying new restaurants often, there are a handful of restaurants that are our favorites, and as such, we go to them frequently. One of these establishments is Farm Grill and Rotisserie in Newton. This rather unassuming eatery at 40 Needham Street serves some of the freshest and tastiest Greek cuisine we have ever tasted.

The Farm Grill is a no-frills establishment; you order your food up at the counter, and then they call out your number when your order is ready. While the extensive menu takes up nearly the entire wall and is somewhat overwhelming, it is broken down into categories, including Salads, Appetizers, and Dinners to make it more manageable. The prices are reasonable, with most salads averaging around $10 and most entrees ranging from $14-$18; and with the generous portions and quality ingredients, it actually feels like a steal.

Farm Grill has an impressive selection of appetizers, including traditional grape leaves, spicy feta spread, and hummus, but Jonah and Joanne are crazy for the tzatziki, a savory spread made with Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic and herbs. This deliciously creamy delight is best eaten with an order of grilled gyro pita rather than the typical pita they serve on the side, as the gyro pita is thicker and fluffier and a more substantial vehicle for the spread.

While the menu boasts Greek staples such as Moussaka (an eggplant, potato and beef dish), Spanakopita (filo dough stuffed with feta and spinach), and Pastitzio (a pasta and beef casserole), the real must-haves are the grilled offerings, especially the chicken kabob. The kabob, consisting of juicy bites of marinated chicken, sliced peppers and onions, is grilled to perfection. Jonah and Joanne are always amazed at how juicy and flavorful the chicken is and, of course, how well it goes with tzatziki! Typically, Joanne and Jonah will each get a chicken kabob on top of a large Greek salad served with a side of homemade creamy Greek dressing. On occasion, they will each order the chicken kabob meal, which comes with a small side salad and two hot sides of your choice, including (but not limited to) spinach and rice pilaf, steamed vegetables, and butternut squash puree. No matter what permutation you get, you will leave Farm Grill feeling satisfied and nourished.

This restaurant is a special place where many of the customers are regulars and are treated like family. For as long as it keeps putting out high quality, addictively yummy cuisine, it will continue to be one of our go-to places for a great meal.

Why Your Self-Diagnosis of a Gluten Sensitivity Is Probably Wrong

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I have a fear of needles. Before my surgery, I went for an MRI and the technician told me she would be using contrast dye. Great. Because even the sight of needles freaks me out, I looked away as she inserted the IV. Although I could feel the IV in my arm the entire time I was in the tube, I managed to never once glance at it, as I knew that would send me into a panic.

As soon as the scan ended, I anxiously asked the technician to please hurry and take out the IV. She looked at me confused, then gently explained that I did not have an IV. She had given me a shot, not an IV, and the needle was long gone before the test even started. The sensation of an IV in my arm during the MRI was concocted by my own imagination based on my belief that such an IV existed.

Our susceptibility to the power of suggestion is not a source of embarrassment or shame. Although I am no expert in the field of psychology, my life experience suggests to me that virtually all (if not literally all) of us experience placebo/nocebo effects in one way or another. Seems to me it is just part of what makes us human.

This element of our nature is a major confounding factor with elimination diets and self-diagnoses of food sensitivities. Your perceived gluten sensitivity is probably off base, just like the sensation I felt in my arm from a non-existent IV, because of your expectations.

Before I continue, I want to interject that despite the Business Insider article that came out recently entitled “Researchers Who Provided Key Evidence for Gluten Sensitivity Have Now Thoroughly Shown That It Doesn’t Exist,” gluten sensitivities do seem to exist. One of our colleagues, for example, was having such terrible migraines that her medical team wondered if she might have a brain tumor, but she came to find out that a sensitivity to gluten was causing the attacks. Since going gluten-free seven years ago, her migraines have completely disappeared.

So while the article’s title is an overstatement, the research study behind it hints at an important point: Gluten sensitivities are much more rare than today’s culture would lead us to believe.

Patients of mine have blamed their symptoms on gluten. After they made an effort to eliminate gluten, their symptoms resolved. Here’s the thing though: They were still eating gluten; they just did not realize it. For example, some patients correctly knew that wheat contains gluten, yet they continued to consume certain wheat-free grains and products not realizing they still contained gluten.

A very common and specific example is Ezekiel bread. Because of the bread’s marketing, some consumers associate the bread with health. Because of misinformation (According to research reported in the October 2013 issue of the Tufts Health and Nutrition Newsletter, 35% of people who buy gluten-free products do so because they believe them to be “generally healthier” than their gluten-containing counterparts, while 27% believe going gluten-free will help them lose weight. Both of these generalizations are incorrect.), they also associate health with gluten-free. Therefore, by the transitive property, they assume Ezekiel bread is gluten-free. But it isn’t; Ezekiel bread is loaded with gluten. The first ingredient is wheat, the second ingredient is barley, and the manufacturer even adds extra gluten, presumably for a protein boost or for texture reasons.

It seems, therefore, that these patients felt better because they expected to feel better or for some other reason, but not because of gluten itself.

If you are concerned that gluten might be problematic for you, make an appointment to see your doctor to discuss your concerns and legitimate methods of testing. In the meantime, continue consuming gluten, as eliminating gluten prematurely can make diagnosing a real gluten issue more difficult.

If it turns out your self-diagnosis was wrong, don’t feel bad. Remember, we all imagine that proverbial needle sometimes.

Beef and Broccoli

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Protein

As a dietitian, I am neither for nor against vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. I have seen too many people take different paths to health to pretend that one road is right for everybody. I am for whatever works for the patient sitting with me at any given time. What I am against though are misleading oversimplifications, such as the meme above.

Let’s look closer at the numbers. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, 100 calories worth of raw broccoli contains 8.31 grams of protein (or 6.83 grams if cooked), not the 11.1 grams reported in the above meme, but let us pretend that the protein content in the graphic is correct and go with it. Broccoli is so low in caloric density that it would take eating 3.25 cups of raw broccoli in order to ingest 100 calories of the vegetable. That means that a 150-pound individual, whose protein needs are likely at least 68 grams per day, would need to consume 20 cups or more of raw broccoli in a single day in order to meet his or her protein needs. Good luck.

In comparison, one would only have to consume 1.75 ounces of steak to reach 100 calories. According to the USDA Nutrient Database, that amount of steak would provide 13.66 grams of protein, not the 6.4 grams reported, although I can imagine that variables like the specific cut of beef and utilized preparation method are possible explanations for the two-fold discrepancy. Either way, the math shows that steak is a much more concentrated source of protein than is broccoli.

By showing one bite each of steak and broccoli side by side, the picture leads one to assume that the protein contents being compared are found in those two forkfuls of food. Think of how fast we breeze through our social media feeds. Honestly, how many people do you think pay attention long enough to disconnect the text from the graphics and realize that grams per calorie are being compared, not grams per bite? Conversely, how many viewers do you think take a quick glance and then move on, left only with the false impression that broccoli is a source of concentrated protein?

Changing the illustration to one that shows a piece of steak approximately half the size of a deck of cards next to a pile of raw broccoli almost the size of two Ben & Jerry’s pints would better represent reality, but that would not look so good for the vegan argument. I think we can safely assume that the creators of the meme realized this, hence their decision to instead opt for the misleading fork graphics.

The issue at hand is not one of animal versus vegetable. The point is that in our culture of fast-paced memes, Tweets, headlines, and soundbites, true meaning often gets skewed, either unintentionally or purposefully in order to fit an agenda. Despite the inconvenience of vigilance, taking the time to really consider and understand a post before clicking the share button can spare ourselves and our connections a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding.

Looking the Part

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Wow, I am hard pressed to remember an instance when something I read made me as angry as Juliann Schaeffer’s article in Today’s Dietitian entitled “Dietitians and Their Weight Struggles.”

In summary, the article contains quotes from dietitians who offer their opinions as to whether or not a dietitian’s weight and appearance should matter. Although the piece improves at the end when some sanity and rationality is injected into it, the beginning quotes from one of my fellow dietitians are so shamefully off base that I feel deeply embarrassed to be associated with her.

“If someone has a weight issue, then in my opinion, they should choose a specialty that does not conflict with being overweight.”

“If you can’t make it work for you, how can you make the case for someone else?”

“. . . the reality is that health care is a business, and people do judge you by appearance. Is it right or wrong? That doesn’t make a difference. It’s a business, and it is what it is whether we like it or not.”

“I wouldn’t think much of advice from a cardiologist if I knew he had had a heart attack.”

So wait, are we dietitians supposed to list our BMIs on our resumes and websites now, or how does this work?

It is one thing for some personal trainers, chiropractors, life coaches, “nutritionists,” therapists, doctors, and other dietitian wannabes to go outside the scope of their expertise and give harmful dietary guidance, but when an actual dietitian represents the profession the way she has there is just no excuse for it. This is our wheelhouse. We should be better than that.

When I was an intern, I had a rotation in a bariatric surgery clinic where two dietitians worked. One was heavier, one was leaner. Some patients did not want to work with the heavier one because they questioned, “Look how heavy she is; how can she possibly help me?” Yet other patients did not want to work with the leaner dietitian because they worried, “Look how skinny she is; how can she possibly relate to what it is like to be fat?”

Last year, a new patient told me she almost cancelled her appointment because she was intimidated by what a “great athlete” I was. Just a few months ago, another new patient came to me all impressed that I had “beaten cancer.” Well, no, I did no such thing. She had misunderstood my online autobiography. When I told her that, she deflated like a balloon.

Let’s get real for a moment. The whole notion that a practitioner has to look or behave a certain way in order to help patients is incorrect. Out of all the questions I asked the surgeons I met with before my most recent back surgery, I never thought to ask who among them has back problems. But I should have because if a surgeon has back problems then it is logical to conclude he or she cannot help me with my issues, right? Or wait, I want a surgeon with back problems because he or she can relate to my experience, is that how it goes?

How about just finding the surgeon whose approach, experience, and demeanor made me feel most comfortable and confident? I know, crazy me and my outlandish notions.

During my first year as a personal trainer, few members were interested in my services. Although I had good relationships with many of them and they routinely asked me questions about exercise, few were willing to cross the line of actually hiring me. However, after I took two months off to ride my bike across the country, suddenly members were booking sessions with me left and right and my boss began to refer new clients my way, too. Other trainers treated me and my opinions with more respect. The gym even gave me a raise without me asking for it.

Come on.

Sure, more money and clients were great, but the driving force behind the upturn in business was so ridiculous that I felt insulted. It took riding my bicycle 4,000 miles, up and down mountain ranges, through all sorts of weather, for my expertise to be recognized and taken seriously? The ride did not make me a better trainer. If anything, I was a worse trainer after my trip because I was rusty from not having worked in two months. But hey, perception is all that matters to some people.

Right now, I have a patient who wants to be a CrossFit coach and feels she needs to lose 15-25 pounds in order to be taken seriously by potential clients. Sure, she has room for changes in her lifestyle, just like we all do, but she generally eats well and takes great care of herself. As disappointing as it is for her to hear, it seems her body just naturally belongs 15-25 pounds heavier than she would like it to be. Do I push her further down the path she feels obligated to follow, risking perhaps disordered eating or an eating disorder, as she sacrifices health for a number and a look, or do I guide her towards the reality that she can be a great trainer no matter her weight and appearance?

Due to my surgery, it has been seven weeks since I lifted weights and did any physical activity in earnest. Muscle atrophy is setting in. My shoulders and chest are smaller. My six pack is gone.

Am I a worse dietitian now than I was two months ago?

What if you did not know that major surgery had affected my fitness and you came in here and saw a scrawny dietitian without any context? Would you have less confidence in me than if you knew about my operation?

What if I had not undergone surgery and I just decided to take two months off from working out?

What if I had a healthy relationship with both physical activity and food, but my body just happened to be thinner, less muscular, or heavier than society feels its dietitians should look? Would you go elsewhere?

I have blogged about my athletic accomplishments, such as my mountain running, on a small handful of occasions because it can enhance patient care for them to understand that I am a human being with a life outside of this office and I face challenges just like everybody else. Perhaps patients garner some inspiration from those postings, but if anybody reads one and then comes to see me with the mindset, “Jonah is thin and Jonah is an athlete; therefore, he can help me,” God, that would just make me want to take all of the posts down. I just cannot be part of that act.

The purpose of self-disclosure is to enhance patient care, not to serve as an advertisement, not to capitalize on misconstrued ideas, and certainly not for a practitioner to defend or justify his or her behaviors or body shape.

I disagree with the notion that health care is a business. The first priority should be patient care, not money. If the dietitian I quoted earlier had her priorities in order, she would be helping to reeducate her patients and change a culture of misunderstanding rather than playing into it for profit. Giving people what they want and expect for the sake of financial reward does not justify providing poor care and perpetuating a myth.

Or maybe I should just play along and take up steroids, lest patients go elsewhere because I no longer look the part, right?

Come on.