Emotional Eating in Quarantine

Posted on by

Despite the major life disruption that the coronavirus quarantine has been for us personally, Jonah and I are lucky enough to be able to still work, as we are telehealth providers. While all of my patients are struggling in different ways with quarantine, one theme keeps on popping up consistently: “I feel like my emotional eating is out of control.”

Many of my patients are working on becoming intuitive eaters, and the current pandemic is making it extremely difficult for them to heal their relationship with their bodies and food. Living in these strange times is like nothing we have ever experienced before – being confined to our homes, socially distancing, and the near constant underlying fear of illness are exhausting and emotionally draining.

Some of my patients are working on the front lines of the corona crisis, taking care of patients who are severely ill. Some of my patients have lost loved ones to the virus. Others are struggling with the loneliness of isolation. In short, the past couple of months have been really, really rough. And the fact that there is no definite end point for this pandemic, that this state of limbo could continue for months on end, leaves many of us feeling hopeless and trapped.  

So when my patients tell me that they are emotionally eating, I am not at all surprised. Emotional eating in times of stress and uncertainty is normal and, honestly, to be expected. From the time that we are born, food is a source of nourishment and comfort. Food is a basic human need. From the very beginning, whether we start out nursing or bottle feeding, drinking breast milk or formula (or both), food is necessary for survival. It is designed to make us feel satiated and safe. Food is one way that our caregivers take care of us when we are babies, providing comfort when the feeling of hunger arises. This is all to say that turning to food for comfort is a completely normal thing for humans to do – it is programmed in our DNA. And feelings of comfort and safety are paramount to developing love and attachment.

The phrase “emotional eating” has been around for many years, and it always seems to be presented as a negative thing. Many of my patients characterize themselves as emotional eaters and wish that they could stop. In most cases, these patients feel as though they have “no control” around food, that they will overeat on certain comfort foods, and they inevitably feel shame after they do this. Of course, many of these patients are consumed with fears around gaining weight and feel that by engaging in emotional eating, they are likely to become larger.

To me, “emotional eating” is a phrase that was created by diet culture because at the root of it is fat phobia. Our culture is a completely fat phobic one, and one of the underlying themes is that engaging in emotional eating is a dangerous habit; if one emotionally eats regularly, they will gain weight, become fat and be unhealthy, unattractive, and unlovable. Emotional eating is seen as problematic by diet culture, and those who engage in it are deemed weak-willed and less than.

In my work, what I have found is that the amount that a patient engages in “emotional eating” is almost directly proportional to the amount of restriction (both mental and physical) in which they also engage. In other words, my patients who feel like they are emotional eaters and cannot control themselves around food are often the ones who are the most restrictive with their intake.

If you think about it, it makes sense on a biological level. Our early ancestors were often subjected to famine and food scarcity, and in order to survive during those times, their sole focus became about finding food. It is one of our most basic survival mechanisms, and it is deep within our genetic code. When we are deprived of food (whether it be deprivation imposed on us by others/circumstance or self-imposed), our primal brain is designed to focus solely on procuring food. And not just any food, mind you, but food that is calorically dense and will give us quick and lasting energy, specifically foods that are high in carbohydrates and fat. Is it any wonder that many of our “comfort foods” are often comprised mainly of carbs and fat? It is our ancient genetic code’s way of keeping us alive.

This is all to say that when we are in times of stress, anxiety and fear (like during this pandemic), it makes perfect sense that we might turn to food for comfort more often. This behavior in and of itself is not problematic; it is one of the many ways that humans cope during difficult times. Add on top of that feelings of deprivation around food (with many grocery stores running out of supplies and access to restaurants reduced), and it is no wonder that we have food on the brain more often as well. The most important thing we can do right now is not to judge ourselves for “emotionally eating” during this tough time, but to have some compassion for ourselves. We are all just trying to take care of ourselves in the best way we know how.

Welcome to Food Insecurity

Posted on by

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

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

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

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

Welcome to food insecurity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Bargaining Needed

Posted on by

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

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

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

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

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

Immunity Boosters?

Posted on by

If you are like me, you have noticed the seemingly greater-than-normal prevalence of illnesses circulating this winter, and perhaps you have suffered some of them yourself, too. No wonder people are looking for foods, nutrients, and supplements that can help them get or stay well.

So which ones help? Well, admittedly, this piece has taken a very different shape than I expected it to when I first started writing. It would be straightforward, I figured; just research the most popular immunity boosters and summarize which ones work and which ones do not. However, my expectation stemmed from having fallen into the trap of oversimplification that so often affects how our culture sees foods.

In reality, there is nuance, as I quickly remembered, and the moving parts are numerous. To suggest blanket statements about effectiveness is a variation of the oversimplified good/bad food dichotomies that are so prevalent in our culture, yet they are nonsensical without specific context.

Consider some of the variables:

Effectiveness

What does “boosting” our immune system really mean? Our immune systems are comprised of various structures and mechanisms, so when one talks of “boosting” the system, what specifically is supposedly being increased and by how much? Furthermore, do we really want to turn the dial up on our immune systems, which theoretically could result in an autoimmune disease?

When people say they want to boost their immune systems, really what they are expressing is a desire to get over an illness faster, or experience a sickness milder than what they otherwise would have, or avoid getting sick in the first place. However, these three goals are different from one another, as are the bacterial and viral invaders that exist in a wide array, so any potential immune system booster could differ in effectiveness in achieving each of the three outcomes for each of the numerous potential illnesses. Therefore, a study that demonstrates biological responses to garlic does not tell us much about bottom-line effectiveness, but rather paves the way for further study.

Dosage

The administration of a potential immune system booster has within it its own set of variables, including how much, how frequently, and which delivery method. Further complicating matters is the potential for dosage variation from person to person.

A study on vitamin C found that plasma levels of the vitamin measuring 100-200 mg/day were required for effective prevention of potential infections, but how many oranges must one consume to reach such serum levels? One, five, maybe more?

Population

Effectiveness and dosage may depend on age, weight, physical activity, hydration level, health conditions, or any of the other factors that vary from person to person. Zinc, for example, has been shown to significantly reduce the duration of cold symptoms in adults, but not children.

Risks

Looking to a food, nutrient, or supplement to help fight off an illness has potential downsides. Zinc can cause nausea when consumed orally, and it can trigger a copper deficiency if taken excessively because the two minerals compete for the same absorption sites. Meanwhile, more subjects taking echinacea dropped out of double-blind prevention trials than those taking placebos due to adverse effects. Because supplements are unregulated, we have no way of knowing if the bottle of echinacea that we purchase even contains the herb as advertised.

Somewhere out there lies a truth, but discovering it is a more difficult proposition than some realize. With so many variables at play, designing and conducting informative studies is a monumental challenge. We need large bodies of well-constructed research and replication of results from one study to the next with similar parameters, and all of that takes time, money, and effort.

The current research may yield little more than a shrug of the shoulders, but meanwhile, the population at large still yearns for an answer. “It’s terrifying to live in a place where the causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, or ADHD, or the causes of weight gain, are mysterious,” says Professor Levinovitz, a religion professor who has taken to writing about nutrition in recent years because of the intersectionality between spirituality and food. “So what we do is come up with certain causes for the things that we fear. If we’re trying to avoid things that we fear, why would we invent a world full of toxins that don’t really exist? Again, it’s about control. After all, if there are things that we’re scared of, then at least we know what to avoid. If there is a sacred diet, and if there are foods that are really taboo, yeah, it’s scary, but it’s also empowering, because we can readily identify culinary good and evil, and then we have a path that we can follow that’s salvific.”

Dr. Levinovitz’s words remain true regarding ailments ranging from the coronavirus to the common cold. Nobody wants to hear that the answers are complex, nuanced, or blatantly unknown when they are anxious and looking for control over their fate.

In order to fill the void, in step those looking to gain notoriety or money. In the eyes of desperate people, the accuracy of an answer seems far less important than being able to provide one. This dynamic likely explains why so much of the misleading and biased information online regarding immunity boosting stems from commercial websites.

So which foods, nutrients, and supplements actually do help us to have shorter and milder illnesses or help us to avoid getting sick altogether? Truthfully, I have no idea. Now excuse me while I go take my elderberry syrup.

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

Posted on by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Complimenting Weight Loss

Posted on by

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decision Time

Posted on by

Shortly after midnight on Saturday, April 14, 2018, I had a dream in which I was at the staging area for that morning’s Newport marathon, but I had not yet checked in for the race or stored my belongings even though it was 7:13 AM, just 17 minute shy of race time. Frantic, I was trying to figure out how I was going to take care of these logistical to-do items and get to the starting line on schedule. Then I woke up.

Approximately seven hours later, I was at the staging area down in Newport for the actual marathon. The truck containing the mobile locker I had rented in advance was mysteriously not there yet. Confused and anxious, I wondered what I was going to do with all of the gear I had planned on locking up, including my wallet, keys, phone, clothes, and post-race snacks. Standing there feeling somewhat paralyzed by uncertainty, I took out my phone and checked the time. It was 7:15 AM. (Premonitions allow for a two-minute margin of error, no?)

Midnight clairvoyance and the subsequent inauspicious sunrise set the tone for the rest of my day. Eventually, I got in line for gear check, an unsecured area for runners to leave their belongings, for I could no longer wait for the mobile lockers to arrive. Good thing I did not hold out for them either, as I found out later that the driver overslept and did not arrive with the lockers until well after my race began.

As I was standing in a long line comprised mainly of runners competing in the 5K and half marathon events that were commencing later in the morning, I heard the national anthem and then saw my fellow marathoners starting down the road. After several minutes, I got the attention of a volunteer and stammered, “I don’t know what I’m doing and my race just started without me.” He told me to drop my bag, that he would take care of it, and from there I hurried to the course and crossed the starting line well after the rest of the field.

While I prepare meticulously for race-day logistics, my pre-race plans went out the window due to the chaos that ensued from the mobile lockers’ absence. About a mile down the road, I realized I had accidentally left two of my three anti-nausea medicines in the bag I checked with the volunteer. Such a mistake was quite concerning, as nausea tends to be my limiting factor in marathons, even more than muscle soreness or general fatigue.

Not having my medication only compounded problems that began with a poor training cycle due to a herniated disc in my lower back, an abdominal hernia for which surgery was scheduled six days after the marathon, and a couple of other medical hindrances. Things were not looking good already, and yet they got worse.

Quickly, my fellow runners and I discovered that hydration was going to be a problem. Unlike most marathons that offer both water and sports drinks regularly along the course, most of the beverage stations on this course featured only water. Moreover, the cups were maybe a quarter full. Subtract from that the fluid that splashed out during the drinking process, and the net amount that made it down my throat was not nearly enough to keep me hydrated. The stations that did offer a beverage other than water had a low-calorie electrolyte drink, woefully insufficient to replenish the carbohydrates expended during such an endeavor.

Despite these challenges, I was inexplicably on pace for my all-time best marathon through mile 18, but by then things were getting ridiculous. We had not had a beverage station since mile 13, no electrolyte drink since probably mile 11, and the course was in the midst of a miles-long uphill stretch that felt more challenging to me than Boston’s Heartbreak Hill ever has.

The nausea, which had been building slowly, was pronounced enough where I felt like the time was right to use the one anti-nausea medication that I remembered to bring out on the course with me. In keeping with the theme of the day, the pills promptly fell out of my Ziploc bag onto the road. The quiet tick of the medication hitting the pavement was likely inaudible to anybody else, but to me it was the thunder of my last hope for a great marathon finish crashing down.

Limited by nausea and dehydration-induced muscle cramping, my pace slowed significantly over the final miles. Around mile 25, a blister that I did not know I had burst on the bottom of my right foot, altering my gait and slowing me even further. Hobbled, I kept running and crossed the finish line limping.

Somehow, out of the day’s nonsense sprang my fastest marathon time in 15 years, but this is less a story of resolve and more a tale of someone struggling in real time to weigh the pros and cons of disregarding or honoring his body’s signals, which in this case were clearly telling me to drop out of the race.

The course was essentially a figure eight with the start, midpoint, and finish all at the center. If I was going to call it a day early, hitting the eject button at the midpoint made the most sense, so I took stock of the situation as I neared the 13.1-mile mark. Inadequate fluids, dehydration and cramping that were already setting in, insufficient medication, and memories of my 2004 Boston marathon – which ended with an ambulance ride to the emergency room – all suggested that dropping out was the sensible and safest play.

On the other hand, my speed was inexplicably fast up to that point and I did not want to take for granted that I would ever have a shot at a marathon personal best again. While I reserve the right to change my mind, I went into this race figuring it was probably my last marathon. While I enjoy the training and racing, impending parenthood had me looking at the situation from a different perspective. Long training runs take a lot out of me, so much so that I am pretty much useless the rest of the day, and I do not think it is fair to put our daughter in a position where daddy cannot play, or go to the playground, or go for a walk, or do pretty much anything at all because he ran far and needs to rest.

Even if I do decide to train for another marathon someday, who knows, I could wake up sick on race day, or sprain my ankle on a Baby Einstein guitar while heading out the door to the starting line, or suffer any item on a tremendously long list of inflictions or mishaps beyond my control that could throw the whole endeavor out the window at any point in my training cycle or at the very last instant.

As I neared the half, I was cognizant of the reality that being 13 miles into a marathon with a chance for a personal best might never happen again. For as much had gone wrong, a lot had also gone right to allow me to be in such a position. Having weighed the pros and cons, I decided to continue on with the race despite all of the reasons to stop.

Disregarding my body’s cues eventually caught up with me. A few minutes after I crossed the finish line, the nausea worsened, I was shivering (a symptom of dehydration) despite the warm temperatures, and my breathing was abnormally rapid. Laying face up in the sun while wearing a hooded sweatshirt and winter jacket did not help. With my condition deteriorating, I made my way to the medical tent.

The paramedics took my blood pressure, which was sky high compared to my norm, and I was having trouble answering their questions. While I have a history of occasionally feeling miserable after long runs, this was worse than my norm. The scariest part to me was that I was aware of my incoherence, yet I could not do anything about it. They asked me what medications I take, but I could not put together an articulate response. In my mind, I was like, “Come on, dude, you know what meds you take, just tell them,” but I was incapable of getting the words out.

The paramedics wrapped me in blankets, put me in the back of an ambulance, and cranked the heat to warm me. They gave me oxygen and placed leads to monitor my pulse, heart rhythm, and oxygen saturation. After two hours of laying on the gurney getting rehydrated and warmed, we agreed that I was well enough – but albeit still far from 100% – to leave the ambulance and make my way back to my car.

Stepping out of the ambulance, I was startled to discover that the finish area was virtually deserted, as the spectators, volunteers, race organizers, and my fellow runners had pretty much all gone home. Watching the few remaining workers disassemble the food tent and the final handful of artifacts from a post-race party that had presumably been so happy and festive just a short time earlier, I felt an eerie and unsettling sensation: loneliness.

Later that evening, Joanne commented over dinner that I looked sad. She was right. Ending up in an ambulance with a health scare is no way to conclude an event. Finishing a marathon normally yields a significant sense of accomplishment, but this time I felt conflicted and somewhat hollow. Even though completing the course was a triumph of sorts, I had mixed feelings for having put myself in unnecessary jeopardy.

Like I tell my patients who are working on listening to and honoring their internal cues: assessing hunger and fullness levels, sorting through matching criteria, checking for humming and beckoning, and utilizing other intuitive eating tools are never meant to be leading questions, and there are no such things as absolute right answers. Decisions made regarding what, when, and how much to eat matter much less than having utilized a thoughtful process to reach them.

Similarly, having considered all of the pros and cons of the options available to me at the moment I had to make a choice, I feel like continuing to run was the best course of action for me despite my body’s cues suggesting that I stop. Ultimately, I am glad I finished the race even if I did pay a price for my decision.

Just after crossing the finish line. Am I having fun or what?

Intuitive Eating: An Introduction

Posted on by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sometimes I want to binge so bad.”

Posted on by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kids Are Alright

Posted on by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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