Skeletons in the Literal Closet

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We have put out a newsletter every month since we first began writing them in May 2013, but this month’s issue almost did not happen. Between fatherhood and the chaos of our practice’s move, I had little time to write this month. Taking advantage of any windows I did have, I began to write a feature only to realize towards the end that I had already written about more or less the same subject last year. Ugh.

Just when I was about to concede that this month’s newsletter was a lost cause, I opened our office closet in the midst of packing and spotted some of my proverbial skeletons, relics from when I practiced using a very different approach than I do now, and I realized I had found this month’s newsletter topic.

Because some of our readership is comprised of former patients who worked with me when Joanne and I first established our practice (and some readers go back even further to when I was working elsewhere), they have witnessed the evolution of my work firsthand, whereas other readers probably have no idea what I am talking about and figure I always worked the way I do now. How I wish that were the case. The truth – the embarrassing truth – is that I used to be very much part of the problem.

A small cardboard box on the top shelf contained a squishy, slimy, yellow rectangle: a model of a pound of body fat. One of my colleagues gave it to me back in 2010, I think it was, with the idea that seeing the “fat” would motivate patients to lose some of their own. The connotation was clearly negative, as reinforced by the written description that came packaged with the model, and I remember feeling uneasy about using it with my patients. Even though I was practicing from a weight-centered model of care at the time, my counseling instincts suggested that scare tactics and shame were unlikely to yield any positive results. Regrettably, I did show the model to a handful of people, and the experience reinforced that my intuition was on the right track. Back in the box it went, and there it stayed until recently taking up residence in the dumpster behind our office building.

The most glaring skeletons were scattered over the closet floor: scales. Over the years, we accumulated quite the collection, including two basic home models, a medical-grade wireless body composition analyzer, and an old-fashioned physician beam scale. My schooling and internship were largely weight focused, but to be fair and completely honest, some weight-neutral lessons did creep in, such as this article that came up in my nutrition assessment course, but they were easily drowned out by the tsunami of weight-focused messages that echoed my own preconceived notions about body size and shape.

Once I began practicing, I discovered that helping people lose weight and keep it off was not nearly as easy as most of my schooling suggested it would be. My patients nervously got on the scale at their follow-up visits, but they had no idea that inside I was just as anxious, for I felt that lack of results meant that I was a bad dietitian. To be candid, I was a bad dietitian, but my problem had nothing to do with the dearth of lasting weight loss among my patient population and everything to do with my approach that focused on such numbers in the first place. Five or six years ago, I began talking with more seasoned colleagues, such as Heidi Schauster and Ellen Glovsky, who opened my eyes to the reality that weight-focused approaches to care almost never work. Shortly thereafter, I stopped weighing my patients or testing their body composition. Pitching our scales into the dumpster last week was as satisfying as it was symbolic of how my approach to care changed over our time in Wellesley.

This October, I will be speaking at Massachusetts General Hospital about weight stigma in healthcare settings, and one of the specific topics the course directors have asked me to address is my transition from a weight-focused paradigm to a weight-neutral approach to nutrition counseling. Other dietitians, as well as nurses, physical therapists, and other healthcare practitioners, will be in the audience, and it is important for them to know that we all screw up sometimes. We can come to see our mistakes, own them, learn from them, and change course. Our patient care improves, which is the bottom line.

My learning continues. As Joanne and I unpack and get settled into our Needham office, I think about the artifacts from today that I will find hidden away in our file cabinets, desk drawers, and closets upon retirement decades from now. Hopefully, I will not look back on them with embarrassment similar to what I felt upon opening the Wellesley closet, but let’s be honest, there is a lot of professional education and growth still to come.

Soolman Nutrition is moving!

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Most of you know by now that our practice is moving soon, but now we finally have the details to share with you.

Our last day practicing at our current location in Wellesley is Friday, August 24th. We will then close for a week while we move the practice three miles down the road to Needham, where we will reopen on Tuesday, September 4th.

In order to avoid confusion regarding where appointments are happening this week, we are purposely refraining from updating the address and telephone number on soolmannutrition.com until we have closed the Wellesley location. Please check back during the last week of August for these pieces of information.

The new office will have a familiar feel to it, as the office layout, size, and colors are strikingly similar to those of our Wellesley location, but you will also notice some improvements:

(1) The Needham location offers plenty of free on-street parking. No more fighting for a parking space, feeding the meter, and racing the parking enforcement officers to your car after your appointment.

(2) Situated in a quiet residential neighborhood, the Needham location offers greater privacy for those who prefer discretion while going to and from their appointments.

(3) Unlike the Wellesley office, our Needham location is fully handicap accessible, including a wheelchair lift and ADA-compliant restroom, so everybody has equal access to the care they deserve regardless of physical ability.

A less significant piece of news, but one still worth mentioning, is that we will be shortening our business name when we move the practice to Needham. Wellness is admittedly a somewhat vague term and, honestly, I do not even remember what I was getting at when I named the practice all those years ago. More than anything, its inclusion leaves people scratching their heads as to what we do. We are the Soolmans, and we help people with their nutrition, so Soolman Nutrition LLC is all we need.

Cause and Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Body Image and Pregnancy

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I want to preface this installment of pregnancy thoughts with this: the biggest lesson I have learned regarding pregnancy and body is that not only is every woman’s body different, but every pregnancy is different for each and every woman. What I am writing about in this piece is my own personal experiences, and it is not meant to be generalized to other women’s experiences. There is no wrong way to have a pregnancy and/or a pregnant body!

Thoughts on Body Image and Pregnancy

Some of the earliest advice I got from female friends and family members when they found out about our news was around making sure that I did not gain “too much weight” over the course of my pregnancy. Of course, I feel that these sentiments are rooted in fat phobia and diet culture, but many women also told me that they themselves ended up gaining “huge” amounts of weight during their pregnancies (much more than the medically recommended amount), which led to complications. While I am not a doctor and do not know the intricacies of these women’s pregnancies, part of me wonders if perhaps this “extra” weight gain might have resulted from the rebound bingeing I described in the previous newsletter feature, although it could just be how their bodies responded to pregnancy.

The other thing I have wondered in these situations is if these women give this advice to all pregnant ladies or just fat ones. Given that I have been living in a larger body for a number of years now, I am curious to know if these women are worried about potential medical complications for my pregnancy or, instead, how much fatter I will get. I have not asked these women questions about their intentions, but it definitely has crossed my mind.

Being a fat pregnant person is an interesting experience. For me, my baby belly did not become all that visible until relatively recently. This is partly due to the fact that I tend to dress in loose clothing (that is just my style), so my baggy sweaters and sweatshirts do camouflage my bump. But I also think that starting out as a fat woman, I was not going to have the stereotypical pregnant body that we all see on TV and in the movies. When I used to envision a pregnant woman, I would think of a slender woman who is “nothing but bump,” i.e., lean all over except for the “perfect” round tummy. I feel that we rarely see representations of fat pregnant women on TV or in movies, so that what the “typical” pregnant body looks like has been skewed for many of us. I was big before my pregnancy, and now I just look bigger in my belly area; if you did not know I was pregnant, you might not assume as much.

This “untypical” pregnant body has its pros and cons. On the one hand, I do not like to have a lot of attention focused on me, so not appearing obviously pregnant has helped me fly under the radar a lot, which I appreciate most of the time. One of my good tennis friends told me that she had a tough time during her pregnancies as she is a very private person, and her protruding baby belly made her quite conspicuous. She described how people on the street would approach her and touch her belly and give her a lot of attention that made her uncomfortable. I am sure she would have preferred to have had a bit more camouflage at the time!

But there are also times when I wish that it were more obvious that I am pregnant. In our society, pregnant women are (for the most part) treated lovingly and with respect. If a pregnant woman gets on the T, people will give up their seat for her. Her baby belly garners smiles and warm greetings. I am missing out on that as my baby bump is not prominent, and sometimes that makes me sad. When Jonah and I went on our “babymoon” vacation in March, no one could tell I was pregnant. They knew we were celebrating something, so they assumed it was our honeymoon, and as such, they kept on trying to give us champagne! I was able to laugh at it at the time, but there was also something a bit disappointing about not having my pregnancy celebrated by others.

Another thing that has been super interesting to notice is how friends and family have commented on my pregnant body. While all of the comments have been positive in nature, it also makes me feel uncomfortable when people comment on my body at all. On many occasions, these friends and family members have said, “Wow, I can’t even tell that you’re pregnant!” or “Good for you for not gaining too much weight!” A few weeks ago, the tennis pro at my club actually said, “You look great – you look like you’ve lost weight!” I know he was trying to be nice, but his comment implied that losing weight would be an improvement for me (as in my pre-pregnancy body was flawed). Never mind that pregnant women are indeed supposed to gain weight over the course of their pregnancies; so any weight loss would not be healthy during this time. These types of comments are fat phobic in nature and reinforce the idea that it is okay to comment on others’ bodies. People, please stop doing this! If you must, saying something like “You look great – how are you feeling?” is a much better sentiment to express rather than commenting on a woman’s specific body changes.

I feel like my pregnancy has given me a new appreciation for my body. I had thought that being “advanced maternal age” and fat would have not only made conceiving nearly impossible, but that my pregnancy would be rife with complications. Incredibly (knock on wood!), everything has been going well! I hesitate to write this, but honestly, being pregnant has been much easier than I thought it would be. Aside from some tooth/gum pain (hello, root canal!), hot flashes (sweating up a storm), and fatigue, I have had very few negative pregnancy symptoms. Of course, this could all change in the final month, but for now, I am amazed that my “old” and fat body is handling pregnancy so well. When I think about the fact that I am actually growing a tiny human right now, it seriously boggles my mind! It truly is incredible!

I am sure that my thoughts about my body will change once I deliver and continue to evolve after the birth and as the years go on. I hope to impart to my daughter the idea that our bodies are truly amazing and are capable of so many wonderful things and that appreciating what our bodies do for us on a daily basis is one of the cornerstones to a happy life.

Thoughts on Food and Pregnancy

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As some of you may know, Jonah and I are expecting our first baby (a girl) in June. While we just recently started sharing this news with our patients, we both have been experiencing the myriad of emotions, including excitement, anxiety, and joy, about the major life change that is about to occur. But in addition to this, I have been acutely aware of both my relationship with food and my feelings around my changing body. I had often wondered how my body would react to pregnancy. Would I feel sick as many of my friends and family members did during their first trimesters? Would I be excited as my bump grew and feel a new sense of appreciation and joy for my body and what it is doing? How would my appetite change? So I thought that I would write a two-part newsletter feature on some of my observations around food and body image in relation to my own personal pregnancy experience. This month, I will focus on my observations around food and pregnancy.

Thoughts on Food and Pregnancy

I am sure I am not the only first-time pregnant person to have had preconceived ideas about how my relationship with food would be during pregnancy. We all have heard about the strange cravings (pickles and ice cream, anyone?), insatiable appetites, and odd aversions that pregnant women are supposed to have. Interestingly, almost none of these applied to me! While of course I had to change certain things in my diet, such as cutting down on the caffeine in my morning cup of coffee (I now do ½ caffeinated and ½ decaffeinated.) and avoiding raw fish (i.e., no sushi tuna rolls), I really did not have to change much at all. Most of all, I have noticed that more than anything, I am slightly more conscious about making sure I get enough vegetables into my day. I have always been a reliable veggie eater, but there are days when I only have one serving for whatever reason, so I have been making an effort to make sure I eat at least 2-3 servings per day. Sometimes that is in the form of cooked broccoli or raw snap peas or baby carrots, and sometimes it comes in a smoothie.

While I have noticed that I have days during my pregnancy when I am super hungry, it is not too much different from my appetite fluctuations as a nonpregnant person. As an intuitive eater pre-pregnancy, I knew that there were some days when I felt like a bottomless pit, and then there were some days when I just did not feel that hungry. This pattern has continued throughout my pregnancy. Just to see if what I felt was going on was accurate, I asked Jonah one day if he noticed that I had been eating much more than usual, and he said, “No, not really.” Don’t get me wrong; there have been some days when I have been ravenous, but honestly, it does not feel that much different than my normal (nonpregnant) hunger cues. One interesting observation that Jonah had was that I seemed to be having less dessert than usual. Let’s be clear – I am not consciously trying to eat less dessert! It just seems that these foods have become slightly less appealing to me than usual for whatever reason. Perhaps the developing baby needs more other stuff!

A number of my friends and family members have described how they felt that pregnancy gave them the green light to eat whatever they wanted in unlimited amounts and that they took full advantage of “eating for two.” One woman recounted how she would have an ice cream sundae every night of her pregnancy. My thought on this is that I bet that many of these women prior to pregnancy were eating in a restrained or diet-minded way (as many women in our culture do). As such, they would not allow themselves to eat certain forbidden foods prior to becoming pregnant, or if they did, they had to do so in very limited amounts. I would be willing to bet that much of their overeating during pregnancy was likely a direct reaction to the restriction they had exercised pre-pregnancy. As we have heard time and time again, one of the biggest contributors to binge eating is prior restriction.  Once the constraints are lifted, the body and mind go all in with the previously off-limit foods. Given that I haven’t eaten in a restricted manner in many years, there was no rebound bingeing for me. I have always given myself permission to eat whatever, whenever in any amount that feels good to me. And that has not changed!

I have not had any strange cravings or strong aversions to certain foods or odors. Once I began to be able to feel the baby moving (around week 19), it was interesting to notice that she would be much more active after I had eaten certain foods. To this day, when I eat foods that are more carbohydrate-based, the baby gets busier in my belly! She also seems to really enjoy breakfast, which I guess might be due to the fact that she has not “eaten” since the night before and therefore is hungry. So apparently, she is tuned in to her hunger cues!

I guess the bottom line to all of this is that my relationship with food has not changed markedly since I have become pregnant. I still eat intuitively, and I still eat a wide variety of foods. I feel very lucky to have been an intuitive eater prior to pregnancy because I feel I am much more relaxed around food than many pregnant women I have known. Of course, over the next two months, things might change; but for now, eating in an attuned manner is working for me.

Next month, I will discuss my thoughts around body changes in pregnancy. Stay tuned!

He Said, She Said: MEDA Conference Takeaways

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He Said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

She Said

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

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

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

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

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

He Said, She Said: Good for who?

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He Said

Our society’s problematic relationship with food has many elements, one of which is that we make sweeping generalizations and place foods, ingredients, and nutrients into dichotomous groups: good vs. bad, healthy vs. unhealthy, sinful vs. virtuous. When we use language like “good for you” to describe a given food’s supposed impact on our health, who is the “you” to which statements refer? That answer makes all the difference.

Those charged with shaping nutrition policy are faced with an impossible task. They do their best to create guidelines for the general population, but their advice fails much of the group because the truth is that when it comes to nutrition, individualization is a necessity.

In contrast, I have the privilege and good fortune to be able to focus on only one person at a time: whomever is joining me at my counseling table at any given moment. Recent conversations with some of my patients reminded me of just how essential it is to customize nutrition guidance.

For example, one evening I had back-to-back patients, one of whom utilizes whole grain products to her advantage in helping her stabilize her blood sugar, while the other must temporarily avoid such high-fiber food because of his acute gastrointestinal condition. If I had made a sweeping statement about whole wheat bread being “good for you,” I would have failed at least one of them.

Another day, I had a patient who is working to increase his potassium intake for the purpose of improving his hypertension and another patient who has renal disease and is on a potassium restriction. So, is a high-potassium food like cantaloupe “good for you” or what?

A couple of weeks ago, a patient referred to Gatorade as “crap,” to which I neutrally responded by mentioning that I drink it during long marathon training runs. He continued to say that my situation is different than his, which was exactly the conclusion I hoped he would reach when I decided to disclose that a beverage with no redeeming qualities in his eyes actually works quite well for me.

My one-decade anniversary of becoming a registered dietitian is coming up this summer, and during all my years of practicing, I cannot remember two patients who ever came in with the exact same set of circumstances. In reality, our situations are always different, as each of us has a unique set of health concerns, preferences, histories, cultural norms, financial considerations, and all of the other factors that together shape one’s relationship with food.

Instead of dividing foods into dichotomous groups that reflect sweeping generalizations about what is “good for you” in reference to the general population, take a morally neutral and pragmatic approach built on individualization. Recognize that every food has a set of attributes – including taste, cost, availability, nutrient content, and preparation options, just to name a few factors in its profile – that makes it more or less advantageous depending on the circumstances. Remember, the very food that you believe is “bad for you” might be great for someone else.

 

She Said

One of the underlying themes I have found amongst nearly all of my eating disorder (ED) patients is the idea that their ED often started with the intention to become “healthier.” Whether “healthier” meant to lose weight, improve certain biomarkers, or just feel better, these individuals embarked on a restrictive food mission, omitting certain “bad” foods (mostly foods high in sugar and fat) and replacing said foods with “good” foods (mostly vegetables and protein). As harmless as these initial intentions seem at first glance, for someone with ED, they often unravel into something potentially life threatening. 

For my patients with anorexia nervosa, this fixation on “good” and “bad” foods can result in a dangerously low body weight. In addition to extremely low weight, the lack of calories literally starves every organ of the body, including the heart and the brain. Brain scans of healthy control brains versus brains of patients with anorexia show that anorexia literally shrinks the brain. As such, these individuals undergo profound brain changes that lead to decrease in cognitive functioning (due to slowed neuronal growth), depressive symptoms (due to lower levels of neurotransmitters), and a reduction in affect displayed (due to shrinkage of the frontal lobe). What is really insidious about EDs is that they start off in the brain as mental illness and eventually lead to damaging the same brain by means of malnutrition. It is a vicious cycle.

The only way to break this cycle is by refeeding (in addition to therapeutic help and perhaps medication). In this initial stage of recovery, it is imperative that the patient take in enough calories to restore his or her body weight to their healthy weight range. In fact, it is almost impossible for therapeutic measures and medications to really help these patients until their brains are at least back to functioning levels. Many of my patients with severe anorexia struggle with brain fog, have trouble formulating thoughts, and cannot communicate clearly due to brain deficits, and this makes therapy not nearly as effective as when the brain is at least functioning at baseline.

The tricky part about refeeding is that many of the “bad” foods that these patients have been avoiding are, in fact, the same foods that will help them to restore weight most easily. These high carbohydrate/high fat foods are integral to getting these patients to their healthy weight ranges, as they usually have higher concentrations of calories than low carbohydrate/low fat foods. As such, these foods pack a much bigger punch, providing more calories in a smaller amount, making it easier for patients to get what they need while lessening the gastric overload.

Many of my underweight patients who need to weight restore will ask me if they can just eat more of the “good” foods to help them gain the weight back. Aside from heart-healthy nuts, avocados, and nut butters, most of the “good” foods fall into the low carbohydrate/low fat group that provides very few calories for the same volume. In other words, these noncalorically dense foods pack less of a punch, meaning that one would need to eat a much larger volume of these foods to get the same amount of calories that are in calorically dense foods. In order for someone to regain weight, eating large amounts of vegetables and protein is not going to get them to their goal as their stomach will simply prevent them from consuming enough.

What is “healthiest” for these patients is to consume calorie-dense foods and avoid those foods that take up more volume but do not provide the necessary calories. Thus, for the sake of example, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is a better choice than a salad for someone who needs to regain weight. We have all been taught that certain foods are always “bad” in every context (ice cream, fried foods, sweets), but the example above shows that it is not so cut and dried. Is a pint of Ben & Jerry’s the “healthiest” choice for someone with high cholesterol? Possibly not. But for someone with anorexia who needs to gain weight, it is healthier. 

In other words, “healthy” is a very subjective term when it comes to nutrition. One size does not fit all as everyone has different health goals and medical conditions. While whole wheat bread might be the better choice for someone who suffers from chronic constipation, it would wreak havoc on someone with diverticulitis and should be avoided.   The “good food/bad food” dichotomy is problematic because it does not take the individual into account. The way we talk about food in our society needs to change.

He Said, She Said: Weight Stigma

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He Said

Examples of weight stigma are prevalent and run the gamut: clothing and airline seats designed for smaller bodies, cyber bullying, verbal insults, physical attacks, and social exclusion. Even our own government has declared war on fat people. Unfortunately, weight stigma also infiltrates and inflicts harm in a space that is supposed to promote health: the doctor’s office.

Obesity is associated with a number of health woes, and, clinically, your doctor probably finds more problems in heavier patients than in thinner ones. Consequently, your doctor might recommend weight loss as a supposed path to better health. On the surface, such well-intentioned advice sounds reasonable, but it is problematic for a multitude of reasons.

Correlation does not equal causation. In other words, just because two factors tend to occur together does not mean that one necessarily causes the other. The diseases blamed on obesity could be due to other factors that tend to co-occur with increased body weight.

In other words, the causal factor might not be your weight, but rather one or a multitude of other factors associated with your weight.

Your doctor may have heard of the National Weight Control Registry, a database of “over 10,000 individuals who have lost significant amounts of weight and kept it off for long periods of time.” Some doctors believe that if their patients adopt the behaviors exhibited by people in the Registry, their patients are likely to achieve similar weight loss.

Unfortunately, presenting these behaviors as the key to long-term weight loss makes little sense when so many other people perform the same actions without achieving similar outcomes. The lottery crowns new millionaires every single day, and a quick study of the winners reveals that a behavior common to all of them is that they bought tickets, but that does not mean your financial advisor is giving you sound, ethical, evidence-based advice if he suggests you take your life savings and invest in Powerball.

Even if a causal relationship exists between body weight and your medical condition, endeavoring to lose weight is still not the answer. In light of the research showing the prevalence of weight regain that often surpasses baseline weight, we can only assume that the condition you are trying to improve by losing weight would actually worsen in the most likely scenario that you end up heavier than you are now.

For these reasons, many healthcare providers – including us – believe it is unethical to recommend weight loss to patients as a path to better health.

Weight stigma in healthcare can also negatively impact thinner individuals. For example, binge eating disorder is a condition stereotypically associated with larger people, but the reality is that it can affect people of all sizes. Doctors may dismiss or overlook red flags in individuals who do not look the part. Furthermore, just as doctors sometimes make incorrect assumptions about the behaviors of larger individuals, doctors may assume that thinner patients are leading healthier lifestyles than they really are.

On a personal note, as someone with a relatively thin body, I have certainly had my share of doctors make assumptions about my eating behaviors – without asking me a single question about my feeding habits or my relationship with food – because of my body. Typically, their assessment is along the lines of, “Clearly, your nutrition is fine,” as they glance down at me. How often do you think people labeled “overweight” or “obese” hear such a sentiment from their doctors?

In hopes of freeing themselves from weight stigma, some people resolve to change their body to a size and shape that our society deems more acceptable. While we firmly support a patient’s right to choose for themselves the approach to healthcare that feels most appropriate for them at any given time, we also believe in disclosure and informed consent so patients can make educated decisions. After knowing the facts regarding the failures of weight loss endeavors, you may still decide to travel that road. Know, however, that you have a choice. For more information regarding how to tackle weight stigma and pursue better health in a weight-neutral fashion, please see our Weight Loss FAQ.

 

She Said

Weight stigma. People living in larger bodies are often treated as less than and discriminated against in many different contexts. This goes double for those people of size who are also people of color, LGBT, and/or disabled. From being body shamed at the doctor’s office to earning less money than their thinner counterparts to being ridiculed by the media and told they are a problem that is to be solved, fat people have it tough in our society.

While it is neither unexpected nor surprising when weight stigma is exhibited in all of the above situations, it is simply mind-boggling how it is displayed in certain “woke” spaces. Take, for instance, the eating disorder (ED) treatment community. Here is a group of professionals whose job is to help individuals heal their relationships with food and their bodies. One would think that this help should be offered to ED patients in all different body sizes. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

I have a number of patients who clearly exhibit ED behaviors, such as restriction, bingeing and purging, or excessive exercise, yet their higher weight precludes them from meeting the criteria for an ED like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Instead, these patients fall into the catchall category of “ED NOS” (eating disorder not otherwise specified), also known as “OSFED” (otherwise specified feeding and eating disorders). This means that even if someone is heavily restricting their intake, no longer menstruating, and severely malnourished, but their BMI falls in the “normal,” “overweight,” or “obese” categories, they are not seen as “sick” as those who are “underweight.”

Never is this more clear than in inpatient or residential treatment for EDs. While the emaciated patients are refed aggressively to help them regain weight, those in larger bodies are often fed just enough to sustain them because it is assumed that they do not need to regain any weight. In some cases, I have heard of ED facilities actually trying to help the larger ED patients lose weight, as “clearly they could stand to lose a few pounds.”

This difference in how patients are treated is not only disturbing, it is also quite damaging to ED patients who live in larger bodies. Many of my larger patients have actually become more symptomatic after being discharged from treatment because they felt they needed to be even “sicker” to receive adequate help. I specifically remember one such patient who, even though she was eating only 200 calories per day and was exercising for hours on end,would only get to stay at a program for a couple of weeks and then be discharged for outpatient care as her weight was not concerning enough.

This has got to stop. EDs are found in people with all different body types. Just because someone does not appear to be emaciated does not mean that he or she is not suffering from a debilitating ED. The ED treatment community needs to start treating ED patients who are living in larger bodies with the same care and concern as those living in smaller bodies. Hopefully, someday there will be an end to weight stigma in ED treatment as well as in other areas of our society.

Crime and Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

For another example of a choice that could be considered too risky, Felger need not look any farther than the chair next to him. His co-host, Tony Massarotti, elected to pursue a weight-loss treatment plan at a local diet center and pitches the program via radio spots every afternoon. Hopefully he knew going into it that he is unlikely to sustain his lower weight and that weight cycling, regardless of one’s baseline weight, is associated with a higher overall death rate and twice the normal risk of dying from heart disease.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They got what they deserved.

Holiday Survival Guide

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

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

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

1. Create Safe Spaces

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

2. Have an Ally

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

3. Take Space

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

4. Set Boundaries

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

5. Practice Regular Self-Care

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

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