An Iatrogenic Condition

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Joanne and I were watching Shark Tank the other night and I found myself wondering if the negotiations and business analyses might be so bogus that venture capitalists and MBAs get a good chuckle out of the reality show. Maybe real estate agents, general contractors, and interior designers watch Love It or List It and shake their heads. Since these programs cover topics outside my area of expertise, their content could be spot on or largely misleading and I might not know the difference.

Yesterday, the New York Times exposed the Biggest Loser for some of the long-term harm it does to its contestants and the unrealistic expectations it sets for viewers. Most notably, weight regain is pervasive despite the ex-contestants’ best efforts to keep it at bay.

For myself and other practitioners who use a similar approach to ours, some of the minutiae may have been new to us, but generally speaking, the Times piece went right into our “Yeah, no sh-t” folders, as we have known the show to be fraudulent and problematic since its inception.

Having said that, it occurs to me that for readers whose expertise lays elsewhere, this might have actually been news. If that includes you, and you were surprised to learn about the contestants’ weight regain and struggles, I hope you do not feel gullible. How were you supposed to know?

However, any seasoned obesity or metabolism researchers who found themselves surprised by these results ought to be embarrassed. Data showing commonplace weight regain among people who attempt to lose it has been available for quite a while. Even some of the most ardent weight-loss supporters reluctantly admit that although we have several methods of inducing short-term weight loss, we have no idea how to produce long-term weight loss for more than a tiny fraction of the people who attempt to achieve it.

What we see more commonly, not just in Biggest Loser contestants, but in people across the board who attempt to intentionally lose weight, is ultimate weight regain that often exceeds their baselines.

As an example, consider the following growth chart, which is from a real patient of mine (All information that could possibly reveal her identity has been removed.) Looking at her chart, hazard a guess as to when her parents and doctor first attempted to intervene with her weight. Do you think it was at age 17, when she first came to see me?

Example

No, it was just after age eight, when her BMI-for-age, which was in the 92nd percentile at the time, was deemed a problem. She was naturally a bigger kid, okay, but this fact’s implications have more to do with stigma than health. The focus on weight and a belief that an intervention would help to lower it created an iatrogenic condition. In other words, her weight became a problem because it was viewed as one.

Not only was the diagnosis off base, but the attempted interventions worsened the problem. The first diet produced a slimmer 10-year-old, who subsequently rebounded into a chunkier tween. Based on the research, this was to be the most likely result. As the patient’s teenage years began, subsequent attempts to lower her weight produced similar patterns of weight gain.

They took a child in the 92nd percentile and dieted her up to the 99th percentile, and in the process screwed up her relationships with food, her body, her doctor, and her family, all of which she is now working hard to untangle and fix.

None of that was the child’s fault, nor are the parents to blame, for they were just doing what they thought was right by following instructions from trusted practitioners.

And really, I do not blame the doctor either. Pediatricians and other primary care doctors are tasked with a tremendous responsibility to maintain basic knowledge about a myriad of conditions, everything from sore throats, to sexually transmitted diseases, to early signs of cancer, but this very demand limits them from being experts in any one field, including weight regulation.

The chain of education and direction has to begin somewhere. While these data on Biggest Loser contestants might have come as a surprise to laymen, the researchers who are responsible for the foundation of our healthcare policies should have seen them coming. That it took a New York Times article to wake them up is shameful, but they sure seem to be paying attention now, at least for the time being.

He Said, She Said: Exercise as Penance

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He Said

Data are only as useful as our understanding of them. Food labeling represents an opportunity for education while simultaneously illustrating the tremendous challenge of conveying complex ideas in a space only slightly larger than a postage stamp.

The nature of my work is one-on-one counseling, and as such, public health policy is not my area of expertise, but I can still recognize when those charged with such decisions are barking up the wrong tree. Such is the case with Britain’s idea to indicate the exercise load necessary to burn the calories in a given food.

First, remember that proclamations of calorie content are often flawed. Earlier in my career, I created nutrition labels for a university dining service as well as for cooking software. The labels that I produced reflected my best estimates based on other people’s estimates of generalities. Food manufacturers utilize a similar process to create their labels, and laws that allow rounding further cloud the picture. As the game of telephone teaches us, inaccuracies creep in with each step we take further away from the source.

Second, despite what activity trackers and cardio equipment dashboards would have us believe, estimations of caloric expenditure are similarly problematic. Your soda can may inform you that you need to run for 15 minutes to burn off the calories contained within, but this overgeneralization does not take into account your age, size, body composition, running mechanics, exercise intensity, course terrain, or any of the other variables that impact the energy that you as an individual will expend during a specific 15-minute bout of jogging.

Third, even if the data for calories consumed and burned were as accurate as can be, the implied calories-in-vs.-calories-out paradigm is an oversimplification of the complexities affecting weight regulation and overall health. Our eating and physical activity behaviors do matter, of course, but they are mere pieces in a puzzle mainly comprised of factors that are out of our hands.

Last, the presentation of a tradeoff between eating and physical activity reinforces a commonly held and problematic notion that food choices are worthy of punishment and exercise is our penance. As I recently told BuzzFeed and the Daily Meal, the good/bad food dichotomy, so prevalent in our society, links issues of morality, virtue, and guilt to our eating behaviors and is counterproductive. Nutrition and exercise activity have enough variables already without confounding them further with judgment.

A healthy relationship with food and physical activity means uncoupling moralization from such behaviors, not reinforcing the bond.

She Said

Earlier this month, Jonah and I were watching NECN when a news story came on that made us both cringe. Apparently, Britain is considering creating new food labels that not only tell the consumer how many calories are in the food, but how long the consumer would need to exercise to “burn off” that food. The proposed label would look like this: next to the calories that are listed for the food, there would be two stick figures of a person walking and running. Underneath those stick figures would be the number of minutes that someone would have to engage in either walking or running to negate the calories they consumed.

I find this idea to be highly problematic for several reasons. Firstly, as Jonah and I have written about before, the idea of “calories in, calories out,” is very much oversimplified. Most people believe that if an individual eats an extra 500 calories per day, that individual will have gained a pound of fat after a week. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Numerous studies have shown that everyone processes calories differently, with some individuals getting more calories from the food they eat and others getting fewer calories from the same amount of food, resulting in some people gaining weight and others not gaining a pound.

One such study looked at identical twins and weight gain. Each pair of twins was fed an extra 1,000 calories per day for 100 days while under close observation (i.e., they were confined to a closed section of a university dorm). What the researchers found was that while the twins in each pair gained (or did not gain) the same amount of weight, there was a huge difference between the sets of twins. For instance, one pair of twins gained more than 29 pounds by the end of the intervention, while another pair only gained about 9 pounds. The conclusion that was reached was that some people are more efficient calorie burners, while others are more efficient at storing extra calories.

Aside from the fact that every body processes calories differently, I also take issue with the idea that one should be concerned with “burning off” what they are eating. In my work with people with eating disorders, there are quite a few individuals who engage in exercise bulimia. This means that these individuals will binge and then will try to compensate for the binge by over-exercising. It is a debilitating disease, and I believe that these labels would exacerbate symptoms for these individuals.

Finally, as I have written about before, I believe that exercise should not simply be viewed as a way to burn calories or to “right our wrongs.” Rather, as the Health at Every Size® principles suggest, physical activity should be a way for us to connect with our bodies by engaging in activities that we enjoy. Instead of torturing oneself in the gym to repent for last night’s cake, how about enjoying a walk outside in the sunshine to improve one’s mental, physical, and emotional health? Instead of calculating how many minutes one would need to log on the treadmill to “undo” a cookie, I think it is much healthier to use exercise as a way to feel more alive in our bodies rather than as a weight control tool.

Leave the Fat Kid Alone

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Note: A slightly edited version of this piece appears in the April 2016 issue of Boston Baseball Magazine.

If you are like me, you wonder what the baserunner and first baseman talk about between pitches. When an athlete meets a peer, the dynamic is presumably different from an interaction with a fan that likely centers around adulation and an autograph.

When dietitians get together, chances are that at some point, we will touch on whatever nutrition-related myths and stereotypes are currently damaging our society, such as those reflected in the widespread negative reaction Pablo Sandoval received for his weight upon arriving at spring training.

Consider the following separate, but related, questions:

If Sandoval loses weight, will he play better?

Maybe, but not necessarily.

We look at Sandoval’s physique and dream about the offensive and defensive punishments he could inflict upon the league if only he bore a closer resemblance to Adrian Beltre or Evan Longoria. These fantasies have some merit, as a leaner, smaller, or lighter body can certainly have athletic upsides sometimes.

However, a significant difference exists between an athlete who naturally has a given size or shape versus someone who tries to force his body into that mold. Since weight loss does not happen by magic, we have to consider whether the behaviors Sandoval adopts in pursuit of weight loss would improve his game.

The outcome could go either way. We have seen in a variety of sports, including baseball, examples of athletes who played worse after losing weight, in part because over-exercise and/or food restriction left them depleted and vulnerable to fatigue, injury, impaired concentration, nutrient deficiencies, depression, sleeping difficulties, eating disorders, muscle atrophy, and other unintended consequences, none of which are conducive to top performance.

If Sandoval decides to lose weight, will he be able to do so?

In the short term, probably, but in the long run, he will most likely gain it back plus more.

Approximately 95% of people who attempt to lose weight will regain it one to five years down the road, and roughly 60% of these individuals will end up heavier than they were at baseline. Weight regain is common even if someone maintains the behaviors that promoted the weight loss in the first place.

Contrary to popular myth, our weight is largely out of our hands. The calories-in-versus-calories-out paradigm is a gross oversimplification of the complexities affecting weight regulation. While we might be able to manipulate our body size through behavior changes for a short while, biological mechanisms promoting weight regain almost always win out in the end.

If you subscribe to the theory that Sandoval’s weight is affecting his play, what level of performance do you expect out of him in the most likely scenario that he ends up bigger?

What does our treatment of Sandoval say about society?

Fans and media have labeled Sandoval “disgusting,” “lazy,” and “pathetic.” By the transitive property, these derogatory terms apply to everyone who has a body type similar to his.

The message is that fat is to be loathed, that larger individuals are not worthy of the respect enjoyed by the rest of us. We reject stereotypes based on race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation while we inexplicably tolerate those based on body size that are no more accurate than the others, yet are just as abhorrent.

The idea that we can tell how someone eats or exercises based on his shape or weight is a myth. Some people built like linebackers never lift weights, some skinny-as-a-rail folks subsist on fast food, and some obese individuals are more active and have a healthier relationship with food than all of them but inhabit bigger bodies for other reasons.

Weight stigma oftentimes inspires people to sacrifice health for the pursuit of a size. Pressure to be thin leads to dieting, which is a predictor of a variety of problems, including eating disorders. These life-threatening illnesses are so common in Massachusetts that if the crowd at a sold-out Fenway Park represented a random sample of the state’s population, those in attendance with a diagnosed eating disorder would likely fill section 41.

Okay, but professional athletes like Sandoval constitute a different and special class of people, right?

Let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Sandoval is a professional athlete because his talent, practice, and opportunities have coalesced into a skill set that lends itself to strong performance in an activity mankind recently created called baseball and he lives in a culture in which we pay such people to play it for our entertainment.

None of that means he has any more or less ability to manipulate his weight differently from the general population. Sandoval is a product of evolution just like the rest of us, and he has come into being because his ancestors’ physiological mechanisms that resisted weight loss allowed them to survive periods of starvation and reproduce while others perished. In this regard, professional athletes and spectators are all in the same boat.

Fans have every right to feel whatever emotions they may have about a player. If they want to get on someone for not performing, they can absolutely do that. However, I would encourage fans to criticize athletes for lack of production or work ethic directly rather than using body size, weight, or shape as a proxy, as the latter behavior is fueled much more by myths and stereotypes rather than science and sends a dangerous message to everyone who hears it.

BostonBaseball2016-03-27

Objective / Subjective

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Numbers. Nutrition and exercise are full of them. We can tabulate calories and grams, measure portion sizes, count servings, and analyze food journals. Thanks to various electronic gadgets and apps, we can keep tabs on our steps, estimate our metabolic rate, and track other biomarkers.

As a guy who holds a degree in mathematics and used to work as a research analyst, nobody loves objective data more than I do. When I began my career transition and was moonlighting as a personal trainer, I made use of several physical tests – the Rockport walking treadmill, the sit-and-reach, the list goes on – to quantifiably track my clients’ progress over time. My career as a dietitian started off similarly, as I relied heavily upon bioimpedance analysis data, weight, and estimated macronutrient needs to guide my nutrition advice.

Imagine my surprise when, through a combination of additional education and experience, I realized how little these quantitative data actually matter. On the first day of the first nutrition course I ever took, the professor began with a brief survey of the social, cultural, personal, and financial factors that influence eating behavior. In our diet-minded society in which food is thought to be just fuel and any persuasions to the contrary are seen as weaknesses and sources of guilt, we easily forget how important this basic truth really is.

One of my patients recently told me that his wife purchased a diet book that emphasizes the glycemic index and she would like the two of them to begin eating in accordance with the author’s guidelines. Objectively, the glycemic index, which is a measure of how quickly various foods raise blood sugar relative to a standard (usually white bread), makes some sense. If a food breaks down more slowly, we stay full for longer, eat less, and consequently lose weight. At least, that is what the book’s author wants its readers to believe. Just aim for the low-number foods on the glycemic index chart and we are all set.

Right around the same time my patient told me about this book, another patient relayed to me an experience he had regarding hamburger buns. His parents typically made burgers on whole wheat slider buns that he thought were okay – not great, not awful, but okay – and he normally ate two or three burgers as the meat from the normal-sized patties jutted out beyond the rolls’ perimeter like a UFO. For reasons that remain a mystery to my patient, his mother decided to make burgers on normal white buns one evening. In contrast to their whole wheat counterparts, these white buns hit the spot. He had one burger, felt satisfied, and stopped eating. Turned out that for him, the white bread, which is sky high on the glycemic index, was actually the better choice and kept him from overeating.

The more I work with my patients, the more I am reminded of how the subjective is often of greater importance than the objective, that the qualitative usually trumps the quantitative. Numbers still have their place, for sure, but they really only play a supportive role. This, I have learned, is one of the most significant differences between nutrition on paper and nutrition in real life.

Healthcare For Some

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Yesterday I ran the Five College Realtors 10-Miler, which was my first event since last summer’s surgery and my first road race since September 2013. My time was well off my personal record for this course, which I set the last time I ran it in 2007, but I have been through quite a lot in the last nine years so expecting to pick up where I left off would have been unrealistic. Besides, it was just great to be able to race again regardless of what the clock said.

As I have written before, I owe a debt of gratitude to everybody who has helped me recover over the last two-plus years, but at the same time I think others who do not receive the same level of care from their own support systems, including their medical teams.

When I went to my primary care doctor in late 2013 complaining of back pain, I received orders for x-rays, an MRI, and a CT scan, referrals to see a physical therapist, a physiatrist, and multiple surgeons, and a collaborative discussion about the pros and cons of complementary treatments, such as acupuncture, chiropractics, massage, and neuromuscular therapy. Subsequently, I received a topical medication, oral medicines, injections, and referrals to more surgeons. Ultimately I required an operation, and then another one, more scans, and physical therapy that continues to this day.

When my “overweight” patients go to their doctors complaining of back pain, more often than not they report receiving one intervention and one intervention only, one that research shows is only achievable for a tiny fraction of the people who attempt to attain it and may not improve their condition even if they do: a directive to lose weight.

Are we not all deserving of thorough, collaborative, evidence-based healthcare, or just those of us who are thin?

Day 662/193: Collaboration

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Thanks to a great medical team, a supportive family, a generous bone donor, and a boatload of titanium, my spine is now the healthiest it has been in years. My surgeon gave me clearance last week to resume running. Not since 2013 have I been able to step outside and go for a jog.

In addition to expressing my gratitude for everybody who has aided me, I also want to thank myself for everything I have done to help my own cause. While doing so is admittedly not the most gracious of moves, danger exists in giving the impression that we are to solely look outside of ourselves for help. Although health outcomes are never guaranteed or entirely in our control to achieve, patients who come into my office, fold their arms, lean back in their chair, and direct “Just tell me what to eat” rarely do as well in the long run as those who collaborate and take a more active role in their own care. Nutrition may be my area of expertise, but my patients are the experts in their own lives, so the highest likelihood of success comes from working together.

Anyway, my two favorite races are the Mount Washington Road Race and the Five College Realtors 10-Miler, the latter of which is coming up late next month. The other day, I mentioned to my physical therapist that I am interested in running it this year. Given that she tends to be my foil, a voice of caution and conservatism who brings reason and sensibility to my ambitious ideas, I figured she would tell me that the 10-miler made more sense as a 2017 goal. Surprisingly, she thinks the likelihood of me being able to race it next month is high. Whoa. We talked about training for the event in the context of my continued surgical recovery and together we developed a plan. In other words, we collaborated.

The GOAT(’s) Fad Diet

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If you are like me, you wonder what the baserunner and first baseman talk about between pitches. When an athlete meets a peer, the dynamic is presumably different from an interaction with a fan that likely centers around adulation and an autograph.

When dietitians get together, chances are high that at some point we will touch on whatever nutrition-related fads and ridiculousness are currently hindering our work. We laugh, not because we are making fun of anybody, but because misinformation is so pervasive and challenging to our profession that sometimes all we can do is approach our upstream paddle with humor.

The deeper reality, which often goes unspoken but is silently understood, is how terribly harmful nutrition myths, bad information, half truths, and fear mongering are to our patients. All it takes is one meme, 140-character post, headline, hyperlink, or soundbite and the population is led astray in an instant. Just one celebrity endorsement carries more weight in the eyes of many than the educated stances of professionals who have dedicated their careers to the field of nutrition.

Consider Allen Campbell, personal chef for Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen, and the interview he recently gave to boston.com about his clients’ diets and their shared perspectives on nutrition. Initially I chuckled at the absurdity, but I quickly remembered that hundreds if not thousands of people are likely to risk their own health as they assume this, umm, information to be fact and internalize it.

Let’s look at some of the standout excerpts.

“My philosophy starts in my own life, and with my own lifestyle and eating habits. I make conscious decisions to buy local and organic, and to stay away from GMOs, and to think about the future of the planet and the future of humans.”

He hits on nearly every current nutrition buzz phrase except for farmers markets, raw, dairy free, gluten free, and no white foods, but don’t worry, he brings those up later.

“I took a plant-based nutrition course earlier this year. It was an online course through Cornell, and it’s taught by a doctor named T. Colin Campbell, who’s behind ‘The China Study.’ My philosophy is that a plant-based diet has the power to reverse and prevent disease.”

Four or five years ago, a patient came into my office touting “The China Study”which has been largely debunked, by the way – and told me, “A plant-based diet is the only one that heals.” She also stated, “The government puts rat poison in the water, but they just don’t tell us.” Sometimes, apparently, hyperbole and paranoia go hand in hand.

“So, 80 percent of what they [Brady and Bundchen] eat is vegetables. [I buy] the freshest vegetables. If it’s not organic, I don’t use it. And whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, millet, beans. The other 20 percent is lean meats: grass-fed organic steak, duck every now and then, and chicken. As for fish, I mostly cook wild salmon. It’s very different than a traditional American diet. But if you just eat sugar and carbs – which a lot of people do – your body is so acidic, and that causes disease.”

Actually, most Americans get more than enough protein. Someone who ate just sugar and other carbohydrates would likely develop kwashiorkor, marasmus, or a similar problem related to protein malnutrition. We learned about these conditions in the first semester of actual nutrition school, but apparently they were never covered in Campbell’s online course.

If your body is acidic, your medical chart probably lists a diagnosis of metabolic acidosis, respiratory acidosis, or diabetic ketoacidosis – none of which are caused by overconsumption of sugar or other carbohydrates – and you are reading this blog from your hospital bed.

“Tom [Brady] recently outed Frosted Flakes and Coca-Cola on WEEI. I love that he did that. Sugar is the death of people.”

As it turns out, your brain runs on sugar, and without adequate glucose in your system, you risk a myriad of problems, including death. What Brady did was oversimplify a complex problem by scapegoating an ingredient, which plays into the fears that fuel disordered eating and eating disorders.

“No white sugar. No white flour. NO MSG. I’ll use raw olive oil, but I never cook with olive oil. I only cook with coconut oil. Fats like canola oil turn into trans fats.”

People continue to fear canola oil based on myths that run counter to actual science. Trans fats, which occur naturally in only trace amounts, are made in large quantities through a chemical process known as hydrogenation. This reaction, while not terribly complex, involves more than just sticking the substrate in the oven.

“[Tom] doesn’t eat nightshades, because they’re not anti-inflammatory. So no tomatoes, no peppers, mushrooms, or eggplants. Tomatoes trickle in every now and then, but just maybe once a month. I’m very cautious about tomatoes. They cause inflammation.”

The research supporting the notion that tomatoes cause inflammation is spotty at best, with some studies showing the exact opposite effect. The evidence is about as strong as that showing the positive impact that tomatoes might have on eyesight. Maybe if you ate more tomatoes, Tom, you would not have thrown that goal line interception against Philadelphia.

Do the kids eat the same things Tom and Gisele eat? “Yeah, I mean pretty much . . . . For snacks, I make fruit rolls from bananas, pineapple, and spirulina. Spirulina is an algae. It’s a super fruit. I dehydrate it. I dehydrate a lot of things. I have three dehydrators in their kitchen. I also make raw granola and raw chocolate chip cookies.”

I have no idea what a “super fruit” is, but I am assuming that being a fruit is a prerequisite for consideration, which excludes an algae like spirulina. Anyway, my colleagues and I consistently find that children raised in households where food is restricted tend to have significant overeating problems once they reach adulthood. Westgate SuperBooks declared Brady’s New England Patriots 9-2 co-favorites to win next month’s Super Bowl, while I will set the odds of Brady’s children bingeing on college dining hall pizza and soft serve much, much higher.

As the interview continues on, the topics turn away from general nutrition and instead touch upon examples of dishes the chef makes and his typical workday, neither of which are within the scope of this particular blog entry.

People look at Tom Brady, 38 years old and still at the top of his game, and figure his nutrition regimen must be at least partially responsible. That may be true, but as I have written before, both about Brady in particular and professional athletes in general, their upsides for rigidity are unlikely to exist for laymen, and the virtues they bestow upon their diets can be off base.

Consider Dave Scott, six-time winner of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, who famously washed off his cottage cheese before consumption in order to remove as much fat as possible because he believed a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet gave him an edge over the competition. It strikes me as more than mere coincidence that Scott was doing this in the 1980s when fear of dietary fat was at its peak.

Similarly, while I have no doubt that Brady believes his diet enables him to perform his best, let us also recognize that his eating behaviors are reflections of nearly every single one of today’s nutrition fads.

The “I’m an Expert” Trap

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SquareAs my freshman year of high school neared its conclusion, my math teacher, Mr. Evers, stood at the chalkboard and drew a large square, which he said represented the entire field of mathematics. He asked us how much of that square we thought we would learn by the time we graduated from high school. After fielding a few guesses, he gave us his answer by filling in a very small corner.

That blew my mind. At the time, I was a solid math student and I wondered how there could possibly be so much more to the discipline beyond what we already had under our belts. Once I got to Tufts and decided to major in the subject, I was introduced to sections of that square I had never even heard of before: complex analysis, abstract algebra, discrete mathematics, differential equations, linear algebra, number theory, numerical analysis, etc.

By the time I finished my degree, I had stretched my mathematical abilities to their fullest extent. Subsequently, more talented classmates of mine who continued on to graduate school in the field explored areas of the square that we never touched as undergrads.

Even the boundaries of that square are expanding as the field grows. A few years ago, a publishing company contacted me and asked if they could feature me in one of their textbooks, so I reached out to a couple of my favorite math professors to let them know. In one of their replies, he included mention that his current research is focusing on how the topography of a rotating sphere, such as a planet, can be mapped based on data collected from its poles. Well, we certainly never covered that in high school.

When Mr. Evers filled in the corner of his square, I learned an important life lesson that sticks with me today and reverberates through my work as a dietitian: A little bit of knowledge can be worse than no knowledge at all if we do not understand the context and erroneously believe ourselves to be experts.

Flipping through the study guide for one of my personal training certifications, I count 15 pages on nutrition. Unfortunately, some trainers learn the material in this one chapter and incorrectly believe themselves to be nutrition experts. When I hear trainers at the gym talking with their clients about food, way more often than not the information they are offering is grossly oversimplified at best and blatantly false and/or dangerous at worst.

Reading a handful of pages on nutrition does not make one a nutrition expert, just like reading the chapter in the same study guide about interpreting electrocardiogram results does not put me on the same level as a cardiologist. Too often, the greater context goes ignored or forgotten: Guys, that one nutrition chapter is nothing more than the tiny filled-in corner of my math teacher’s square.

This is not about picking on personal trainers; all practitioners, regardless of discipline, have bounds to our professions and we are all responsible for recognizing the limitations of our expertise. One of my patients, reluctant to work with a psychotherapist, asked me, “Can’t you just handle the therapy part?” Well, no, I cannot, although I was flattered that he felt comfortable enough with me that he would ask. Even Joanne, who has a degree in psychology, recognizes and respects the vast chasm between being able to identify the need for therapy and having the expertise to provide it.

The more we continue our education, the more we realize just how much learning still remains, not just on an individual level, but on that of our field and society as a whole, too. When it comes to nutrition, realize that graduate students, professors, and other researchers are all working diligently at universities, hospitals, and research centers across the globe in search of answers to outstanding and complex questions regarding food.

Part of actually being an expert means recognizing the grays and nuances, the dearth of crisp absolutes, and that sometimes the best answer to a patient’s question is, “I don’t know, but let’s see what we can do to find out.”

He Said, She Said: Weight Loss for Athletics

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He Said

“You’re an RD, right?” That’s what one of my patients asked me last year shortly before he got up from the table and walked out of my office, never to return. It was more of a rhetorical question, really, his polite way of telling me I don’t know how to do my job.

He and I were only in each other’s lives briefly, as that was not only his last visit, it was also his first. His new patient paperwork stated that he wanted to lose weight in order to complete a marathon. Upon reading that, I contacted him in advance of his visit and offered a heads-up that I would help him to run his best, and as a consequence of doing so, he might also lose weight; but I would not be helping him to lose weight in hopes that it would improve his running because – contrary to popular belief – that is not how things actually work.

Although I suspected he would respond by cancelling the appointment, to his credit he had an open enough mind to meet with me and discuss our different points of view. Elite marathon runners are all very skinny, he told me, so it only seemed logical to him that if he could alter his body to look more like theirs, then he would in turn become a better runner.

Way back in my sophomore year of high school, I held the same belief. When I looked at those teammates on my track team who were faster than me, I noticed that for the most part they were leaner than me. Consequently, I attempted to change my body by restricting my fat intake (Back in those days, people were scared of fats the same way people nowadays fear “carbs.”) in hopes that I would also run better.

In fact, I ran worse. My mom took me to a dietitian who educated me, dispelled some of the nutrition myths that I held, and convinced me to increase my fat intake. My times in all events dropped, and I was the fastest I had ever been in my young running career without my physique ever changing all that much.

Having a leaner, smaller, or lighter body can certainly have athletic upsides sometimes, just as having a heavier or larger body can sometimes be advantageous, and I am not arguing otherwise. However, a significant difference exists between an athlete who naturally has a given size or shape versus someone who tries to force his or her body into that mold. That is where so many people, like my 15-year-old self and the patient I mentioned earlier, get tripped up.

Anecdotally, we see many examples of athletes who perform worse after intentionally losing weight. Last month, I wrote about how CC Sabathia has struggled since cutting his carbohydrates in an effort to lose weight. He and his slender frame are in the midst of experiencing the two worst seasons of his career, both of which have come since he lost weight.

Sabathia gave an interview earlier this year in which he talked about the fatigue he now experiences. Carbohydrates are our main source of energy. Now that he follows a low-carbohydrate diet, no wonder he currently tires early in games now. Only twice in my life have I failed to complete bicycle routes that I set out to ride. The first was when I fell off my bike in Montana and fractured my back. The other was when I was briefly experimenting with a low-carbohydrate diet and did not have the fuel necessary to make it home.

This summer, I had a couple of rowers come to me hoping to lose weight so they could compete in lightweight crew. Each of them believed that if he could shed enough weight to just make the 160-pound cutoff, he would dominate. However, they were not taking into account that the processes necessary to alter their bodies (over-exercise and/or dietary restriction) were likely to leave them unable to put forth optimal performances. A well-nourished and properly-trained 159-pound athlete is probably going to row much better than his or her 159-pound teammate who maintains that weight by existing in a state of depletion.

At the same time, let us acknowledge that not every athlete is already at the weight at which they can perform his or her best. Some athletes, just like the rest of the population, are subject to behaviors, such as emotional overeating, that might be impacting weight. However, putting the horse before the cart means directly addressing issues that might be hindering performance while allowing weight change to naturally occur or not occur as a consequence. To try losing weight in hopes of becoming a better athlete though is to have the process backwards.

 

She Said

Some of the individuals who come to see me for nutrition counseling are student athletes who are struggling with an eating disorder (ED). These cases are particularly challenging, as one of the cruxes of being an athlete (at least at a competitive high school or college level) is making sure one is in top physical condition to succeed in one’s sport. While this desire to be in the best athletic condition might be approached in a healthy and manageable way by some individuals, for those who are predisposed to EDs, it can sometimes start, trigger, and/or worsen the individual’s ED.

In the sports where weight control is believed to be paramount to success (e.g., gymnastics, ballet, track and field, etc.), this focus and, in some cases, obsession with being “lean,” “fit,” or “cut,” can result in the athlete eating in a restrictive manner (e.g., cutting out carbohydrates, only eating vegetables and protein) and exercising excessively. Initially, these individuals seem to be doing the right thing, taking care of themselves and making the sacrifices needed to become the best at their sport. The problem arises when the obsession with weight, food, and exercise takes over the athlete’s life. Examples of this include avoiding social situations that involve eating in order to train harder at the gym, exercising even while injured or sick, and panicking when being faced with foods that are not on the “clean eating” food list.

While these scenarios are red flags in and of themselves, the physical ramifications of these behaviors are serious as well. One of the most common outcomes that results from overtraining and undereating in female athletes is the Female Athlete Triad. This syndrome is characterized by three conditions: energy deficiency with or without a diagnosed ED, menstrual disturbances or absence of period completely (amenorrhea), and loss of bone density resulting in osteopenia or osteoporosis. In a nutshell, when an athlete is not eating enough to fuel her training, this can lead to dangerous health problems.

Some health professionals believe that individuals who are dealing with the above problems can continue to participate in their sports as long as they are getting nutrition education from a registered dietitian and having regular check-ups with their primary care physician to make sure they are medically stable enough to compete. While I agree that for some individuals it is just a matter of education and monitoring, for those with EDs, allowing them to continue with their sport could greatly hinder the recovery process. An ED is a multifaceted problem that needs a full treatment team including a therapist, dietitian, and doctor who is knowledgeable about EDs. The focus should be on helping the athlete become physically healthy while dealing with the underlying psychological issues that are part of the ED.

When I am working with a student athlete who is exhibiting disordered eating and/or excessive exercise, I always defer to the physician on the treatment team to make the call about whether the patient is medically safe enough to participate in his or her sport. The work I do with the patient centers on helping them understand what their body’s needs are fuel-wise. This might include educating the patient about carbohydrates and why they are a necessary macronutrient (for athletes and non-athletes) and how to eat to improve one’s athletic performance.

If you or someone you know seems to be struggling with an ED related to being an athlete, it’s important to take action. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible to prevent the situation from becoming worse. Find a therapist and a dietitian who are adept at working with athletes who struggle with EDs. It is also important to alert the sports team’s trainer and coach to the problem, as they will be an integral part of the treatment team. When all of these pieces of the treatment team are in place, the likelihood of recovery is much higher.

He Said, She Said: Celebrity Diets

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He Said

In an interview with ESPN at last month’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Mark Teixeira, first baseman for the New York Yankees, fielded questions about the gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free diet he has reportedly been following since the off-season. Although he nicknamed his set of food rules the “no fun diet,” Teixeira praised his diet for bringing about his return to health and all-star-worthy performance based on his belief that the foods he had eliminated are inflammatory to the body.

Each time an athlete speaks up about his or her fad diet and its associated pseudoscience, life gets a little bit harder for the rest of us. Already, so much of my time with patients focuses on reeducation involving the food myths and misinformation that are so prevalent in our society. The Teixeira interview and others like it add fuel to the fire.

The problem is not that Teixeira has excluded gluten, dairy, and sugar from his diet. This is his body, his career, and his life, and I am in no position to judge him for the choices he makes regarding these entities or for whatever he believes, accurate or otherwise, about food. We all get to decide for ourselves how we want to lead our lives and what we want to believe, and he is subject to the same freedom.

Rather, the problem is how the dietary choices of athletes are framed and conveyed to the rest of us, the incorrect information and insinuations that often come along for the ride, and the bizarre phenomenon existing in our society whereby we put more stock in health advice doled out by celebrities than actual licensed healthcare professionals.

As a general theme, people tend to be more vocal about their dietary successes than their disappointments, which gives us a warped view of reality. Teixeira is not at fault for discussing his diet at the All-Star Game, not when the interviewers made a point to ask him about it. But would his diet be the subject of such conversation if his year was not going so well?

Consider his teammate, CC Sabathia, who lost a bunch of weight (temporarily, at least) after adopting a low-carbohydrate diet a couple of years ago. His diet and its associated weight loss got plenty of media attention back then, but hardly anybody seems to be talking about it now. Perhaps ESPN would have asked Sabathia about his diet at the All-Star Game if he was invited to be there, but as it turns out, he is in the midst of the second worst statistical season of his 15-year career, both of which have come after he went low-carb.

Did cutting carbs and losing weight cause Sabathia’s career to suffer? Possibly, but neither you nor I know for sure. While a correlation certainly exists, causation remains a question mark. Nutrition definitely impacts sports performance, but so does a host of other factors. Regarding Sabathia, elements like age, injury history, and general wear and tear are at play as well, not just his eating and weight.

Just as we cannot scapegoat Sabathia’s diet and lost weight for his poor play, we cannot automatically credit Teixeira’s newfound food rules for his bounce-back season. Perhaps he is simply healthy again for the first time in a long while after undergoing wrist surgery a couple of years ago. After all, except for 2013 and 2014 when he was injured, Teixeira has been one of baseball’s best players for over a decade, and it sure sounds like he was eating gluten, dairy, and sugar during all those years of dominance earlier in his career.

We see these same themes in other sports as well. A televised Novak Djokovic tennis match cannot go by without the commentators throwing in at least one mention of his gluten-free diet, which he credits for catapulting him to the status of number one player in the world. Yet, never once have I heard anybody in the media talk about the eating habits of Roger Federer, arguably the best player in the history of the sport and someone who has continued to compete at an elite level at an age well past when most tennis professionals retire. His diet consists largely of foods like cereal, pancakes, and pasta – in other words, plenty of gluten.

Could it be that Djokovic’s career took off not so much because he cut out gluten, but rather because his years of training, practice, and experience have come together during the window of prime age for a tennis player to produce great results? Similarly, perhaps Federer’s longevity, ability to stay healthy, and years of domination have less to do with pancakes and syrup and are more due to talent, hard work, smart coaching, and efficient mechanics.

If you find yourself tempted to adopt a fad diet because a successful athlete is preaching it, look at the big picture and remember that most of his or her peers are probably not following his or her diet and are also doing quite well for themselves, but their eating patterns are not as sensational and therefore not garnering the same attention.

On a more macroscopic level, challenge yourself to consider how much sense it really makes to be taking nutrition cues from an athlete or any other celebrity. My computer and telephone are essential for my work as a dietitian, and I use them daily, but I only know how to use what I believe works best for me. It would be a mistake to fancy me an IT expert, assume that I really know what I am doing in that regard, and emulate my choices. Similarly, looking to professional athletes and other celebrities as you shape your own eating makes little sense either.

 

She Said

About two months ago, there was a big buzz on the Internet (and news media) that superstar songstress/actress/business mogul Beyoncé had an “amazing” announcement to share with everyone. The plan was for her to make this announcement to all of her fans on the Good Morning America TV show, and it was going to blow everyone away. Of course, the Internet was shivering with excitement. Could it be that Beyoncé and Jay-Z are having another baby? Does Bey have a new album coming out, and is she going out on tour? Has she discovered the cure for cancer? The suspense was killing everyone!

Well, it appears that all she had to tell us was that she has found the secret to losing weight (and keeping it off) and living a fabulously healthy life. How did she achieve this, you ask? Well, by following a diet, of course! Per its website, the “22-Day Revolution” diet is a “plant-based diet designed to create lifelong habits that will empower you to live a healthier lifestyle, to lose weight, or to reverse serious health concerns.” The diet’s author, “world-renowned exercise physiologist” Marco Borges, is on a mission to help his clients find “optimum wellness” by eating a completely vegan diet. According to Borges, by eating “nutrition-packed” vegan foods, people will be able to “transform their lives, bodies and habits.”

Ugh. Can we please just stop the insanity? Every time a new celebrity announces their latest and greatest diet discovery, it makes me cringe. Given that the majority of my patients are those that struggle with eating disorders (ED), I am fully aware that these diets can be the gateway to a life full of pain and suffering, as most EDs start when one decides to diet. Young girls are especially vulnerable to these celebrity diets because they often put these actresses, musicians, and models on an impossible pedestal. Even though most magazine images are photoshopped nowadays, most young girls are not aware of this and aspire to be as lean and slender as Gwyneth Paltrow or as fit and toned as Kate Hudson.

The fact of the matter is that celebrities are not like the rest of us – they are the minority, not the majority. Even if they did not diet like they do, I doubt that their physiques would be much different than they are now. It’s genetics, pure and simple, and they have “won” in the genetics lottery of life. So, even if you go low-carb like Gwen Stefani or Paleo like Megan Fox, it’s highly unlikely that you will end up looking like these celebrities.

These diets or “lifestyle changes” touted by celebs do much more damage than good. Not only do these diets tell us that we cannot trust our bodies’ hunger and fullness signals (and therefore need to follow food rules to be “healthy”), but they also give us a nearly impossible goal of looking like these celebrities if we eat like them. And if someone is predisposed to EDs, each new celebrity diet is like lighting a match and tossing it into a powder keg – nothing good will come from it.

My advice? Whenever you hear about a new celebrity diet that promises to help you lose weight and keep it off, turn back the clock, or magically cure your health condition, please change the channel, toss out the magazine, or click on another website. Celebrities don’t know what’s healthiest for you to eat – only your body knows that!